Rolling Stone‘s interview series King for a Day features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and singers who had the difficult job of fronting major rock bands after the departure of an iconic vocalist. Some of them stayed in their bands for years, while others lasted just a few months. In the end, however, they all found out that replacement singers can themselves be replaced. This edition features former INXS singer J.D. Fortune.
When J.D. Fortune was a kid in the Eighties, he worshipped INXS. “I wanted to be Michael Hutchence,” he says via Zoom from his home in Nova Scotia, Canada. “He was just so fuckin’ cool. And one of my first major makeout sessions happened while ‘Need You Tonight’ and ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ played. I’m smooching some girl and thinking, ‘Does life get any better than this?'”
Life did indeed get better than that on Sept. 20, 2005, when Fortune won the CBS reality show Rock Star: INXS and was named the new singer of the Australian band, eight years after Hutchence died. This wasn’t just some TV gimmick like The Apprentice, where the winner might never see Donald Trump again or get anywhere near his organization. Fortune spent the next six years singing for INXS, traveling the world several times over on major tours with original members Tim Farriss, Kirk Pengilly, Garry Gary Beers, Andrew Farriss, and Jon Farriss, and landing new hits on the radio like “Pretty Vegas” and “Devil’s Party.”
But the real drama started when the CBS cameras stopped rolling. Fortune wasn’t prepared for the stress of life on the road with a major rock band, and he turned to cocaine and other hard drugs to cope with it. Within a few years of his victory on Rock Star, headlines like “INXS Singer Says Broke, Homeless After Fired From Band” popped up on the Internet. That particular story wasn’t accurate, he says, but it did reflect the chaos of his life at the time.
“I didn’t see my family for a whole year on that first INXS tour,” Fortune says. “The only people I saw were the band members and their family and friends and management. I had no support. No one pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey man, are you okay? You’ve just done some shit. There’s 40,000 people screaming your name right now. How do you feel like?'”
Despite the problems that came with singing for INXS, it was still the culmination of a dream that began when Jason Bennison Fortune first heard Elvis Presley’s music as a very small child. “It was the soundtrack to the  Kurt Russell Elvis movie,” he says. “That was my video game, my TV, my everything back then. I just listened to that album all day long, every day.”
The infatuation eventually led Fortune to more modern artists like AC/DC, Michael Jackson, the Cars, and Duran Duran. He was even in the audience at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens on March 4, 1984, when Duran Duran shot the video for “The Reflex.” “It was fantastic,” he said. “I was in the fourth row, and I walked out of there thinking I was going to be famous since I was in the crowd.”
His journey from concert audiences to concert stages was a long one, and it included pit stops like a very brief stint on the Jerry O’Connell children’s show My Secret Identity as a glorified extra, work at a martial arts school and a karaoke bar, and a short run as a truck driver. After nearly dying in a nasty truck accident, he joined the Canadian Army, where he worked as a radio operator for two years. “I got mixed up with the wrong crowd at the base,” he says. “I got into little fights. When my time was up, I got out of there.”
Throughout most of this time, Fortune was singing in various little bands around Canada. One of his groups almost inked a record deal, but the label changed their minds after 9/11 because they deemed the band’s song “American Way” too critical of America during that patriotic time.
Not long afterwards, Fortune found himself living in his car in Toronto near Cherry Street Beach with his pug, Presley. The only CD in his possession was Kick by INXS. And that very first night, he heard on the radio that the band was seeking out a new singer via a TV show produced by Survivor/The Apprentice creator Mark Burnett. “I looked at my dog and went, ‘Dude, I’m winning this fuckin’ thing,'” says Fortune. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
Tell me about the audition process for Rock Star.
Worldwide, I think about 50,000 people signed up. It was about 30,000 in America, and 20,000 throughout the rest of the world. So that was a bit daunting. You got 50,000 people that want the same job. The first day, my guitar player didn’t show up. It was horrific, just brutal.
