I’m standing in a ballroom, armed with questions and uncertainty. All over the city, and on the cover of the Rolling Stone, I’ve seen Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s face. On the week of the release of his second album, Rrakala, they’ve been calling him Australia’s most important voice. This Yolngu man, born blind on Elcho Island, off the north coast of Arnhem Land, has been selling his songs by the hundreds of thousands in Australia and across Europe. He’s been praised by Sting, by Elton John, and by every major media outlet in the country. His outlook is full of stars, in groups of four, four and a half, and five.

But Gurrumul doesn’t care about that. He hates photo shoots, he rarely does them, and he never, ever does interviews. Back in the days of Yothu Yindi, the Yolngu people’s last great crossover, he toured the world, but he’d stayed in the background. I’d been told that this is how it is, and that his collaborator, Michael Hohnen, would speak for him. Michael is a long-time muso (formerly of the Killjoys) and one of the men behind Skinnyfish Music, Gurrumul’s Darwin-based label. Now, he finds himself in the role of Gurrumul’s chief collaborator and communicator, and I find myself a little unsure of how to tell this story.

Gurrumul is sitting in the window of the ballroom, finger-picking contentedly on his Martin steel string. Cory, our photographer, is talking the blues with him. He smiles, happy to keep playing. The room goes quiet. It’s just him and his guitar in this cavernous space. His drummer, leaning against the wall, begins to air drum, mouthing soft brushes. Michael walks to the wall, picking up his double bass. He slides up alongside Gurrumul, and begins to pluck. As the guitar and the air drums and the bass cohere into a jam, I get it. I feel it. Collaboration, the kind that connects people several layers deep. I am transfixed.

Gurrumul’s not much interested in hanging around for the interview, though he wraps his arm around Michael and laughingly declares them to be “brothers in arms”. I’m okay with that, because there’s another story here, that of the man who would speak for “Australia’s most important voice”. As I watch the two of them converse in a mix of Gumatj and English, I decide that I’m not going to ask Michael to speak for Gurrumul, but to speak for himself, and for the relationship the two of them have built over the past fifteen years.

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PATRICK PITTMAN: Michael, what drew you from Melbourne to Darwin, to Elcho, to Gurrumul, to here?

MICHAEL HOHNEN:
I grew up in Beaumaris, which is a great suburb to grow up in, right next to the beach. I got the best of all worlds. An amazing family, an amazing support network, a great education, and then somehow fluked to get into Melbourne High, which is seen as an elitist high school.

After that, I went around Europe with a string orchestra at 18. I was one of the youngest members. I saw Italy and France and the UK, and then went to the Victorian College of the Arts for three or four years, studied double bass. I came out at 22 or 23, really happy and really solid. So then, after doing music for three of four years, in and around here and overseas with lots of different groups, classical, jazz, and a pop band, the Killjoys, I started to get really disillusioned—is that everything that you do as a musician? Do you just keep doing that same thing?

I’m not sure if I met Gurrumul, but I met quite a few of the Yothu Yindi guys when we were signed to Mushroom at the same time. I met Archie Roach in London, and I started to feel like there was something else going on that I just needed to pursue. That’s when I went to Darwin, and my whole world changed. By 27 or 28, I had everything that I needed in life, so I wanted to do that same thing in a different way, maybe through music. I suppose I was too young to have that same model that a lot of people have now about the big picture, pouring energy back into a situation for good, or for change, but I think that’s sort of what I was doing.

The texts that we’d studied back at school, the texts that were studied Australia-wide were written by the teachers that were teaching us, but they were all post-colonial stuff, from the 1800s on.

It’s like this big void in Australian history. Partly because it’s oral history, but partly because there’s this huge gap of knowledge and understanding about what else there is here now, not just what else there was.
That was an interesting thing about the Sydney Morning Herald review of Gurrumul’s new album. It was a really positive review, but he talked at the end of that culture being a lost thing from 200 years ago that the album was calling back to. I got the sense that he thought there was nothing in that space since then, which to me is quite problematic. If we take that statement at face value, there’s history missed, and culture that we are missing.

