Alan Fletcher: NEIGHBOURS' Dr Karl Kennedy Talks Music!

Published on 12 August 2022

It’s quite an unusual thing to meet somebody for the first time when they’ve been in your living room every dinner time for twenty five years. The voice, the expressions...they are all very familiar...like an old friend, in fact, despite you having never exchanged a word in reality with the person in question.

Such is the case with actor-musician Alan Fletcher. For the last 28 years, he has been Ramsay Street’s local GP Dr Karl Kennedy, the lovable sometime-rascal doctor on Neighbours. Along with his on-screen wife Susan and fellow character Jared ‘Toadfish’ Rebecchi, Dr Karl is easily the most well-known and recognisable regular on the series, which came to an end only last week after 37 uninterrupted years.

It's the end of an era for sure, and definitely an emotional moment for the millions of fans who’ve followed the crazy exploits of Ramsay Street’s finest over the decades. It’s been a strange thing for many fans to have these people around in their lives so much and then have it all abruptly stop, and the reaction to the end of this legendary soap has been a loud one indeed. There have been outpourings of grief and sadness, but also a sense of celebration and joy for all the decades of shared good times.

 

 

For the show’s finale, ex-cast members like Margot Robbie, Guy Pierce and Kylie Minogue showed up in character to join the likes of Dr Karl, Toadie and Harold Bishop one last time, giving the beloved show the send-off it deserved.

For musician Alan, though, there’s more to come, as we’ll find out in this exclusive interview! We joined Alan on Zoom for a wonderful discussion of not only Neighbours-related news but also his established career as a singer-songwriter. Indeed, his new EP, Dispatches, was released recently, and he’d just come home from a recording session prior to speaking with us. We delved into all that, plus his favourite instruments, and his experiences in performing over ten tours in between filming Neighbours.

Melbourne is 9 hours ahead of the UK, so our morning entwined with Alan’s early evening. A delightful man to speak to, he was full of warmth and enthusiasm, with just a little hint of Dr Karl’s rakish cheekiness in there, too! Read on to get the inside scoop form the man behind everyone’s favourite Aussie doc...

(Photo: Alan Fletcher)

 

Alan Fletcher Interview

Guitarguitar: I’m sure you’re getting this a lot but it’s definitely worth saying: I grew up with you as the local doctor on Ramsay Street every night, so it’s lovely to have a chat with you.

Alan Fletcher: Thank you, it’s really lovely. So many people have said how much they love the show.

GG: It’s a special thing! But yes, we are here to talk music! You’ve just released your new EP, Dispatches, and you’re going to be coming on tour, so we’ll focus more on that today, with maybe just a little dovetail into the Neighbours stuff. So, we know you best as an actor,  but have you always concurrently been a musician as well?

AF: Well pretty much, yeah. As an actor, I’ve always sung in musical theatre, and I’ve often been asked to do charity concerts, Christmas concerts, swing concerts, that sort of thing. Not an enormous amount but enough to keep my hand in and have a great time. But I never really thought about playing in a band  or anything like that until I met a couple of musos – Tommy Rando and Chris Hawker – here in Melbourne. They were actually playing in a restaurant where my wife and I were having Valentine’s Day dinner and they suggested I get up and sing a song with then. My wife reckons I bullied my way into doing a song with them – whatever (laughs) – but they suggested we start playing together. I suggested that we play at the Neighbours night in Melbourne, which is a big backpacker event, because I didn’t really want to be doing three sets in a pub until two in the morning, you know? I thought a one hour set would be really cool.

That was in 2004 and it just went off! We recorded that album straight away and the University circuit in the UK found out about the band (called Waiting Room) and then said, ‘We’ll take that!’ So, we did two tours a year for the first two years and then single tours for the next eight. It was a really wonderful experience, but we did wind up playing together in Melbourne in mid-2015. In 2019 I was in Tamworth and I met up with the guys I’m working with now, Americana producers, making the kind of music I’ve always loved with a passion.

GG: Yeah, that was one thing I was going to ask you! This is your first recorded foray into Americana, so is that a genre you’ve been a fan of anyway?

AF: All my life, for all time. Principally because of people like John Prine. A lot of John’s music delves into some very interesting comedy, but the very first John Prine song I heard was Fish & Whistle, so I put that onto the EP.

But the first song I’ve actually heard of John’s , though I didn’t know, was Hello in There sung in a cabaret concert! It’s a beautiful song and I love the fact that he wrote the song while he was on his post office round.

