ABC Radio Broadcaster Derek Guille
Article Series: Movers & Shakers
From time to time, Melting Pot speaks to the movers and shakers of the local scene - people of energetic demeanour who initiate change and influence events - and finds out how they got to where they are and how they view the local live music scene today.
Former ABC radio broadcaster Derek Guille is one of the most respected figures in Australian radio. Derek joined the ABC in Horsham in 1987 having already worked in Australia for Channel Nine, 3HA, Batman Records and overseas as a music journalist, silkscreen printer and photographer. He was with the ABC for the next 25 years including the last 9 years hosting The Evening Show.
Derek has a great reputation within the music industry and is a highly regarded and a regular MC at major events from fabulous Concerts in the Bowl and festivals to more intimate, private, corporate, community events. On air, he has spoken with the likes of Elvis Costello, kd Lang, Paul Kelly, Renee Geyer, Mose Allison, Dan Sultan, Nigel Westlake, Tony Joe White, Gurrumul, Sonny Rollins, The Waifs, Wayne Shorter, Ron Sexsmith, Jordie Lane, Ross Wilson, Archie Roach and Billy Thorpe, just to name a few. He also works broadly outside the music industry where he’s conducted hypothetical panels, facilitated conferences and interviewed politicians, scientists, medical researchers, authors, actors, artists, entrepreneurs, business leaders and public servants, always with curiosity, warmth and wit.
Having announced his retirement from ABC local radio in September 2011 to focus on other things, Melting Pot caught up with Derek one morning in Brunswick St to get an insight into his radio life and his thoughts on the state of the local music scene.
What was your connection with music growing up?
I grew up in a very musical household. There was always music playing. My father had a passion for classical music and comedy songs. In fact he learnt and sang publically a lot of comedy songs. My aunts were both highly sought-after sopranos in the Melbourne amateur music scene in between the wars – the elder of the two was taught by Nellie Melba – so there’s a whole lot of music history in the family. It was a natural part of life.
What is your background – how did you get to where you are now?
It was a childhood ambition to work on the wireless from about the age of 7. With a background of music in the family, I spent a number of years working in a record shop in Melbourne – Batman Records (before it closed sadly a few years ago). It was just the fulfillment of an ambition.
And it could have gone horribly wrong too. You have to be careful what you pray for because you might get it! Well I got it and it was the most fantastic experience – 25 years on the ABC!
So to be where I am now, which is… ahem… not working! (laughing) Please get me a job! I’d love to MC your next performance!
Describe an average day when you were working at the ABC (if there is such a thing)?
When I was doing the evening program – which I was for the last 9 years – it’s 3 hours of radio, which takes about 5 hours to do the research and preparation in terms of deciding on your subjects, understanding your subjects and the subject matter sufficiently to have a conversation that will include the audience and sound like it’s a dinner party rather than sounding like a constructed interview. Which is why it took longer to make it happen rather than to actually do it. It got to the point where 5 hours felt like 5 hours of prep time. The program itself would be over in ten minutes! Once you turn the microphone on and you’re actually going, it’s an absolute joy. It’s the best job in the world!
What for you is the most exciting aspect of working with the music industry?
That’s a difficult question because there’s two:
The music, and the potential to hear something that’s never happened before which happens every time you go to a gig. Every time you go to a live music performance, there’s the risk that something glorious will happen where the planets collide through serendipity or happenstance.
The other joy is the people. All of the musicians I’ve ever met (with very few exceptions) are passionate about art – their art. They’re passionate about what they do, but they’re also passionate about the relationship they have with their audience: on the basis of the shared experience of person A making music and persons B, C, D etcetera living that music as it’s performed for them live.
The bigger the audience and the more responsive the audience, the better the musicians plays. And I don’t know how that works, I don’t know why it works, but it does. If you get a big audience that’s on your side when you take the stage, somehow it makes you play better. It’s indefinable, it’s not from practice, or from knowing your scales – all of which you’ve gotta do – it’s just from people. It’s beautiful and it’s just so exciting to see.
What do you think the future holds for the local live music scene?
You live in hope don’t you? You hope that audiences continue to grow. And my impression is that at the moment, they’re a bit stagnant. Maybe that’s an aspect of the global financial crisis and the economic downturn and people think that they’re worse off than they really are. I guess to a certain extent we needed to pull our heads in a bit and start to save rather than spend.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean you starve yourself of the cultural bread and butter that is live music and so my hope is that the live music scene grows.
The fears are obvious – the obvious ones of venues closing because the landlord decides to build flats or apartments or whatever – but I can’t help but think because the quality and standard and examples of great musicianship continue to improve and grow and be more evident everyday, I can’t help but think that’s going to get more people to get more bums on seats or their feet on the dancefloor. So I’m quietly confident the future is a very bright one and that as the economic turmoil starts to level out, those people that were once spending $150 to see a big international show at somewhere like Crown Casino might now be spending $25 to go and see a local band and realize that the local band in its own way is just as good as anything that anyone else can provide. Not only that, but it’s cheaper and you’re looking after those people in your own community who are trying to look after you – so hopefully more and more people will do that and that that end of the market will continue to grow.
What advice would you give artists that are trying to make a living out of music?
Write and record brilliant songs. That’s actually flippant, but it’s true. If you’re going to attract my attention as someone who plans a radio program and decides what music to play, make something that stands out. Make something that reflects you, your musical skills and aspirations to such an extent that it’s got a “wow” factor.
Wow factors can come from all sorts of things – from the subject matter, from the chord progression, from the arrangement. Until you’ve heard some of those remarkable great jazz singers who will just be voice and double bass and hear what you can do with the old ‘less is more’ concept, until you’ve listened to a whole lot of people and how they express themselves, you are going to limit yourself. You really have to listen to things that you think you won’t like. Listen to Opera.
There’s only one thing you shouldn’t listen to and that’s Nashville Country and Western – do not listen to Dolly Parton except for her bluegrass albums. All the rest of it is rubbish! (laughing)
But more seriously, listen to how Dolly uses her voice. You’ll learn something every time you listen to someone – even if you’re learning what not to do… you’ll still learn.
So yes, to get heard on the radio, write and record something remarkable. To do that, look outward as much as inward. Certainly look to your own inspirations, your own emotions and all that sort of stuff but look outward – what makes other things work? Why was this particular song a hit? Some are hits because they are at a time. When are we living – not just where – but when?
Some of them will hit me as it was just incredible – it’s something that had never happened before. You can’t guarantee that you could always do that but, think about how you could do that. Again, it’s flippant advice but if you get in to a rut you won’t achieve. If you think you’ve found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you better know it’s fools gold.
But the other part? Just have fun. Because in truth, so many of the great moments come out of accidents, out of the casually thrown away “I wonder what would happen if…” and those sorts of moments. But those sorts of moments only arise if you’ve listened enough and looked around enough.
To get in touch with Derek:
The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Melting Pot.