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Touring The World, Writing Honestly And A New Record – In Conversation With The Smith Street Band

Having toured Australia and the globe almost incessantly following the release of their third LP and one of 2014’s best records in Throw Me In The River, Australian rock champions The Smith Street Band are playing their first major festival of 2016 this Friday in Adelaide, the first Australian stop of the tastemaking St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival.

We had the absolute honour of a chat with one of the most genial, candid and well-spoken rock musicians in the country in frontman Wil Wagner about how The Smith Street Band got here and where they’re going next.

Morning Wil! Where can we find you right now?

I’m just at home chilling in my backyard at the moment which is really nice.

You’re back in Australia now after a wild looking North American jaunt to end 2015, how did that go?

Yeah really good. We were there for nearly two months supporting a band called The Frontbottoms and they happened to blow up and become huge popstars just before the tour started so we got to jump on their coattails and play in all these beautiful venues to a bunch of 16-year-old kids who had no idea who the fuck we were.

Wow that’s incredibly fortuitous! So how did all those American kids with no idea who you are receive your music with its very distinct Australian flavour?

It’s interesting. We’d get everything from ‘that was the worst thing I’ve ever heard’ to people absolutely loving it. It’s cool. We’re about to do our first headline tour in America so I guess we’ll be able to get a better grasp on what people over there think then, but we’ve definitely got people who are into the band and who will come to the shows if we’re on tour there so yeah, hopefully they’re into it.

No one understands what I’m saying though. Every single person comes up afterwards and says ‘You guys were really good! I have no idea what you were saying. In the songs and in between the songs I had no idea what you were talking about’. So yeah, maybe people might finally understand the lyrics and go ‘this fucking sucks!’ (laughs)

I think people appreciate the point of difference though and the whole larrikin Australian accent thing, they probably don’t hear that a lot over there.

And I guess there’s also a universal message in songs like Young Drunk that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can appreciate it.

Yeah totally. I’m not singing about anything that’s reinventing the wheel (laughs)

Touching on artists with that Australian flavour, you’ve been spotted moonlighting as a solo artist opening up for a little known up and coming Australian artist with big things ahead of her, Courtney Barnett.

(Laughs) Yeah she’s done a few things hasn’t she?

You’ve covered her before for Like A Version. Is there any chance we’re going to see the most Australian duet of all time between Courtney Barnett and Wil Wagner and we can finally tell John Farnham and Olivia Newton-John to jog on?

(Laughs) Yeah me and Courtney singing Khe Sanh would be great. I would love to. She’s probably got a lot less time on her hands than I do right now though.

Courtney’s awesome though. We go way back when we played a few shows together maybe five or six years ago at this little pub called the Blue Tongue Lounge that no longer exists. She asked me to play the shows we’ve just done and they were really fun, she has a phenomenal band and great people and it was cool to see someone like her who is pretty much an international pop star at the moment, it’s just insane. Her and her crew and management there were all super nice and super down-to-earth, very hard-working and committed.

It’s actually just inspiring to see someone become that big without becoming a dickhead you know. It was fucking awesome. Plus I got to play to these really gorgeous theatres that I’ll probably never get to play again so yeah, it was great. My first ever sitting down shows as well.

You sat down or the audience sat down?

Yeah the whole crowd was sitting down. No not me. I tried sitting down once and stood up immediately (laughs).

I also saw you signed a fan’s car on the weekend in Tasmania, have you had any fan encounters or requests that have topped that?

Yeah I’m always signing cars, it’s getting a bit out of hand (laughs). That one was pretty special. I’ve also had people get me to write things on them and then they go and get it tattooed over which is pretty amazing. One person did that but didn’t tell me they were getting it tattooed until after I wrote it on there and then wouldn’t let me fix up my shitty handwriting (laughs). That car thing was hilarious though. Some dude was just like ‘hey man, if I pull my car round the back, will you sign it?’, and I said ‘Are you fucking serious? That’s amazing, of course I’ll sign it’. It was awesome.

And you’re moving on to Laneway now, first show in Adelaide this Friday. These are your first festival shows since I think Splendour In The Grass last year. Have you got any surprises in store for us at those shows?

