Simon Kerr, Brunswick

“There are a lot of things I really like about the social progressiveness of New Zealand. It can do things a lot more rapidly than Australia. Australia’s a markedly conservative country in its own way…”

An audio snippet from this interview with Simon: 

So perhaps you could give us a sense of what a typical day is like for you?

Well, during the week in recent years there’s been less opportunity for a typical day because it’s quite varied, but these days my week is bounded by work. At the moment, I’m working Monday to Thursday in paid work. They’re quite long days, really. I leave by about quarter to eight and usually get home by between 06:30 and 07:30 pm depending whether I ride by bike partway and tram the rest or just drive. Normally I much prefer to take the tram and cycle, and that’s a good chunk of my day.

And then I go to a lot of seminars after work, concerts sometimes and other engagements or there are colleagues of Christine’s to meet up with for dinner, that sort of thing. It’s quite varied. There’s no ‘Tuesdays we always go here and Wednesdays we always have this for dinner’. I don’t have that privilege.

What would you like to tell the readers about your work?

My paid work … well, I suppose there’s lots I could tell you about the job itself, but that’s probably less interesting, really. What I do is manage a team within Research Services at the University and my group is responsible for the major research grants. You’ll be familiar with the Australian Research Council and the National Health Medical Research Council. We also deal with lots of other funding bodies. We take carriage of that portfolio, both from the early stage in research development with researchers, and then once applications are successful we manage the process once they are awarded, managing the contracts and agreements. There’s always a legal and financial structure around these things and various obligations we have as an institution. We’ve got to manage all those and work with the researchers to ensure any problems are solved. We have quite close relationships with researchers. I don’t very often deal with students. And I do a lot of strategic work in the faculties or the colleges here, trying to broadly create support for the development of research culture: good habits, that sort of thing, a collective state of mind about why we do what we do, why support it.

I used to see it just as an administrative role – although these days it’s much more an advisory role in problem solving, which is quite enjoyable – but I used to see it as separate from the research stars and the research super heroes who have all the science breakthroughs, who write all the books and get all the glory, as they should. I’ve reconceptualised our role as part of a system that produces new understanding and new knowledge. And most of this new knowledge – not all – is to help create a better future and therefore I see myself as part of a collective activity to make a safer, better, more prosperous, more equal future for all of us. That’s what drives me. It matters. And although we’re not on the sexy end of things, I know that without the financial infrastructure, without the university equipment, without the buildings, without the legal structure around it, without the negotiation, without the mentoring and education, all the other stuff, the great research wouldn’t get done.

So, have you always lived in Australia?

No. Only recently. I came over from New Zealand just prior to Christmas, 2007.

So perhaps you could fill us in a little bit. What was life like in New Zealand?

It’s the greatest country in the world! Life in New Zealand was great; it was enjoyable. The reason I came here is that New Zealand, if it lacks for anything, lacks for scale. I was working at the University of Otago and my job – my contract – finished there and there’s only one university. Unless I could find another position there, it meant that I had to leave the city.  I applied for a position at the University of Melbourne and was successful. I had never intended to leave New Zealand; it’d never been a life ambition. But it was such a good opportunity to come here that I grabbed it.

There are things I miss about New Zealand but if people ask me would I go back to live, I’m ambivalent. I don’t know whether I will. I probably could but at this stage Australia has a scale that means a set of opportunities that New Zealand can’t really offer. New Zealand has other opportunities that a relatively small country can bring.

You talked about scale. Can you say more about the differences that you’ve experienced living in New Zealand and living in Australia?