I wonder about that. I wonder whether he’s being heavy-handed because you need to in the press sometimes, to get past everything else, or whether it was more flippant. Or whether he hadn’t been really struck by anything in his music-reviewing career, because he’s an older man now, he’s reviewed music for forty years. If you think back over the last fifty years, there’s been Jimmy Little, who’s essentially done covers, there’s some other well known Aboriginal musicians and artists, then there’s the Yothu Yindi era, but it’s all kind of, in a way, they’re looking at playing a blend of western music and trying to fit in. That’s what I feel, everyone’s holding the carrot, saying “if you fit in to this industry, then you’ll be successful.”

The questions I had written down, the first ones I wanted to ask were about defining the nature of the creative relationship between yourself and Gurrumul. Then I see the two of you in the room, and I get it. You don’t need words to explain that. But how did you find it?

I think he was sick of touring when he left Yothu Yindi and he was hanging out on (Elcho) Island. He doesn’t have an agenda, he doesn’t go “I’m going to do this now” and be driven to do something. He was just hanging out having fun with family, and I turned up there running a music industry course. Some of his peers came along to this music course and had fun on the first day. So the second day, or even that night, dragged him along. I was the junior, because there were two of us there from the uni, and the guitarist from Yothu Yindi was there, so Gurrumul felt comfortable straight away because he knew him. But then he hung around afterwards after everyone else had gone, to see what would happen. He said, “let’s do some four track stuff “, back then you recorded on cassette four track when you were doing demos, and we recorded “Djarrimirri”, which is off the first album. I went home after two days, and thought “I’ve turned up on this island to try to run a music course, and we’ve got this musical gift here, who is completely capable of doing anything”.

It was a Certificate One course, such a low level course, and I wondered what else we could do. How do we make use of the fact that we’re here, for quite a long time, for a couple of months? I tried to shape the whole course around how gifted and talented everyone was, and what they could actually do with that. I talked a lot about forming a group, and they really wanted to do that, and Gurrumul wanted to be part of it. That ended up becoming his band, which he’s done ever since, called Saltwater.

I’d talked to them a lot about what they’d have to do to actually be a band, beyond what a lot of the other groups do up in the north, which is just get together and play at a little community thing. They were so talented, but so naive about anything to do with the music industry. In a way the course made perfect sense, because I had to teach them about how the rest of the world works music industry-wise. I said when I left that, essentially, you guys have to actually work for two years without anyone doing much. Sure enough, I left them and two years later, they’d kept on going, had all these great songs, they’d recorded an album.

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In a musical sense, is it an expression of what’s going on at Elcho Island, or is he bringing in other things as well?

Well, it’s his form of contemporary Aboriginal culture. He has a lot of musical influences. He’ll sing traditional music, he’ll play didjeridu, the Yolngu word for it is yirdaki. He knows hundreds and hundreds of songs, but he doesn’t see that as his role, presenting that to mainstream Australia.

If people delve into him in deeper layers, and delve into what he’s singing about, I think that’s when you present the more complex elements of his world. It’s so deep and multi-layered, it’s fantastic. That first album was me saying “here’s a tiny bit of him”, but I know that people here and overseas don’t want to get too much of the whole traditional Aboriginal style, because they don’t understand it, it’s different tuning systems and they just turn off, but here’s a little bit and see how amazing it is, how beautiful it is. That was the modus operandi. He’s very comfortable when he presents this music, as you saw in there jamming, playing those chords and those styles.

When did it develop into a creative collaborative relationship for the two of you? Is that something that happened pretty quickly?

No. Part of the way the label runs is to try to present music that those guys do, as they want to do it. I’ve let his own band do the music. But about four years ago, I saw that he wasn’t actually getting out to the world, like in Yothu Yindi, he was part of the mass of noise that’s coming out of the speakers. It sounds great, and it’s really exciting, but I just knew that he’s too special, and he needed to do something more, if I could get him to do something more. The collaborative part of it, that you ask about, started about four years ago when I started to say “I want to just hear you, I don’t want to hear everyone else that’s filling in the gaps and playing those synthesised keyboards behind you.”

He was fine about it, we mucked around, and did some things just like that, but when he started hearing my double bass with his guitar, and how I would just play with him and muck around and fill in things, he was laughing, and he was so happy. That’s when we recorded a few little ideas, and did a couple of support gigs for other people in Darwin, and he felt like it made sense. That’s when our collaborative relationship really, really took off.