GG: Oh wow!

AF: He kind of went to an open mic night and figured that he was better than anybody else who was playing, and they offered him a gig. He played his three songs each week or whatever and then he realised that the people who came along might come again the following week, so he needed some new songs! He wrote them on his postal round. The brilliance of such a person to be like that.

GG: Yeah, definitely! I’m interested in that because he had a day job and was also a musician. I don’t know what the Neighbours schedule must’ve been like for you these past few decades but I’m assuming it made doing other things quite difficult. So, with that in mind, when writing music, are you like: ‘I finally have some time off, I’ll write some music’, or do you always have a song on the go that you’re working on?

AF: I have about three of four songs on the go. We‘re in the studio now, working on the album, and we’re up to about our tenth song. Today, I just sat there at the end of the day and went, ‘Hey guys, listen to this’, because I had a song all demoed up. They said, ‘Ah yeah, ok, we should make some time to work on that next week’.

I’m painfully aware that I have songs that I have recorded, that I don’t know would make the album. We’re absolutely adamant that this album will link together beautifully: every song feeds into the other; every song informs the other. We don’t want it to be a hodgepodge, we want it to have a consistency. I love the process! I’ve actually got a file on my computer – I’m sure everyone’s like this – I’ve got a folder that just says ‘Alan’s songs’ and I think it’s now up to 45 folders of song files! Often I find that a song I start becomes completely different by the time it’s finished. That actually happened with a song we’re putting on the album, Saddle, a beautiful country ballad. Now it’s gone into a grungy, New Orleans-type Jason Isbell song, you know?

GG: Oh, brilliant! So, for your writing process, do you have a set up at home with software and so on? And do you begin on the guitar?

AF: Yeah, I’ve got a gorgeous mic over here, a local manufacturer actually. I buy stuff all the time, I’m just terrible! So the mic goes straight to my computer through the little Scarlett (Focusrite Scarlett audio interface), demo stuff up and then send it to the guys in the studio. I have a room in my house with all my guitars, piano and keyboards, so I just go up there and have a little noodle around if I’m trying to get an idea to happen. It’s a beautiful way to spend four or five hours!

(Photo: Alan Fletcher)

 

GG: Oh, for sure! You said your mic was a local brand? Is that Rode?

AF: Yeah, this one’s an OPR (Open Plan Recording) mic, and these guys are from Melbourne. This one’s like a Neumann and it performs absolutely beautifully. I’ve got Rode NT-1’s that I use for voiceovers and if course I’ve got a Shure SM-7 running around somewhere as well. But I’m a bit compulsive about buying gear, it’s shocking! (laughs)

GG: Well, I mean, this is guitarguitar! Everyone reading this will share the same problem, haha! So, let’s talk guitars! What do you currently like using?

AF: I’ve got a Martin HD-28 Vintage, which has the most beautiful sound of any acoustic guitar I’ve ever owned. I actually bought it from the guy who I record with. An incredible guitarist called Ben Edgar, who plays with everybody, he left it there in the studio and eventually said, ‘If anyone wants this Martin, let me know’, and it’s just a beautiful guitar. That finds its way onto a lot of the record.

Damien’s my producer, he’s a multi-instrumentalist. He’s got a Duesenberg slide guitar that sits on his lap, it’s quite an extraordinary instrument. He’s got a Collings acoustic, which he uses all the time and he’s got a $200 nylon classical guitar which we used extensively. There’s racks and racks of guitars, I‘m sure you can understand! Hofner bass, the classic Paul McCartney one! Sometimes the ES-335 will get a run, as will your teles and all sorts of electrics. He also pulls out guitars from brands I’ve not heard of or know much about! (laughs) Plus of course he plays mandolin, banjo, you name it. This guy’s amazing.

 

"Acting and music are the same thing: it's just that, in a song I get three minutes to tell a story, and when you're acting, you might get an hour and a half"

 

Personally, I’ve got a Gibson ES-335, a Maton guitar that sits in another room in the house in case I get an idea and don’t wanna walk upstairs (laughs), a sweet little ukulele which I love to puddle away on, and my wife bought me a beginner banjo to get going on. A guy in the UK, Cyril Woods, mailed me a guitar!

GG: Wow!

AF: He passed away recently and I just heard from his widow. It’s a home-made guitar and he makes them for all kinds of artists. It plays like a dream! So yeah, Woods guitars. It’s really fascinating to see how he’s put it together.

