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Talking Heads -

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PETER THOMPSON: Chris O'Doherty, better known as Reg Mombassa, makes world-famous images for
T-shirts. Patrick White spotted his artistic talent at his first student exhibition. More than
that, he co-founded the rock band Mental As Anything, and these days, goes on playing in Dog
Trumpet. We tracked him down here in Noosa, where he's performing both as an artist and musician.
It's great meeting you.

REG MOMBASSA: Nice to meet you.

PETER THOMPSON: Thanks for coming on Talking Heads. What should I call you, Chris or Reg?

REG MOMBASSA: Oh, you better call me Reg. Let us not confuse people.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, are they two different people?

REG MOMBASSA: Kind of. I mean, Chris O'Doherty is the nerdy, quiet guy that draws landscape
pictures, and Reg is the rock 'n roll idiot that draws monsters with weapons coming out of their

PETER THOMPSON: At home, you're strictly Chris?

REG MOMBASSA: Um, yeah, pretty well. I think most of my close friends and relatives do tend to call
me Chris, but sometimes they get confused and call me Reg, particularly if we're with a group of
people that are calling me Reg.

PETER THOMPSON: You're really lucky to have two gifts - both art and music. Is there a first love?

REG MOMBASSA: I'd say definitely art, because that's what I started doing quite obsessively when I
was a little kid, probably, since I can remember, actually. From the age of three or four, and then
I started playing the guitar when I was 15, so the art definitely came first.

PETER THOMPSON: And what sustained you more?

REG MOMBASSA: Um, well, I probably spend more time doing art, 'cause that's kind of my day job, at
the moment, but, um... with my band Dog Trumpet that I share with my brother Peter, we've just
released an album, so I'd actually like play more, at the moment, probably do a little bit less

PETER THOMPSON: Well, let's have a look back at your early days - Chris' early days in Auckland.

REG MOMBASSA: I was born in Auckland. We grew up in a southern suburb called Papakura. (Chuckles) I
grew up as Chris O'Doherty. I only later became Reg Mombassa. My dad Jim was from Ireland and my
mum Trudy was from England. They'd come to New Zealand after the war. And also my brother Peter, he
was born six years after me. We played together a lot, and he obviously would feel that I probably
teased him a bit, which I did. I, kind of, feel a bit sorry about that, but at the same time, I can
also remember playing happily with him very frequently. It was quite an idyllic childhood, really.
There was a great feeling of optimism. Everyone had their sparkly new white weatherboard or
fibre-light houses, and, um... it was a carefree time. My dad was a builder, and he built houses
just like this one. This is a model that dad made of a house he built in 1957. It was our second
family home. He would build them very quickly, and he used to.. He could also build them almost
completely by himself. I've been drawing pictures very keenly and obsessively since I can remember,
which was from the age of two or three. And mum and dad provided me with plenty of drawing
materials, basically butcher's paper which was relatively inexpensive, and mum would just keep me
supplied with those, and I'd constantly fill them up. The stuff I drew was mainly what, you know,
young boys draw, which is basically soldiers and guns and warships. When I was about 11 or 12, one
of the teachers rang mum and said, "Oh, I'm a bit worried about your son, 'cause he's always
drawing, you know, slaves being tortured, and soldiers being shot through the head and stuff like
that." And mum just said, "Oh, don't worry about that. That's what boys do, you know. He's not a
psychopath," which I think is what the teacher was intimating. I guess what I loved about comics
was that it was another world, it was another reality, and I always, kind of, and still do like
escaping from reality into art and music. I mean, I was quite disappointed when I lost interest,
'cause it had been such a pleasant pastime - reading and collecting comics. When I was 17, my
family came to Australia because it'd been a recession in New Zealand, which badly affected the
building industry, so dad was, you know, having trouble getting work, so we came to Australia. When
we first arrived in Sydney, I found it a little bit foreign. It just seemed very hot, 'cause we got
here in January, and to me, it seemed very busy and crowded, and the cars seemed bigger and drove
really fast. In 1975, I went to art school to East Sydney, the National Art School, and, um... ..I
formed a band with some fellow art students. The band was called Mental As Anything, and, um...
just to amuse ourselves, we all had, sort of, different ridiculous names for each other - some that
we would invent ourselves. The Reg Mombassa name was just the idea of having a fairly, sort of,
common, truck driver, sort of, first name and an exotic... surname. That was the joke there. When
the Mentals started, we weren't really, sort of, thinking about the rock n' roll dream. We were
just... we were just, really, art students, you know, wanting to play a few tunes at art student