One of the producers of the show had a microphone. He goes, “Are you OK up there?” I went, “I’m just going to sing a capella because my guy’s not here.” And he’s like, “You’re gonna sing without a guitar? OK.”
I started singing. Then I said, “Have you ever had a nightmare you can’t wake up from?” And then I put the mic back onto the stand. I walked out the door like everyone else. And I’m not kidding you, I was about 20 feet from my car, and out comes the producer running towards me. He’s got a piece of paper with an invitation to come back the next day for for further auditions. He said, “Yeah, I have had a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
What song did you sing that first day?
I did an original that first day. Ballsy, right? It’s a song no one has ever heard of. I don’t think I’ve sang it since that day. And then the next day, I showed up again, no instruments again. And got up there and they said, “Are you going to do this again?” I said, “I don’t have anybody to play guitar.” Kirk Pengilly and Tim Farris were in the audience for the audition process. Kirk stood up, walked up to the guy behind me who had an acoustic guitar, and he said, “Can I borrow this, mate?”
He said to me, “What do you want to sing?” I said, “How about ‘Never Tear Us Apart?'” So there’s Kirk up there playing the song. I sang it. All I remember is him giving the guy the guitar back, and that guy was looking at me like, “Fuck you, man.” He was so pissed that one of the band members got up and played. I thought, “OK, well, that’s a novelty. Maybe he’s doing that for everybody.” But it turns out that not one band member did that for any of the other 50,000 people that tried out.
It’s pretty weird that they didn’t broadcast any of this. On American Idol, the auditions are about half the show. But Rock Star begins with the finalists walking into the mansion.
I always thought the real show would be the before and the after, when I got in the band. That transition was pretty full-on. You’re joining a band that had been together for years.
What was it like when you showed up at the mansion on day one?
We had to sign a contract over 600 pages long. It was everything from like, “If there’s an earthquake or a terrorist attack, you will not sue Mark Burnett.” It covered everything. “Just sign here and here and here…”
Having that sort of contract was a big step for me. Up until that point, I had just been with local bands. There was nothing even with national exposure. So I was like, “This is the big leagues. It’s time to start looking beyond the fishbowl that you’re in, and start looking at the ocean that’s on the other side of it.”
That’s what that very first week of that show was like. I just felt like every time I turned around, I was seeing something new, experiencing something new, trying to absorb it, hoping I wasn’t sent home.
Did they film you 24/7 in the house?
Oh yeah. They even had little cameras in the bedroom. If you’d move at night, the camera would follow you.
Was it hard to adjust to that kind of surveillance?
It took about two weeks, and then you didn’t even notice them at all. That was the dangerous part because you have these condenser mics on. When you’re whispering to somebody, it’s being picked up by five guys with cameras. You’re like, “Oh shit.” Then you have to be real nice. “Please don’t put that on TV.” But after about two weeks, the cameras just became part of the scenery.
They nearly sent you home in the first episode. Did that freak you out?
I thought I had my game. I thought, “I’m good.” And then to have people of that caliber, like Dave Navarro and INXS, say “Heeeey. Not so much.” It really woke me up. It made me look at who I was performing against, and who I wanted to be, and what band I wanted to be in, and how I wanted to perform for them. I wanted to be a powerhouse for them. I didn’t want them to take me for a ride. I wanted to ride together with them. They gave me a great opportunity to do that.
How did you grow as a singer as the weeks went by and you were living in that pressure cooker?
Your focus grows. You learn to control your focus, and you learn not to get distracted by trivial things. You’d usually get a song on Monday, and then you’re performing it on Wednesday, and you have one rehearsal. It’s daunting. It’s really daunting. Thank god for Paul Mirkovich and all the guys from the house band, because they were really patient with us.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was approaching it like how I would approach being in any band. I’d go in like, “This is the song. This is how I like to sing it. This is the tempo I like to sing it in. This is the key I like to sing it in. Let’s put a few little bells and whistles here to make the song our own instead of doing a note-for-note cover.”