GG: That’s an amazing story! So, which of that lovely sounding collection do you take out on the road?

AF: I generally just take the Martin, to be honest. I’m about to buy myself a nylon classical which I’ll take as well, because some of the songs we’re working on now have rhythm parts that just work beautifully on nylon strings. I’m not a great guitarist, I’m gonna be honest with you, so I generally hold down the rhythm parts. It’s country music, so I do some fills and things like that but I find to play and sing quite challenging, well, to play well and sing, so I try to keep it simple.

GG: Yeah, definitely! Most of us would agree to some extent on that one! So, does that mean you like heavier strings?

AF: No, I like light strings! I use 12-53s and generally I’ll use a Dunlop grey, standard light pick. If I’m doing a picking pattern, I’ll go to a heavier pick, but yeah, the lighter strings. Mainly because of the wear and tear on your hands when you’re playing a lot, particularly with capos when you’re playing up the neck. If you’ve got heavy strings, it can be hard work!

GG: For sure!

AF: I play G shapes with a capo on fret 3 or a lot of the time I’ll play with a capo on fret 4 and play C shapes. Once you get that far up the neck, the lighter strings are better.

 

"I don't think anything beats writing a song, producing it, releasing it and then one day playing it and having people sing it back at you."

 

GG: That’s very true! It can even be a problem for intonation, using a capo with heavy strings.

AF: We’ve got a fantastic guitar tech here in Melbourne, his name’s Ray Cargill. I took him my Martin because it wasn’t holding its tuning very well – guitars usually don’t hold their tuning well if you use capos on them – but this was getting a little bit out of control, and he’s got this really clever way of altering the intonation by putting in some mouldings into the headstock. Really nifty manipulation of the guitar so the strings don’t go out of tune with a capo.

GG: That’s interesting! I’ve not heard of that! Would you play most of your songs in standard tuning, or do you adopt alternate tunings at all?

AF: No, I generally only have one guitar on stage, so I don’t do a lot of drop tunings. Because I have to chat as the frontman, if there are any songs that use drop tunings, someone else will probably tune it up and then hand me something, or more likely, they’ll play the drop tuning part and deal with all that.

We did a couple of gigs in London and I got chastised by the boys! The bass guitarist came up to me and said, ‘Listen, I’m standing right next to your wedge: you have to promise me you’re going to tune up between every song!’ (laughs) It’s a bad habit not to tune up.

(Photo: Alan Fletcher)

 

GG: Good guy! That’s you told! Now, that brings us to the tour, which is going to be early next month, right?

AF: Yeah, the tour is the Doctor Karl tour (The Doctor Will See You Now). We start on September 6th in Glasgow, and I think it’s about 15 dates all over the country, kinda three blocks of dates really. Then I’m doing a little 3 piece gig in the gorgeous little Temperance coffee shop in Royal Leamington Spa, on the 14th. The big one for me is gonna be playing Nashville Meets London. I can’t wait for that, that’s on the 27th September.

GG: Fantastic! So, you’ve toured the UK a lot now. What can fans expect from this Dr Karl tour?

AF: Basically, it’s a show which celebrates the aspects of Dr Karl’s life. It’s sectionalised, you know, into sex and nudity, affairs, medicine, you name it! Obviously, it’s very light-hearted, we have a bit of fun, I can tell ya that! There’s songs in it but the video component is huge, so fans will be able to see a lot of old footage with me explaining things about that footage, behind the scenes things, stuff like that.

My wife is with me because she’s a journalist and she’s my best friend, so she’s interviewing me about my life and times, which is great since we can tour together. She plays keys with me in the band, so it’s a family affair, Ray! It’s the Partridge Family!

 

"My bass guitarist came up to me and said, 'Listen, I'm standing right next to your wedge: you have to promise me you're going to tune up between every song!'"

 

GG: Brilliant! That sounds amazing! So for the songs on this show, will you be solo?

AF: Yeah, it’ll be me on guitar and there will probably be some backing track because it’s just practical to do it that way. To take a band with me to each one of these dates, I would come home with a big debt, basically.

GG: Fair enough! One thing that I thought of asking: acting and music – particularly country and Americana music – it’s all about telling stories. Would you say that that’s what your whole creative life has been about: being a storyteller?

AF: Yes, storytelling is absolutely it. People are always asking me if I prefer music to acting or acting to music, and it’s like, well they’re the same thing, you know? It’s just that, in a song I get three minutes to tell a story, and when you’re acting, you might get an hour and a half!

