Jon Stevens is best known as the frontman for Aussie rock band Noiseworks. He spent four years as lead singing of INXS and has dabbled in music theatre. The keen fisherman is headlining at Lighthouse Rock at Burnett Heads this October and sat down with Crush Magazine to discuss all things rugby, men’s health, global instability, music collaborations and the possibility of a Noiseworks reunion in honour of the late Stuart Fraser.
Larine Statham-Blair from Crush Magazine (CM): I believe you and my parents have mutual friends, Rob McCulloch and his partner Ruth and you were at Rob’s farewell in Cairns. Rob used to take you and your son out fishing?
Musician Jon Stevens (JS): That’s right, Captain Rob. We went to Papua New Guinea a couple of times over the years and we went to Queensland for the great fishing up there as well.
(CM): Ruth mentioned that you also had a blocked artery a while back? You are obviously back to your fit self and still performing, which is fantastic!
(JS): Yes, I had double heart bypass, 12-years-ago.
(CM): Has that caused you to reflect on any aspects of your life, or reprioritise?
(JS): Oh, big time, by rights I shouldn’t be here today. I had no symptoms at all, I was super fit and healthy at the time and only 47-years-old. I saw a Cardiologist due to family history just for a routine check-up. He put me through a range of tests, and I passed every single one with flying colours. Finally, for peace of mind he thought it was best to be sent for an MRI scan just to tick all the boxes, and so I didn’t think anything more of it but 20 minutes later, I got a phone call saying I needed to head straight to the emergency room as soon as possible.
(CM): Jon, that must have been so terrifying for you?
(JS): Absolutely, I thought what’s going on? That morning, I had been for my morning run. I’d run Bronte to Bondi every day of the week, I was home training in my gym. I was just super fit at the time and so to go into hospital and put in a wheelchair, with them sticking things in me was quite a shock. Obviously, I had just had the MRI scan, so I had to ask, am I about to have a heart attack or something? To which they replied: ‘no, your main left artery is 99 per cent blocked and you are about to drop dead at any moment’. I ended up having a double heart bypass and spent quite some time in hospital recovering following a staph infection post op as well. Twelve years later; here I am, it was a tough time but I am glad they caught it and so thankful I came out the other side.
(CM): You are obviously back to your fit self and still performing around the country and overseas, which is fantastic! So it’s not held you back?
(JS): No, quite the opposite. It has given me a new lease on life and a much a deeper appreciation for everything and everyone around me. I remember lying in my hospital bed thinking I’m never going to meet my grandchildren, much like my children didn’t get the chance to meet their grandparents. My parents died when I was young, my dad from heart disease back in the 1970s. Fortunately I have two incredible grandchildren now and I am so grateful that I am here to see them grow up.
(CM): I am so pleased that everything has worked out for the best for you.
Ok let’s get into the main reason for the interview after all.
Are you looking forward to performing at the inaugural Lighthouse Rock Festival at Burnett heads, this October?
(JS): Absolutely, it is going to be a blast!
(CM): Have you been to Bundaberg before?
(JS): I’m very familiar with that neck of the woods, my sister used to live up there. I remember going to the local markets and we’d often go to Woodgate Beach to do some fishing.
Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s it was always such a lovely country town. Nowadays much like everywhere we’ve seen it evolve over time and built up with population growth.
(CM): One of the things in doing the research for this interview was listening to your Starlight album. And that’s your most recent solo work, isn’t it? I’m a huge Beatles fan. What was it like working with Ringo Starr on the drums for One Way Street?
(JS): All I can say is what an amazing guy and a true gentleman. I met him through a mutual friend of ours, Dave Stewart from Eurythmics. Ringo and his wife Barbara came out for dinner one night with us, it was casual, no pretence and it just felt like being around normal people. Here I was thinking, wow, I can’t believe I am sitting here having dinner with Ringo Starr and how incredible it is was. We got our guitars out and sang a few songs and had a lot of laughs and Ringo asked me: ‘are you gonna be at my birthday?’ I think it was his 70-ish. He does a big thing at Capitol Records nearly every year, a Peace and Love sort of thing. He asked me if I wanted to come and sing? I said ‘Oh, let me think about it. No, not really. Of course I’d love to come and sing’. It was amazing. Yeah.
And, and I’m very honoured he played on the record. He was actually on tour and in Los Vegas at the time. He had a day off and he flew back to Los Angeles to get into his home studio to do the drums on One Way Street on his day off. His wife is a lovely, lovely people. He’s just brilliant, brilliant person. Great humans.
(CM): You’ve had a few other incredible opportunities presented to you as well in recent times, I believe you’ve been invited to play with Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden?