I grew up in the deep south of New Zealand. It’s a very rural area, very beautiful area in many ways, very agricultural. And that was the extent of our world. We had newspapers, we knew what was happening elsewhere, but the south was where the world was. But then when I travelled north to Dunedin or Christchurch it was like, well, this is the big city. Now when you travel from Dunedin to say Wellington or Auckland – particularly Auckland – you realise that the south is a long way away. In Auckland, nothing below what they call the Bombay Hills, a line of hills just to the south of Auckland, really seems to matter because there’s so much happening in Auckland. It’s such a big place as a metropolis that the rest of the country doesn’t really seem to matter. Of course, we get our food from the south and a lot of other resources, but it’s not that important. But when I came to Melbourne I realised that New Zealand’s a long way away from anywhere. Here is a city of 4.5 million people and growing rapidly, and will soon be seven to eight million according to projections for the next couple of decades. And there is Sydney and the big populations of the east coast; there are a lot of things happening; and a lot of universities, which is obviously the world I am in.  So from this perspective New Zealand seems somewhat isolated. But it’s still relative because it is the same when Australians go to Europe and you go, “Well, Australia’s a long way away isn’t it?”. And researchers go, “It’s a nice lifestyle in Aussie but you’re a long way from the action”.  And the same with the US, though one might prefer not to be associating much with the US just at the moment.

That’s probably my reflections on New Zealand but there is a lot of things I really like about the social progressiveness. It can do things a lot more rapidly than Australia.  Australia’s a markedly conservative country in its own way; its really, really slow adoption of same sex marriage, for example. Its formal response to climate change is a disgrace. In many ways it is virtually like any other modern society, including New Zealand, but there’s a culture in Australia that I find a bit anti-intellectual, and sort of riding on the good times that came from discovering a country that was (supposedly) empty (although it wasn’t of course). It was a country full of natural resources so that all you had to do was dig it up and sell it and the rest of the world would pay large amounts of money. We could have really great lifestyles and not really do much work: dig it up; sell it; everything’s cool. And, of course, we haven’t had to think about – now I am talking as someone living in Australia – planning for the future. So we spent the windfall from our resources. We didn’t do what Norway did, which is create an enormous sovereign wealth fund. A lot of their oil revenue went into creating the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, an enormous fund to support the Norwegian state. In Australia, we spent it on consumption, a bit like America does. And now we are at the end of the mining boom and trying to figure out what we supposed to do in the world, how we’re going to grow up, become a serious economy and we struggle with that because most of our citizens look back at the good old days and go, “Oh, that was good”. Life is getting more costly now, with a lot of international competition, and we’re not well prepared.

This is probably a little bit unfair to Australia but there’s a parallel I see in some senses with what happened in the US with the rise of populism represented by Donald Trump. He was responding to a group of disenfranchised workers who had the good life for a couple of decades, with high wages, low skilled work, and a great lifestyle.  Great stuff and now things have been a lot tougher for the last 20 years or 30 years. And a lot of places have really suffered and they haven’t really been supported for a lot of political reasons. And they’re pissed off, and they’ve jump on the coat tails of a strong leader. They don’t want democracy; they want a strong leader who’s going to say, “I’m for you guys, I’m going to support you.”

Are there parallels here?

With Abbott, definitely. Abbott was a populist, using simplistic slogans for complex issues.   I see it with Abbott and I see it a little bit with the current Prime Minister, who is being a lot more careful about those simplistic slogans. Abbott’s ‘great big fat tax’ that he used to undermine the carbon tax (which every economist still says is the best way forward on emission reduction). He used simplistic ways of treating complex issues such as, “We don’t want to have a deficit because it’s bad”. There’s a whole bunch of really simplistic, conservative things that he did that are not supporting us particularly well. And I’m not saying that Australians can’t be sophisticated. I mean, what is an Australian? We’re a disparate group of people, with diverse values and ways of looking at the world and so forth. So there is no such thing as “an ordinary Australian”. That is mostly myth. So Australia feels to me still more conservative than New Zealand. These are my own musings about this and why I think this is the case.

So, thinking a little bit more about you and your experience of coming here, if someone saw you in the street who didn’t know you, what are the some of the things that they might be surprised to know about you?

That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know. If the question is what would one normally assume about a 58-year-old white male that may not be true … I’m not sure how to answer that question. Though I know there are many common assumptions about someone like me that are not true.

May I ask you about your music?

Sure, yes.

Where did it start?