PETER THOMPSON: Now, you might have ended up with Reg Mombassa, but you played around with some
other names, didn't you?

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, I could definitely have ended up with the worst name than Reg Mombassa. I was
Dorky Bladder right before Reg, and that would have been a hard one to live with. There was also
Brett Orlando, which I thought was classy, you know, Italian, sort of foreign kinda name.

PETER THOMPSON: The name Mental As Anything was a real piece of genius.

REG MOMBASSA: Well, again, we were a bit hazy as to where it came from because we didn't have a
name, and then we had a friend called Paul Worstead who was a poster maker, and he ran a place
called 'The Settlement' in Sydney, and we just left it to him. We said, "You put a name on it," and
he apparently had a shortlist which we may or may not have given him, but anyway, that was the name
he came up with.

PETER THOMPSON: So, did you feel a bit mental?

REG MOMBASSA: Um, yeah, yeah. I'm probably... mildly mentally-ill, like most humans.

PETER THOMPSON: In what particular way?

REG MOMBASSA: Well, I think I'm pretty well frightened of everything. I'm sort of anxious about the
world. I'm more frightened about humans than anything else, I think. They're the most dangerous,
and violent, and irrational creatures on the planet, I think.

PETER THOMPSON: So is music and art, in a sense, something of a cocoon for you?

REG MOMBASSA: Oh, totally, yeah. That's to escape into a fantasy world.

PETER THOMPSON: Art and comics and drawing seems to have been the first step along the road to
escape from when you were a child.

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, probably the first and last step. It's worked pretty well for always.

PETER THOMPSON: Where did the art come from, because your dad wanted to be an artist, didn't he?

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, Dad had quite a lot of artistic talent, and he grew up in Ireland in the... I
was born in 1917, but he wanted to go to art school, and I think, his family were going to try and
do that, but it was, sort of, in the middle of the depression, and his father died, so he was
apprenticed out to his uncle as a carpenter.

PETER THOMPSON: So did he ever really give expression to his art?

REG MOMBASSA: Oh, yes, he did. He used to do a bit of painting when he was a kid, and after he
retired, he kept doing a bit of painting, and he was good. He had a lot of talent. He could draw
well, and mix colours and do all that, sort of, thing. And I guess I always felt, kind of, bad, in
a way, that my parents didn't get to, sort of, indulge in their artistic aspirations, but I did.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, your mum urged you to go and do some piano lessons, which you kept up for

REG MOMBASSA: For three months, until my piano teacher had a nervous breakdown, not because of me.

PETER THOMPSON: You sure about that?

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, I'm pretty sure of that. I hope not.

PETER THOMPSON: At school, when you went to a public school in New Zealand, you did have the good
fortune of having a teacher who was something like a mentor in your artistic vision, wasn't he?

REG MOMBASSA: Yes, at high school, our art teacher was a man called Dougall Paige, and he was like
a modern artist, who wore a beret and corduroy trousers, and I was very impressed by that. He was
really good. He encouraged all the art boys, and we, kind of, hid in the art room, really, because
that was the time, you know, there's a lot of... '66, '67, '68, and you know, in New Zealand, we
were starting to wear our hair long, and that was quite disapproved of by, particularly the more,
sort of, the rugby conservative boys, and so, we just basically hide from them.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, back in those days, how did you think about art? What did you want to say?

