INXS Guitarist Tim Farriss Reflects on the Band’s Biggest Moment

INXS guitarist riffs on producers, songwriting, a legendary concert at Wembley Stadium.

INXS started out as a cover band playing clubs and went on to write international hits “as sexy and funky as any white rock group,” according to 1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories and Secrets Behind Them.

Mates since childhood, INXS is second only to AC/DC in selling the most Australian music to the U.S. But it is their July 13, 1991, show at England’s Wembley Stadium which made them legends. INXS’s debut headlining show came six years to the day after Live Aid and five years and a day since the band supported Queen at Wembley Stadium. The performance, called “Summer XS,” was recorded for a live album and filmed and released as Live Baby Live, directed by David Mallet. Later this year, Fathom Events will bring indoors what 73,791 fans caught in the open air when INXS: Live Baby Live at Wembley Stadium hits movie theaters for one night only on Monday, Dec. 9.

INXS formed in 1977 when three brothers Tim, Andrew, and Jon Farriss, teamed with Kirk Pengilly, Gary Beers, and lead singer Michael Hutchence started playing as The Farriss Brothers. They changed their name to INXS in 1979 and released their debut album INXS in 1980. The band swept the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards. Their album X spawned the international hits “Disappear” and “Suicide Blonde,” inspired by how the late Hutchence’s then-girlfriend Kylie Minogue described her look for the 1989 film The Delinquents.

Tim Farriss spoke with Den of Geek about the Wembley Stadium concert, as well as the band’s studio and live works, and the fun of growing up in a band.

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DEN OF GEEK: Thank you so much for doing this. I had a great time watching the concert.

TIM FARRISS: Did you watch it on your computer screen?

Yes, but I have a pretty large screen. And I did play it very loud.

I was lucky enough to see it in a cinema. I saw it in a cinema by myself, which was kind of weird. I kept feeling like I should be sharing this with someone. It was a surreal moment really because I’ve never seen myself like that, you know what I mean? You’re sitting in this big theater on a huge screen. I honestly felt like I was at a gig watching my band play. And that was kind of weird because it’s been a long time since Michael passed now. And it was back then, and I’ve never really had the opportunity to do that before, so it was very cool. You know, I wanted to clap.

In watching the concert, I noticed the musicians were singing off mic, which means they really enjoy playing the songs.

Yeah, well, we were promoting the album just like we would do in the pub at a venue. We were playing fairly fresh, new songs. So we were really enjoying playing them. The first song, normally, had we strategized and, well, I’m glad we didn’t think too deeply about it. We might have opened with a hit to really get the audience in there. But it didn’t seem to really matter one little bit. In fact, my brother, Jon, goes out there and starts drumming the first song before any of us were even quite ready to go onstage. I thought ‘this is Wembley Stadium. We should be a bit more organized here,’ but we all go out and we start jamming.

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It shows how our mindset was. I guess we were fairly used to it during these sorts of shows. It’s just that we happened to film this one. We were so excited about playing there and it was such an intense day in the U.K. for us because it was ‘INXS Day.’ Everywhere you went. Michael and I had been doing a lot of media and it was just frenzied. We had something like two and a half thousand people on the guest list and it a lot of them were ‘who’s who,’ this, that, and the other. All I wanted to do was get out there and play.

Sowe went out there and jammed a bit, before Jon calls in the first chords, for ‘Guns in the Sky.’ Seeing the audience just reacting to us, they were jamming. It was like, ‘Oh this is going to be good. Wait til they hear a hit now,’ sort of thing.

It was, right from the word ‘Go,’ great fun. I was worried that I might have been smiling too much.

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The live album got some flak because the songs were so faithfully done to the records. I know the band was known as a live act, so was this because the venue was large and you felt you owed it to the crowd?

