From the stifling far-western suburbs of Sydney to swaggering and straddling stages around the world as both musician and comedian, Steve Hughes has always been searching for something.
As the drummer for Slaughter Lord, Mortal Sin, Presto and Naxzul he helped the burgeoning extreme metal underground find a foothold on these barren shores as it turned generations onto the sheer release and redemptive power of heavy metal. As a comedian he has been a consistent thorn in the side of complacency, conformity and commodification as he uses his stage time speaking truth to power and trying to unravel the twin riddles extant in both society and himself.
But the constancy of that search took a toll. He wore a groove so we didn’t have to. Pockets full to bursting, he was due a confrontation with the self.
Prior to his return to Sydney stages, I spent a Sunday afternoon riffing with him on growing up metal, escaping the suburbs, and the art of comedy as both catharsis and crucifix.
This was a big conversation, and not just in its running time. I’ve edited the shit out of it for concision and clarity but enjoy spotting the seams as well.
I grew up in the Blue Mountains. We’re talking Australia in the 60’s and 70’s so it’s fucking isolated. The Blue Mountains was isolated. We’re not talking the outback, but depending on how you’re thinking, it’s isolated from the world. There was 14 million people in Australia then and there’s 10 million in London alone. There was no-one here. And of course I’ve got the typical cliché story which has put me where I am now. Highly dysfunctional family. The springboard of artists. But what I’ve learnt is, once you develop the creativity, once you then temper the neurosis, you still like to romanticize the Bukowski-esque sort of mindset. But not everyone’s Bukowski or William Burroughs! “But Lemmy made it!” Yeah, well you’re not Lemmy! (laughs)
How many times would you exclaim to your parents “But Lemmy made it!!”
“You’re not Lemmy, you’re not Bukowski, you’re not William Burroughs! Alright? You’re a weaker specimen!” (laughs)
I was basically dropped here, so it’s a typical ‘Australia in the seventies’ story. Which is still basically Australia now, very sports orientated, just sports, sports, sports. So I’m not good at school, I’m not good at sports. I wanted to be, I wanted to have a go, wanted to get in there, but skinny, tall, just, you know? What was I gonna do?
You know that kid at school who had a beard at twelve? We had one, Robert Hogan. I tried to tackle him once. I thought, “I’ll give it a go”. But when his knee hit my fuckin head (laughs) it was just … “when does home economics start?” (laughs) I’m like, “this is not fuckin working out”. So, I’m not good at school. And then you go home to a shit family, it’s always a family that’s your springboard for art usually, so, I just started getting into music.
You have to thank them for something right?
Well I grew up with English parents so I didn’t have this complete ute driving, singlet wearing, fucking swearing, Winnie blue smoking, KB drinking, watch the game every Saturday fuckin deal which I’m grateful for but it has its pros and cons. I didn’t know what I was good at. I was lost. Can’t do science, can’t do maths, can’t fuckin tackle Robert Hogan. I’m just like this nothing teen, my family is a fuckin disaster. I’m like, where am I? Right? I’m stuck out here in fuckin Australia. I used to hang out with these two English guys, these really eccentric English guys here. We used to sit around and just watch those music video shows all fuckin weekend.
So I got into music kind of young, my first album was Bat Out Of Hell, I think that was the first opening to heavy metal. And then it’s the usual seventies, Abba, and wait for a few cool songs I’d like to come on the radio. But then this English guy, I started hanging around him and he was good because he had new romantic stuff before it was really known here, like Human League, he was into The Jam and punk, and he knew all these underground bands and he used to show me all his music.
I was searching for something I liked, we used to watch these music shows, and then of course ‘Number of the Beast’ fuckin came on. Well actually before that, I got into U2. Gloria. They were like an underground band. I was really into U2, the first vinyl I ever bought. I remember buying it, taking it home and putting it against the wall, looking at it. I’ve got one! Look at my collection! (laughs) But then I saw ‘Number the Beast’, which is the album that clicked with suburban kids on a global level.
