March 15, 2017 Interview – David Sterry of Real Life
The hub of all things musical coming out of Australia, the city of Melbourne produced some of the ’80s best bands. From acts like Crowded House to Dead Can Dance, these are just a few of the many names from or passing through Melbourne on their way to stardom.
Amidst them all was an aspiring three-piece band by the name of Real Life, who quickly rose to international stardom at the hands of the 1983 single “Send Me an Angel.” Considered one of the New Wave era’s most memorable dance hits, Real Life would continue to create some of the best Synth-pop around. Kept alive and kicking thanks to lead Songwriter/Vocalist David Sterry, Real Life are actively touring, with plans of new music in the near future. Recently we spoke with the upbeat and humble Sterry to talk the beginnings of Real Life, the whirlwind the band experienced at the hands of “Send Me an Angel,” future plans, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – Real Life came together over 35 years ago. In 1983, the band attained massive international success with the single “Send Me An Angel,” going on to a successful career of chart-topping singles in your homeland of Australia and abroad. First, tell me, what were those early years like for Real Life?
David Sterry – Wow! Has it been that long! One brisk morning in 1980, a friend woke me early. He found an ad in the paper from a keyboard player looking for a guitarist to write songs with. I reluctantly made the call. It turned out to be Richard Zatorski. We just had a brief conversation, but he left a note for his flatmate, that I still have, announcing he’d found the right guy.
Melbourne is a fantastic creative city and the late ’70s early ’80s was a very exciting time for new bands. Punk was fading out and the New Wave was washing in. We had a great pub scene where you would see Midnight Oil or INXS in the bigger venues and literally hundreds of young upstarts like us in smaller venues, all dedicated to alternative new music. We had very cool radio stations and it was easy to get your demo cassette tapes played by them. There was also street word of mouth about who’s a hot band to catch before a record company found them. Small gigs were packed out seven nights a week. Thinking about it makes me feel warm with romantic nostalgia. For anyone who wants to see what it was like in Melbourne in those halcyon days, look for a fabulous movie called Dogs in Space (1986), it stars Michael Hutchence as a singer in a New Wave band.
We started doing gigs as a 3-piece with a primitive drum machine that we named Gloria. We played everything at a hundred miles an hour. More Punk than New Wave Punk at the time. We had tons of energy and began building a following. We started getting supports to big bands, and even though all the angry guys at the barricade in front of a Midnight Oils gig were screaming at us to fuck off (pardon my french), we would see them at one of our smaller gigs the next week. We picked up loads of fans that way, and about a year into our career, we were pulling around a thousand punters to our gigs on a rainy winter Tuesday night, which was a big deal for a little band with no management or record contract. The year before we made our first record was probably my favorite time in the evolution of the band.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly sounds like a wonderful time, and the Melbourne scene seemed extremely rich with talented bands. Real Life arrived on the scene at the time where New Wave was in full swing with some really talented and wonderfully unique bands popping up all around the world. Was it a challenge to stand out amongst the crowd, and what do you think made that era of music so magical?
David Sterry – There was a lot of competition and camaraderie among the bands. We stood out with our combination of synths, guitars, and a hell of a lot of energy. For me, it was about the new sound canvas technology gave us. I loved the sound of analogue synths. I still do. There was, however, an attitude about the new music. People thought the musicians couldn’t play, but in hindsight, the players were great and the songwriting still stands up today. Also Samplers, Drum Machines, and new production styles made everything sound loud and fantastic. For a skinny dorky guy wearing makeup with orange hair and wearing silly clothes, it was the most fun I ever had.
CrypticRock.com – (laughs) Well, it all came together wonderfully, and Real Life certainly were unique. Your debut, full-length album, 1983’s Heartland, was not released worldwide until a year later. The album contained the strong follow-up single “Catch Me I’m Falling,” as well as a plethora of other wonderful tracks. All these years later, what was the making of Heartland like?
David Sterry – Terrifying! Although we were a very confident live band by then, we still had very limited studio experience. Thankfully we had the amazingly wonderful Steve Hillage on hand to guide us. Steve was a legendary Seventies British Prog Rock guitarist, but he came to our attention as the fabulous producer of two early Simple Minds albums. We were big fans of both Steve and the Minds. We recorded at a studio in Sydney called Rhinoceros. We wanted to use a Fairlight sampler keyboard on our album, but Duran Duran, who were working in another Sydney studio, had hired them all. We used to sneak into 301 studios around 2 AM to borrow one of theirs, then sneak it back before they woke up. The Fairlight cost around $30,000.00. We could never afford one, but now I have it as an App on my iPad! There was an aerobics class upstairs that would play “Send Me an Angel” so loud we could hear it in the studio. They were most amused at having us thank them for playing it, but could they please turn it down!
CrypticRock.com – That is a quite a fun story in hindsight. As for the album, the end result was a fantastic debut. The band did sustain success for years to follow with 1985’s Flame album, followed by two more albums through the end of the ’80s. At the dawn of the ’90s, the music landscape began to change quite a bit. As a result, many bands of the New Wave era began to pack it up as the new decade came, but Real Life charged through. What was it like facing the shifts the ’90s brought?