This is before social media really hit. You weren’t getting the instant feedback from the public you’d get today when the episodes aired.
Not until the following week, when they would show a clip of the edited show. The show aired three days a week in the summer. I think it was Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
Tuesday would be the mansion day and all of us messing around in there. Wednesday would be the performance. And then Thursday would be the elimination. You’ve got Friday, Saturday, Sunday where you know you’ve made it. Your brain goes, “I’m here for another week.” But then Monday hits, and they give you another song, and you’re doing the whole process over again.
It made us reach the next level of our own performances. We were getting stronger and stronger. Some of the contestants were falling by the wayside. The pressure was too much, so their performances became less than super strong.
Were you confident you were going to win when it came time to film the finale?
I did. I looked around when there was about five of us left. And I’m a huge INXS fan. I was thinking, “Who would I want to see front this band?” I was like, “Nope. Nope. Nope. I gotta be runner-up or something.”
On the last show, I did “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” If you want to laugh, go back and watch it. As a joke, Kirk Pengilly from INXS… and I love him to death… I talk to him all the time. But he came back and he said, “We’re going to go with the other guy.” This is 10 minutes before I’m going on stage. Millions of people are watching on TV. And I was like, “Ah shit! So close!”
At that point, I had a choice. I could have been like, “Fuck this.” But I went out there and just blew it out. The angel on my shoulder said, “Go out there and compete. Go sing your ass off like you still have a chance.” And I did. And I won.
You fell to the ground in shock when they said that you won. What did that moment feel like?
It was great. My mother and father had flown in. At that point, I was 31 years old. It’s a little up there for wanting to start a new career in something. It felt like all the times…I had a teacher when I was younger that said to me, “Don’t sing. You’re a horrible singer.” Another teacher said, “Don’t close your eyes when you sing. You look ridiculous.”
I spent 9th grade singing with my eyes super wide open. I looked like a fool. Had I listened to those people, I wouldn’t have had that incredible experience with INXS.
Did any part of you worry it wasn’t real? It’s not like reality TV always gives the winners what they think they’re getting. Did you worry you’d do a concert or two, maybe a single, and that would be it?
It didn’t cross my mind. It went the other way. I thought I wasn’t ready for how much was coming. I thought, “OK, I won the show. We’ll be on the road. And in six months, nobody will care except the people that bought tickets to see us.”
But everywhere we went for a year and a half, they had the show in that particular country too. So I couldn’t get out of it. It’s now a year later and we’re in Scotland on a radio show. And they’re like, “So tell us, what’s it feel like being in INXS?” I was like, “For the last year, It’s been amazing.”
Tell me about the first time you were with the guys without cameras around. It must have been weird to leave the reality show and enter the actual world together.
Yeah. That was the studio experience. I won the show, got into the van, and there was literally a sheet of paper with letterhead on it on the coffee table of this place they rented for me to stay for four weeks while we recorded the album. “It was like, “Hey, congratulations. We love you. You’re the right choice. You’ll be in the studio tomorrow at 8 a.m.” [Laughs.]
The very first time I was alone with them was in Westlake Studios, which is where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller. So that was huge. I’m singing in the same booth that Michael Jackson recorded in. Everyone was gone. I think there were a couple of people that worked for INXS. I was still trying to get oriented. This is like four or five days after the show. It was just the six of us. It was like a dream come true.
They say, “Don’t meet your heroes.” But I’m glad I did, because those guys changed my life for the better. Without them, without that band, I wouldn’t have had any of the exposure that I had, and wouldn’t get to experience what it’s like to co-write with arguably some of the greatest songwriters in the business.
Let’s talk about some of the songs you helped write with INXS, starting with “Devil’s Party.”
