MEET: Pete Cullen

Pete Cullen

Pete Cullen is driving up the coast. He should be listening to the mixes the sound engineer has sent him of his new albums but he left the cord for the car stereo at home. Instead he’s listening to the insistent high-pitched whistling of his roof rack. And, let me assure you, the output of Pete Cullen’s whistling roof rack is prolific.

Pete Cullen’s own output is about to be fairly enthusiastic as well. He’s simultaneously set to release a new record under his own name, “an alt-country, southern rock kind of album” and the other for his old time rock n' roll/rockabilly side project, P.C. and the Biffs. His mates at Lefty’s (where he plays on the regular) describe, “He's like a piece of old furniture around here at Lefty's Old Time Music Hall, like a mouldy old chair that you can't bring yourself to throw out, but damn Pete Cullen has got some tunes.” Damn, if we don’t agree!

So how do you divide your time and headspace between Pete Cullen stuff and P.C. and the Biffs?
Well it’s pretty much like, I wrote all the songs for both bands, I’ve just been writing these songs for a long time. I went to America in February just to finish off writing songs, I went to New Orleans and up Highway 61 to Clarksdale, Mississippi where Muddy Waters and everyone was from. I spent a lot of time writing the songs but the recording process has taken a long, long time. It’s a bit of a pain in the ass [laughs].

It’s pretty atmospheric sort of country down New Orleans/Memphis way, isn’t it?
It was absolutely amazing. I’ve been in to New Orleans jazz and that kind of stuff since I was about 20 years old...I’m 40 now so that’s a long time. And then Mississippi Delta Blues ... standing in cotton farms, all sorts of things like that. It was just amazing to soak up that heritage I suppose. Then went to Memphis, went to Graceland, Sun Studios, did all that…pretty cool.

And I wanted to ask you about the idea of the Saltwater Cowboy and what that sort of means to you?
I lived in Noosa Heads for ten years but when I was younger I was in bands and we toured the country with Spiderbait, played big shows with You Am I and all that kinda stuff when we were young and then crap went down with management and the band split up. So we - me and my partner - moved to Noosa and I ran a surfshop there - called Noosa Longboards. And basically just surfed for five years, didn’t pick up an instrument. But I’ve always been in love with Country, Alt-Country and Americana, I suppose. Instead of riding a horse into town, riding a surfboard and riding the waves…Saltwater cowboy, not a dirt cowboy. 

You had a bit of a break from music, you said - a five year break - what effect do you think that had on this phase of your career?
You look back and you wish you didn’t because we were going pretty well when we were younger. But music’s hard some times, it takes its toll when you’re in a band with five people and people want to do different things. I suppose for me, as a musician, I lost a lot of guitar-playing skills which kind of sucks [laughs]. Honestly, I never dreamt of what’s happening with my musical career now, I make money out of music…I get to play at - [what] I think’s probably - the best venue in Australia [Lefty's]. I was thinking I was going to be relegated to RSLs playing 50s rock n' roll to the blue-rinse brigade. But my journey went in a different direction and I’m really, really stoked. I feel really fortunate that the guys that I play with, we’re all very similar, we’re all really into the same music and to be able to have a venue like to play at, people would die to have what we have, so we’re pretty stoked.

How did P.C. and the Biff’s first come about?
So basically the band has gone through a few name changes and we could never just settle on something…it was always Pete Cullen and the Saltwater Cowboys. We were playing kinda more Australiana, with some surf music kinda stuff and when we started playing Lefty’s we’d have to play for three or four hours. So we were playing heaps of old rock n’ roll and rhythm & blues and soul music and then started writing songs that we were playing regularly. It was P.C. and the Yee-Haws but I didn’t like the connotation of being a country band. We didn’t really play much country kinda music so the shows sort of morphed from playing pretty 50s style rock n’ roll, really traditionally to sort of bringing in to today, and it’s a bit more rock, a bit more harder-edged. So one night we were playing and this guy came up to us and said, "When you guys play I feel like someone’s just punched me in the face!" So that’s how The Biffs come around. Bring back the biff…that’s what we want!