Well probably in spits and spurts.  I’ve played music for a long time, from youth group days.  I was a drummer when I was in my late teens, and I drummed for a few years in bands.  And then really didn’t really do a lot with it for a few years. I did a reasonable amount in church environments in my 20s but once I moved out of those circles I didn’t really do much until probably my late 30s, early 40s. And then I had a guitar and was always playing it but I remember thinking to myself: ‘I really like playing music, I don’t want to get to – well now what at that stage I thought was really old, like 70, doesn’t feel quite so old – that stage of my life and regret not having a crack at exploring music’. I took it up and started going to open-mic sessions at the local folk club and stuff like that. And started getting invitations to play. And I wasn’t very good at the start. It was early days but that was my self-assessment of my musical talent. I think there are a lot of us in that part of a bell curve who tend to denigrate things we do more easily than we inflate the things that we do. So my usual self-talk would be things like, “you’re not very good at this”, rather than have a deluded understanding of my own performance and ability. Things are a lot better now and I don’t listen to that self-talk, those internal stories, so much these days.  I understand it a lot more. So my music just evolved and I kept at it. I’ve put a lot of effort and time and work into it.  And it’s quite an important part of my life, but it’s only part of what I do really.

I want to come back and find out about those aspects of what you do but first could you tell us a little bit about your current album (Never Gonna Die, 2015).

We finished in late 2015, with crowd funding for it. I got probably, in the end, just under a third of the actual cost of the album. Albums are pretty expensive to do. But yes, funny, I don’t think about the album much even though it is a really quality album. I’ve actually got three studio albums (Voyager, 2007; Sweet Lover, 2012; Never Gonna Die, 2015). We had a gig last night where there was a great response, and a great audience but for some reason I always forget to promote my albums. Partly that is because it doesn’t really necessarily reflect the show that people saw, which was about other things. But there’s some great songs on the latest album that I really like and I’m really proud of it; it’s a really strong album in my view.  But at the same time, having done three of them now, it’s really difficult to get traction with an album, get reviews and that sort of thing. They are sort of sitting there. I’ve got them there and I take them with me to gigs (if I remember!) and I’ve got great reports from people about them but I don’t actually have huge sales. I’ve got quite a few of them I’ve yet to sell or give away. But I’ve moved on from that project. I’m not very good at marketing; I don’t even think about it. I’m not really into self-promotion even though I like being on stage and like having the spotlight on me.

You said music is only part of what you do.  Was there something else that you were thinking of there, that the reader might be interested to know about you?

Well, music is a visceral, very embodied experience. When you’re playing, there’s a lot of pleasure that comes from playing. I often hear people – particularly young people, but not just young people – say, “I can’t not play music; I’ve got to do it; it’s in my bones and it’s just part of me” and they want to have a musical career, thinking that’s what they have to do because they feel it so strongly. My view is that when they play, they’re experiencing pleasure, physical pleasure. It’s comforting; it’s like eating chocolate. It’s like a whole range of things people can do to give them a sense of wellbeing. And sometimes it’s an escape as well, because it releases our anger, it releases our emotions. But just the visceral embodied engagement with that instrument is a joy that I think is beyond the music itself. It’s actually embodiment of something. I’ve thought about this for some time and I’m no longer quite so mystical about music. I don’t think musicians, including me, are those chosen people who have this special, “I’ve just got to do this” impulse. I don’t really believe that. I think we can all find joy in different ways. And if I never played the guitar again, would I find it hard?  Absolutely, because it is something I can do and totally enjoy; but I recognise part of that is a pleasure impulse that I suspect I can probably find in other ways as well.  But then again, I can’t talk for anyone else; I’m talking about myself.

I don’t know if that’s answered the question. But I think recently I’ve come to realise, well, let me explain it like this. We do quite a lot of these shows, Music For A Warming World. And I love playing the music but most of all I realise it’s the message, the communication that I like. The communication is critical.  Why I like being on stage is that I like to communicate and I’ve discovered a way of using music as part of a tool bag of communicating in a way that captures the emotions of that idea, concept or situation or reality. I’m trying to embody in an emotional sense the things that are important. It’s the seriousness and the emergency of our warming climate and trying to communicate just how serious and how critical things are.  And that it’s not a joke and that it will deeply affect our futures.