Not really I don’t think. I mean, we’ve been jamming a lot for it so hopefully we’ll at least play good. That’s kind of what we’re aiming for at the moment (laughs). No I think it’s just going to be really fun, I have a few mates who have done that festival before and a lot of people I know. I’ve never been to a Laneway before but just everyone speaks about it so highly so I’m so excited to get there and see what it’s all about.

We might play a new song, we might not, but yeah, we just want to play good for people hopefully. Please like us! (laughs)

I think you’ll be just fine if the shows of yours I’ve been to are anything to go by. I know that you and Violent Soho are all great friends. Is there anyone else on the Laneway bill you’re looking forward to hanging out with or even just seeing?

Well High Tension are old friends of ours so it’ll be great to hang out with them again and then I really want to see Royal Headache, I’ve been wanting to see them for a long time and they’re one of my favourite Australian bands of all time.

Battles I’m really keen to see too. Our little stage on the day is basically Royal Headache, us and Battles. I actually went and saw Battles when they were touring their last album and it was so loud I kind of had to leave the room (laughs). But they can’t be that loud at an open festival so it’ll be all good. Just from a guitar nerd perspective I’m really keen to see what pedals he uses because he makes some really interesting sounds with them.

Really want to see Purity Ring too, hadn’t really listened to them much but I went and checked out some bands that were on the bill, some of the bigger bands that I hadn’t really listened to and they were one that I was like ‘I have no idea how their sounds are made’. And that’s sort of a big thing for me, I’m very interested in finding out how you get these crazy wet organ-y effects or stuff like that and just seeing what kind of gear people use and hearing those sounds in real life.

And I guess as is always the case at those things, you’ll be walking around and run into a band and be like ‘who the FUCK is that?’ and then fall in love with that band and you’ll see them all the time after that. I’m looking forward to all of that.

Sounds awesome. I see you guys are dropping a DJ set at the Brisbane after party too. Which one of you gets the decks and what sort and exactly how many bangers can we expect?

It’s not myself, I’m far more of a ‘standing in the shadows with a beer’ type of person but I think it’s going to be Chris (Cowburn) our drummer and Lee (Hartney) our guitarist. I feel like ‘decks’ is a pretty strong word too (laughs) it’s going to be more like a Spotify playlist.

If what they listen to is any indication it’s going to be just wall-to-wall 80s dance bangers and like Cyndi Lauper’s Greatest Hits. It should be good to see.

Tremendous. Just getting into your music a little bit. The Smith Street Band are well-known for writing songs that are just so easy and enjoyable to shout along to (I guess as long as you’re not American). Is there a point when you’re writing something where you sit back and just know that a crowd is going to be screaming a particular song or lyric back at you one day?

Um… not when I’m writing so much, it’s more when the band gets hold of it and it’s like ‘repeat that bit, that might be a single’. I think the best way to judge that is by playing songs to people. I’ll try and play every Smith Street song once or twice before the band gets to them because there are some bits where it’s like, I don’t need to have a four-minute verse here about how I’m a sook, everybody knows that already. Kind of like ‘Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus’ (laughs) and I think you learn that stuff by playing songs to people.

I find that predicting those things you’re just always wrong though. Like, we’ll pick the songs to play live off an album and then we’ll play them live and be like ‘fuck, we picked the five wrong songs. We should have picked those five other songs’, so it’s very hard to try and gauge that kind of thing.

We have one new song that we just got a chorus for that I’m hoping we’ll hear people sing back to us, but by the time we get to record it, it probably won’t even be on the album so… (laughs).

We’ll wait and see. Also getting into your lyrics here, I know you’re a huge advocate for mental health awareness and a lot of your songs deal with the issues surrounding that. I know for myself and a lot of other people that listening to your music really helps in getting through some difficult times, do you ever write for an audience intending to have that kind of impact or are you just writing for yourself and the reaction is a coincidence?

I’m always writing for myself really. I sort of have to really train myself to not think about who might be listening to a song I’m writing, because then I’m just not being really honest. If all I’m thinking about is that my mum is going to hear this or a room full of people are going to hear this I’ll just end up sugarcoating things.

