Wollongong rockers Tumbleweed talk about touring with Nirvana and why the '90s changed music

ROCK ON IN: Catch Tumbleweed with Screamfeeder, Hard Ons, Smudge, Front End Loader and more at the Cambridge Hotel.
ROCK ON IN: Catch Tumbleweed with Screamfeeder, Hard Ons, Smudge, Front End Loader and more at the Cambridge Hotel.

The early ’90s was an exciting time for music. Glam rock took a back seat to grunge and alternative rock ruled the airwaves.

And Wollongong rockers Tumbleweed were right there in the thick of the action alongside a little-known band from Seattle called Nirvana.

“Mine and Lenny’s [Curley] first band – Proton Energy Pills – were lucky enough to record with Jay Mascis and we had toured with Dinosaur Jr and Mudhoney,” vocalist Richie Lewis tells Weekender.

“We played a show with the Unheard [Steve O’Brien and Paul Hausmeister’s other band] and Mudhoney in Wollongong in 1990, and it was through Mudhoney that we connected with Nirvana. At the time they were just another Sub Pop band. Bleach was licensed in Australia through Waterfront Records, which was the label we were signed to, and they had only sold about 600 copies.

“Matt Lukin from Mudhoney suggested we play with his housemate’s band when they come out. His housemate was Kurt Cobain. Later, when Tumbleweed formed, Proton Energy Pills manager Steve Pav was the promoter who brought out Nirvana and he remembered the conversation with Matt and got us to do the tour with them.”

Tumbleweed, riding high on the single Sundial, opened for Nirvana on their one and only Australian tour in 1992. Nevermind had taken off in the US and distortion pedals and fuzzy riffs gained a mainstream audience.

Jay Curley

Jay Curley

“The public acceptance of Nevermind caught us all by surprise and the scene kind of split open after that,” Lewis recalls.

“But as a band we did the hard yards. We started in the days when the support band had to load in the PA and would get docked if you didn’t, then at the end of the night you had to load it out again – fun times. You got half the desk, six lights and had to set up in front of the main band’s gear. But we loved it.”

Tumbleweed have often been categorised as “grunge” but that pays no heed to their psychedelic and punk roots.

Just don’t call it stoner rock.

“I don’t get it, it’s lazy pigeonholing of rock ‘n’ roll,” Lewis says.

“We are not a stoner rock band at all. We got lumped with it because we smoked a lot of marijuana back in the day, and we have tendencies to slip into sections of music that have long swinging grooves or whatever, but they are just sections or movements.

“We draw our influence from a diverse pool, from ’60s psych pop to Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, the Stooges, Mc5 as well as a heap of punk rock.”

Tumbleweed - Sundial

The band has been on and off for years but the founding members are all back on board and have made a tentative return to the live circuit. All but bassist Jay Curley who sadly passed away in 2014. 

“We all have jobs and family and other commitments and we are enjoying it now more than ever because we only play when and where we choose,” Lewis explains.

“Jamie Cleaves filled in on bass for a show with Spiderbait in Melbourne and fitted into the band so naturally that we decided to make him a full-time member of the band and to continue on with him on bass. 

“We don’t pretend to be anything we are not. Other things have taken priority over the years and it’s important to have balance in life. We’ve been together now for nearly 30 years, so there is very little separation between Tumbleweed and life. Sometimes being off the grid is a good thing. Being from Wollongong we have always felt a little out on the periphery and on our own.”

Tumbleweed have organised a gig at The Cambridge Hotel on September 15 called Showdown at Sundown. Sharing the line-up are the likes of Screamfeeder, Hard Ons, Front End Loader and Smudge. Tickets are on sale now.

“The ’90s was great. A lot of bands were doing their own thing and there was no formula, but it was also a period where triple j went national, big music festivals went national, recording became digital and bands had the opportunity to play to larger audiences,” Lewis says.

“It was also prior to the internet and Australians actually celebrated our differences. Our geographic isolation made us a unique melting pot of ideas. If it wasn’t for the Scientists and Lubricated Goat or Feedtime there would be no grunge. And how about the Saints and Radio Birdman for groundbreaking punk rock, or the Hard Ons? There isn’t another band like them on the planet.

“The Church, Celibate Rifles, the Stems, Hoodoo Gurus – they all laid the groundwork for the ’90s. When we began we wanted to do what those bands were doing. The ’90s is when all of a sudden it became commercially viable to play guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll.

“It was a time when the curtain was pulled back to reveal a vibrant underground scene and people wanted in on it. There was a great youth scene and a lot of great young bands with no pretensions.”

As for the future, a live album is a possibility.

“We would like to start a subscriptions based singles club and record two songs a month and put out a seven-inch vinyl single each month for a year. Recorded cheap and nasty at home on weekends with no rules or past influence to bind us. We want to come up with something new,” Lewis says.