That’s a hard question to answer. I think it’s different for everyone, different for every band member. We always try and refrain from that. I mean, we come from a long line of wanting to jam. And to us that seems a little self-indulgent. We don’t expect the audience to sit there and listen to us kind of jerk ourselves off by musically jamming, you know what I mean? So from that point of view, we pretty much try to give the audience what we think they want. We have a ton of room for spontaneity and ad libbing and that kind of thing, which happens naturally anyway. But we try and keep a lid on that as much as possible. Particularly the bigger shows, because you’re trying to play as many songs as you can. So if you make a particular song a lot longer than it is normally, then you have to leave other songs out.

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It becomes a question of where’s the line in the sand here? We pretty much played it all by ear. Same with when Michael talks. If he wants to have a rant, or tells the audience that their grandmother wears army boots, then that just happens naturally and we do it. It was never planned. And that night he hardly said anything, which I didn’t even realize until I saw it in the theater myself. That’s the thing, I haven’t watched it probably in, I don’t know, 10-15 years or something, so to sit down in a theater and watch it like that, all kinds of things came home to me. Specifically the fact that I could have sworn we had big screens. But we didn’t, or if we did, I couldn’t see them.

There was just the six of us with our instruments and a few lights and a big PA. When we first played Wembley Stadium, we did it with Queen. We did this big tour with Queen all over the U.K. and Europe, all stadiums, and we were close with the guys. So we did the two shows at Wembley after they did Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. They had enormous productions and staff. It was great, it was all part of the show, and we appreciate that. But it didn’t even enter our minds to get a few effigies and pump them full of helium and float them out to the audience, or wheel out a grand piano for the ballad, or get dancers or pyrotechnics, or any of that stuff.

It was just the six of us, and somehow we managed to really entertain the audience for two hours. So that blew me away. And the other thing of it is, like I said Michael barely speaks, but yet he does through just his persona, and getting the audience to sing, and whatever. So it was really fun to sit there and watch it. Seeing it reformatted to a wide screen, I was worried that it might make it look funny, but I thought it looked really good.

Further Reading: Queen: Album by Album Explores Band History

You all know each other, well, you’re brothers, but you all knew each other from childhood. Do you think you felt free to do things onstage you wouldn’t have done in front of another band of players?

For sure, in the early days, when we were called The Farriss Brothers, We were best friends and brothers, we were giving everything a shot, and we weren’t afraid of doing anything in front of each other at all. So, yes, totally, there were a lot of in-jokes that other people just wouldn’t get, that kind of thing. Had you removed any one of us and put us in with another group of guys, I think we would have probably been quite different as individuals. In a way that might have stunted our growth. Whereas, because we knew each other so well, we were able to have freedom and try anything. That was especially good for Michael, because when we were kids and starting out, Michael was quite introverted and really didn’t have a voice. He had a bit of an eye, if that’s the right word, for poetry and he was really learning to sing. We were all learning. Kirk learned to play sax after we’d already been playing as a band for a year. He took up the sax and learnt it from scratch. So quite literally we learned to do what we did together.

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And then of course, once you’ve become this famous rock band, you carry your own weight anyway. You’ve already got all the bugs and qualities that make up who you are, so you just carry them around with you. And that becomes your persona onstage.

The long shots show an entire audience of tens of thousands of people bopping up and down in time. What does that feel like from the stage?

It really gets the juices flowing. It’s a beauty. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s not something that was specific to that gig. It just happened to be one we recorded and filmed. And I’m really glad we did. We chose Wembley to do that at, because it’s such an iconic stadium and now it’s gone. So there will only ever be as many filmed shows at Wembley Stadium as there was. 

There are plenty of great iconic venues throughout the U.S., of course. But, the U.K., and London, and Wembley Stadium really meant a lot to us because we’d been somewhat concentrating on South America, the U.S., and Europe and Southeast Asia, Japan, and all those territories more than we ever had on England. England was kind of a last frontier for us. And to come back and headline Wembley Stadium was a significant thing for us. It was not something we took lightly. That’s another reason why I think we had so much fun. We just felt like we were playing a pub, but a really, really big one. That’s literally how it felt.