I was obsessed. Then 82 rolls around and Iron Maiden are fuckin coming out. So I fuckin went right, I’m going to this! Cause we grew up in the Blue Mountains, just kind of dysfunctional, with strict parents, just getting to the city was a fuckin mission but I managed to get down there. I remember walking around the corner to Capitol Theatre from Central Station. I had this fuckin plasticky vinyl jacket with the sleeves cut off with a couple of Saxon patches sewn onto it and I walked ‘round the corner, and there’s like 2,000 bikers and fuckin old, proper metal heads from the suburbs. The suburbs were almost like the fuckin Mad Max wasteland, to me, being a mountains kid, right? I remember walking around and there’s like fuckin 1,500, 2,000 bikers, and I just kept walking! (laughs) I didn’t know anyone, I was petrified. But what’s so funny in hindsight is that I ended up starting the entire fuckin underground Australian metal scene.
It’s interesting how at that time there was so much emphasis on Heavy Metal leading to depression, delinquency and mental illness when in fact it was obviously people who were already troubled who radiated towards it as a kind of a balm and a bandage…
I don’t believe that it creates mental illness, it was a complete balm and a bandage to me. My problem is I just didn’t deal with my fucking issues, right?
I created my own mental illness. I don’t even believe in mental illness per-se, but it’s the fucking brand they give it. So that was all my fault. That’s got nothing to do with heavy metal. Heavy metal is fucking great, it can be healthy as fuck for you, it’s fucking fantastic.
I don’t think it creates illness and I don’t think comedy does either, it’s just that I, being a highly dysfunctional person, continually used art and escapism to actually feel something and distract myself from dealing with real life. Until I just got older and older. Once I moved to the UK, then I was just distracted completely.
By that time, which is the path I really should have fucking followed, I’d started to read, and I did the first Anthony Robbins NLP course cos I knew I had damage in me, right? There was a shard in me.
I didn’t want to sit out here, having a local pub band that’s not going to work out. How do I do it? My parents have taught me nothing, I’ve got no skills, I’m not fucking academically fucking great. I can’t do sport, I’ve got to get out of here.
That’s a problem with Australia, there’s no way to get out, because there’s no scene here. There’s no structure here to make it happen, you know? America has always been the greatest in that sense of just going, “well you can become something”. You can’t do that here. You can become Kiss in America. Let’s be Kiss! You know, you couldn’t be Kiss in 1972 in Australia. You’d just be beaten to death, and nothing would happen.
Art is an abstract sidebar to the general populations’ consciousness, right? Because it’s a tall poppy country, we’re obsessed with a kind of shame here. We have a strange psychological dichotomy about things where Australians don’t really support anything Australian in the sense of letting you become famous. They won’t let you become an icon unless you’re a sports figure, right? In the UK Stephen Fry is a national treasure because there’s an industry, there’s a collective consciousness that validates literature and art and stuff like that.
America will create a cultural context for itself. The Ramones get recognition, but The Hard-Ons have been here for twenty fucking seven years making probably 40 albums, Australia doesn’t even give them a ‘thanks very much’.
So in the 90s it’s not that I was just doing Anthony Robbins courses, I started to read Ken Wilber who wrote a book called The Brief History of Everything. I started to read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I started reading a fucking Course in Miracles, Cosmic Christianity, anything to do with the metaphysical and sort of mystical side of religion.
I started to understand you know, what enlightenment was from an intellectualized point of view, about non-dualism. I’m reading Shamanism by Carlos Castaneda. I’d read anything, I’d read Psycho-Cybernetics.
It gave me a whole new understanding of the fact that on a subconscious level I’m drawn to this, why? Because of my own inner wounds. This is the way I look at it right? Nothing happens by chance. So this stuff is manifested in my fucking life. And I really got into it for a while. Meditating and doing all this stuff. And I knew you could pull stuff around you, right?
But then, I got distracted again. I moved into the city and if you have self-worth issues and low self-esteem issues, on a subconscious level you just start to want to fit in. So I get distracted easily. I’m always best if I’m isolated a little bit so I don’t get distracted.
But yeah, you’re the sort of person who feels alive on stage. There’s this weird dichotomy that occurs with people who are very anxious where there’s some kind of healing thing about being on the stage. Because, you’re not actually really conversing with people, you’re in your own room and you’re projecting upon people. And it’s your role to project upon them, right?
