NOTE: Around 2009, I wrote a bunch of music biographies for Amoeba Music, which was then planning an ambitious project which ultimately never came to fruition. Some of the biographies I wrote about my favorite musical acts did eventually make their way onto Amoeba’s current, scaled back website — although they’re somewhat buried and often don’t credit the authors. A lot of time was spent researching and writing them, though, and Amoeba may not be around forever; therefore I’m re-posting them here with minimal updates or editing.
The Triffids were a prolific and musically adventurous band whose mix of doomed Romanticism, folk flourishes, country touches, and the darkest of blues proved tremendously influential for a whole host of other Australian musicians. Despite rapturous praise from critics and fans, in the end fame mostly eluded them although they’ve been the subjects of several honors since their disbandment.
Though the Triffids were without a doubt a group effort, the guiding force in the band was always David McComb. David Richard McComb was born 17 February 1962 in Perth to Dr. Harold McComb, a plastic surgeon, and Dr. Athel Hockey, a geneticist — and both children of Canadian immigrants. The McComb family resided in The Cliffe, an historic home on McNeil Street in posh Peppermint Grove. David and his four older brothers attended Christ Church Grammar School in nearby Claremont. Young David was a promising student and he was awarded prizes in Divinity and English Literature.
Throughout their career, membership in the Triffids was highly amorphous but Allan MacDonald was McComb’s longest serving songwriting partner, appearing on all of the eleven albums released over the course of their fourteen year career. “Alsy” (his nickname “Alsy” came from his pronunciation of his own name as a child) was born on 14 August 1961 to Bill MacDonald, a professor of child health at University of Western Australia and Dr. Judy Henzell, a pediatrician. Like McComb, MacDonald was also the youngest of the four children, with two older brothers and a sister. It was whilst he was attending Hollywood Senior High School in Perth that he became friends with McComb.
McComb and MacDonald began making music after being creatively energized with the arrival of punk. On 27 November 1976, McComb and MacDonald (on toy drum and acoustic guitar respectively) recorded a demo. In addition, the two formed a multi-media collective called Dalsy with a cast of fellow teens including Phil Kakulas, Andrew McGowan, Julian Douglas-Smith, Byron Sinclair, Will Akers, and Margaret Gillard. In less than a year’s time, various members of Dalsy recorded a series of cassettes, primarily consisting of original material including The Loft Tapes, Rock ‘n’ Roll Accountancy, Live at Ding Dongs, Bored Kids, Domestic Cosmos, People Are Strange Dalsy Are Stranger, Steve’s, and Pale Horse Have a Fit before splitting up in 1977.
In 1978, most of the musical members of Dalsy reconvened as Blök Music and recorded one self-released album, Blök Music tape. In April, after an underwhelming reception at the Leederville Town Hall Punk Fest, they changed their name to Logic and then, one day later, the Triffids. Over the next couple of years, the Triffids practiced and recorded in the Cliffe. Their first album was recorded over two days in May, 1978, simply known as Triffids 1st. It was followed by Triffids 2nd that September, Triffids 3rd in February 1979, Triffids 4th in August, Tape 5 in April 1980, and Sixth in 1981. By 1979, Kakulas and Sinclair had left the band and one of David’s brothers, Robert McComb, quit his band to join his brothers on guitar, violin, keyboards, percussion, and backing vocals.
By 1981, McComb was studying journalism and literature at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University of Technology) but continued to make music with his band. The Triffids released their first single, “Stand Up,” b/w “Farmers Never Visit Nightclubs” in July for a song competition hosted by the Student Guild’s radio show on 6NR (now Curtin FM). Alsy MacDonald wasn’t in the band for two months and thus Mark Peters filled in on drums. The Triffids won the competitions, which led to the song’s re-release the following year on the Shake Some Action compilation.
In December, the band released their first studio effort; Last Gasp (1981-Resonant Records), recorded at Mutant Mule Studios in Perth. The album was again only released on cassette and a mere fifty copies were made. At the end of 1982, the 7″ Reverie EP, drawn from the second side of Last Gasp, was released on Resonant Records.
A line-up change was necessitated when Akers was hauled off to jail on drug charges. His replacement was by an English immigrant, Martyn P. Casey, who joined in 1983. Another new member was Jill Birt, who primarily performed keyboards but also sang vocals, including lead,on some of the band’s best songs.
The band traversed the continent to the east coast with increasing
frequency and opened for The Church, Hunters & Collectors, The Uncanny X-Men, The Reels, and Sunnyboys. In Melbourne, the band recorded and released the Les Karski-produced “Spanish Blue” b/w “Twisted Brain” which was followed by the Bad Timing and Other Stories EP (1983), both of which were released through White Label Records, a subsidiary of Mushroom (and the latter of which featured Simon ‘Le Tact’ Cromack on percussion).