That was Andrew Farriss and myself. He had 45 seconds of a piece of music. He said, “What do you think of this?” I started writing some stuff around it. I think it was featured on the show. I went to Andrew and said, “I’ve got some ideas for this song.” And then we went out to two dinners. Literally, it was the coolest thing. He’d say, “Do you have any more lyrics for ‘Devil’s Party?'” And I’d say, “I’ve got these,” and I’d show him on a napkin. Then he’d write under what I wrote and send it back my way. We just kept doing that, and by the end of the meal, we had the lyrics. It was really cool.
How about “Pretty Vegas”?
Well, that was a juggernaut for me. That song was a rocket ship, but it’s a love/hate thing since I got sued by two of the members of the show for that song that had nothing to do with writing it. That stuck me right in the heart. You can see it in episode 16. The two of them say, “That’s J.D.’s song. We don’t want anything to do with it. He’s probably going home because of that. He’s writing it on his own. The assignment was to write it together.”
After they found out that “Pretty Vegas” was going to be the first single, they put a lien against it in California. They had absolutely nothing to do with it. There’s nothing more un-rock and roll, in my mind, than stealing someone’s song like that.
You also have a credit on “Never Let You Go.”
I was in the condo in L.A., and I was talking to beautiful Jon Farriss, the drummer. He’s like a Zen guru guy. Guys at that level just have percussion in them. They hear percussion in everything. And he suggested, “Why don’t you make the lyric sound like a beat instead of trying to sing along with the lyrics?” He had just gotten married, so he related to a couple of lines that I wrote. He said, “Why don’t you follow that a bit?” Within two hours, I had the whole song written. It was great.
What was it like the first time you walked onstage with INXS to play a legit show?
Brutal. It was in Las Vegas about a week after the show. I hadn’t started using in-ear monitors yet. I had no idea. I’d been in bands before, but not bands that played in front of 20,000 people in an arena. And they were so loud that it actually startled me when the fuckin’ song started. I was like, “Oh my God!”
I couldn’t hear anything. I blew my voice out by like the third song because I was trying to sing above the music, and trying to get my head as close to the monitors as possible. Now, keep in mind, this is before we actually rehearsed to go on a tour. This was a one-off. “INXS are playing in Vegas with their hit song ‘Pretty Vegas!'”
It was a big deal. I remember that night about 10 people walked out. They were like, “This guy can’t sing.” And to be honest with you, and I told the band, “I don’t feel well. I was just on this show for four months. I haven’t had a break. I’ve just recorded an album in the last four weeks. And now we’re playing a show in Vegas. Can we take a fuckin’ break?”
They were like, “We’re gonna get you to a doctor, and we’re gonna see what’s up.” And I had fluid in my lungs. I was gasping for air. I knew something was wrong. It wasn’t just having a couple too many beers one night, and having a little headache. I couldn’t get the air in to sing.
I think we postponed two shows. I went to Chicago, got to the hotel room, and they had set up a whole thing with plastic curtains and a humidifier and everything for me with antibiotics and steroids in the mist so I could breathe that into my lungs. And two days later, no problem.
How much were you trying to sing like Michael Hutchence, and how much were you trying to sound like yourself?
I’ve been lucky. When I’ve been thinking I was sounding like me, I’ve literally had people, including Michael’s own brother Rhett, say “Holy fuck, man. When I close my eyes, it sounds like Michael onstage.”
I don’t hear it. Even when I hear my voice back, I don’t go, “I sound like Michael Hutchence there.” I’ve never tried to sound like Michael. But I have tried to get the nuances and the inflections right because you’re talking about a band that had been together for almost three decades at that point. They’re like glue. They can anticipate each other’s moves onstage because they’ve been playing for so long together.
I never wanted to say, “Can we try that song again? Maybe I’ll do it better this time.” So I tried to get as much of the nuance that I could in my own voice. And I guess because I’m maybe similar in timbre and resonance, it sounded like Michael.
The Australian newspapers were always comparing us. “He puts his leg up on the monitor the same way. He holds the mic the same way.” You only have two hands, right? When I read that I was like, “Well, Frank Sinatra holds his mic the same way.” Instead of letting that get into my head, I just thought, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” And I did.