There must be tension for you, in that you want it to be about Gurrumul’s expression, as with all of the stuff you do with the label, but at the same time, you’re the one there as the industry guy, saying “you’re going to have to make a career out of it, you have to do this, you have to do that”. Have you found a way of reconciling that?

The industry success lets us keep going with what we want do as a label. The more stuff that we do, a lot of it is fun, there’s a lot of waiting around and terrible things, but a lot of it is fun, so it’s a real achievement. I get to meet lots of people like you, I have fantastic conversations, and we’re not doing something that is a manufactured product, so you can go in a hundred different directions with how you want to talk about it, what the possibilities are, and who loves it.

I had this great meeting in London, we got invited to go and have a drink with the guy who manages Norah Jones, Elvis Costello, three or four amazing artists. He’d been in touch with us, and he came to see us and talk about Gurrumul. He said

“there are artists that are derivative, and there are artists that just have their own space.”

He said it was just so refreshing to work with that, to see that. Part of my role in the industry is to meet all of these amazing people and talk about music, which is something that I love, but also to talk about what I think as a white person growing up in Australia, what I think can happen here.

He’s very non-political and never wants to make any comments, and doesn’t really have any interest in anything political. I don’t really, either. But I know the joy and interest I’ve got from growing up in Australia, knowing what Australia is, and then discovering another part that is right in front of us, and is so fascinating.

But he really doesn’t want to do any of that sort of stuff. He’s resigned to the fact that there’s a little bit that he has to do. He doesn’t really want to do this shoot today, but he trusts me so much that we don’t do very many. A tiny bit is fine, when we’re on a little trip anyway…

But that’s always kept at a distance from home.

Yeah, and the only shoot he really jumped at doing was the Rolling Stone shoot.

And who wouldn’t?

That’s the only magazine he knows, because of Dr Hook, and because of that song, “Cover of the Rolling Stone”. And so that, he must have asked back when he knew that song, and found out that it was a magazine. I talk to him about lots of magazines, he doesn’t know any of them, doesn’t know any newspapers, it’s all irrelevant. There’s that balance, and all the guys that come on tour with me, they love it, they think it’s fantastic. But I can see why he’s not into it, as well as why he says yes occasionally to it all.

Where he lives and who he hangs out with back home, it’s quite rough, and people are humbugging him, hassling him all the time. But Yolngu people, they live with each other, it’s 20 or 30 people around you all the time, you’re all sharing things all the time so if you’ve got more, you give it to them, so he’s being hassled by family as well as celebrated by family at the same time.

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Has the success changed much for people on Elcho Island?

Yeah, a little bit. Not nearly as much as I thought it would. I thought there could be some really ugly aspects of success. It’s a totally different society and different way of dealing with money. Material things are irrelevant. People love having somewhere to stay, and all that kind of thing, but you see government schemes of building this and building that and pouring hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars into projects that just fall over. Him having had more success and having more money, the only thing that changes is that he shares it out a bit more, and it leaks out through the community. It might go to fifty people, within two days. There’s no big impact, big spending, big pressure points, there’s nothing material that you see changing. He’s got a close-knit family of maybe 30 or 40, and an extended family of hundreds. Occasionally he’ll change his phone number, but he can deal with things really well. He’s quite public, quite accessible; a lot of his family are in all the time, extended family, wanting to do this or that. He’s good at saying no, and we keep in close contact with the family. My partner in the record label lives on the island a lot of the time, his mum and dad are still alive, his mum is in this booklet, painting him up, and that will mean a lot to her. It’s respect back to the family that we’re saying that even at his highest point in his career, this is him with you.

You moved up to Darwin straight from Melbourne. It’s a place very much unlike anywhere else in Australia—it changes a person, up there.

It’s quite confronting. White people tried to settle there many times. It’s hard living. Gurrumul loves it—wherever we are, he wants 32 or 33 degrees. Hotels, recording studios, anywhere. It’s a strange place because it’s supposedly tropical, but once you’ve acclimatised, the humidity is almost comforting, it surrounds you all the time. It almost supports you all the time, but you can’t be a labourer and enjoy the humidity, it’s too full on.

