Freak out in a moonage daydream: Sean M Whelan on Liner Notes

This is cross-posted from the Melbourne Writers Festival 2012 blog.

The Liner Notes spoken word event (run by Babble) is always a festival highlight for me, and this year a bunch of writers, poets et al are set to rock our worlds with an interpretation of David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. *Excitement!* Previous Liner Notes have included Michael Jackson’s Thriller, INXS’ Kick and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Liner Notes has actually been running a lot longer than it has been part of MWF, and I got in touch with Babble/Liner Notes founder and regular performer Sean M Whelan to ask him some questions about the event:

Sean, can you tell us how Babble and Liner Notes came to be? What was the first album that was ‘interpreted’?

Liner Notes literally came to me in a dream. I was half asleep one night and the concept of it all just kind of materialised in my head. I remember shooting up in bed and searching for a pen and paper to write it down because I’ve had those experiences before where I’ve had a great idea in the middle of the night then gone back to sleep and in the morning I’ve remembered I HAD a good idea but can’t for the life of me remember what it actually was! This time I secured it safely in writing before going back to sleep. I’ve always been a big fan of music and poetry so this seemed the perfect way to combine those two great loves. I loved the idea of it being vaguely built around the model of a tribute night, but unlike other tribute shows all this original material comes out of it.

The first album we interpreted was actually David Bowie’s Hunky Dory! With coming to Bowie again after ten years it feels like we’ve come full circle. Also Liner Notes has developed a lot since our first show at Bar Open in Fitzroy. We were still figuring things out back then. For example, we didn’t have a full band for the first show, Michael Nolan performed with just a solo guitarist. Since then we have had a full band play at every Liner Notes event and for the last three years we’ve performed sold out shows in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival. This year we’re also very proud to be taking the show interstate for the first time. We’ll be appearing at the Brisbane Writers Festival at the Powerhouse on Sept 8. I’ve always thought the show was perfect for touring as it’s very easy to source the performers at whichever location you take it to. Taking it internationally is just a matter of time, we already have two copycat events in North America, we might as well take it over and show them the real thing!

Why Ziggy Stardust? (So many of his albums are classics, after all.)

Well, you’re right, there are SO many great David Bowie albums to choose from. Which is one reason why we wanted to revisit Bowie. There is also the fact that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, so that seemed like a good enough reason to choose Ziggy above the rest. There’s so much glamour and showmanship around that album too, which is naturally appealing to the tiny little rock stars living in all our hearts.

Michael Nolan has been doing an excellent job as MC for Liner Notes over the years, researching the band, the album and each track before the night (not to mention being able to sing). Can you ever imagine doing it without him?

Michael Nolan pretty much IS Liner Notes. I came up with the original concept for the show but right from the start it’s been a joint effort between myself and co-producers Emilie Zoey Baker and Michael Nolan. But Nolan is such a crucial part of the show, from liaising with the Melbourne Writers Festival to source the performers, to the amazing amount of research he does on every album, to singing with the band on the night; he really is indispensable. Now that the model has been built I can easily imagine Liner Notes going on without me but it would be a very different show and much poorer for it without the mighty Michael Nolan at the helm.

The performers at Liner Notes are usually a mix of poets, authors, comedians and musical types—faces both familiar and new. How do you go about selecting the artists for the show?

When Liner Notes first started it was strictly poets who made up the performers for the night, as one of the reasons it was started was as a way to bring wider audiences to poetry events. Ten years later we have expanded it to nearly anybody that we think will have something interesting to offer. For example this year we have Tim Flannery, environmentalist and First Dog on the Moon, cartoonist, both who don’t fit into any of the categories above.

The only brief for our guests is that we hope they will bring something engaging to the stage. Some people think they need to be a fan of whatever album is being highlighted to contribute but that’s not the case at all. The songs, that each guest are asked to provide a response to, are only meant to act as kicking off points for inspiration. Right from the start we have never intended Liner Notes to be a serious literary dissection of popular music, which some fans might expect. Some of our guests are hearing the albums we present to them for the first time. Irreverence is really the name of the game, but so is to expect the unexpected. Part of the thrill of Liner Notes as producers is that we don’t vet any of the work beforehand, so, along with the audience, we see everything for the first time on the night.

Can you tell us what track you’re interpreting from Ziggy, and maybe even give us a small preview?

My challenge this year is to provide a response to Track 3. Side A. Moonage Daydream. Definitely one of my favourite tracks from the album. I wish I could give you a small preview but I seem to be on track for doing what I do every year, and that is to leave it to the last minute and have a total panic attack about it in the few days remaining before the show. The only preview I could possibly provide at this stage is that in the spirit of the song I will most likely ‘Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah!’

Liner Notes: Ziggy Stardust is on Saturday 25 August at 8pm. View the full list of performers and ticket details here.

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