And most recently you had the honour of performing at the memorial of cricketing great, Shane Warne?
(JS): Billy was out here a few years ago with his bass player. I’ve known a number of his guys forever. I met Billy a few times over the years. It just happened to be he was in Australia one time he was playing and we got up had a jam. I was actually in New York and I’d never been to Madison Square Garden, where Billy regularly performs to 20,000 people. So I went down, and was standing on the sidelines watching the show. He starts talking about getting someone on stage and then calls out my name. Next thing somebody is rushing down from the mixing desk to the side of the stage and hands me a microphone. We sang Highway to Hell. It was mad. Yeah. It was crazy.
And Shane Warne’s Memorial. Well, that was purely from the family, Shane’s family. Shane was a big fan of Noiseworks and INXS. And he loved those three songs that I performed. I knew Shane quite well. I’ve met him several times over the years. He was such a lovely, lovely man. You know, it’s just a shame he was taken too young. Because, you know, I wish he got the MRI test that I got before he went to Thailand, you know, would have saved his life. I always encourage everybody to go get themselves a checkup. You owe it to yourself, if you’ve got children, if you got grandchildren. You’ve got to do it. Men tend to put these things off, and I was no different. I was absolutely no different. I just got really lucky, real lucky. And so I count my blessings every day. I live every moment. Music is a massive part of that, because that’s the gift that just keeps on giving. Everyone loves music and my, my, the thing I love the most about performing in front of people is seeing the smiles on their faces. That is the best thing ever.
(CM): And on that note, Jon, how does it feel to know that your Noiseworks songs are so loved, not just by one generation, but across the decades by multiple generations of Australians? Do you ever get tired of performing the same songs because presumably when you perform to audiences it is expected you perform some of your new solo work, but also those incredible iconic Aussie rock hits as well?
(JS): No, never, all that history made me who I am today. That’s what put me here in the first place. People identify with all of my music, they grew up with it, it’s part of who they are. It’s like imagine if Jimmy (Barnes) got up on stage and he didn’t play Working Class Man. The crowds would be upset for me to go out and not play Take Me Back, Touch or Hot Chilli Woman. Sure, when you’ve got new stuff, you need to promote it, that’s all part of the industry but I care greatly about my audience and I’m a great believer in giving the people what they want to hear.
(CM): You have a reputation for being incredibly hard working. And as someone that’s built their career around performing live, how did you cope through the COVID pandemic? Did you channel your creative energy into other things?
(JS): I tried to be creative, I spent a lot of time writing, I turned a lot of frustration into lyrics. I was writing angry stuff. There was so much going on during that period. Living in Melbourne, we caught the brunt of it, we had some of the toughest lockdowns in the world, so it was hard. Let’s hope it’s all behind us now and looking back it was a time of reflection, it allowed us to slow down and spend time with the family, that itself is always a good thing. But it was a fearful time. And it still is. The world’s been tipped on its head and look around at what’s going on with Solomon Islands, Ukraine and Russia, and China posturing up. I think we need to get our head out of the sand and have a look at the big picture because what’s coming down the pipeline does not look pretty. Australia is a sitting duck. The Government needs to start shoring up their defences, because we’re going to need it.
(CM): So Jon, on a on a lighter, and possibly silly, note. I put a call out on Facebook and asked friends of mine – many of whom are great fans by the way – what they would like to ask you. These are their questions. Firstly, let’s talk Rugby. Australia or New Zealand?
(JS): Well, if New Zealand’s playing Australia then I’m for New Zealand. If Australia is playing England, then it would be Australia. For over 40 years I’ve been in Australia. I’m an Australian citizen. But I was born and raised in New Zealand.
(CM): This question is left of field, but were you ever tempted at any point in time to create a kids’ album or kids’ band similar to how The Cockroaches became The Wiggles?
(JS): Ah, no but they did play as support act for Noiseworks a couple of times back in the 1980s.There were a lot of great bands around at that time, it was very competitive, and you know what? The Cockroaches got smart, they saw a niche market and ran with it and look what they became, Australian icons.
(CM): A question that came up a couple of times, what happened with INXS and why didn’t that continue for longer? Some would say, you were the only singer that could even come close to Michael Hutchence.
(JS): Oh, you’re all friends, we’re all mates, you know, and we all go way back. But really what happened was they did the US TV show (to find a new lead singer). They got paid a lot for it and their manager, dastardly manager that was managing him at that time, was doing deals behind my back. Up to that point, I spent just over four years with them touring around the world resurrecting their brand with them and somebody approached them and the manager and came up with a brilliant idea of doing this American TV show to find a new lead singer. But hold on a minute – we’ve already got a lead singer, so how are we going to get rid of him? That’s how I found out about the skullduggery going on behind my back. It was their old manager who was operating that way. I clicked and left before they could find anything to sack me on. The show was quite a way down the track when I found out about it and I just could not believe it. I was horrified and disappointed. The manager was an absolute piece of garbage – not the band, just the manager at the time.
