Cash Savage: “It was just a privilege to be playing. I needed it for my mental health”

The leader of the The Last Drinks talks shaking off lockdown blues by playing fiery political songs to an empty room

“I saw this great cartoon at the start of the first lockdown,” Cash Savage proffers. The 39-year-old rock’n’roll bruiser is holding court at a Fitzroy café, dressed in black, taking NME back to when a global pandemic sent the good citizens of Victoria into forced home detention.

“It was in The New York Times. This guy is in a tiny little rowboat with this storm and massive waves, and it says, ‘Now’s the perfect time to finish my novel’.” Savage delivers the final line with the calm charm of a colourful raconteur.

She’s also a natural leader. Cash Savage And The Last Drinks has been her musical project since 2008. In 12 years, she’s led the seven-piece gospel-punk, country-rock skirmishers across four albums, nine countries and two continents. This year though? No frequent flyer points. She still managed to pull off something big, though, which we’ve met on Monday lunchtime to talk about.

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It is agreed this is the easiest time of the week to not succumb to libation. There will be no first drinks, no hair of the dog, no thank you.

Savage orders a fancy pressed juice. “I feel like being healthy,” she says. Early Kanye West plays in the background and golden sunlight finds its way across sensible brown wooden walls. “You don’t drink too much juice and end up in hospital.” This reminds me of the first time I interviewed Savage, who was sporting a smashed up face after trying to ride her push-bike from her spiritual home The Old Bar in Fitzroy, absolutely bladdered, and falling victim to the treacherous tram lines that just love trapping bike tyres.

Melbourne is emerging from lockdown and though it’s not a novel, Savage has something to show for her time: a ten-song album ‘Live At Hamer Hall’ recorded at The Arts Centre, to no audience.

“COVID was never not there during the performance. We were talking about the [new case] numbers getting up in the 700s and we didn’t know when we’d be playing again. They had all this lighting going over empty seats,” she says, dumbfounded, then straightens her back. “It was just a privilege to be playing. I needed it for my mental health, the whole band did.”

Cash Savage Last Drinks Live at Hamer Hall interview 2020
Cash Savage and the Last Drinks in February 2020. Credit: Naomi Lee Beveridge

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Before the pandemic, in March, everything had been going swimmingly for Savage.

“My partner and I had three massive weekends going into the first lockdown. We went to Mardi Gras in Sydney and partied like there was no tomorrow. And then we played The Torquay Hotel a couple of times and then the Poison City Records Country Daze thing in Castlemaine and we partied like there was no tomorrow. And then Golden Plains Festival and, yeah, we partied like there was no tomorrow,” Savage says. “Then our kid got gastro and it wasn’t going away so we got out of Melbourne.”

Savage and her partner Amy Middleton bought a small house in Port Albert last year, a tiny coastal town (pop. 253) in deep south Victoria. “It’s where I grew up and we thought we’d go there and ride out COVID [with stage 3 lockdown instead of stage 4] because everything was getting crazy and… we’re still there. Imagine moving back to your hometown but not meaning to move back to your hometown?” she says, knotting her forehead.

“I did enjoy the silver lining of not having the pressure to sell any tickets”

Savage comes from a big country family. “There’s a lot of us. You have lots of good times… and a fair share of shit times.” Her family lineage includes pianist Conway Savage, Cash’s uncle and one of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. Conway’s commanding presence and don’t-fuck-me-around attitude made him an intimidating dude. His demeanour has rubbed off on his niece. “I have a stern face,” she jokes.

“My uncle Conway was very good at backyard cricket. And he knew it,” she adds, smirking. “He was amazingly supportive of us. Someone would come up backstage: ‘Your uncle’s trying to get in!’ They’re the moments I miss him the most.” Conway passed away in 2018, aged 58, of a brain tumour.

Cash Savage has been through the wringer. Suicides of friends and relatives. A family farm run into the ground which she sang about on ‘Five Boys, One Farm’ in 2013. Now, a once-in-a-century global health crisis just as her band started filling 2,000 capacity rooms.

After studying economics at Victorian University, Savage formed The Last Drinks in 2008 and gigged around Melbourne with no fixed lineup, just whoever was available and semi-sober enough to play on the night. The Old Bar was her place to try new songs and new members until a seven-piece locked into place.

Cash Savage Last Drinks Live at Hamer Hall interview 2020
Cash Savage performing at Hamer Hall. Credit: Naomi Lee Beveridge

Cash Savage And The Last Drinks had enough buzz to release 2011’s ‘Wolf’, a ragtag bunch of songs in an era of blog-house and scuzzy punk. ‘The Hypnotiser’ followed in 2013, scoring five stars in ‘Herald Sun’ and the feature album slot on Melbourne’s influential community radio stations, Triple R and PBS FM.

In 2015, ‘One Of Us’ was recorded in tumultuous circumstances, the aforementioned deaths colouring the record a black dog hue. It resonated overseas through the help of Mistletone Records which led to a label deal with Beast Records and tours of Europe. In 2018 came ‘Good Citizens’, an upbeat, enjoyably snarky record that solidified a local fanbase and saw the group co-headline a show at Melbourne’s Forum Theatre with Camp Cope titled ‘This Is What Happens When You Have Beers At The Old Bar’. Every Last Drink pulls their weight, most noticeably violinist Kat Mear, whose strings give the outfit’s sound a beer-barns-and-biffo edge.

“Our fiddler, Kat, can be studying backstage on her computer then walk straight on, no warm-up and absolutely smash it. She’s a weapon,” says Savage who texts me later, “Make sure you include the weapon line.

With two lockdowns done and dusted, Cash has a fresh energy about her. Having a record to spruik has put her in a good headspace.

“The Arts Centre had funds and asked us to do the show,” she recalls. “At first I was bummed because I’ve always wanted to play Hamer Hall with people in it. Then I woke up the next day feeling lucky we had a show to do. I did enjoy the silver lining of not having the pressure to sell any tickets.”

On ‘Live At Hamer Hall’, Savage morphs from howling punk banshee (‘Rat-a-tat-tat’), to yearning lover (‘February’) to Cartman-voiced environmentalist (new song ‘Fun In The Sun’), all the while kicking against the pricks. “In ‘Good Citizens’ we repeated the line three times ‘And everybody thinks an arts degree is an economic inefficiency’.” It’s a powerful statement at a time when the Federal Government made it impossible for many artists to receive the JobKeeper allowance while doubling the fees for humanities degrees.

“Scott Morrison is a real ‘I’ll get to it later’ kind of guy,” she says. “Maybe we’re living in a failed state and America is just ahead of us with Trump. The US has been like Rome without the fall for a long time.”

The whole Hamer Hall set, deliberately recorded as “one block of music” to avoid dead air, has a tense feel. “Everything felt ominous at the time, the Black Lives Matter movement was a real thing for us and still is. There was a lot of civil unrest around,” she says. “It’s become more ominous around the world, it’s just that we’ve got our COVID situation under control.” She adds, “It felt more important to be playing the political songs from ‘Good Citizens’ than songs about suicide from ‘One Of Us’.”

Now, restrictions are lifting, show offers are coming in, nature is healing.

“I wrote a new song in lockdown,” Savage reveals. “It’s about how confusing it’s been struggling with personal mental health stuff for the first time in my life. Having said that, I guess the music is surprisingly up-tempo.

“It’s called ‘$600’.” Sounds like Cash.

Cash Savage & The Last Drinks’ ‘Live At Hamer Hall’ is out now

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