I do acknowledge that I’m old enough to probably escape the worst of it, but I’m leaving a legacy, a physical earth system that is accelerating towards a direction that makes the life that we have much more difficult to sustain.

But I’m trying to communicate that this is deadly serious, not to scare people, but rather to say if we all take action and we all push to change the politics, if we stop the money flowing to destructive activities like fossil fuel and other things, then we’ve got a fighting chance of creating at least a future that is more viable than we would have if we continue on our crazy path of ignorance.

So, the music gives me a chance to express that in a way that’s not just a set of words. I came to this because I got frustrated going to climate change seminars and hearing us all talk about it and I think while that’s really important and I’m really in to the science, unless we  – as Bill McKibben says – get it in our gut, we really won’t have the energy both to drive us to take the action we need to or be involved in the community of concerned citizens, nor will we have the energy to feel hopeful in the face of an otherwise deeply depressing future. Trying to connect with that energy is what we’re trying to do.  And that’s where the music is a bridge or a tool or a way of sneaking underneath peoples’ normal protective mechanisms.

We did a show last night at Prahran. It was in a private art gallery and it was fabulous show with great energy from the audience. They were all pretty aware of this stuff. But, we had one person, an academic, who said to me at the end that she knows all the stuff but she came away thinking, “I should be doing more; I really actually can’t just intellectually give assent to this and go yes I’m in the know. Part of my life energy has to go into this most critical thing.” That was really encouraging. She’s got to find her way of doing that. I think fossil fuel divestment may have been one of the things. It was quite exciting … very fulfilling. So that communication thing is really important for me; it’s really where the music comes from. But I also like playing fun stuff, though I don’t get a chance to do that often.

What else might you like the reader to know about you, before we finish?

Well, I like living in Australia for lots of reasons. I love its cities; I love the energy of the big city; I love the creativity we find there; I love the intensity of human action and human contact and connection that it brings. But I also love the open spaces; I love the emptiness, when you can find it. There’s plenty of emptiness in Australia and I like that. Because ultimately one day all of us will be in that big empty space somewhere. And no matter how many people around us love us, we will have to be alone in that big empty space. I like meditating on that side of things, and thinking about – not life after death – my mortality and being okay with that, with what is, those sorts of things. But part of the thing I like about the big open spaces or the rainforest is an organic, bodily connection with the land, its energy.  Even though I’m very rational, I still experience a deeply evolved connection we have with the land. Living in the land we have to figure out what we can eat and what we can’t eat and we have to learn to listen to the sounds of the landscape. When I was in South Africa a few years ago for a conference I went on a tour in Kruger National Forest with an organisation called Africa on Foot. We went on walking tours each morning to look for wildlife.  But we only went walking twice: I was there for a week and the rest of the time we had to drive into the bush. The reason we had to drive was that it was too windy. And when it’s windy all the animals are on edge because everything is rustling; with noise everywhere, the prey can’t hear predators, and predators can’t hear other predators. In that situation it’s too dangerous to go walking because it’s too easy to surprise an animal that hasn’t heard you.  So I was thinking about that deep connection – this awareness from our hearing and our sight and our sense of our environment. This is the way we evolved for hundreds of thousands of years; it’s part of our biology. But in our contemporary world we miss so much of that in daily life.  I know a lot of people still seek that connection. But probably why I like it, I think, is that I realise that connection is part of what it is to be a human being. I don’t want to escape this connection, either with our landscapes and ecology or with people. More than that, I relish it.  I like those moments. Moments like coming into the city and having a good coffee and going to a movie or a jazz concert, which we’re doing tonight. So, what does it mean to be a human being, Sharon? That’s one of those big questions.

To see a two-minute promo and for upcoming shows, visit Music-for-a-Warming-World, or follow Simon on Twitter or Facebook.

This interview is part of the This Is Us Australia project. If you are interested in taking part, please read our Project Description and use our Contact page or email us at thisisusaustralia at gmail.com.

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