Big time. As I said before, it’s like what I was saying about Australia. The strange dichotomy of the Australian psyche when it comes to art, is that Australians give more credence to things that come from overseas, right? They’ll validate them, because Australia, to me, this is my theory, they don’t have a deep- rooted sense of identity.
We won’t let anyone be famous here because we’ve got that, “well who the fuck do you think you are?”, attitude. “Who the fuck do you think you are, standing above the rest of us?” The irony is though, as soon as you turn around to those people and go, Australia’s a bit shit isn’t it? They go, “what the fuck are you talking about? BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, MATE!”
Bill Hicks used to have this thing, and to me you’re drawing a lot from people like Hicks and Carlin and whatnot, where he’d say there’s this special kind of excruciating agony about being too smart for the room. And I think that might have dogged you in your career…
Here’s the thing where I end up in two mindsets. If I think on deep cosmic spiritual levels, no, I don’t think I’m better than any of you. I think you’re all the same. I think you’re all right because you’re a you’re a physical manifestation of life. Everything’s connected. Every fucking thing. Every living thing that’s here, is connected.
I realize, the whole system, especially in the west, is structured for no one to go internal. It’s constant go, go, go, go, go. Work, work, distract, distract, distract. And especially-
Consume, consume, consume.
So if you’re stuck in fucking St. Mary’s or fucking Blacktown, you can end up never leaving.
It becomes a microcosm right? And especially in a country like Australia, art is not a part of their thing. To go and see things? They’re not interested. They’re not interested in going, because they don’t know about it. They don’t fucking know about it. They’ve just been given sport and work and cul-de-sacs and fucking TV. They go to work, and then they go home, and like most people in the west they plop down and watch the fucking TV and don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re fucking mentally and physically fucking exhausted.
So, the west is in a kind of trouble, that’s why we’re all getting so sick now because we’re not reflecting on our issues.
So you saw that stand-up was a way out of that?
I decided I was going to go start stand-up, because Presto had broken up, Nazxul is not going to fucking go anywhere, it’s a great band but you know… I realized I’m getting older, I’ve got to do something. So I thought, well, I’ll just fucking go and start comedy. I did some drama courses and then I went right, I’m just going to go and see if I can fucking do this shit.
So I started gigging around Comedy Store and Harold Park and I just started doing it. I just started doing it and I used to think, “well, this is not going to get any fucking good here and I can’t do the kind of comedy I want”. And that’s when I went mad on comedy, just started reading books on everything. Woody Allen and Seinfeld and fucking Tim Allen and any kind of book I could get my hands on about comedy.
And then Lachlan, from Nazxul, showed me Bill Hicks because his father had Relentless on VHS.
That’s where I see your soul coming from with this kind of stuff.
Here’s the funny thing, in the 80s when I was still in Slaughter Lord, and even before that, when I was in the mountains, I used to go to this guy’s house. His father owned the local stereo shop, so he had a massive stereo and we’d go in there with our Slayer EP’s and just fucking blast them.
But he also had these Bill Cosby albums, so we’d listen to Bonded by Blood, and then we’d listen to Bill Cosby. And then even before Bill Cosby, we used to listen to Derek and Clive.
We would watch Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin all the time. We used to watch Delirious, or whatever it was called, and we used to watch Richard Pryor Live on Sunset, which is still one of the greatest fucking comedy shows ever. And we used to watch Steve Martin Live.
And then I became obsessed by The Young Ones, and Blackadder and English comedy.
And so London was Calling….
I’d been doing comedy for about three years in Sydney and was wondering “how do you get to fucking England?” And I’d heard of Adam Hills, and Adam Hills used to go over to Edinburgh. And I’d go, “how does he get over there?”
‘Cause he’s not very funny.
No he’s not funny, he’s a fucking wonderful man though. What’s interesting is I was talking to my therapist actually yesterday about this kind of stuff and he’s a very wise guy and he knows who Adam Hills is and he goes, “Well Adam Hills, he’s a guy who’s obviously grown up with his foot missing,” so he’s obviously had some pretty decent parents who as my therapist said probably reinforced him, saying “you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay”. Whereas you had nothing, you had your family going “you’re a piece of shit, you’re a piece of shit”.