REG MOMBASSA: Well, when I was a little kid, I didn't have the idea that you could really be a
painter. I thought that the closest you could get to art would be being a commercial artist - doing
ads and stuff like that, or drawing comics, 'cause I love comics, so it wasn't until I went to high
school, and started looking at art books, and you know, Renaissance paintings, and the
Impressionists and Van Gogh, and started to really like that stuff, and to copy them as well, to
teach myself how to paint.

PETER THOMPSON: The suburbs, and in those days, the suburbs of Auckland, became a big motif for you
in your art, and still continue to do so. What was it? What did you love about the suburbs?

REG MOMBASSA: Well, probably, at that time, I probably didn't really even realise that I love them.
I mean, looking back on my childhood, it seems quite, you know, idyllic, and almost hallucinatory,
in a way. But at the time, I can remember often feeling that it was pretty dull, but afterwards,
it's become something else, I guess.

PETER THOMPSON: So what does it represent for you?

REG MOMBASSA: Well, I mean it represents, I guess, the suburban thing, just of a relatively idyllic
stress-free childhood, and just roaming around the green wet fields in your gumboots, and even as a
kid, I enjoyed looking at the landscape, and I noticed it and thought about it.

PETER THOMPSON: When you came to Australia, ultimately you got to art school, but how did the idea
come about, for Mentals, then?

REG MOMBASSA: Um... well, one day, I saw Martin and Steve Coburn, who was our first bass player -
John Coburn's son, the painter. I saw them playing at an art student party just with a
thrown-together band for the night, and I thought those guys can play OK. 'Cause I'd been playing
the guitar a bit, and I played previously. I'd played in a couple of bands. I'd been playing bass
then, but I switched to guitar. And I just asked Martin if he wanted to start playing a few, you
know, covers and blues tunes, and whatever, so that we could play at some art student parties, and
it developed a life of its own.

PETER THOMPSON: It sure did. Let's have a look at that, as the Mentals really took off.

REG MOMBASSA: Touring with the Mentals was good for someone that was a landscape artist, 'cause
there's plenty of stuff flashing past the windows as you drive around, so I took a lot of reference
photographs, and I used to draw very quick drawings, as we travelled along. I filled up dozens and
dozens of sketch books with very quick drawings of flashes of landscape. The Mentals did use to
drink a bit, but in terms of being proper rockers, you know, rock star party animals, we're
probably a bit nerdy, really. Sitting in our... our motel rooms drawing pictures, but it was a good
way to see the country. I met my wife Martina in 1975, just before the Mentals formed, and by the
time we started touring, my son Darcy was born in 1980, and then Claudia, three years later, and
Lucy, three years after that. Being in the Mentals when we first started touring a lot, and having
young children was quite difficult because even if you're in town, you know, you'd be playing
still, doing gigs and having very late nights, and children don't respect that sort of thing. They
wake up in the night, and they get up early, so you'd be, often, rather tired. (Chuckles) A bloke
called Dare Jennings, who founded and ran Mambo, he'd seen a cover I did for Mental As Anything,
which had a couple of fire-breathing chickens running along beside a car, and he particularly liked
those. I started doing stuff for Mambo, and it seemed to go down well with the public, so I kept
doing it. It's always struck me as, um... slightly ironic that I should be a Mambo artist, 'cause
just about all the other Mambo artists are actually proper, keen surfers, and I did surf very
briefly when I was about 16, but I could barely swim, and I'm a sissy. I didn't like the cold
water, and I thought I'd be better off trading in my board for an amplifier, which is what I did,
so I'm not really the outdoors type. I don't even like going on the beach, so it's really, really
quite inappropriate that I should be designing images to go on surf wear. I think I can pretty well
understand what young boys like because I have a mental age of about 12 years old, and making fun
of the male anatomy amuses me, as much as it amuses them. In 1990, my brother Peter and I, who was
a bass player in the Mentals, started our own band called Dog Trumpet. We were still in the
Mentals, and the other Mentals also had developed their own side bands, at the time, partly because
we were all songwriters, and we just had too many songs to use up on Mentals albums. In 2000, Mambo
was asked to contribute to the closing ceremony of the Olympics, so I got the job of designing... I
think it was about a dozen quite enormous blow-up figures that were walked around the stadium. 2000
was a fairly momentous year for me because, um... as well as doing the Olympics, that was the year
I left the Mentals. Just after 20 years of touring, I found it was difficult to do other things.
And also, my father died that year. So, it was a big year.

