Kevin Bull is a nerd and not in a geeky chic kind of way. Sporting grey hair, glasses and a background in IT, this 45-year-old from NSW’s Central Coast doesn’t exactly uphold the image of street press. He does, however, hold together Reverb – the most comprehensive arts and entertainment guide for Newcastle, the Hunter and Central Coast. As publisher, Bull works gruelling hours that allow little time for sleep, let alone a weekend. But tonight he’s got some time off, or the closest thing to.
We meet at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre. Well, on a bench outside where Bull and an insignificant looking fellow by the name of Hugh (apparently a neighbour), munch on boxes of pide. Bull bursts into conversation immediately. Hugh, obviously eager to skip the pleasantries and get inside the elaborate Hunter Street venue, sits in silence. Bull’s off to photograph yet another gig – Roger Hodgson, former Supertramp front man, to be specific. A perk of the music industry is that there is almost always a +1 with a free ticket. It’s an unconventional start to a somewhat unconventional interview – something I’d come to expect from a man who, despite sobering appearances, is in the constant presence of rock stars.
Hopping aboard the Bacardi Express – a refurbished 1960s train which saw some of the industry’s biggest names travel from Brisbane to Sydney to play a series of free, rum-filled shows – is just one of Bull’s recent escapades. As the artists took turns in the “jamming carriage”, Bull sat back, enjoyed the abundance of food and booze and mingled with the likes of La Roux, Art vs. Science and Yves Klein Blue. “Well, we didn’t see La Roux unfortunately; she hid in a cabin. But it was pretty loose,” he admits.
Beyond the glitz and glam however, is a level-headed guy who remains seemingly unaffected: “I could go and see gigs every night of the bloody week if I wanted to.”
Bull instead limits himself to around four a month. Gigs, he says, are a distraction from his role at Reverb which includes coordinating the paper’s finances and contributor’s material, writing news pieces and post-processing images.
“But tonight we’re here at Roger Hodgson, that’s a bit of a perk, but in a sense it’s work. I’m here, I’ve got to photograph the show…we’ll be home tonight at one in the morning and then I start it all again tomorrow. But you see shitloads of music,” he says, cheeky grin intact. “It is a dream job.”
And indeed, Bull’s career path has not always been so ideal. Despite stints working in community radio, managing bands and writing for Sydney’s The Brag, Bull went straight into IT after high school – a choice he describes as “horrendous”. But in August 2006, after 20 years of computer programming, Bull threw in the towel, spoke to the then publisher of Reverb – a dying publication which he had just began contributing to – and bought it. Although losing 60% of his wage, this was a decision that finally enabled Bull to combine life’s two essentials: music and money.
“I was risking my house and everything I’ve worked for for 25 years, but if I didn’t take the risk, I’d regret it. Sure, in five years I’ll still have a job in Sydney…but the whole thing of ‘what if?’ would’ve been too much. I had to take the jump,” he says.
Now, Bull lives day-by-day, struggling to break even and relying solely on advertising to fuel his free publication – and pay the mortgage. Music, however, is something Bull always “had his hand in” but with no experience or degrees, he had to start “at the bottom of the run”. “I had nothing except 20 years of music knowledge,” he says.
This is a fact few can dispute. Growing up in Newcastle’s Garden Suburb, Bull witnessed a string of international acts tour through the city. The Cure at Civic Theatre, Dead Kennedys at Kotara’s Bel-Air and even Meat Loaf at Cardiff Panthers are just a few names on this unlikely line-up. “It’s the same sort of thing you will be talking about when you’re 45,” Bull says. “Yeah, I’ve seen some shows that you wouldn’t expect to have seen, but they were here and a lot of people saw them. It just boils down to the love of live music.”
This passion soon lent itself to music photography – an interest Bull chased intensely throughout the ‘80s. Sneaking his dad’s SLR film camera into gigs, he says, saw his love affair with photography really begin. “I should’ve taken the plunge when I was 18 or 19 and just said ‘bugger it, this is what I’m going to do’. I’m just glad I did that at 42 and hopefully everything holds together with myself and I’ll be the oldest guy in the photo pit taking photos. I’ll be happy with that,” he says.
Reverb editor Nick Milligan couldn’t agree more – believing Bull’s talent outweighs matters of age. “In my completely unbiased opinion, Kevin is Australia’s best live photographer,” he says. “I can comfortably say that Reverb includes some of the most amazing live photographs of any publication in the world.”
Milligan, 25, who works full-time for Reverb while freelancing for Jmag and the Maitland Mercury – among other publications, offers a generous recount of Bull. “My initial impression of him hasn’t changed. Kevin is simply one of the nicest people you will ever come across. Sadly, there are many, many egos in the music industry, but this serves to only highlight Kevin’s reputation as the opposite. People that deal with him sense that he’s an inherently good person, who is running Reverb because of his passion for independent music. He shared my enthusiasm for seeing Reverb live up to its potential, along with keeping a Newcastle and Central Coast street press alive. Many have come and gone – Concrete, Volume, U-turn – we’ve found a formula that works,” he says.
Together, Bull and Milligan have transformed Reverb from a dying publication to an expanding cult product. The paper, moving beyond its Newcastle hub, now covers NSW’s North Coast. In April, Bull also announced the creation of Reverb Productions – an offshoot aimed at bringing “good music” to the area. And, in an attempt to spice up Newcastle’s social scene, Reverb hosted three parties at the Cambridge Hotel last year. Celebrating everything from birthdays to Christmas and even the return of school, these were sell-out events featuring some of the country’s hippest bands. “As long as we cover all our costs… everyone has a great night, sees a band that wasn’t going to play here before and it’s all good for Newcastle,” Bull says.
Reverb, however, remains focused on supporting local music – and doing so with all the independence a street press should have. Bull is openly liberal when it comes to Reverb’s content, claiming that pieces are only edited or scrapped when they’re “crap”. “There’s a lot more freedom – we’re not dictated by Murdoch,” he says. “It’s nice for a reviewer to have their own voice.”
What remains most important, he says, is “whether you’re willing to go out and support local music without being fed what we should be listening to by commercial stations. I like going to an old-school pub and seeing a band in a corner going crazy. Get excited because John Butler is coming to town; fine – but also get excited when a local artist is putting out a CD and they’re playing a show at the Cambridge or the Lass or up at the Loft, or wherever.
“We’ve got local bands here who are trying damn hard to get seen and get heard…it seems silly for them not to get an advert in for their show for the sake of a hundred dollars. I’ll drop that just to make sure they’re in the paper.”
“We’ve never tried to not be a Newcastle paper.”
This, according to Bull, is where the success of Reverb really lies.