The Triffids followed with another self-released cassette which they sold exclusively at performances in eastern Australia, Dungeon Tape (1983). The recordings were taken from two sessions in 1981; one at Dungeon Rehearsal Studios in Sydney and another from Mutant Mule.
After having self-released seven full-length records, The Triffids finally
signed to the Sydney-based Hot Records who released their full-length, studio debut, Treeless Plain (1983) in November. It’s distinctly ragged and rural blend of rock, blues, country, and folk adumbrated subsequent efforts of countrymen like Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, Simon Bonney and others. Not only did it establish them them as an important band in their homeland, it also pricked up a few ears in the UK.
The Raining Pleasure mini-album (Hot Records) and Lawson Square Infirmary EP (Hot Records) followed in 1984 – the latter recorded in the Sydney Opera House with additional musical support provided by local musician James Paterson, who also financed the record. It was also notably the first appearance with the band of ‘Evil’ Graham Lee, who would later become a key ingredient after joining full-time.
By then based in Redfern, the band shared a run-down home whilst they attempted to save money to finance a move to London. In August they made the big move, joining a small group of critically-lauded/commercially-ignored Aussie expats – one of their earliest gigs in the UK was supporting The Go-Betweens. The press loved them and they were featured on the cover of NME, who grandiosely predicted that 1985 would be “The Year of the Triffids.” In November, the band recorded the Field of Glass EP (Hot Records) live in BBC’s Studio 5 before returning to Australia.
Back home, the Triffids re-teamed with Evil Graham Lee for a cover of William Bell’s soul classic, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry).” When they returned to the UK, Lee came along as a member. They were once again featured on the cover of NME, recorded a Peel Session (ultimately released in 1987) and toured Europe with Echo & the Bunnymen where they gained strong followings in Belgium, Greece, Ireland, The Netherlands, and in particular, Sweden. Despite these not insignificant triumphs, NME’s prophecy was not fulfilled and the band in no way threatened the likes of Jennifer Rush or Paul Hardcastle, whose year it could more credibly have been claimed to be, at least commercially speaking.
In 1986, the Triffids backed a pre-KLF Bill Drummond on his excellent solo album, The Man. They remained unsigned, however, when they entered the studio with Gil Norton in August and recorded what many would view as their own masterpiece, Born Sandy Devotional (1986-Mushroom).
Frustrated with delays in the release of Born Sandy Devotional and the ongoing lack of label interest, the Triffids returned yet again to Australia. When Born Sandy Devotional finally saw the light of day, it was widely heralded not just as their best work but as one of the greatest albums ever. At home it reached the Top 40, in Sweden, the Top 20.
A month after the release of Born Sandy Devotional, the band entered a wool shed in Ravensthorpe with a budget of $1190 ($240 for gas, $310 for food, $340 for booze, and $300 for recording). They emerged four days later with the another classic, In the Pines (1986-White Hot), seemingly tossed off with little effort. An anthology of both album and non-album tracks recorded between 1983 and ’85 was released as Love in Bright Landscapes (1986-White Hot).
INXS’s Michael Hutchence successfully lobbied for the Triffids’ inclusion on the Australian Made tour, a touring festival which also featured Jimmy Barnes, INXS, Mental as Anything, Divinyls, Models, The Saints, and I’m Talking. It began on St. Stephen’s Day in Hobart, Tasmania and wrapped up the following January.
Afterward, the Triffids were finally picked up Island, which signed them for three records. The recording sessions took place in Bath, Liverpool, and London with an Island-appointed producer, Craig Leon. The label and Leon insisted that Casey and MacDonald weren’t up to snuff and forced the band to employ session musicians, resulting in what that Lee called an “unmitigated disaster.” The sessions were scrapped and Lenny Kaye was brought in. When he heard their material, he backed out, convinced that his talents weren’t needed. Finally, Gil Norton was brought back to re-record something that would please both Island and the band. The resulting album, Calenture (1987-Island) proved to be another one, albeit one marred in the view of some by the uncharacteristically bright and slick production. It charted highest in Sweden, where it reached #24.
Frustrated by a recording experience that David McComb likened to the famously disastrous production of the film Heaven’s Gate, the band’s next release saw them once again return to their roots with the release of another limited edition DIY cassette, Jack Brabham (1988). It was exclusively sold at two shows in Perth that December. They followed it with another self-released cassette, an anthology, Son of Dungeon Tape (1988). The band expressed their desire to record Calenture’s follow-up in Australia but Island, after the costly commercial failure of that record, were eager to keep the band on a short leash.
With a working title of Disappointment Resort Complex, the band recorded their follow-up in Somerset. With Stephen Street at the helm, the experience proved less painful and it was released as, The Black Swan (1989-Island). It proved to be their most musically adventurous set, utilizing a broad variety of instruments and sounds, even including elements of hip-hop and dance. In fact it proved too adventurous for most fans and its cold reception disappointed the band. The Triffids played two dates in New York City before returning to Australia. Although they didn’t know it at the time, an August, 1989 show at Australian National University would be their last.