PETER THOMPSON: So did your dad get to see the Olympic closing ceremony?

REG MOMBASSA: No, he didn't. That was a shame. He would have enjoyed that.

PETER THOMPSON: Did he get to see the models at all?

REG MOMBASSA: No, he didn't, really, but, um... He really liked the fact that I painted pictures of
his houses. He, you know, told my mother that he appreciated that, and I'm glad he did, 'cause it
was like, you know, a bit like we were... You know, he would build a house, and I'd paint a picture
of it, and then he'd make a model of that. It was an endless cycle.

PETER THOMPSON: What about Peter - he's, what, six and a half years younger than you?


PETER THOMPSON: When you say you laugh at many of the same things...

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, we have a similar sense of humour. He's actually very funny. He says very funny

PETER THOMPSON: So much of your art is absurdly humorous.

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, I... I really like humour, whether it's written stuff in books or, you know, TV
shows, All 'The Goons' and 'Monty Python' - all that stuff I really enjoy. And, I mean humour can
be almost religious or spiritual because it does help you to make the world more tolerable,
particularly than what the sad and troubling and violent parts of it.

PETER THOMPSON: You're Christian, aren't you?

REG MOMBASSA: Well, I guess I'm a nominal Christian, and that I've grown up in that culture, but I
don't... And I like the idea of a lot of the aspects of Jesus, if he was a real person - I'm not
sure if he was or not, but whether it's the Catholic Church or the Protestant Church, it's a very
big, powerful, monolithic institution, that, at times, behave very badly. And they do good things,
too. I mean, you shouldn't... you got to take into account the Church does, and religions, in
general, do very, you know, good things for people and help them, and being religious helps people
deal with the world, in some respects, but it also has very negative effects. Someone once said
they were looking at my pictures, and they said, "Oh, it's a real combination of darkness and
innocence." And I think, that's probably relatively correct observation.

PETER THOMPSON: You were on the road with Mentals for 20-plus years, and you had this very long
relationship with Martina. What impact has she had in your life?

REG MOMBASSA: Oh, a huge impact. She's been my, uh... I know people like to say partner, but I
always like to say wife because it's more OK, so I mean, she has been my wife for many years now,
and that's a big part of my life. And the children, as well. So... it did, it does keep you
relatively normal.

PETER THOMPSON: Did you always see art as the long-run thing?

REG MOMBASSA: Yes, I think so. I certainly never thought, "Oh, I am going to stop doing art, "stop
drawing and stop being interested in the visual world."

PETER THOMPSON: Let's go visit your studio.

REG MOMBASSA: OK. I've always been interested in my surroundings, which is basically, outer
suburban, sort of, areas that I grew up in, and I found plenty of things to draw, and I like
ordinary things. I call it the aristocracy of the normal. The suburbs have always been, to me, full
of interesting things to draw and paint. This is my little piece of suburbia. I live here with my
wife, and three children, and a cat and a dog. And this is where I work. Going up and down this
ladder 50 times a day has probably saved my life 'cause it's the only exercise I get, apart from
hopping in and out of my car. Sharpening pencils is excellent exercise, as well as going up and
down stairs. This little room, white room, is my , and where I come to escape from reality, from
the world. On a typical day, I'll be working up here in the daytime, and Martina works in the
lounge - that's, kind of, her office, where the computer is. She'll be probably constantly telling
me there's someone on the phone, or an E-mail that I have to have a look at. Or we get together for
a cup of tea, or lunch or whatever. I do like the cat more than the dog. I guess I am a cat person.
All of my children are artistic in some way, either musically or in terms of acting or drawing. It
probably would have been handy to have a few lawyers and stockbrokers and consultants. As an
artist, it's been very good being able to put my images on shirts and posters, and have that, sort
of, wider exposure to the public that I still... I've always also exhibited in galleries. I had my
first survey show this year at the SH Ervin Gallery in Sydney. It was very nice to get together a
whole lot of pictures. There's some that I haven't seen for years and years, and put them all
together, and, kind of, have a look at what you've been doing for the last 30 years or so. I'm
still designing images for Mambo - T-shirts. Not as much as I perhaps did six or seven years ago,
but I'm still doing the odd one, but probably spending more time on doing my own paintings and
drawings now. It's a dirty business, but somebody has to do it. When I'm up here in this studio...
I mainly use this for drawing, and painting and writing stuff, as well, although if I'm working on
songs, I do that in the kitchen. Tonight, me and my brother Peter have got a gig with our band Dog
Trumpet. We just released a new CD called 'Antisocial Tendencies', and we're playing at Cronulla
tonight. I really enjoy the fact that it's my brother Peter that I'm in a band with, and Peter and
I have very similar, sort of, sensibilities, in terms of music and art. Actually, in terms of the
subject matter and the kind of stuff that we like. We also share a sense of humour. I find that
Peter can be very amusing, and the same kind of things make us laugh.