Michael Hutchence may not have been one of the all-time most famous singers in rock history, especially in America, but he was certainly one of the most charismatic. He could command the attention of an audience in a soccer stadium like Mick Jagger, Bono, or Dave Gahan. How intimidating was it having to stand in his shoes, and be compared to him over and over and over?
That’s a great question. It was incredibly, incredibly intimidating. It’s like replacing Elvis or Jim Morrison. I literally played shows where people seemed to be scowling during the first three songs. They were like, “You better be fuckin’ good, man.” By the end of the night, they were rockin’ and rollin’.
You did 142 concerts in 2006 alone. How hard was that on your body, mind, and voice?
It was three days on, one day off, three days on. That’s a lot. And that one day off is a travel day, but you’re traveling every day too. When you have a day off, you’re not sitting poolside. You’re in the back of the tour bus with a scarf around your neck, popping lozenges. I could sing three or four shows in a row. But when you take that day off, everything starts to heal. It’s like working out at the gym. You feel fine the next day, but it’s two days after when your muscles are like, “Holy shit. I really did a number on that.”
The same thing happens in your throat. You go, “Wow, I’ve been singing four days straight. I feel great.” And then you wake up the next morning like, “I’m a little raspy.” And then the second morning you’re like, [super-deep voice] “Holy fuck,” because your throat is trying to heal.
You did over 50 shows in 2007. It was just relentless.
And then there was the radio performances, the TV performances, corporate stuff that wasn’t listed on tour. We’d bounce over and do a corporate gig.
They would have the shows posted literally on a clipboard on the tour bus. I’d be flipping through and see four or five pages of shows. I was like, “Holy shit, man!”
Did you feel like a legit, full member of the band, or did you feel like a hired gun?
I felt like 100 percent a member. Those guys opened up their arms to me. I was a bit of a devil. I had some demons that I was working on. I was going through some really bad depression right when I won that show, especially having a couple of the cast members do that to me with the song “Pretty Vegas.” That just sent me down this really weird headspace. I was like, “Why am I doing this? How long do I have to do this until it gets better?”
I remember seeing headlines around 2009 that said, “INXS lead singer J.D. Fortune fired at the Hong Kong airport.” What happened there?
Well, I was never fired. I know the newspaper that said that. I’ve tried to get them to retract it, but they they’re just too big a newspaper. They basically told me to go get a lawyer.
What’s the actual truth?
So, I was in Hong Kong. I don’t know how the “fired in Hong Kong” thing started. But when I got back from Hong Kong to Toronto, I did an interview. And I think it was The Toronto Star. The reporter said, “Tell me about the last gig.” I said, “We played in Hong Kong, and some other places in Asia.” And then I said something like, “It’s all fun and games until you’re the last one at the gate in Hong Kong and your band is gone.”
I literally did a spit take when I saw the headline. I was like, “What the fuck?” At no point, did I say that [I was fired]. In fact, INXS was so cool that they put up a beautiful letter on their website. It basically said, “We love J.D. He’s great. At no point was he fired. We’re just taking a break.”
There were some songwriting differences. I wanted to go in one direction for the next album. They were thinking of redoing their older hits. I thought there was merit to that, but I thought we should be striking while the anvil is hot. We were on the road so long. It was such a trip. I was in Canada in 2006 and Madonna was Number Two, and then INXS was Number One on the video countdown. I was like, “Oh my God, we beat Madonna.” That was a big deal for me as a kid from the Eighties.
We were on the road so long with that album that I eventually saw, “Madonna’s new album just debuted at Number 39.” I was like, “Her new album? What the fuck! We’re still on this album!”
So you told the guys you wanted to write new songs and cut a new album?
Yeah. I think we were all sort of wondering what the idea was going to be. At that point, Andrew was working with an incredible songwriter, Ciaran Gribbin. I think they were working very closely on writing some stuff. I’ve never heard any of the any of their efforts.
