They are not, however, a men’s group, as a song on their fourth and latest album definitively assures us.
We Are Not a Men’s Group (the kind of title that evokes fond if distant memories of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band) makes the point, while having a sly jibe at men’s guru Robert (Iron John) Bly: “Sometimes we hold drum circles … In a tepee in the middle of the forest at midnight … But we are not a men’s group.”
Yet a melodious if tongue-in-cheek preoccupation with masculinity has been a feature of this extraordinary Australian choir since it was formed by its director, “Spookmeister” Stephen Taberner, in 2001. Just listen to songs such as Don’t Come Between and Man and His Tool (featuring an on-stage giant spanner), which will doubtless enjoy an airing when the Spooky Men’s Chorale returns to Scotland as part of a seven-week UK tour, kicking off with a one-nighter at the Fringe. It’s not all masculine introspection, however. There’s a sly political edge to songs such as the Iraq protest of Stop Scratching It (You’ll Only Make It Worse) or the refreshingly uncomplicated chant of Vote the Bastards Out.
These burly men in black have been switching bewilderingly between sheer cappella loopiness and gloriously full-voiced lyricism since they first emerged out of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. It was listening to the traditional polyphonic singing of Georgian choirs that first inspired Taberner, whose musical background had been in jazz and church music, to form the Spooky Men. “I found it very moving,” he recalls. “I was sitting there with a glass of wine and a small tear in my eye, dreaming about getting a bunch of men together and, basically, emotionally affecting women through the beauty of our sound.”
Taberner talks sagely in terms of “the absurdity of masculinity”, “the power of pointless grandeur” and the difference between that “and epic folly, where you invade Iraq or something like that.” Bear in mind, however, that this is a choir leader who wears a fur-lined hunting cap when conducting.
He may be speaking to me on the phone, but I can imagine him telling me this with the same straight face with which he directs such ploys as Ba’hari Ghibb (think about it), a supposedly Sufi devotional song which turns out to bear an uncanny resemblance to Stayin’ Alive, or the daftest ever cover of Abba’s Dancing Queen (although he tells me they’re giving the latter a rest, after years of performing it to ecstatic audiences).
Taberner writes most of their songs, although he says the ideas for many of them emerge from the body of the choir, as did Surfin’, replete with Beach Boys harmonies circa 1964. The Sweetest Kick, in contrast, is a simple and limpid love song.
Can a choir that switches so rapidly between the sublime and the ludicrous risk leaving their audience behind? “Good question,” responds Taberner. “Essentially, they just have to be set up in the correct way. Audiences really don’t want to have to make too many decisions, they don’t want to be confused, so we’re really in trouble if they don’t know if a song is funny or not. We like to do Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love as an encore, and we just come out and start dancing with the audience. Audiences just want to be taken on a journey.”
When it comes to journeys, the logistics of the Spooky Men’s UK tour is a major operation, with 15 performing members, as well as their support act, singer-songwriter Lucy Wise, a “merchandising person”, assorted spouses and usually a few offspring. “It’s quite an invasion,” Taberner agrees, adding that foraging for food is a major preoccupation.
Most of the choir are part-timers, with sensible professions as diverse as graphic design or social work, plus a few musicians. Their oldest member is in his 60s, many are in their 40s and 50s, although, says Taberner, they are picking up some younger members – “So it’s nice to be offering a new version of Spookiness, not quite so geriatric.”
• The Spooky Men’s Chorale performs at the Acoustic Music Centre @ St Bride’s in Edinburgh on 20 August, before appearing at Castle Douglas, Findhorn, Buckie and Aberdeen. See www.spookymen.com