PETER THOMPSON: Does your success surprise you?

REG MOMBASSA: To some extent. I mean, I always, sort of, thought that I had some talent, but I
didn't always have the confidence, or the drive or the naked ambition. I mean, I do have some
ambition and some confidence, but possibly not as much as you might need.

PETER THOMPSON: What turns out on the canvas or on the piece of paper - does it surprise you?

REG MOMBASSA: Like every artist or musician, not everything you do is a hit single or a
masterpiece, but some of the things you definitely like better than others.

PETER THOMPSON: For the T-shirts, you do hundreds of drawings, don't you?

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, for a range of, say, half a dozen T-shirts and a couple of posters, I might do
between 100 and 200, just little small, rough pencil sketches, and that, in some ways, that's the
most enjoyable part of the process.

PETER THOMPSON: How do you feel about your art being worn on the street like that?

REG MOMBASSA: Oh, I'm very... always happy to see that. Something, I feel like going up to people
and saying, "Oh, good on you for wearing that. I certainly wouldn't."

PETER THOMPSON: You don't, do you?

REG MOMBASSA: No, not really. This is what I wear - this is my uniform.

PETER THOMPSON: What you always wear?

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah. Bus staff, New South Wales bus staff. So I was missing about worrying about
what to wear.

PETER THOMPSON: How have you felt over the years, as you look back, and you've recently had a
retrospective of your work, which must be quite exciting?

REG MOMBASSA: Not allowed to say 'retrospective' to artists. They always get worried that they're
about to die if you say that. You have to say 'survey' - that's the new word.

PETER THOMPSON: Alright, there's been a survey. Uh, when you see your own progression as an artist,
what do you see?

REG MOMBASSA: Well, I'm not sure if I see a progression. It's pretty much the same as it was 30
years ago. No, there is a progression, actually, at least in terms of style in painting. But I do
always say I still have pretty much the technical, sort of, tools and abilities of a five-year-old.
It's just basically drawing a picture on a piece of paper, and colouring it in afterwards.

PETER THOMPSON: Writers, sometimes, must look back, and cringe at their early work. Do you feel
that, in any sense, about your early work?

REG MOMBASSA: Oh, I cringe at some of it, but I still cringe at some recent work, as well, so
there's always... A cringe factor is always going to creep in, I think, unless you're fooling

PETER THOMPSON: You've become... and your art, especially, has become, sort of, part of the
Australian iconography, hasn't it?

REG MOMBASSA: Yeah, I guess it has, to some extent, and that's, um... very gratifying. You know, if
someone says they enjoyed my work, or been inspired by it, I really like that because I've been
inspired by other people's work, and enjoyed it, you know, and it's enriched my life, and made it
more interesting, so if my work can have that effect on someone else, I think that's good.

PETER THOMPSON: Reg, it's been great talking to you.

REG MOMBASSA: Thank you. Nice to talk to you.

PETER THOMPSON: And that's Reg Mombassa.