I find that if a line makes you uncomfortable then it’s usually one of the better lines in the song and you should leave it in. So I really really try and not think about that when I’m writing. Also I end up putting a little too much pressure on myself to try and sum up other people’s feelings where I think a lot of the time, especially with depression and anxiety and different mental health issues, at the end of the day the feelings that I feel are very similar to what anyone in those situations will feel. Like the feeling of hopelessness and that kind of real weight on your shoulders, all these kind of things that you think you’re the only one in the world who knows this pain but no, everyone usually goes through this at some point in their lives. Some people might get it a little stronger than other people but it’s just this universal sadness – man, what a bleak phrase! – that I tap into and I think a lot of people tap into as well.

If I try to write things as universal then it just comes across as bullshit and I think that my experiences as a middle-class 26-year-old idiot are very similar to a lot of other people’s experiences like, I’ve also had heartbreak, I’ve also had all these things that people go through and if I sing about it to me then chances are that a lot of people will, if they haven’t had those exact experiences, have had very similar experiences and be able to relate back to my own.

It also means people can find their own meaning in stuff even though it is quite specific if that makes sense. If I went in being like ‘I know everything about heartbreak and this is my song about it!’ then that would just come across as super arrogant.

I’m so glad you explained it like that. We’re also all wondering if you’ve had any chance to work on the next Smith Street record?

Yeah we pretty much got home from America about two months ago and then two or three weeks after we got back we started jamming every day and writing the next record. I think we’ve got about seven or so songs written already and then we’ll have to write another 20 or so and then start culling them off.

That long and painful process.

Yeah, and then in between tours and stuff we’ll have time to bunker down and work on it and then hopefully in the middle of the year we’ll get a few months off to go and record it but often in the past we’ve put a bit too much pressure on ourselves with time like, we’ve got to do this tour and then record and we’ve got to do this, this has got to be done, this has got to be done and this has got to be done and everything will have to match up to the day because otherwise if we don’t then six months from today this thing won’t happen and then that’ll wreck the whole of next year.

So this time we’ve tried to give ourselves just a little bit of time so it’s not as stressful. Because recording is so fucking stressful anyway, you know. We just want to keep it a little bit more relaxed this time so we can take maybe two months to go and record and we want to find somewhere we can travel to and record so we’ll go and stay somewhere for a while and be really immersed in it rather than trying to throw all these things together at the last minute and stressing on it.

So yeah, that’ll happen hopefully at some stage in the middle of the year and then yes, there will be another Smith Street Band record.

That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. So this new album will be the follow up to Throw Me In The River, which was a fantastic record. As far as where you went with that album, I mean you talk about how people are open to interpreting your work in different ways, for me, every time I listen to that album the whole thing is like this massive introspective and insular trip around the world. Given you’ve just said you’re well into the writing and recording of this next record, do you have any idea the kind of direction it’s going to go yet?

Oh cool. I think more musically than lyrically I think there’s going to be a bit more slower stuff on this record. There’s two songs I really want to do which probably won’t have band involvement, more like strings sections and a piano and we’ll try to have dynamics between that and then the more straight up rock songs.

That’s something that we’re really trying to work on. I guess the songs we’ve got at the moment are a bit darker and a bit sadder but I think everyone kind of says that when they’re making a new record, like everyone just goes ‘yeah it’s darker and heavier!’ but who knows, it’ll probably just sound exactly the same as everything we’ve ever done anyway (laughs).

It’s fun the way we’re doing it now though where we’re breaking up the writing. So we’ll write a big bunch of songs and then now the songs that we’ve written before Laneway we’ll just demo and then not come back to them for a while and then after Laneway we’ll write another batch of stuff and so we’ll just be listening to stuff over a period of months before deciding if we want to keep going with it and hopefully we’ll be able to refine everything a bit more and then add some nice extra instrumentation to things. That’s sort of what I want to do.

I’m glad you mentioned that it’s been fun doing this because I wanted to ask whether there is the same unity within the band after the last record and these two huge years you’ve had following it. I know a lot of bands go through ups and downs touring extensively and creating together for as long as The Smith Street Band has. Some come out tighter but a lot don’t, has the dynamic in the band changed at all do you think?

I think in the last year we might have bitten off a little more than we could chew with consecutive stuff. We sort of did Europe which ran into Australia which ran straight into America, which was all quite hectic and with so much travelling. Then any day we weren’t playing was a day spent driving 10 hours in this shitty van with a hole in the floor in America. By the end of that it was like ‘Uh… I would happily not see you guys for a while’ (laughs).