But I wanted to go to England because I knew I couldn’t go to the places I wanted go comedically with these Australian audiences, they have a glass ceiling. I realized you can go overseas and get good and bring it back to them and they’ll respect your perspective but you can’t do it in front of them, you can’t learn it in front of them.
At around about time I knew this Irish guy who’s visa had run out and he had to go back to Europe and he goes, “Why don’t you come with me?” And I went, “Fuck it, alright. I’ll fucking go.” I knew a couple of guys who I’d met from comedy festivals out here that lived in England and I just fucking got as much money as I could which was fuck all, about 1000 bucks if that, 500 quid. Got a British passport and then I just fucking got on a plane, went to Ireland, fucking sat there in his fucking house. Had two phone numbers of promoters, and thought “right”, it was a totally punk ethic, “you just gotta start” and got an open mic spot at a pub in Dublin.
The Irish are so generous, the first gig I did which was a small pub in Dublin, they gave me £10 and I went down the road and did the open spot at the biggest comedy club in Dublin, the guy gave me £50. He gave me like a 50 fucking quid! The Irish are brilliant.
So I’m in Ireland for a bit but I thought “I’ve gotta get to England”. I knew this woman who was a comedy promoter and she had a friend who let me pay rent and sleep on her couch and I’d go out do these open spots in London. I suddenly realized this is not cutting it, I can’t keep paying this rent, I’m not making any money and then I’ve gotta wait all day to get these five minutes at a club in London and there’s so many of them in town it’s not fucking working.
So I went back to Ireland. Now I was lucky enough because of the heavy metal I’d gotten into in Dublin I’d met this Irish bloke when I lived out in countryside who was in this band Primordial. They knew who I was because of Slaughter Lord and Mortal Sin, so they said, “Do you wanna come and you can sleep at our fucking house in Dublin?” So great, I got out of the fucking countryside, now I’m in Dublin staying on the couch with the guys from Primordial when they were still relatively unknown. They had one or two records out. So I’d stay with them and I’d just go into Ireland and occasionally I’d go over to England and do some shows and come back. Then I realized it’s not working so I said I’ll just stay in Ireland for a while, get my feet on the ground. Met some blokes in Ireland and they started going, “You know, you’re quite funny. You wanna come down to do this small festival in Killarney,” and yeah you know, so I started to get gigs in Ireland.
Then we did this festival in Dublin and I met the Canadian comic Glen Wool when we did a show together and he said, “I’ve got a spare room in this place I live in London, you wanna move in there?” Bang. Now I’m in, now I can get to London. I’ve got a house, I’m with a comedian. Then I started to get gigs, then it started to fucking work. So it took fucking years and years.
How did it compare to the Australian audiences?
The great thing about England compared to Australia, when you go to England, they get upset if you’re not funny, but as soon as you get funny they’re like, “You’re fucking great,” and then they tell a promoter, “I saw this Australian guy, he’s fucking good.” And then the promoter rings you up, “So and so saw you at this gig, you wanna come and do my gig?” And you’re like, “Yeah,” you know, it starts to kick. Then it starts to work.
But now here’s the biggest mistake of my life. I move in, I still hadn’t dealt with my emotional issues. Now I’m in a big distracting city with everything I’ve ever dreamed of. I can see every band I want to, fly to places in Europe, but where am I? Well, I’m in London. What happens in London? Cocaine.
It’s the worst drug in the world, worst drug in the world.
Worst drug in the world. Now I never became a cocaine addict, but what I did was that I just … And I never did it like … I’m not even the guy that stays up all night doing it. Truth is I was getting older but I just kept doing it recreationally.
I would have been better off becoming a fucking junkie at least then I’d have known I had a problem. See cocaine was not my problem, but it was one aspect of all my spectrum of problems, right? I didn’t do cocaine to go on stage, I never took cocaine away with me to gigs, I never went to countries and thought “where can I get cocaine?”