That audience was so in tune, the last time we played there was opening for Queen. We didn’t get that reaction.

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Both INXS and Queen lost their lead singers and continued with a roster of A-list singers. Do you appreciate the influence you’ve had on musicians even as you’re working with them?

Oh yes. Definitely. Actually, touring with Queen, the thing that impressed us was that they seemed to be like us in that when they went out for dinner, they went out as the four of them. These guys are friends, they hang out. That’s what we do.

It was surprising that in all of our career, we met so few bands like that. Most of them are the opening bands, funnily enough. But certainly most of the bands that we opened for didn’t seem to have that kind of camaraderie or friendship. They seemed to want to get as far away, they had separate dressing rooms for God’s sake, which to us was like, wow, that’s pretty weird. Now I get it, but back then I didn’t. We never had our own dressing rooms. It was always in for a penny, in for a pound with it throughout our whole career.

In a way how healthy that was. And that was kind of cool. We related to them in that way. We were such different bands. There really wasn’t much we could learn from Queen. It wasn’t like we stood side stage every night watching. In fact, Brian May would come into our dressing room after our show warming up on guitar and hang out with us a lot. And then one night, on a tour we did with them, we were in Montreux in Switzerland and Freddy invited Michael, my brother Jon, and I up to his presidential suite to play some new material. He had a microphone and a small PA system in his room and he got Michael singing with him just with the one microphone, and Jon and I are sitting on the sofa watching Michael and Freddy nose to nose singing into a microphone. That was pretty wild. Great memory.

Sadly, both of them died really young so it was kind of weird when I think back about it, that that happened even.

You talking about how tight the band was makes me think about the Beatles’ Anthology where they talked about how close they were as friends.

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You know the Beatles is one of the first, I think maybe the first band we three Farriss brothers ever saw. Our father took us back to England to meet our English grandparents and all my father’s family. So, yeah, to hear that in the Anthology I thought was really, really nice. It kind of made me feel really good.

You wound up working with George Martin’s son, Giles.

Not only that, but George Martin gave Chris Thomas his first job in the industry. Now probably to this day, one of my absolute closest friends is Chris Thomas. His first job was working on the Beatles’ White Album. George Martin gave him the job. 

Giles is such a lovely bloke. We love him dearly. We met him in fact on our concert we did in Kyoto in Japan in the early ’90s. It was at a thing called the Great Music Experience which was a great musical experience. It was all these different people from different genres of music. It was really fun and Giles Martin was the musical director on that. So we became mates and have remained so since.

You’ve worked with some great producers. What did Nile Rodgers bring to the band?

Well, he was so much fun and I was a huge fan of Niles. This is back in the day when we were still all traveling together on one tour bus, and we all had to endure listening to what everyone wanted to hear on the stereo. I put my cassette tape of Nile Rodgers’ In the Land of the Good Groove album on and forced everyone to listen to it because I was so into it. Singing that ended up being our pre gig warm up thing, which is quite funny. And then of course his work on David Bowie‘s Let’s Dance album was quite sensational at the time.

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I think it was in Toronto, and we’re all in the hospitality room after the show, having a few drinks and meeting people and Michael comes over and grabs me and says “hey Timmy, there’s someone here I think you really want to meet.” And lo and behold there was Nile coming to see us, which is kinda like wow, of all the people! Then we hung out and he said “I’d love to get you guys in Power Station if we can make some time.” And by that stage, the rest of the band was like, oh, yeah, definitely.

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So we were already supposed to be making a record in England over to Branson’s Manor Studios with Nick Launay as the producer. We thought, well, let’s just do one song with Niles. So we rehearsed it and made a date. We were going to be in New York, so for three days we went into the Power Station and just worked our butts off and recorded “Original Sin.” Nile was also doing stuff with Hall and Oates, so Darryl came in and sang background vocals on it. After that actually I think we ended up touring with Hall and Oates in Europe as well. It’s funny how things go around and come around.

