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Remembering David McComb of the Triffids: ‘If music isn’t extraordinary, what’s the point?’ | Australian music


Jonathan Alley first met David McComb in 1994, interviewing him on Alley’s long-running Triple R radio program.

McComb had been lead singer and guitarist of 1980s band the Triffids, who broke up in 1989, and now McComb was plugging a new solo album, Love of Will. But the record company hadn’t sent it to the station yet – and the musician turned up 45 minutes late.

“He immediately could tell that I hadn’t heard his record,” Alley says. “And if you want to piss off an artist in an interview, not listening to it is pretty much top of the list.” But as the conversation progressed, McComb relaxed; they talked about Al Green and his love for hip-hop.

Starting in Perth, the Triffids were a band of friends and family – David’s brother Rob, Alsy MacDonald, Jill Birt, Martyn Casey (later of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and “Evil” Graham Lee – who became key to the alternative music scene in Australia.

The Triffids
With the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens, the Triffids (pictured) were part of a wave of Australian music celebrated in the UK and Europe. Photograph: Andrew Catlin

Along with the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens, they were celebrated by the British press, toured the UK and Europe, and appeared on the cover of NME, who proclaimed 1985 “The Year of The Triffids”. Their atmospheric music combined with McComb’s brilliant lyrics produced some of the era’s most beloved songs, including Bury Me Deep in Love and Wide Open Road.

When McComb died unexpectedly in 1999 at the age of 36, many were stunned. “This very visible, striking, charismatic person who was so driven to have this music career had essentially disappeared,” he says. “It was the feeling that we’d sort of missed Dave. The nation had missed a great mind.”

Alley began working on his biopic Love in Bright Landscapes 13 years ago; a first-time writer/director, he wanted to celebrate McComb’s incendiary talent for words and music, and to bring the music to a wider and more contemporary audience. But Alley didn’t want it to be a standard rock documentary. “I wanted to make a biographical piece on an artist and what was happening in that person’s life, and why those things were happening,” he says.

Love in Bright Landscapes is screening in Melbourne and Sydney this week, after a rolling postponement brought on by the pandemic. The film interweaves interviews with his parents, friends, girlfriends and bandmates; readings of his poems, diaries and letters by author DBC Pierre; and clips of McComb talking about his music and influences, including Television and Bowie.

It traces McComb’s childhood, his teenage bands and the comics he made with his best friend MacDonald, while offering a wide-angle look at the Perth punk scene at the time and how the band were set apart from other acts in Australia and abroad. There are previously unseen home movies filmed by David’s father Harold McComb of family holidays on the beach, along with early video clips and rare live performance footage shot by film-maker Megan Simpson Huberman, McComb’s girlfriend at the time.

In the documentary, his mother Athel says she knew from the moment he was born he was different from his brothers. “His life was singular,” she says. His father remembers a gentle and quiet boy. “One would never have dreamed of smacking him. He would have dissolved.” Triffid Graham Lee says he’d never met anyone who took music so seriously, as if it was life and death. “Music should be extraordinary and if it isn’t? What’s the point.” And Paul Kelly agrees, describing the band as having a European sensibility, and Wide Open Road as a breathtaking example of “interlocking parts, like buttresses and struts on a cathedral, this beautifully constructed thing that’s full of air”.

David McComb as a young child holding rabbits on a sand dune.
‘One would never have dreamed of smacking him. He would have dissolved’: David McComb as a child

Twenty years after his death, the grief remains visceral, and questions endure about what happened in those final years, months, moments of McComb’s life. The film explores the contributing factors to his increasing sense of desolation and deteriorating health in glimpses: lost love, a heart condition and transplant, alcohol abuse, pain relief for a bad back, a feeling of isolation, heroin use, a talent that was unrecognised and seemingly forgotten. It alludes to the mystery of McComb’s inner world, paralleling the hidden depths of his songs.

While McComb is celebrated as a songwriter, the posthumous poetry collection, Beautiful Waste, confirms him as one of the leading lyricists and poets of his generation. Taught by novelist Elizabeth Jolley at Western Australia Institute of Technology, his brother Rob McComb says David would like to be remembered as a writer. Early Triffids and Blackeyed Susans bandmate Phil Kakulas says that, like Leonard Cohen, McComb was a careful crafter, devoted to the power of words – but also happy to play with cliche. “If we were working on a song, there’d be the lazy line, and he’d say, ‘No, we’ll leave it like that because then it doesn’t look like it’s been worked over too much,’ or he would repeat a line that was in another song,” Kakulas says. “Just to give it that appearance of off-the-cuffness. So he would work very hard, like all creative people do, to make it look effortless.”

After a recent screening of the film at the Randwick Ritz in Sydney, The Friends of David McComb – a band featuring Rob McComb and Lee from the Triffids, Rob Snarksi, JP Shilo and Kakulas from the Blackeyed Susans, and Mick Harvey – took to the stage to cover Triffids classics along with McComb’s solo work. For Snarski, performing McComb’s songs is bittersweet. “It can be quite draining, but we all plough through, and memories tend to flood back,” he says. “You can find yourself in a bit of a puddle if you’re not careful and I just have to remind myself that we’re here to celebrate Dave and his songwriting craft – and it’s supposed to be joyful.”

David McComb and Will Akers in 1998.
Will Akers and David McComb in 1998. Photograph: Denise Nestor

As with McComb’s best writing, the film raises more questions than it answers, but what remains clear is that he is still deeply missed, and his work feels unfinished. With glimpses of tenderness – quiet moments with his mother on the beach as a toddler, his enduring love of Will Akers (who was with him when he died and who he named his solo album after), his partner Jo’s memories of a beautiful while damaged soul – the film works like a pixelated portrait, each small story merging to make a clearer picture when you take a step back. While narrative truths are evasive, perhaps answers can only be found in the songs and poems themselves.

It’s been over a decade since he started working on the film, but Alley remains inspired by the longevity in the work and McComb’s artistry. “He draws you in so immediately, the imagery is remarkable and you can have this ever-evolving instinctual relationship with the music that takes you deeper and deeper, and has you asking more and more questions all the time,” he says. “Each song of his is a world – and I think it’s very rare in people who make art … there’s no bad David McComb record.”

  • Love in Bright Landscapes is playing in Melbourne cinemas, and opens in Sydney on 12 May. The Friends of David McComb are playing after a screening at the Astor in St Kilda on 15 May.

  • Kirsten Krauth’s interviews with Jonathan Alley, Rob McComb, Rob Snarski, Phil Kakulas and the Triffids feature on an episode of her podcast Almost A Mirror.

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