(CM): And the other question that came up a fair bit was, why did Noiseworks stop releasing new music? Is it because you’d already reached such a pinnacle? Or was it because you wanted to change direction, around the time of Jesus Christ Superstar?
(JS): The band broke up because Justin Stanley and Steve Balbi, wanted to do their own band, which was called the Electric Hippies. They separated from Stuart, Kevin and me. Then we just didn’t want to carry it on because it was a brotherhood. And so what happens is, most bands break up at some point.
(CM): It seems as though some the members that left haven’t had the same success as you since leaving Noiseworks?
(JS): A great band is the sum of the parts, you know, we could have kept noise going and got another couple of guys and, you know, other bands do that. But I’m a purist. I always thought that at the time, especially. We were in our 20s. We were young and we didn’t know any better. We were tired of the creative differences. I thought we’ve got some good beats. It was just getting too hard. The spirit had sort of been, I guess, flattened out. They wanted to do their own thing and me and Stuart just wanted to have a rest. So we we did our last show, and said ‘that’s it, see ya’. The last song we played together was Let It Be by the Beatles in 1992 and we put it on the Essential Noiseworks album. But that’s a long time ago.
The opportunity to perform in Jesus Christ Superstar came in well after that. Harry M Miller just called me up one day and said: ‘I’m doing this thing and I want you in it’.
(CM): And did you enjoy that? Did Have you done any music theatre since then?
(JS): I really enjoyed doing Superstar, as well as playing Frank in the Happy Days Mega Musical. I enjoyed it but it’s not really my bag. I’m more rock and roll. I’m an old rocker. Theatre is not something I have ever really pursued, it always knocked on my door. I have the utmost respect and admiration for creatives who can pursue it for a long time, it can be quite gruelling, the amount of work and pressure it takes for performances to come to life, it takes a real love for the job. You can be doing the show as many as eight times a week for several years.
I did Jesus Christ Superstar and the only thing that got me through really, aside from the people I was working with, was the music. There’s no better musical, in my opinion, ever written because it takes you on a journey, an emotional journey from beginning to end. And I think the music and the lyrics and the dynamics and the emotion was just perfect. Especially when it’s performed by real singers like John Farnham and myself. Kate Ceberano, Angry Anderson, Russell Morris, John Waters. It was just incredible, incredible cast who’d all had their own successful music careers. It’s our 30-year anniversary this year, actually.
(CM): I’d pay good money to come and see a reunion show. I’m really looking forward to seeing you perform at Lighthouse Rock in Burnett Heads this coming October.
(JS): Thank you, I’m very much looking forward to it. Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss and Abby Skye to name a few, what more could you want? I am expecting it to be absolutely massive and, hey, the weather up there is always pretty darn good too, so I’m keen to get in some fishing while I’m there.
(CM): They’ve sold tickets to Lighthouse Rock to people from almost every state and territory across Australia. Having you as the headlining act is definitely helping to draw economic benefits into the Bundaberg Region.
(JS): It’s a fantastic outcome that an event can do that. The last couple of years being so tough on the music and art industry it’s certainly good to get back out there. We started the tour on January 15 and we’ve since done 47 shows since then, and we’ve still got another 33 or 34 to go. I said to my Manager, take me all around Australia, Alice Springs, Broome, Kununurra, Darwin, all over regional Queensland, you name it. So Lighthouse Rock in October, I’ll sing all the Noiseworks and INXS hits, and then I’ll put it to bed. It will be the last time you’ll see it for a long time.
(CM): So you are planning on taking a break after Lighthouse Rock?
(JS): I’m looking forward to spending some time with my ‘fam’. I’ll start working on a new record. I’ve talked with the Noiseworks boys about doing some one-off shows in honour of Stuart Fraser who died in 2019. We’d actually made a new record together which never saw the light of day, so I’d like to look at getting that out in honour of Stuart because there’s a lot of water under the bridge now.
(CM): That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time Jon, especially when you’ve got so many other things going on. We’ll be sure to send you out some copies of the Mag once it goes to print and I’ll give you wave from the crowd at the upcoming Lighthouse Rock this coming October.
(JS): That sounds awesome, I’ll look forward to it. Thank you.
(CM): Thanks so much, Jon. Take care.