In order to fulfill their contractual obligations at Island, the label compiled a set of pre-Calenture songs recorded live in Stockholm for The Bommen Show on Swedish National Radio from 1989. It was released as Stockholm (1990-Island). It was their last official release until 2008’s Beautiful Waste and Other Songs (Liberation Records) which compiled tracks from several EPs and singles that hadn’t previously been on compact disc.
In 1989, The McComb brothers and MacDonald formed Black-Eyed Susans originally as a side-project in Perth with former Triffid Phil Kakulas, Ross Bolleter, and Rob Snarski. Line-up changes to that band were necessitated by David’s decision to have another crack at the UK — this time as a solo artist. Robert went into teaching. The band were subsequently joined by future Dirty Three members (and, respectively, Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) Jim White and Warren Ellis, and former Triffid Martyn Casey.
David McComb returned to London in 1990 with his girlfriend, and once again struggled to attain commercial success. In 1991, McComb and Adam Peters contributed a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” for the tribute album, I’m Your Fan. The two also released a single, “I Don’t Need You.”
McComb next formed an all-Australian backing band, the Red Ponies, which was comprised of Graham Lee, Warren Ellis, Peter Luscombe (of the Black Sorrows and the Revelators), Bruce Haymes (from Russell Morris And The Rubes, Bachelors from Prague, and the Feeling Groovies), and Michael Vidale (from Jimmy and the Boys). McComb and the Red Ponies toured Europe. One single, “The Message” was released on Stephen Street’s Foundation label.
In 1992, McComb packed it in, returned to Australia, and enrolled at the University of Melbourne where he began studying art history. He occasionally re-joined Black-Eyed Susans and released the Setting You Free EP (featuring contributions from Warren Ellis) (1993-White Records), Clear Out My Mind EP (1994-White Records) and the full-length solo album, Love of Will (featuring contributions from Martyn Casey) (1994-Mushroom).
As the years passed, a couple of McComb’s former bandmates from the Triffids moved on and settled down. Alsy MacDonald became a lawyer. Jill Birt became an architect and continued to make music. They married one another and moved to East Fremantle in suburban Perth. Three children were born to the couple.
McComb continued to make music. His next act was called Costar. They recorded a three-track EP that remains unreleased officially. The songs recorded for the project were “I Kept My Eye On You,” “Murder In The Dark,” “Lucky For Some,” “The Goodlife Never Ends,” and “Devil Please.”
A planned Triffids reunion in 1994 was put on hold when McComb’s health worsened. McComb developed cardiomyopathy, a heart condition most likely caused by his alcoholism. He undertook a successful heart transplant in 1996 but continued abusing alcohol, heroine, and speed. In 1999 he was involved in a car crash and released after being hospitalized for a night. A few days later, on 2 February, he died – just before his 37th birthday. The State Coroner stated his death was due to “heroin toxicity and mild acute rejection of his 1996 heart transplant.” His ashes were spread under the pines at Woodstock, the family farm in Jerdacuttup, Western Australia.
Since McComb’s death, the Triffids stature has predictably grown. In 2001, the Australasian Performing Right Association named “Wide Open Road” as one of the thirty greatest Australian songs of all time. In 2006, McComb was posthumously inducted into the West Australian Music Industry Association Hall Of Fame. That same year, Domino began re-issuing remastered editions of the Triffids’ albums, beginning with Born Sandy Devotional. Members of the band reunited for three live performances in Hasselt, Belgium and Amsterdam with Mark Snarski and Harald Vanherf filling in for McComb.
In 2007, SBS aired a documentary about Born Sandy Devotional and Bleddyn Butcher has written a biography, Save What You Can – the Day of the Triffids and the Long Night of David McComb. A McComb documentary titled Love in Bright Landscapes followed. At the of the 2008 Sydney Festival, the reunited members played yet again, joined by Rob Snarski, Youth Group’s Toby Martin, Mick Harvey, The Church’s Steve Kilbey, The Necks’ Chris Abrahams and Melanie Oxley. The performances were filmed and released on DVD as The Triffids and Guests: It’s Raining Pleasure. Surviving members reconvened in 2010 to play a tribute at the Barbican with a host guests. In 2013, Jill Birt released Render & Prosper, which included contributions from Triffids Alsy MacDonald, Martyn P. Casey, Graham Lee, Robert McComb as well as guitarist and keyboardist Adrian Hoffman.
Although the Triffids arguably remain a cult band, they’ve been covered or name-checked in more recent years by young up-and-coming artists including Ben Salter, Courtney Barnett, Dardanelles, Jack Ladder, Lightspeed Champion, Oh Mercy, Okkervil River, the Panics as well as established legends like Paul Kelly and Tindersticks.