Graham Lee has devoted much of the last 12 years to acting as custodian of his former band's legacy. After the shock of David McComb's untimely death in 1999, just two weeks shy of his 37 thbirthday, Lee juggled his commitments with W.Minc. Records and various sessional gigs to oversee a painstaking effort in remastering The Triffids' classic albums.
"I kind of regard them, in hindsight, as very important contributions to the world music scene," says Lee. "And also, they're what Dave left behind, you know. The songs are what Dave left behind, the albums are what Dave left behind, and we all want them to receive the respect that we believe they deserve."
Look no further for the crux of Lee's dedication. If there's one reason he believes in his work in keeping The Triffids' music alive, more than 20 years after the band's end, it's the sense of duty he feels at having worked alongside one of the most prodigious musicians ever reared in this country.
On the eve of the group's first Australian shows since 1989, Lee still glows over his tentative introduction to Dave McComb's world. One day, idly kicking about in the Sydney music scene, he was asked on short notice to play on the infuriatingly rare Lawson Square Infirmary EP, a homage to the derelict building the band inhabited in Redfern soon after they relocated from Perth.
"We recorded at the Sydney Opera House. We couldn't tell anyone at the time, because the person who allowed us to go in there, who was one of the building's engineers, would have got the sack!" says Lee. "We went into the recording room, the big room where they record the symphony orchestras, at about 3am one morning and recorded that Lawson Square thing in one go. That was my introduction to Dave's music really."
A year went past before Lee heard from McComb again. "I hadn't thought that much more about it. I knew Lawson Square was coming out. Shortly after that, the band actually left to go to the UK for the first time, and they had experienced quite a bit of success over there. They came back and one day I got the call from Dave saying, 'Would you like to play with us up the East Coast? And I wasn't doing anything else so I thought, 'Sure'. I was hanging round on the dole in Sydney. I certainly didn't have anything going on that was as exciting as playing on some really great songs with a really great songwriter, so I went along with it."
Lee's arrival arguably heralded the band's golden age, beginning with his steel guitar work on 1986's mournful tribute to love and isolation in the backblocks of Western Australia, Born Sandy Devotional.
"In hindsight, I still think that Born Sandy is the best thing we did," Lee says, "but I really liked recording Calenture. There were problems, and it's sometimes written off by people as an overblown monstrosity, but we wanted it to be a big production. We thought the songs deserved that kind of big, lush treatment. It was a record for a major label, so we went all out."
Lee disputes the oft-repeated claim that McComb was disappointed with the end product. "We were in a particular stage of our careers, Dave was at a particular point in his career as a writer and it seemed to be the right thing at the time. He didn't ever take a dim view of the songs. It was a time when we had, for the very first time, pressures from a record company. In some ways we buckled down, in some ways we just buckled."
The album was a stark contrast to the stripped-back sound of In The Pines, recorded a year earlier in a shed on the property owned by McComb's family for just over $1000. "I think at the time, we delighted in surprising people and dashing people's expectations of us. When we did In The Pines, it was totally the wrong thing to do. No matter how you looked at it, it was wrong. From a commercial point of view, at the time we were courting various major labels. They were expecting some kind of indication of what kind of band this was, what sort of career we were going to have.
"We knew what we were doing. We knew that if we were to play the game, we wouldn't have gone to a shearing shed in rural WA and recorded a kind of a ramshackle collection of songs. We would've waited and gone into the mix studio and done Calenture instead, right then and there. But it seemed like a good thing to do from our point of view, and in lots of ways we were selfish like that and I think it's a good thing that we were."
Though The Triffids have played reunion shows in Europe since David's passing, their four-date tour around the country marks the first time they've played together on home soil in more than two decades. Lee and his bandmates have spared no effort in recruiting old friends to fill McComb's shoes for the occasion.
"Some of them are people we've played with before. Rob Snarski of The Blackeyed Susans [whom McComb and Lee played with at their inception], who put out a lot of seriously great music after Dave. Mick Harvey [The Birthday Party alumnus] will be joining us as a musician and as a singer. Bruce Haymes, who was on Dave's solo album, will be on keyboards. And we will also have Alexander Gow from the band Oh Mercy, and his band will also be playing Dave's songs for part of the set.
"We've even got our old lighting guy from the '80s, Peter Mackay, doing his magic, and Steve Miller, who was the band's tour manager at the time, will be MC for the evening.
"You know, it's not The Triffids," Lee hastens to add. "But it's a very, very fine evening of songs that are very much like The Triffids." Disclaimer aside, with a lineup like that, Lee has good cause to think that Dave would be proud.
The Triffids and Friends will play at the Queenscliff Music Festival alongside Eskimo Joe, Oh Mercy, Lanie Lane, Blackeyed Susans, The Cruel Sea and more from Friday November 25 to Sunday November 27.