Phil Rudd: "I’ll accept my mistakes”

Back in early August I was tasked with interviewing Phil Rudd twice – first on the phone and then, on the eve of the launch of his solo album, Head Job, in person in Sydney. Naturally it was the face-to-face contact that left the biggest impression, for several reasons.

Despite his youthful demeanour (and that of the young lady accompanying him) his face was weathered by time and excess. He also spoke in a barely audible mumble that concealed much of what he was saying.

He was, however, clearly a man living a privileged life, even if he didn’t come from a privileged upbringing. His hotel was a five-star affair on Sydney Harbour; his sunglasses were Prada; his tales of flying helicopters, fishing on his boat or driving his sports cars were the stuff of Hollywood Playboy. Yet as he smoked one Rothman’s cigarette after another and mumbled in his couldn’t-give-a-shit broad Aussie accent, it was obvious his heart still beated to the drum of the working class. Once a scrapper, always a scrapper.

Later that night, at the launch party for Head Job, he walked around the room with the air of a man who’s spent much of his life playing in one of the world’s biggest rock bands. It was nothing overt, but it was more in the way he held himself. Wearing sunglasses in the darkened room, playing air guitar on his pool cue, speaking only when spoken to, this was obviously his party, and this was his turf. There was no bullshit, no airs or pretentions, just the understanding that this was a man who wouldn’t be trifled with. /o:p

It’s easy to look back on events and reassess them with the benefit of hindsight or new information. But as memorable as my recent encounters with Rudd were, it would be a lie to suggest I walked away thinking he was a man who would procure a murder – which, it turns out, he’s not, as those charges were less than 24 hours after being levelled against him (though he still faces charges of drug possession and making threats to kill)./o:p

It’s up to the New Zealand court system to decide whether he is a guilty man. But this is what happened when I met Phil Rudd./o:p

Eight pm on a wet Wednesday evening in Sydney, and a man in the bar is wearing sunglasses indoors, even though the lights are turned down low. He looks old, there’s no denying it, but there’s something eternally youthful in his step. He’s circling the lone pool table in this inner-city pub, weighing up his next shot, breaking his concentration only when the music booming through the speakers compels him to use his cue as a makeshift guitar. No one beyond the small group around the pool table pays attention to him. At one point he swings his ‘axe’ a little too enthusiastically, knocking an empty glass off a table, which hits the hard concrete floor with a shrill bang but, somehow, doesn’t break. Then he heads off to the bar, pointing at the woman standing behind it, urging her to turn the music up.

If you didn’t know who he was you’d think he was a drunken regular at best. But the man in the expensive leather jacket, playing a mean pool cue guitar, is Phil Rudd, the drummer in AC/DC, one of the world’s biggest bands. The music he is so clearly enjoying? His own. But it’s not AC/DC.

Instead the dirty rock’n’roll spewing out of the speakers at this listening session is his debut solo album, Head Job, title that makes AC/DC’s single entendres look like the work of PG Wodehouse. A solid slab of no-frills pub rock, it sounds like a less ferocious Motörhead jamming with a biker gang’s house band. If it sounds unashamedly like rock’n’roll’s past, that’s probably because he started working on it 25 years ago.

Of all the members of AC/DC that people might expect to release a solo album, Rudd is perhaps the least likely. A command of a solid beat he may have, but he doesn’t have the pipes of Bon Scott or Brian Johnson, or the musical prowess of Angus or Malcolm Young. And while he has many interests – away from music, you might find him flying a helicopter, fishing on his boat in the Bay Of Plenty or tucking into a plate of ribs at his restaurant, Phil’s Place, in his current home town of Tauranga, New Zealand – none of them suggest a solo career.

Even more surprising is that for a man who has spent 40 years, on and off, providing the back beat for one of the loudest bands in the world, his speaking voice is barely louder than a whisper. A monotone, mumbled one at that. The fact that he speaks in short, sharp sentences rather than at any length only complicates the interview process.

The first time he and I speak, he’s calling from his boat in the Bay Of Plenty. Over 15 minutes, he reveals what you assume are bits and pieces about his solo material, his work on AC/DC’s just completed album and life in general. Except it’s impossible make out the words well enough to be sure. So you’re left with grabs of quotes rather than fully formed answers. Of how he feels about releasing his first solo album, he’s “pretty chuffed” because “it’s the first album I’ve ever done by myself”. Of being the mouthpiece for this project, when he’s spent his career in AC/DC in the background: “I was,” he says with no apparent irony, “a born mouthpiece.” Ask him if he had to seek permission from AC/DC to do a solo project, and he answers: “When you’re home by yourself you can do whatever you like. There are no rules when we’re not working. When we are working, you show up on time, no problem. But when you aren’t you don’t have to read a certain book, or go to a certain church, you just do what you like.”

Rudd joined AC/DC in 1975. Eight years later he was sacked for an over-excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs. He moved from Australia to New Zealand, where he sought solace from the excesses of rock’n’roll, while figuring out what he’d do with his future. Then he met bassist/vocalist Allan ‘Badge’ Badger and guitarist Geoffrey Martin, two musicians for whom fame and fortune had decided they had no use, but who met up every Sunday for a jam just for the sheer joy of it.

