AS you hear about a singer downing straight vodka to deal with the pressure of being on the stage, you might imagine a scraggly rocker, not a member of a clean-cut boy band.
And you almost certainly wouldn’t imagine one of the four men in Human Nature, the Australian musical quartet — comprised of (as pictured from left) Toby Allen, 45, Mike Tierney, 41, Phil Burton, 44, and Mike’s brother Andrew Tierney, 44 — who hit an apex in the ’90s with coordinated outfits, sweet harmonies and family-friendly pop songs, to be that guy.
But it was Andrew who found himself self-medicating during the early days of the group’s Las Vegas residency, which began in 2009.
“It just crept up on me,” he tells Stellar. “It started out of performance anxiety onstage, a note I couldn’t get one night. And my drinking got out of hand. I just wasn’t being the person I wanted to be. We used to have a [shots] bar backstage. We’d have fun. But when I was really struggling I asked the other guys if they’d mind if I took all the alcohol out of the dressing room. It was a comfort that I was abusing.”
It’s now a dry zone backstage in Vegas, and will stay that way on the group’s upcoming Australian tour. Andrew, now sober, says it was religion that helped him battle the bottle; this year he released a Christian album with his other band, Finding Faith. His brother and bandmate Mike admits it was a tough period.
“In the entertainment business you get plied with whatever you want,” he says. “It’s weird when you think about it — there’s no other job where you arrive to do work and it’s, ‘Hi, here’s a bottle of vodka.’ But you realise some people do have issues with it and it affects their lives. I’m thankful [Andrew] found a way to really work through it and come out a better person.”
Next year, Human Nature will celebrate two major milestones: a decade as Vegas headliners and their 30th year as a band that has existed, remarkably, without a single line-up change. “We started out doing very terrible, terrible choreography in our variety show at RSL clubs and we’re now in Vegas,” Toby says. “Thirty years is an incredibly long time when you start to reflect on it, especially in the music business.”
Phil agrees. “We’ve seen a massive amount of bands come and go. We’ve been through some tensions, but we’ve always had the passion for what we are doing. Our initial bond goes back longer than 30 years. We went to school together, so that helps.”
After the highs of the ’90s, in 2004 the group’s fourth original album, Walk The Tightrope, failed to crack the top 10.
“There were no major hits on that album,” Mike says. “You start to wonder if there’s still an audience who want to hear us.” But a year later an album of Motown covers, Reach Out, soared to number one and sold more than 400,000 copies.
In 2009 the band took up an offer to take a Motown-themed show to Vegas, which has since morphed into a wider jukebox-style production covering classic hits, a boy band medley (“We always insisted we weren’t a boy band, but look back at the early videos and… who were we kidding?” cracks Phil) and even a few Human Nature originals.
“When we went there,” Phil points out, “Vegas was still seen as the place careers go to die.” On their first night, they had exactly eight paying customers. “This was long before the days of Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Britney Spears and J.Lo doing residencies.”
While the group now plays five shows a week, 35 weeks a year, they initially struggled. “We had to ask our families to move to Vegas and give it a shot,” Mike recalls. “There were no real guarantees. We put our own money behind the show; it was a big risk.”
Thousands of satisfied fans later, Andrew credits the relocation for extending the band’s life span. “I don’t know if we’d still be together if it wasn’t for Vegas. Without Vegas we probably would have kept touring in Australia; maybe one of us would have been a judge on a reality show? There’s a well-worn path of what people do if they’re trying to keep their career alive just in Australia.”
The four members are all parents (the Tierney brothers married two sisters) and live in the suburbs of Vegas, away from the hedonistic world of their night jobs. Toby, who has twins with husband Darren, wrote a letter to Malcolm Turnbull after last year’s same-sex marriage plebiscite. “It infuriated me. I was embarrassed that I could get married to the person I love over here in America before I could in Australia. I always felt Australia was so forward-thinking and open-minded.”
Now, he says, “I get to be more of [myself] onstage than I have in the past. The idea of having to present something different to who I was is not a fun place to be in. But I had so much support, and it’s great there’s so much acceptance.”
The band has a new album of classic covers as well as one of original music on the way, and are workshopping ideas for their 30th anniversary Australian tour.
“We all know when it comes to performance, the four of us are better as a group than as individuals,” Phil says. “It gives you real confidence being around the same people this long. If you treat it the right way, you don’t get sick or tired of it — you take comfort in it. The tour will be a real celebration of our whole career. We get a chance to have a birthday party onstage.”
Romance Of The Jukebox is out August 17. Human Nature Little More Love — A 30 Year Celebration Tour starts April 26 on the Gold Coast (with special guest Dami Im); visit humannaturelive.com.