But I’d go to London and there’d be a big party with 50 comics and actors and okay I’ll do some cocaine and I’ll get drunk. So it was never that I became an addict of cocaine it was just one aspect of what I did over the next 10 years. I didn’t stop working, I didn’t stop. I didn’t fucking stop. I did a gig every single weekend, not one gig, three, four, five, six gigs every weekend for ten years, right? And by that time, that means sometimes going to Norway, sometimes going to Sweden-
That’s death for material as well, when you’re gigging you’re not writing, you’re doing the hits, you’re not writing. You’re doing the hits.
Well no, I wrote because I’d have days off, but there was just constant travel. Travel was no big deal to me and that means for ten years every weekend I’d go to Brighton, next weekend I’d go to Newcastle, week after I’d go to Cardiff, week after that I’d go to Southampton, week after that I’d go to fucking Glasgow, week after that I’d go to Edinburgh, week after that I’d go to London, week after that I’d go to Southampton again…
So after ten years of doing this I had a bit of a fucking mini meltdown about 2009, right? Just exhaustion. So I came back to Australia for a year, I didn’t do cocaine but I was still smoking weed, I was still drinking. I’d never been a big drinker unless I was getting pissed, then I’m a lunatic. And I’m not eating too bad but I’m not really looking after myself, I don’t know anything about health, don’t know anything about it. The worst thing about growing up blessed with good physical health is you take it for fucking granted.
I was getting older but at that time I started to look after myself even less and work fucking five times more. I never stopped, I was doing 200 shows a year here and fucking all over Europe and just then take three weeks off at Christmas to do my tax and then you get the road again, right?
By this time I’ve got so much energy but I didn’t realize it was all my adrenals burning out, it’s all adrenaline, it’s all cortisol. And I’m going “Why can’t I sleep? Why can’t I fucking get to sleep?” Why have I got so much energy but I haven’t had any sleep, I’ll do another fucking 50 fucking shows. So it’s like there was a mixture of decades of smoking a couple of spliffs every day, intermittent cocaine and I just battered the adrenals in my biochemistry into fucking submission. Total stress, unprocessed fucking emotional wounds in a 50 fucking year old man, a diet that’s not good enough, no rest, no self-reflection, constant putting energy out on stage two hours a fucking night then going back to the hotel and staying up. Why? Because I don’t know how to wind down. Not even thinking that I don’t know how to wind down.
Eventually started to piece it all together. One of my mates said to me when I had the break down “I knew you’ve have a break down Steve,” and I went, “Why?” And he goes, “Because you haven’t stopped since the 80s.”
You eventually started dealing with a lot of that stuff through your material…
It started to come out in my material, but I look at it from different angles now. One big mistake was I almost became one of those fucking “reptilians are running the world” guys.
I never flirted with the reptilians but I’ve read it all. So I’d read conspiracy and then I’d read politics and then I’d read economics, not that I understand the complexities of anything on the ground, right? But I started to realize this is all tying in, and during these last five years I realised a lot of this was a projection of my own unprocessed inner anger and pain. I was projecting it like I always have onto the outside world.
Now mix it with this upbringing, this sense of low self-worth and a victim mentality, I start to perceive that as what’s happening on a global level, I subconsciously started to realize this was all happening, and now I can entertain that victim in me. Look at the world, it’s suffering under the powers of these elites and these banks and these corporations and these things. And so instead of talking about me, I would talk about that. Because I always used to think to myself “how can I make a show that’s more universal?” Not that I have the solution.
I used to think, how can I do this? And I realized in the last few years “well of course you couldn’t do it.” Why? Because you didn’t contextualize all that information about this stuff in the 90s when you read those countless books. You never fucking did it. You’re not walking the talk. You’re fucking fake. It’s like going down to the pool every day and staring at it for four hours every day for five years and then asking to join the Olympic team. So did you get in the pool? Oh no, I never got in the pool. Then you can’t join. Well you have to get wet. I don’t wanna get wet.
And then imagine those people that do get in the pool and stare at that black line one length to the other, one length to the other, every single day for ten hours. And they’re champions. Australia worships them, they’re champions. And then it turns out they’re not proper human beings, well who’d have thunk it? They’ve been staring at a fucking black line their whole lives…
It messes up cunts, just like entertainers. Each of them are low self- worth fucking weirdos.
Everyone’s from this weird little envelope of humanity and most of us have this massive self-doubt and yet for some of us, as soon as the spotlight’s on we’re alright because we don’t actually have to talk to somebody, we can just talk at somebody.