Rudd suggested the trio get together and play a few songs. So one day they set up in his lounge and turned up the amps. It sounded so good that the drummer decided to build his own studio. By the early 90s they’d recorded eight songs they liked enough to send to EMI in America. The label asked for his permission to play them to Malcolm and Angus Young. Soon after, he received a call asking him to fly to London for a jam with his old bandmates.

“I don’t know if it was the songs, or the fact they heard their old mate’s drumming and went: ‘Oh fuck, we like that!’” Allan Badger says at the listening session for Rudd’s debut album. “They offered him his job back. The rest is history.”

Not quite. After finishing AC/DC’s Black Ice tour, Rudd ran into Badge and suggested they dig out those old songs they recorded. Pleased with what they heard, they shopped them around, and Universal Music in Australia and New Zealand decided to put them out. Which is why, 25 years after he first met his bandmates, Phil Rudd’s album is finally seeing the light of day.

Badge reveals more of what makes Rudd tick than Rudd himself. Rehearsing and recording was “no day at the beach”. When Rudd steps behind the kit, “it’s to the death. A lot of people play music while thinking about something else. In this case, that was never the situation.”

The drummer is an early riser. Ridiculously so. Tomorrow morning, Badge will be woken at 3am when Rudd plays Head Job at full bore in his hotel room. “Phil lives his life from three in the morning to nine in the morning,” Badge shrugs. “If you can get him for the rest of the day you’re lucky.”

A few hours prior to the listening session, Phil Rudd shuffles onto the balcony of his five-star Sydney hotel and sparks up a Rothman’s. For the next 20 minutes his feet are rarely still, tapping out a beat to a song only he can hear. On three occasions he leans back mid-answer and pokes his head inside his hotel room to enquire about the room’s stereo, because he wants to put Head Job on. (“I’ve got it on my computer. Can you rearrange iTunes? I fucking can’t.”)

Even in person he speaks in a barely audible mumble; a digital recorder centimetres away from his mouth picks up only fragments of what he’s saying. With advance warning from his publicist that this is not the occasion to quiz Rudd about Malcolm Young’s health, what can be deciphered of the conversation is as follows.

Do you like being the boss?

I love being the boss. When I’m allowed to be, I am the boss. I’ll accept my mistakes. I like it my way.

You wrote most of the songs on Head Job. Did you ask Malcolm or Angus for any guitar tips?

Not really. They didn’t know anything about it.

When you re-joined AC/DC you’d written only eight songs for Head Job, yet there are 11 on the record. When did you write the others?

Universal said: “It’s got eight songs. Can you go to eleven?” Have you seen Spinal Tap? I was fucking born on thirteen. So we knocked out the others.

Was any of it written on the road with AC/DC?

No. When I’m out with AC/DC that’s it. There’s no energy to do anything else. Travel and working, you just get through that and survive.

Are you more excited about releasing this than an AC/DC album?

I don’t know. This is different. AC/DC’s stellar, taken over the world. We’re just three guys down at the pub.

Have you ever gone to AC/DC with any ideas?

No. Angus, Malcolm and Bon wrote stuff. Then Brian [Johnson] came along. They have their own style. I wouldn’t offer them any of my songs. My stuff’s more relaxed. But it’s still got some toe.

Do you remember your first AC/DC show?

Yeah, it was at the Hard Rock Café in Melbourne. We played Sunbury [Festival] three weeks after I joined the band. There was a punch-up with Deep Purple. We never took shit from anyone.

What was it like being on stage back then?

Something else. I still remember being right behind Bon. He was a great singer, he had a beautiful voice. When they remastered some of that old AC/DC stuff you could really hear it.

Have you played any of Head Job to your bandmates in AC/DC?

A couple of times in a hotel room I played the old cassettes. We’d have a few beers and put it on. They’d say: “Who’s this?” “Me and a couple of hairy Kiwis.”

How hard was that period when you were kicked out of AC/DC in 1983?

I was quite glad to be away from it. I’d been going since 1975. Eight or nine years, it’s pretty intense.

You’ve just returned from Vancouver, recording the new AC/DC album. What can you tell me about it?

I haven’t heard it finished, but what I heard was stunning. I’m playing better than I ever have. I don’t know how.

There have been a lot of rumours about AC/DC and Malcolm Young. Did whatever’s happening bring you closer while recording?

AC/DC, you fight for it or you’re out. You’ve gotta give everything up for it. It’s a juggernaut you can’t stop.

And with that Rudd tilts his head to sneak a look at the time. He’s due at the listening session in an hour, and he’s keen to freshen up. There will, he says, most likely be another AC/DC tour, quite possibly before the year’s end, but that’s where the details end. Phil Rudd walks back into his room, focused solely on finding a device that will allow him to blast his solo album at real volume. The message is loud and clear: as much as he loves his day job in AC/DC, nothing beats a good Head Job.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 202, which is available to purchase online.

Rod Yates

Rod Yates is Head of Original Content at Jaxsta and Host and Producer of 'Jaxsta's Humans Of Music' on SiriusXM's Volume Channel. A journalist with more than 20 years’ experience, he began his writing career in Canberra in the mid-Nineties when he founded his own fanzine, and from there has gone on to launch the Australian arm of British rock bible Kerrang!, edit the Australian versions of Rolling Stone and film magazine Empire, and freelance for publications such as Mojo, Classic Rock, Kerrang! UK, Men’s Style, Australian Guitar and Blunt, to name a few. More recently, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich sent him a toaster.