They’re similar but different and I enjoy them both equally although it is fair to say that I don’t think anything beats writing a song, producing it, releasing it and then one day playing it and having people sing it back at you.

GG: It’s so special. So, after you started touring – after becoming well known as Dr Karl, was it difficult as an actor to break into music, or was it quite a smooth thing?

AF: Well, the interesting thing was, when we started touring as Waiting Room, it was a three piece and people would say to me at the end that they only came to the gig because they thought it would be a craic, you know? They thought it would be a trainwreck! Because Dr Karl’s hopeless at music. They thought it would be like a comedy gig, you know?

GG: Yeah!

AF: But of course, I was playing with great musos, and they felt that I had the chops too, so they loved the gigs. Obviously, we were entertaining a university crowd, so we were signing Fratellis, Oasis, Queen, the sort of stuff they want to hear and just popping a few of our songs in there under the radar, which was great.

I found it really easy to get rid of the whole Dr Karl thing, but I never try and bury Dr Karl Kennedy because he’s been responsible for so much of what I’ve got. The biggest selling song I’ve ever had on iTunes prior to the Americana stuff was Sleeping Alongside of Susan, you know, the Smoky rip-off (laughs), singing lyrics about Susan Kennedy.

 

 

GG: It’s a great tune! So, I didn’t want to make this too much about Neighbours, but it is a big cultural thing, particularly for us in the UK. You’ve just said goodbye to Karl: how does that feel after 28 years? And is there a part of you that likes to imagine Dr Karl out there in Erinsborough, doing his thing?

AF: Well, I’m not saying goodbye to Karl because I’m touring a show about him, but I’ve always had a real separation between me and Karl. There’s nothing about me that’s like him except for this hairline (laughs). So it was a real joy going to work to play him because it was like putting on another suit, really taking on another persona. Obviously we sound the same and look the same, whatever, but his attitude to life and his behaviour was not mine!

So, I’m doing this Dr Karl show, that’s a homage to him, and then next year I’m back again in March. We’re touring this huge farewell tour with a whole bunch of Neighbours actors. It’s a big event, I think there’s fifteen shows all over, and three London Palladium shows, it’s just been a smash. I’m organising with my booking agent to try to play some Americana gigs in between, on the days off, so it’ll be hopefully a really good big smash up, exhausting 28 days of playing and being Dr Karl! So yeah, it’ll be interesting!

GG: That sounds epic! It must be quite a special feeling to be part of something that is so well loved?

AF: Oh yeah. I can’t even begin to tell you the outpouring of grief that came my way by email, and obviously on social media, that was off the Richter! Do you know, for that last episode of Neighbours, I think the accumulative figures out of the UK were like three and a half million viewers? This is a show that gets axed and it has more viewers than any other show on TV! (laughs)

That’s fine, that’s just the way the world goes round, but there’s so much love for Neighbours and I think that’ll continue for quite a long time. In fact, one of my friends emailed me this morning saying they’ve started again on episode 1! (laughs) That’s pretty brave: there’s 8903 to watch! I expect to have the pleasure – and it is a genuine pleasure – to meet hundreds of people on this tour coming up, who want to take a moment to say thank you for the show, and for me to say thank you for watching, and for us to get a photo and sign some stuff. It’s gonna be good!

GG: It’s such a wonderful opportunity for fans. I was going to mention the big Neighbours stage shows but you’ve covered that for me, so I guess the last thing for us is to hear a little about your forthcoming album that you mentioned earlier?

AF: I think we might release it next February, prior to the March tour, but go into presale in October. So, one way or another, the album will be available later this year.

 

With that, Alan had to leave us for his evening’s commitments, as preparations for next month’s tour continue. His upcoming show sounds like a lot of (possibly emotional?) fun for Neighbours fans everywhere, so do check the official Alan Fletcher website for details of where those shows are happening.

Dispatches is out now, and Alan’s full-length Americana album is scheduled for later in the year.

We had a real blast catching up with the Doc! We’d like to thank Alan for giving up some time in his incredibly busy post-Neighbours schedule for us, and look forward to hearing the record when it’s ready!

Thanks for reading another exclusive guitarguitar interview! If you enjoyed this one, please head over to our interviews page, where you’ll find a diverse collection of interviews with everyone from Amanda Shires, to Steve Vai to Nine Inch Nails. Check back in with us soon for even more exclusive interviews!

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Ray

Features Editor, Warehouse

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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