David Sterry – Ah the ’90s, whew.. We were pretty much unemployed and all of my fellow ’80s musicians were in the same boat. Part of marketing by radio and record companies for ’90s bands was to distance themselves from the styles and fun of the ’80s. It worked, we thought everyone hated us. We felt bad and though we’d never work again. But, silly me wanted to go on, so we became an independent band and financed recordings ourselves.
The internet was a new and exciting way of bypassing record companies and going directly to the fans. I don’t think we tried hard enough though because we didn’t sell too many records, but we got great reviews.
We were also up to our necks in a lot of legal crap as our original Australian record company was liquidated. Our master tapes were now in the hands of bastards. It took me 20 years to sort the mess.
CrypticRock.com – That sounds crazy, but sadly, many artists go through similar struggles. Thankfully, Real Life survived it all. That said, Real Life had been inactive for a bit in the 2000s, but there now appears to be activity once again with many shows over the past year flowing into this year. Can we expect some new original Real Life material in the future?
David Sterry – Yes, there is some new music on the way. These days, Real Life is just me. People always know the band/brand name, but not me, I was never a dashing household name type Rock star like my fellow singers. In fact, I’m only the singer by accident because I wrote the lyrics and sang at rehearsals. I do like that I get to work with various backing musicians. Some of them are fabulous players.
CrypticRock.com – It is very exciting to hear there will in fact be new Real Life music. What direction do you see the new music going?
David Sterry – I always think new stuff takes off from where my last writing left off. I’m no good at copying a style. Also life’s lessons and old age kick in. I’m not the same nerdy, young man I was back in the day. The new stuff will be with lot’s of synths as I’m getting quite a collection here in my studio. I hope it will be danceable, I love watching people dance to one of my songs. I think I’m going to try something cheesy and ’80s, because the world could do with a laugh right now.
CrypticRock.com – Fantastic! Now seems like a prime time for Synthpop/New Wave related music. That being said, a lot of new Pop and Rock acts are heavily incorporating synthesizers in their music once again. What are your thoughts on this influence younger bands are interjecting into their music?
David Sterry – I think it’s great, as I mentioned, I love synths. Back in the day, they were heavy, expensive, and unreliable. We used the Roland JP8, which sounded beautiful (it’s the opening line on Send Me an Angel), but it kept breaking down, wouldn’t stay in tune, and cost a fortune in freight on tour. Now I have the new baby version that sounds just the same but it’s the size of a book, costs a fraction of the original’s price and fits in a backpack. There’s never been more affordable new synth toys for boys and girls to have fun with as there is now. Also, anyone can make a record with Garageband and upload to any platform they want. It’s all good, just bloody hard to earn money!
CrypticRock.com – It is amazing how technology has made it easier to compact such things. Also, you are very right, making a living as a recording artist is harder than ever. In your time away from writing, recording, and performing with Real Life, were there some other projects you have been working on over the years that others perhaps may not be aware of?
David Sterry – Not really, Real Life has always been my main thing, even when I don’t have the will or energy and seem to have disappeared. It’s my life work and who I am. I did however write a commercial for a not so good Aussie airline a couple of years ago. Not telling who though…
CrypticRock.com – (laughs) Fair enough. Well, Real Life is certainly something to be proud of. Out of curiousity, what are some of your personal influences as a musician?
David Sterry – When I was little kid, I heard The Beatles singing “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah,” and even though I was only eight, I understood what a hit song was. So then I grew up on Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Cream, and then into The Clash, XTC, Kraftwerk, New Order, The Cure etc. etc. I love music. Nino Rota is my favorite film composer (Fellini Films) and Real Life’s opening song tape is the theme to Lawrence of Arabia that I would have first heard around the age of ten but could never forget the beautiful melody.
CrypticRock.com – Those are some really great artists you mentioned, and quite diverse too. Speaking of films, CrypticRock.com covers a broad range of music as well as films. If you are a fan of Horror or Sci-Fi films, what are some of your favorites.
David Sterry – A fun question….. Well this relates to music influence as well. Oh dear, I have to reveal how terribly old I am, so in November 1963, I was nine years old and remember when President Kennedy was assassinated. Even for a little kid in far off Australia, I was horrified. But, that same week on television, there was the premiere of a new TV show called Doctor Who. I was hooked on it straight away, and I still am. It was the music that did it. It’s still the same, they just use new versions every season and I still love it.
There weren’t a lot of Sci-Fi movies around then, and I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to see them, but there was My Favorite Martian, Lost In Space, and Star Trek on the telly and of course the brilliant Thunderbirds that I still watch if it’s on.
In my high school years, I started reading sword and sorcery books by Michael Moorcock etc., then graduated to stuff like I Robot by Isaac Asimov, which led to many other authors like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. All the books by these guys were fantastic. Then Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner came along and I loved them. I read all the Dune books, but was disappointed with the movie. As for Horror films, only the funny ones. These days, in my old age, I’m not such a big fan. I watch Miss Marple, Shaun The Sheep, and Agatha Christie’s Poirot on the telly.