I agreed to do the covers album [Original Sin, with was recorded with guest singers like John Mayer and Rob Thomas]. I was on two songs: “The Stairs” and “Love Is (What I Say).” That was one of my best vocal releases, but it wasn’t released on the album. That’s too bad since it’s classic INXS.
They were really busy. I was just burned out. I got to the point where even putting a microphone in my hand made me think, “I don’t want to be here.” It starts to hurt if you sing that much.
The public had the impression that you were out of the band for a period of time, and then they rehired you in 2010.
Yes. We got back together. We were in L.A. and we went out for lunch. It was sort of funny. We were talking about the media stuff and we were like, “If only there was a reporter here now that could see us and take a photo.” It would be like, “We got it all wrong. Look at them. They’re having a great time.”
But that didn’t happen. That moment of sitting there with Andrew and Gary and having some iced tea overlooking the ocean, they were saying, “We want to get back in the saddle, mate.” I was like, “Fuck yeah.” Like I said, they’re my favorite band. They are to this day. They’re my favorite band.
You’ve spoken in the past about your drug use during this time.
Yeah. That’s something I’ve been very forthright about. While I was going through that depression, I was trying to self-medicate. I used anything that was around, except for, like, heroin. I’m also not a hallucinogenic guy. I don’t like acid or anything like that. I definitely had a romance with cocaine, but it’s been over 10 years now since I have touched anything. That’s one of my proudest accomplishments.
Were you using hard drugs while touring with INXS?
Yeah. I would call it “running.” I would go for a “run.” We’d play Monday and Tuesday, have Wednesday and Thursday off, and then play Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Those two off days, I’d get whatever I could get my hands on and just lock myself away in a hotel room.
You did a tour with them in 2011. How was that one?
That was great. Some of that was in Australia. Australia, to me, is this mythical, magical place where I feel good. I love the air. I love the people. I love the music, especially.
That’s where I really became J.D. Fortune. It was when I was living in Australia and working with INXS. Until that time, J.D. Fortune was just an ethereal entity sort of floating around. And then INXS tent-pegged that name into the ground.
When I flew to Australia, I had a seven-hour sleep. Then I was performing on their biggest morning show the next morning, Sydney Sunrise. They were expecting about 1,500 people to show up, and over 6,000 people showed up. At that point, I thought we were fuckin’ U2. I was like, “I’m in a huge band right now.” These people went out of their way at 7:45 a.m. and flooded the streets of Sydney. It’s on YouTube. It’s fantastic.
What were your favorite older songs to sing in concert?
I love “Suicide Blonde.” I think that’s a good one. “Never Tear Us Apart” is very special too. Picture this, they were songs I adored when I was a kid. I got the opportunity to sing those songs, and then I would turn around and I would see the band. [Laughs.]
One DJ in Australia said to me, “What’s it like being in INXS?” I had been in the band for a while at that point. I still had no more to say than, “It’s fuckin’ awesome.” I sounded like the biggest rube. “It’s great!” It really was an awesome experience. Those guys were literally on my walls. I crossed over into that fantasy.
Your last show with them was in Atlanta in 2011. What do you remember about that night?
I think that was our second time playing in Atlanta. I remember a security guy was being let go from the band. I can’t mention any names, but he was sort of double-dipping from the band. We’d ask him to get batteries for our stage packs for mics and in-ears. He would buy 100 batteries, but charge us for 250 batteries. That was all happening right at that time. I was like, “See you later, gentlemen. Call me later if there’s ever a chance I can play with you guys again.”
A few weeks later, they announced that Ciaran Gribbin was taking over as lead singer. What happened?
If memory serves me correctly, they were going to start another album that was going to be a compilation of remastered hits. And so I think there was a bit of confusion and miscommunication as far as whether or not I wanted to participate. I didn’t really see me having a role in having anything to say about their previous work. That’s where I thought it was coming from.
The fact they got another singer, I really didn’t mind because, I gotta tell you, the commutes from L.A. to Australia are heavy. They are 15 hours each way. In one month, I did that flight about six or seven times. In a weird way, it was sort of a relief. But then I did the Home Alone thing of, “Oh my God! What just happened?”