But Nile was just so much fun. He just wanted the atmosphere in the studio to be up and lots of jokes. And he’s a real musicians’ producer. Very, very different from Chris Thomas, who’s probably more your classic producer, a lot like George Martin.

Chris told me some funny stories about Never Mind the Bollocks with the Sex Pistols. John Lydon ended up opening for us, which is quite funny. So we got to know Johnny Rotten pretty well. Chris Thomas working with those guys makes me laugh. And he did all the Pretenders records, so some of the stories he’s got about Chrissie Hynde, and Johnny Rotten stories go on forever.

So, yeah, Nile was a whole different thing and it was really good fun and I’m so glad we did that with him. And then Duran Duran went and used him.

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I think of Nile Rodgers a lot as a guitarist. And I know that your brother was a keyboardist, which meant that you and Kirk came up with the riffs. So how would you describe your guitar interplay?

Well, usually I’m the riff guy, I always got labeled as the lead guitarist, but we never really had a lead guitarist. In fact, Kirk was more a lead guitarist than I was. I was more rhythm and riffs. I did occasional solos here and there. Or a solo or two on an album, but we shared the solos around.

I always thought Kirk should have sung a song on an INXS record. We started out as Tim and Kirk. And then in our first band together, Kirk was the singer. His vocal combinations with Michael are a really significant part of our sound and that’s a real signature. So I always thought it’d be really neat if Kirk sang a song. Because people could identify that’s where that signature sound is coming from. From hearing them combine and hearing Michael sing other songs, but that never happened.

Your brother and Michael Hutchence were the main songwriters. How would they present the songs to the band?

In the early days, we wrote a lot more together. But then Andrew would more often than not have the music written. Back in the day, Andrew predominantly just had music, and we’d all pick the songs that we liked the most together. Then Michael would work on melody and lyrics. Sometimes as late as mixing, he’d still be finishing lyrics and coming up with ideas.

And it seemed to be that the songs that Andrew and Michael wrote together were the biggest hits. We tried to get them together to work and to write, which was great. For instance, Kick was done pretty much the old traditional way. But we decided to have a break half way through and send Andrew and Michael off together to write as a duo. They came back for the second half of the recording with all of this material that just sounded wonderful and very exciting.

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From then on, they spent a lot more time together writing. We all continue to write, and we all contributed to every song. Michael always had the lyrical concepts and melodies in his head. Once he’s heard the music specifically. So that didn’t really matter who wrote the bones of the song, but Andrew was the most prolific writer. So most of us felt let’s just go with that. Then we would all contribute. 

Every producer we ever worked with said that we never sounded as good on record as we did live. Chris Thomas saw us live a lot, too. That’s how we got to work with him. We were doing a show with the Pretenders and he was in the audience. Then he came and saw us in Japan, and then he saw us at the Palladium in L.A. And his big comment was I haven’t heard you guys sound as good on a record as you do live, so we just got to try and figure that out.

Then I suppose for the rest of our career once we started sounding much better in the studio we wanted to recreate what we did in the studio live and so we rehearsed everything. Nothing was just left to chance. It was well rehearsed before we even started the first tape of the song in the studio.

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What kind of stuff were The Farriss Brothers doing?

Everything from the Tubes to Elvis Costello. We would even do a Santana song. You know, Steely Dan, Little Feat. I used to play percussion onstage as well as guitar. This was back in the day we had to play covers to be able to get work. So, we’d choose Graham Parker, Roxy Music. I’m a mega Roxy Music fan. I used to love them.

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In fact, we were sitting in the studio working with some live feeds of Chris Thomas on the third album we did with him and he said just out of curiosity “what are your favorite albums?” I said, “Oh, mine’s probably For Your Pleasure by Roxy Music.” Chris said, “Oh, I produced that.” I was like, “No!” Here he was producing everything. I didn’t even realize he produced my favorite record. That was when Eno was in the band and suddenly Chris started telling me some really funny Eno stories.

