By Paul Freeman [1997 Interview]

[When we spoke with Hutchence, the INXS vocalist/lyricist was vibrant, brimming with optimism. It was July, 1997. Four months later, he was gone, a rock ’n’ roll casualty at age 37. But his musical impact continues.]

They’ve been around for 20 years, but with the new album “Elegantly Wasted,” and a U.S. tour, INXS isn’t ready for the nostalgia circuit.

One key to the band’s longevity, says singer/frontman Michael Hutchence, is that, contrary to his glamour-boy reputation, INXS stays grounded in reality.

“People assume I come from the Dionysian, devil-made-me-do-it school of rock ’n’ roll and lead singers,” says Hutchence. “Actually, we always looked at the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle with suspicion, especially when we got to America.

“We come from the pub school of hard knocks - 300 shows a year, have a few barroom brawls every month and hope you get out alive,” he says with a laugh.

The band formed in 1977, six friends right out of high school. They trekked across Australia’s interior, writing, rehearsing and playing local hotels and mining town pubs. In 1980, they released their first album. In ’83, they came to the United States to promote “Shabooh Shabooh,” which featured the hits “Don’t Change” and “The One Thing.”

“When we hit the States, suddenly we saw the industrialization of an aesthetic or ideology, a machine that homogenized rock ’n’ roll.”

INXS wasn’t seduced. “It was like, ‘There’s the groupies over there; there’s the drug dealer; there’s the limo.’ Everything works smoothly. It’s cheaper and easier than actually paying attention to the artist. We rejected all that quite strongly. We realized we’d really be indulging everyone else, not ourselves.”

Hutchence credits their Australian roots with giving them a healthy perspective. “In Australia, the star system isn’t that big a deal. There’s not a manic scramble for it. So, whether we were having big hits or not, we always managed to keep ourselves pretty much in the middle about it all, never expecting anything and always grateful for the cherry on top.”

The band’s top-selling album to date is 1988’s “Kick,” which contained the Top 10 hits “Need You Tonight,” “New Sensation,” “Never Tear Us Apart” and “Devil Inside.” The album sold nine million copies and earned a Grammy nomination.

Hutchence, who co-wrote the new album’s material with bandmate Andrew Farriss, still knows how to create a hit. He keeps aware of musical fashion, but refuses to become a slave to it.

“Timelessness comes from not jumping on the bandwagon, not saying, ‘Gee, jungle [the electronic music genre] is going to save my ass!’ We’ve always been a hard-to-pigeonhole band. We must have been one of the first bands to popularize mixing R&B and Detroit influences into modern rock. We started using samples and loops 12 years ago. We have our own sound.”

It’s also a challenge to keep six band members happy. “We started out as a gang of mates. We’re very different personalities, but we’re still friends,“ Hutchence says. “We still respect each other. This isn’t some pathetic continuation of an adolescent fantasy. It hasn’t all been easy. We’re not The Archies. We’re grown-ups. I’m 37 years old and proud of it.”

Nevertheless, Hutchence, who’s currently based in London, is Peter Pan-ish enough to name his 11-month-old daughter Tiger Lily. He’s been with one woman, Paula Yates, ex-wife of Bob Geldof, for two years. Does that mean that he’s now settled down?

“We both look at all that as a grey area. It’s funny, everybody in England thinks, ‘Wow, a baby? That’s it for you. Your life’s over.’ It’s very weird. In Australia, it’s all part of a life and it’s fantastic and it’s great addition to it all.

“In your teens and early 20s, men simply are just useless to anybody but themselves, especially in this business. I was just head-down, me, me, me, to be honest. Then I started raising my eyes up over the horizon and saw that there was a lot more out there, for instance a child. I’m loving it.”

Hutchence insists he’s not trying to hold back the years. “If I’d done nothing but sit in hotel rooms and throw TVs out windows with groupies, I’d be feeling really messed up right now. But it hasn’t been that kind of life. It’s been a really rich and wonderful experience with extraordinary people, and I hope to have a lot more.

“I hope I’m going to be a wise old man at 60 with a hard-on… the John Lee Hooker school of things.”