But a muso can! You talk about there being an absence of politics in what Gurrumul’s doing, that it’s stridently non- political, he’s just telling stories, but there is a politics there that almost comes naturally. The songs are full of loss and longing, to preserve things that may pass, to be slow and to consider, but what interested me is that it’s not sad.

Great! Because it’s been reviewed as sad three or four times.

It’s not. You can have longing without sadness.

You’re right!

It’s a really interesting way of telling those stories.

What I think you’re getting at is what he presents to people, and partly what my role was and the engineer’s role, was to present that same mood in the sound that we’ve created. There’s a song called “Warwu”, that translates as grieving or worrying. But it’s actually not worrying, it’s to do with longing, and reminding yourself that you are part of that connection with the land, the spirits, you are totally connected to that place and you are not going to lose it. It’s not even a longing. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re nostalgic about something. You get really happy, and you get melancholy. It’s about being in touch. I want to say with nature, but it sounds like I’m being too new age. But so much of him is to be in touch with what those ancestors were all about, and what the songs were all about, and that is the tides, the wind, the funeral song, going back into the ground, into the termite mound, being at one again with the earth, the land. Saying this to you now sounds like so many things that you read that are really clichéd and corny…

But music does, and can, come from somewhere deeper. It can come from the land, it’s so deeply connected to these things. It’s not just what comes out of the strings. There’s a truth that goes deeper than that, and it is tricky to talk about, because it does sound stupid.

I think a lot of people in our society are so wired into technology, and into the regime of their lives, of collecting, amassing some sort of savings and extra properties, getting their children set up. Their agenda is let’s go go go, get ourselves comfortable and get on top of things, and then try and get more on top of things so they’re really comfortable, and be in touch with what’s going on, and read papers and read magazines and read everything that’s going on. It’s like they lose, in a way, what Gurrumul’s singing about, and then when they hear him, it’s like “that’s what I want.” Everyone’s got that choice, but not many people make that choice.

Is that where the connection is coming from, and why people have connected to him?

I think so.

He connected, and continues to connect, in a sense that is astounding. I’m guessing even your most optimistic business plans didn’t allow for this kind of success.

Well, luckily we don’t make them. I’ve gone all out to try to make sure that the sound complements that connection. When we did the first album, there were lots of ways you could mix that. There are some beautiful albums that have come out in the last 40 or 50 years that just have a great sound to them as well as what the musicians are doing, and I worked really hard to try and get that as well. So you felt really warm and comfortable when you listen to that first album.

A lot of people say that the songs sound all the same. I wanted that mood, I love the idea of an album which is a mood for an hour. It just says “slow down everyone, soak this up”. That was complementing what he already does, which I think has really boosted part of that initial reaction to him. It could have been presented and mixed differently and could have sounded a bit flat or pure or straight or something else, but we pushed that warmth factor. On the second one, we’ve gone a bit different, but the combination of the two is probably the factor that everyone’s striving to pinpoint. I’ve heard a few albums coming out sounding similar, and I’m going “don’t worry about trying to sound like this, just do your own thing”. Now that someone’s done it…

It can’t be a genuine expression of them. Is it a genuine expression of Gurrumul?

A lot of great songs are people writing about something, and then someone else coming along and singing about what someone else has written about, trying to make a performance out of that, and trying to make you believe that that’s what they’re thinking or feeling. John Lennon might be an exception on some of his songs, but most they are third hand, often songs are written for someone else, and someone else makes you believe that it’s them. You look at the whole industry and you think this is a bit of a farce in a way, all of these people are writing things that are not actually what they’re feeling. They’re just performing great songs, and trying to get that connection.

But with Gurrumul’s music, it’s totally him, and it’s about him, and he’s singing about himself, and he’s singing about his identity. He’s not acting, he’s not performing, he’s not doing a show, it’s not cabaret. That’s the purity, and that’s what’s exciting—we’re not having to go on stage and perform. We go on stage and produce sounds and be musicians.

I think sometimes he feels like he needs to perform but he doesn’t have the capacity to necessarily perform. He was in Yothu Yindi for seven years, and they were the full performance act, with the smoke and the mirrors.

They were very much about the in-your-face show.

And that’s great. But what I love about working with Gurrumul is that he’s just able to be himself. There’s no pressure on him.

And he doesn’t really care to be any other way.

No.