Then never explained to you exactly why you were out and Ciaran was in?
That’s why I’m saying there was some miscommunication there. They were getting rid of a lot of people back then, and even changing management. They had re-hired their former manager, Chris Murphy, and I think he wanted to streamline the band and brings costs down. I was still like, “Let’s play some music, boys! We got it!”
I think they were caught between a rock and a hard place. I don’t think it had anything to do with them or me. I think it was purely from a management point of view.
They gigged with Ciaran for a few months, and then just totally ended the band to this day. Do you know what happened?
I talked to Kirk about a month ago. We were just reminiscing about some stuff. He was quite clear. He said, “I don’t think we’re going to be doing any gigs.” I don’t know if you know this, but Tim lost some fingers in an accident. That’s hard, man. That’s really hard. When you’re known as a world-famous guitar player, and now some of your fingers are missing, that’s hard. I pray that he’s doing alright.
But I’ve been writing songs and going out and doing some recording. I’ve got offers to do some touring that will take me to Australia. I’d love to be there singing my guts out to anyone that will come see the show. I will be doing some INXS songs. When I get to Australia, I’ll be contacting those guys and seeing if they want to jam, even if it is just us jamming.
In the years after you left the band, did you have a hard time finding your place in the world?
Yeah. Will Smith said it best back in the day, before the slap. He said, “It’s hard being famous. But it’s even harder being famous and broke.” And that’s where I was. I was open game for anyone that wanted to point a finger and say, “You fucked up.” It was all me for some reason. It’s easy to blame the new guy, I guess.
But the band never blamed me. It was more media. In fact, Gary Beers and Kirk Pengilly were really big supporters of mine. I did some demos with Gary, and played a few one-off gigs with him. And that felt good. It was just me and Gary. We did INXS songs with a really great pick-up band from Los Angeles.
I stayed at his house for about four nights. Prior to that, it had always been tour buses where we had our own little sections, or hotel rooms. This is after knowing him for about 10 years. He said, “J.D., you’re a pretty nice guy.” I said, “You’re just figuring this out now?” We had a pretty good laugh. I would play with those guys any day.
What have you been doing in the past ten years to pay the bills?
Everything and anything I could. I was lucky enough that some of the royalties from the first album I did with them lasted a few years. And then I moved back out to L.A., and was under a management company there. I got some funding to do some demos. That situation didn’t last because that man… I signed an NDA and can’t get into it, but he stole from me and that dissolved that. He was like, “How come you aren’t doing better?” I was like, “Because you’re taking my fuckin’ money, dude.”
I’ve been doing anything and everything. Basically, writing music and just getting in touch with who I am as an artist. There’s a difference between having something to say as an artist, and just writing about being angry, which is what I did before. I’m not angry at myself anymore. I’m angry about issues in the world now that impact all of us.
Did you take any non-music jobs at any point?
No. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to scrimp and save and keep my head afloat. I’ve had to sell a few things. That’s the thing they don’t tell you about in the rock world. You can buy these great, big, expensive guitars and amps and stuff like that. But then when your mortgage is due you’re like, “Fuck, I love that guitar. Well, see you later.” [Laughs.]
When exactly did you get off drugs?
New Year’s Eve 2010. It’s been 12 years. If only I could quit smoking. I quit that for five years, and then started again during the pandemic like an idiot. But getting off cocaine was…I don’t mean to sound pompous, but it was not as hard as it would have been was I an addict for a different reason. I purely used to self-medicate, to escape. I guess that’s what all drug addicts do. I wouldn’t go out to a party, have a few drinks, and be like, “Let’s have some cocaine!” It was more like, “Aw, shit is happening. I’m stuck in this hotel room for two days. I hate it. I can’t talk. My body feels gross…Let’s get high.”
You mentioned a tour of Australia next year?