And I have to ask about the Young Henrys song? How did that come about?
I think I was at Lefty’s one night and drinking Young Henrys, I think it’d just gone on tap there and we all really like the Young Henrys lager. I went home that one night and I was gonna do a show for Young Henrys for a pre-party at Splendour. And I went home and I had this song in my head - basically it’s like Rawhide and at the end of it goes ‘Young Henrys!’. So I went up to Oscar - and we’d been out til 3.30 in the morning at Lefty’s, playing -  so we had to drive down, I think we were playing about midday down near Byron…Billinudgel, that’s it! And I went up to him - first time I’ve met him - and I went, "Oh man I’m pretty dusty, I’ve got this song, it’s just come to me." And Oscar - I was just expecting him to say, 'oh yeah whatever man' - he just reacted like "You’re kidding me, I wanna hear it, I wanna hear it!" So I just sent him a demo and he went ‘we want you to record it.' Which really helped me out, obviously gave me a bit of time int he studio and we put out a single called Dead Man’s Bones with the Young Henrys song. All sort of just came together, one of those things that’s a bit bizarre that things just line up and you kind of work together. We’re a beer drinking band so I think it works well for both parties.


What was the first gig you ever went to?

Geez. It’s gonna be a long story. There used to be these things called the ZZZ market days - ZZZ is like Brisbane’s FBi or RRR (community radio station). It would have been ’92, I was 16. They used to have them at Musgrave Park down in West End. Me and my mates used to go, it was such a cool thing because it was just when Nirvana was breaking, the bands that were playing were a really young Powderfinger, Regurgitator, bands that people around Australia wouldn’t know called the Dreamkillers and R.F. Brahm - Brisbane bands that were just really heavy, really cool. I just remember being a young kid in the moshpit, first gig - I think I got into a fight with a punk. Right near the stage, he got my head into the trailer - they used to have a truck trailer that the band could play on. Copped a bit of a hiding in there and then I jumped up on stage thinking I was on the Pearl Jam film clip, I did a full stage dive and no one caught me. And the same punk dude that rammed my head into the stage picked me up with three of his mates and took me out of the moshpit and made sure I was alright. That was the first gig I ever went to.

Those ZZZ market days, you wouldn’t get away with it today’s nanny state up here in Queensland. It was amazing and it was something that a lot of my friends that played music all throughout the 2000s, all our influences were from the ZZZ market days.

Is there any equivalent these days do you think?
Not really! They were kinda like mini-Splendours and all those festivals that are around now but it was just way different, because it was not really pop bands, real grunge, real that era - early 90s.

And the last gig that you went to?
I play another venue called the Triffid. So I do a three-hour slot where I play ‘Songs you know and love’  and I play a mixture of my own stuff and cool tunes that have made an impression on me over the last 20 years. Even before that, I play stuff from when I was a kid. Like, the first album I ever bought was Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen. I was seven years old and I saved up money by washing windows for my mum at her shop, and went over and bought my first vinyl record and I learned every word on that album and I still know every word on that album to this day. So I play a few songs off that and all kinds of different stuff. So I was at the gig and I ran into an old mate who’s the tour manager for Busby Marou which are a Rockhampton duo and he said ‘I’ll put you on the door for tonight’, got to meet this band called The Teskey Brothers and they’re from Melbourne, they’re this southern soul band and they were really really good…my kinda stuff. They’re gonna be really good I think.

And the most memorable gig you’ve ever played?
When I was in this band called the Daybridges, we started out and wrote down goals for what we wanted to do and one of them was to support You Am I and it was actually our last gig before we broke up and we were the main support for You Am I at the Zoo in Brisbane. Got to meet Tim Rogers and the boys and it was a really really cool show, and I still have people come up to me and just go ‘I remember seeing you guys’. Other than that, every gig I play at Lefty’s is pretty epic, we’re always playing in front of 200+ people, a bit of a madhouse.

And if last drinks gets called on Planet Earth, what are you drinking?
Oh geez…I like the look of that new Young Henrys maple spirit. I reckon I’d be a sucker for one of those at 3 in the morning.

Pete Cullen & P.C. and the Biffs albums are released 18 August. 
Double album launch at Leftys Old Time Music Hall, Saturday 19 August 4pm-7pm
Tickets through Oztix.