Given the phenomenal level of success…

When you say phenomenal, it is, and three years ago when we were a little label, it is in that perspective, but it’s not compared to, say, Norah Jones. It’s phenomenal on a small scale.

But in an industry where people seem to have stopped buying music, the fact that his is being bought at those levels is something special. What’s it meant for Skinnyfish in terms of what you’ve been able to do outside of Gurrumul’s work?

It’s meant that we can support other Aboriginal artists. There are another few artists that we are working with, and I’m making another couple of extraordinary albums. It’s also given us confidence that we’re on the right track, which is a big thing morally and creatively. Because it’s the end of the first week, we don’t have any figures on it, but it’s sold really well, so it’s like

“great, it wasn’t a fluke, we know what we’re doing.”

We can trust ourselves a lot more. They’re probably the biggest factors for us. It’s the confidence building thing. Working in that environment, we have to be really sure of ourselves, and clear that we are doing it for the right reasons, and laying it on a platter to everyone as a business model. Our contracts have to be really public, otherwise you’re up for scrutiny, and everyone’s really suss on you, like you’re ripping off people or something like that.

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You find yourself in this role as a spokesman for Gurrumul as well as the label man. That must be something that people are suspicious of, the white man doing the talking?

I reckon. I feel it’s the only choice I’ve got. You saw him, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it at all, and won’t commit to any answers. Occasionally when he’s with me for a few days, I can get a few things out of him. He listens to a lot of things that I say on radio and tells me what he thinks, in private. In some ways I think that I’ve been brought up like most other people who buy his music, so I’ve got more of a window into telling them what they’re interested in than him coming out with things. He doesn’t come out with much to me, and we’ve hung out together for fifteen years. We don’t talk a lot about anything that heavy, it’s more of a social and musical relationship. It’s a fun relationship, he has his own life and I have my own life and it’s really healthy in that way. He never asks loads of questions, and I never delve deeply into his world.

And when the two of you are in a room together with your instruments, does all of that just fall away?

It falls away most of the time. Because we know each other so well, we don’t have to talk much. I think a lot of people do feel uncomfortable when they don’t talk, but he’s totally fine with it and I’m totally fine with it, so often we’ll spend time where we’re not actually saying anything at all, we’re just hanging out. He loves humour, if you’re keeping it light. There’s a lot of heavy things in his life, a lot of death and sickness. I get the feeling that I’m light relief for him in lots of ways. It’s great fun going away for a little while, he gets really good experiences and has a really good time, but then dives back into the Yolngu world and swims amongst that.

You’re the vacation from that.

Yeah, but that’s where he lives. His totem is the saltwater crocodile. He’s like the crocodile that spends most of its time in the water but sometimes comes out onto the land, to sunbake or whatever. That’s a bit like our relationship. He’s really comfortable when he’s swimming around in the Yolngu world, but he’s comfortable when he comes onto land, and that’s my time with him.

Let’s talk about how you guys make an album together. Does he bring songs to you, does he sing to you, do you jam them out? How does it work?

Yeah he does. He’ll play something in the hotel, and I’ll say it sounds great, so he’ll work on it for a while longer. Six or twelve months later, he’ll have lyrics for it, and he’s checked those lyrics with lots of family members. It makes sense, he doesn’t want to present something to the public until he knows and he’s been told by not just one person but lots of different people that it makes sense. You should use that ancestor’s work, or you can’t phrase it like that.

So he’s actually done a lot of research and fact-checking.

One interesting thing for this album is that I’ve heard two or three really strong songs by his family. I’ll say to him, what about that song by those guys. Now, I need about three or four years—I suggested one song on this album about three years ago, and then last year he played it for me, in a dressing room.

He didn’t say anything, but we were just sitting there and he played it and sang it to me. That was like saying “oh, Michael, you know that song you asked me to do two or three years ago? Here it is.”

There was none of that, but he just sat there grinning, because he knows that I thought that would be a great song for this album. Or something that he should do in the future, so it’s more me seeding ideas, him going with some and him rejecting some totally.

There was another song that we wanted on this record which was a Manduwuy (Yunupingu of Yothu Yindi) song, from their big album, and we talked about it, he suggested it, and we couldn’t get in touch with Manduwuy for two or three days while we were in the studio. He wouldn’t do it until he’d been given the go-ahead, so we didn’t do it on the album. All the other stuff is either old stuff that he’s done before, or new stuff that he’s worked up in the last three or four years.