These dates are all tentative, but I am starting in Australia and then doing a couple of shows in New Zealand. We’re gonna take it from there and see what happens. The reason why I chose going back there is because Australia opened me up as a person. It’s one of the greatest places in the world.
The people there are just so solid and non-nonsense. They take you at your word, and you better be a person of your word. I want to go back and show all of the fans that supported me in the past how far I’ve come and how much I enjoy this now, and how much different it’s going to be having a focused and sober, healthy motherfucker on that stage singing his goddamn guts out.
How much of the show will be your new songs, and how much of it will be INXS songs?
We’re just in the middle of discussing that now. I’ll probably touch on all the hits of INXS, but I have been busy writing my own stuff. What will be really cool is to be able to say one night, “Ladies and gentlemen, here is Kirk Pengilly from INXS,” and bring him up on stage. That would be a dream come true for me.
Tell me about your plan for these new songs. How are you putting them out?
Right now, I’m developing this music. Ironically, I think I got picked [for INXS] because of my songwriting skills, and I lean towards INXS’s style when I write. So some of it has almost a country feel, but it’s dirty. It’s not your grandma’s country song. It’s got some sway and some sex to it, and some dirt. I talk about drugs. I talk about my addiction. I talk about getting ripped off. I talk about getting sued. I talk about the current state of the U.S. and Canada.
When I joined INXS, I was isolated from all that stuff. When I was in the show, Hurricane Katrina hit. We didn’t know. We were sequestered in that house. They brought a newspaper in. It was like, “Oh my God. Thousands of people are dead? How come you didn’t tell us this two days ago when it happened?” They went, “Because you can’t know any of the outside news or else you’ll say something on the TV show.” Little weird.
It’s funny that the same production team that basically made Donald Trump president made you the singer of INXS.
I know, man. I met Trump in Toronto at a promotional event when Rock Star and The Apprentice were coming out. People from both shows came together to meet the corporate sponsors. Donald Trump was there and he gave a speech about The Apprentice. I got up to sing after that. I said, “I must be doing something right. I haven’t even won the show yet, and Donald Trump is my opener.”
I don’t think he liked that. After I sang, I went backstage and he was signing books in the dressing room. I said, “Mr. Trump, my uncle Graham is a big fan of your golf book. Can you sign it for him?”
I’m not kidding. He turned to me and said, “Graham? His name is Graham?” I go, “Yeah. It’s Graham. Thank you very much.” He goes, “No problem.” Then he gave me the book. I walked out and looked down and it was just his signature, no “Graham.” I was like, “Why did you ask me?”
If you’re driving in your car now and “Need You Tonight” or “Never Tear Us Apart” comes on the radio, how do you feel? Do you sing along? Do you change the station?
I melt. I just melt because I was there. I was right there. I had it all in my hand, and I couldn’t hold onto it. And when I hear INXS songs, I feel a sense of pride.
About a year ago, I was at the grocery store. “Need You Tonight” started playing, and I got recognized by a couple of people in line. I get up to the cashier, and she’s about 17. She was ringing my stuff up. I just said, “I was in this band.” Without missing a beat, she went, [totally deadpan and bored] “OK.” [Laughs.] It summed up my whole career.
You had a lot of rough patches and setbacks, but the whole thing was a one in a million chance. It’s a miracle.
Yes. It’s a miracle. What I’m doing now is also one in a million. I’m 49 years old. I feel like I’m 29. I’m getting ready to get into super-good shape, get myself rehearsed, and get out there and start touring again.
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I know there might be a few people that think, “Why is he singing INXS songs?” But those people won’t understand how important that heritage and pedigree is to me as far as who I am as an artist. I’m always going to do INXS songs, for the rest of my life. Whether it’s with some of the guys in the band, or without, my biggest goal is to just do them with the honor that those songs deserve to be played, especially for Michael. Those songs, my god, those are timeless.
They do need to live, and there’s no better person to be out there singing them than you.
I feel that too. And I feel like I’m getting a second chance at this.