We did funk, jazz, sometimes rock. We even did a Free song. We always played a lot of originals, though. Even when our booking agent said “look, my public in these places where you’re playing don’t want to hear original songs, they want to hear you playing cover songs.” I went yeah, yeah, yeah, so but we wanted to write songs together and try them out on an audience, so we ended up being told that we’d either have to play more covers and less original songs, or get another booking agent. And he was the only booking agent in Perth.

Was “Shining Star” written with any thoughts towards it being premiered live?

That was written for the Best of album. I don’t know that we ever played it live. We were playing new songs from the album X at Wembley. And which some of them I think we only played on that particular tour, which in hindsight was really a bummer because some of those songs at that Wembley show were some of the best ones we did in the show. There’s a song called “Hear That Sound” and that version at Wembley is just awesome. But it’s interesting that you mentioned that song, because I had great fun recording that and making the video. That was that was the only video we ever made with David Mallet, the guy that directed and filmed Wembley.

When you were learning guitar, who were you listening to as a guitarist?

Ah, the Beatles, the Monkees, funnily enough. I used to love the Monkees. But this was when I was eight years old. The Monkees was my favorite thing to watch on television, and also they were a bunch of guys that they were a band. So I wanted to be in a band like the Monkees. My teacher was a lovely Italian man named Tony Federicci, and he was actually the lead trombonist for the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra. He would teach me classical guitar, and he had the most beautiful penmanship writing musical script. He was just a very patient lovely old Italian man and he would play with me. He’d teach me something to play and then immediately pick up either a mandolin or another guitar, and we’d play together.

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So when I learned to play guitar, I was playing with somebody. I think that was always the way it was for me. I always felt like I was part of something when I played guitar. Then it became Tim and Kirk. We met each other at school. He was 13, I was 14. And we would get together at every possible moment and play guitar together. Kirk would sing and we’d both play. The only time I played solo was when I was writing.

But as a kid I would listen to Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath. Along with Carlos Santana, and the pop bands from my mother and father’s record collection, which comprised a bit of Motown Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or you know, Dusty Springfield or Petula Clark, or Tom Jones, who ended up singing with us as well. Ray Charles, who also sang with us on a song.

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Do you miss touring?

Yeah, to some degree I do. There was a point there where we toured so much and we worked so hard, probably as hard as any band out there. AC/DC were another example of a band that probably broke the world by touring. And we’re very much the same. We toured and toured, and toured, and toured. And there was a point where I never wanted to tour again. But now, I definitely miss it. I’m not saying that we won’t tour again. Because I think a lot of the guys feel the same way. They miss it too.

What happens in a band when the lead singer becomes a sex symbol and Kylie Minogue begins hanging around?

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It gets pretty exciting backstage. Well you know, Michael wasn’t very comfortable with the sex symbol bit. Maybe deep down he liked it. Certainly on the surface he was never very comfortable with it. There was a time, especially early in our career in the U.S., where we just had screaming girls every which way. And it was kind of something that Michael in particular really wanted to shake.

We didn’t want to be known as a teen girl band, which back then was a thing. I don’t know if it’s such a thing anymore. Because you tend to feel labeled. We didn’t want to be labeled as anything, to be honest. That was a big problem America had with INXS when we started touring and playing there, everyone you met in the U.S. wanted to pigeon hole us or put us in a box. Our genre didn’t seem to conform to any genre. But I think America’s come along way from that. It has to do with the fact that radio is more integrated now. Back then every station had a specific genre, and so that had to fit. Everyone wanted to figure out what genre we fit in. Where we came from radio in Australia, they played everything on every station. Not so much these days.

INXS: Live Baby Live at Wembley Stadium hits movie theaters on Monday, Dec. 9. You can find information and tickets here. Image Credit: Getty / Pete Still/Redferns. 

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.