We’re also very good at recognising that though and being like ‘I don’t hate you, it’s just I haven’t slept for three months and I’m so tired’. We definitely have ups and downs the same way everyone does but we’ve made it this far and I really can’t see anything getting in between us. We’re like brothers and sisters, we’re family. We’ll hang shit on each other more than anyone and have real dumb arguments that start out with shit like ‘six weeks ago you didn’t pay me back for that fucking coffee and now I’m out of Euros!’ and all these stupid things but we do really love each other.

Especially at the moment where we’re hanging out every day and writing, it’s my favourite part of being in a band. I still feel in a way, like, I love the way the other three other guys in the band play music and think about music and write music. So when I bring a song to them it’s like I get to sing and play guitar in my favourite band you know? When I bring a song to them I’m like, I can’t fucking wait to hear what Lee plays over this, I can’t wait to hear what rhythms Chris comes up with for this and I’ll have all these ideas in my head and then we’ll play it through with the band and I’ll be like ‘every one of your ideas is so much better than my ideas!’.

We have a very intense relationship but definitely one that’s built on love and respect for each other. And we rely on each other too. If a day goes by where I haven’t spoken to all three members of the band and (Chris, Jackknife Music) Bosma, who tours with us then it’s a fucking weird day.

Like the other day our bass player Fitzy (Michael Fitzgerald) went camping for a few days and I was like ‘why do I feel so weird?’, like what’s this weird hole in my heart and I realised oh, I haven’t been over to ask Fitzy this stupid question about pedals (laughs).

Yeah we really do love each other and that’s important. I know you see so many bands who go on tour for three months and then just break up because you realise ‘I fucking hate all these people’ so yeah, we’re very lucky in that regard.

Ah that’s so good to hear. Especially since you guys just seem to be growing at such an exponential rate as a band after every record you’ve put out and every tour you’ve done to the point where you’re one of the bigger bands in Australia now, playing sold out shows in huge venues and to 20 000 or more people at festivals. Is there a part of you that misses playing in a cramped little pub though?

There is. We’re so lucky with doing stuff overseas though. We’ll do all these big shows and festivals in Australia and we’ll do a lot of festivals in Europe, we did that last year and we’ll do it again this year, but amongst all of those, when we play shows in America or in Europe… like for instance our biggest shows in the UK are like 400-500 people which is fucking unbelievable to get that many people to a show outside of Australia, but the difference between that and playing to upwards of a thousand for an Australian show is really cool. And then we’ll go and play in Poland and Sweden and Germany and that could be playing from anywhere between 1 and 100 people.

So we kind of get to do all the different things about being in a band at the same time and it’s really good because you’re not reliant on having a big PA and playing in a big venue and having all this nice stuff, so when we do come back to Australia… I mean 70% of the shows that we play are overseas and not to Australian fans or people who have heard us on Triple J and so it is sort of starting again as a band in all these overseas places, so when we do come back to Australia it’s like ‘WHAT THE FUCK!? THIS IS SO COOL’ and that novelty hasn’t really worn off yet.

And the reverse is true too. We’ll do a big Australian tour and then we’ll go overseas and be like ‘fuck yes, we get to do a show with no barrier’ and I get to jump off the stage and into the crowd which is another great thing about being in a band. We’re very lucky to be able to run that whole gamut of different experiences you can have being a musician.

I’ll definitely go to see a friends’ band at the Old Bar though and just be jealous because we want to play the Old Bar and I want to get sweaty on this little stage! But I’m sure that same person would come to watch us play at somewhere like the Hi Fi and be like, man I wish we were playing the Hi Fi, so it goes both ways.

You can take the band out of the pub… Cheers Wil, I’ve taken up more than enough of your time this morning I think, can’t wait to see you guys at Laneway. I’ll be there in Brisbane on Saturday, where it’s something like 38 degrees outside at the moment…

Ohhhh, fucking hell Brisbane.

I know you’re a man who sweats profusely onstage so you might be looking at breaking a record here.

(Laughs) Oh dear…

Cheers for the chat this morning Wil and best of luck to you and the rest of The Smith Street Band at all your Laneway shows and working on the new record!

No worries at all man!

Catch The Smith Street Band at all Australian stops on this year’s Laneway festival. And read about the impact they’ve had on Australian music here and why we think they’re Australia’s most underrated band here.

(Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald online)