It’s funny you say that because I say the exact same thing. I’ve always been horrified of confrontation because my house was just “shut up and shut up and shut up”. So people are like, “Oh your comedy is very confrontational,” I used to go, “No it’s not,” and they used to go, “yeah it is,” I go, “No it’s not.” And they used to go, “What do you mean?” I go, “I’ll tell you,” I said, “I’m so hopeless at confrontation, why do you think I’m there?” Because there I’ve protected myself with a position of power. Most people without even knowing it are so petrified to be standing where I’m standing.
They’re so petrified. Even consciously they’re petrified but subconsciously they’re totally petrified.
Even with a guitar it can be terrifying. And you don’t even have that, you’ve just got a microphone! You’ve got no band, that’s the bravest thing you can do and I guess that’s why comedians are so lonely!
I know! I definitely should have stuck to fucking drumming! (laughs) I tell you this, the first time I did a comedy gig, the first fucking comedy gig I did I came off stage and the first thought I had to myself was “there’s not much release in that”.
There’s not much, I mean the power of laughter is powerful but it’s not the same as somebody bleeding, banging their head against the barrier…
It’s not the same. Here’s the thing, I’ve played drums in fucking extreme bands so when I came off stage, 1) I haven’t been thinking, I’ve been playing and 2) I just fucking cathartized my whole body, I come off swimming.
It’s yoga, isn’t it?
Yeah, the body’s working. When you come off stage after comedy it’s all head. And here’s the thing, here’s why there’s no release. When you’re in a band you get a release but as a comedian the audience gets a release, you don’t.
I know a guy who does a lot of this kind of work in LA, and he does a lot of body work. He said he’s had some Buddhist monks and that have to come to him for help, why? Because they’ve spent too much time doing fucking inner work. They’re not in their bodies anymore.
I got so many wakeup calls, and good ones at first, too. Because I’ve known about what they were talking about in Buddhism, with non-dualism… I’ve had non-dual experiences, like out of the blue, out of the fucking blue. I was walking around Norway once, and suddenly, bang. Everything turned into one. Everything. Everything was alive, the buildings, the landscape, everything. On no drugs, just walking around Norway. Once it happened in Manchester, too. I fucking did a gig the night before, and I yelled at this woman in the audience, and I felt so fucking guilty about it. She was talking and being a fucking loudmouth. And on the way to the gig the next night, I just spoke to the universe and went, “Can you just somehow apologize to that woman?” And everything turned into one, and I was weeping, at the traffic lights, just going, “Oh my god, I can see the buildings breathing, I can see the fucking billboards fucking alive, and I’m like … It was almost like the universe going, “Wake up. Wake up.”
The funny thing is I should have put more thought into what I was doing. Not to sort of curtail it or anything, but just sort of to be more self-aware. I’ve never been a guy that got a drum kit and was really great in a year. I’ve never been a guy that started comedy and was really great in a year. I never thought about it like this, but a friend of mine who I grew up with in the 90s said something to me the other day because she was lost in the suburbs too. She said “I didn’t know what to do out there. I’m just fucking stuck out here.” She goes “At least you had bands” I said “Yeah, I had bands.” I was grateful for that. She goes “Everything just came so easy to you.” Right?
It’s not like I didn’t work. But I realized that without thinking about it I just did it. I just did it and went “Well I’m going to do it. I’m going to fucking do it. I’ll make a band. Hell, I’ll make one. I’ll fucking find the blokes. I’ll fucking do it.” I just do it. I don’t say “It’s easy”. I don’t think she meant it just came to you easy, but she goes “But you just did it. You just did it.”
I never think twice about it. Since I was 16 I thought I thought “I’ve got to make a band.” I just did it. When I thought “I’ve got to do comedy,” I thought “Well I’ve got to go wing it. I’ll just do it.” Just fucking do it.
Just put it out there.
I tell you the one more thing, it’s just so simple. When people are talking to you, and at the end of the conversation they go “Take care” or “Look after yourself,” remember that’s not just a platitude, it’s fucking great advice.
Steve Hughes appears at the Comedy Store on Sunday, December 2nd.