Track eleven was on guitar, and we did it in New York, and I came back to Australia and listened to everything that we’d done there and it was great but it wasn’t special enough, so I asked him to try it on piano. He did, and it was just beautiful. It was perfect.

When we’re in the studio working, I’ll ask him to try something and he’ll do it straight away, he’ll try any idea that I ask him to try. He’s totally committed, once he’s there and he’s said to me, just by doing it, okay I’m here now, he’ll do anything really. Track two, “what I think we need at the end of that first verse is some uplifting kind of counter melody.” And he’ll come in with something perfect, “how did you know I was thinking something exactly like that? He knows what I would love, and does it for me, but he also has similar taste in music. For ten minutes afterwards, he’ll go “you like it? you like it?”. And he’ll laugh, because he knows it sounds great. He likes it too, but he doesn’t say he likes it, he just keeps checking that I like it.

A lot of his life is affirmation—deferring responsibility to other people, and looking for affirmation from other people. I think a lot of that is to do with his blindness. I don’t think of him as blind, ever, but that’s how he works. It’s needing other people to tell him all the time. You watch him at a gig, he’ll check where the microphone is dozens and dozens of times during a gig, he’s always checking, just to see that it’s in the same place, and that’s how he works in life, he’s always just checking that something’s still there, something hasn’t changed, that you still think the same. He really needs and thrives off that support and affirmation.

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And I see him with his arm around you, declaring the two of you brothers in arms.

He loves that. He adopted me. There’s a beautiful kinship system that works in the Yolngu society. You are born with an identity. You and I are born with a bit of an identity, but he knows so much about who he is as soon as he’s born. He’s born into the society of Yolngu, and everybody has to fit, which is why they adopt you in. You’re their uncle or their brother or their father or their grandfather or you’re their cousin or poison cousin. You have to fit in somehow. The kinship society works so well—there are sixteen different skin names, you are one of those sixteen, and that’s who you are for life. It’s really strong and well organised. But that’s only in the north-east Arnhem Land area – you go to the Tiwi Islands and they want nothing to do with that.

You must have to work across many different cultures for the label.

We do. The Tiwis are much more embracing of new things that come along, the Yolngu are more traditional. In Kakadu, near there there’s the Mara people, the Gunwinggu, then you go to Maningrida, there are three different groups there. All through Arnhem Land, it’s like a miniature Europe. Think about how differently the French and the Germans think of their own cultures, language and everything is structured so differently, and it’s the same. At one stage, there were hundreds of different countries. I think we all know that much more now. There were similarities, but if you go west of Darwin, it’s quite different again.

When you go to Japan, or anywhere else, you pick up that you have to change the way you act in those countries. Unless you’re a bogan and you go to Bali and decide that you’re going to go to parties all day and you don’t actually go and meet Balinese people and deal with them. It’s the same when you go to Aboriginal Australia, it’s a totally different world.

One of the most amazing experiences I ever had was being taken by George, who’s Gurrumul’s poison cousin, to the islands north of Elcho on a hunting trip, with three other older guys who were all amazing hunters. He’s a Gumatj man as well, who used to be the lead singer of the Warumpi Band. They didn’t speak any English for the whole trip, occasionally they would try and tell me something, but they were just focussed on what they were doing, which was turtle hunting, going to an island, finding spring water, the whole day and night was a completely other experience, in Australia. I don’t know how we navigated home, I really don’t. I couldn’t see any stars. There were clouds in the sky, there were no lights anywhere, we had no lights, we drove for two hours, past four islands, down their island, with no light at all, and got back safely at ten or eleven at night. I experienced one day that I don’t think many people are going to experience. It was total intuition.

When we’re working with Gurrumul, we have to go with him, we have to be with him and try and make it work for him. Aboriginal people don’t live a long time, and while it’s so good for him and us and his family, we just have to go with that. We’ve got no choice, because he won’t go any other way, but a lot of people are quite tight and rigid and can’t change the way they’re structured and their business, or their family life, or anything, to go in that direction. I think that probably helps us achieve what we’re doing.