INTERVIEW: The Smith Street Band
When I was 17 I used to plan my weekends around sneaking past security to see THE SMITH STREET BAND play pubs and bars in every pocket of Melbourne. Sometimes friends would be stealthily opening the side door at The Birmy for me, other times they would be distracting the bouncer from the fact my ID just blatantly wasn’t me.
Then there was the one time a friend and I ventured all the way to an intimate house show in Brunswick but were too embarrassed to go inside, so we got milkshakes and stood out the front instead.
It’s safe to say I’ve watched this band grow from one guy, his captivating voice and ability to stir emotions you didn’t even know you had – to an internationally acclaimed band with a lifetime of success ahead of them. For good reason, THE SMITH STREET BAND swept Melbourne up in its whirlwind of honest, sweaty singalongs, the rest of the world followed shortly after.
The Smithies are soon to embark on yet another impressive tour around the country, but before they escape, I caught up with drummer CHRIS COWBURN at their final gig of 2014. Bringing in the new year at NYE On The Hill, THE SMITH STREET BAND yet again proved their worth as the small, yet passionate crowd came together, drenched in glitter and beer, and screamed along to their set.
I also got kicked in the face by a rogue crowd surfer, what else is new?
You guys have just announced a huge tour ‘Get High, See Everyone’ starting at the end of Jan. Are you excited?
Absolutely yeah, it starts in Darwin and we’ve never been to Darwin. No idea if we’ve got much of a fan base up there, but I think we’ve sold about 50 tickets to the show, so that’s pretty decent for somewhere you’ve never been before. I’m mostly excited about the other two bands that are coming over, PUP, the Canadian band, who pretty much released my favourite album of last year, and also GREAT CYNICS from the UK.
It’s a massive tour, is it non-stop?
It’s the biggest tour we’ve done! I think once all the shows are announced it’s 26 or 27 shows, it’s pretty full on. There are a few days in Byron for us to do nothing, we kind of scheduled it like that so we’d have some holiday time.
So you’ve basically just finished a tour, now you’re here and then about to begin a new one?
Yeah kind of! We only really realised once the last tour finished, which was…I think it finished on the 1st of December, and we were like oh shit we’re about to announce the next tour next week, and then it starts in January…oh shit! It just kind of worked out this way because we wanted to fit in summer tour, a long one, and we already had March booked up for the US and then going to the UK and Europe in April/ May so we were like oh well we may as well do it.
So you’re the drummer in the band, have you been with The Smith Street Band from the start?
Yeah from day dot. Obviously Wil was the original, I think it was Poison City Weekender 2010, Wil broke his collarbone playing footy for the Birmy, so then Lee who was a close friend filled in and played guitar while Wil just sang, and then he just kind of joined the band. Then Fitzy who actually recorded ‘Us Boys Run’, joined the band. It’s been the four of us for quite a while now. Wil said something weird the other day which pricked my ears up, ‘Throw Me In The River’ is actually the first full length with the current line up, even though it’s been the line up for the past three or four years. ‘Don’t Fuck With Our dreams’ and then ‘Sunshine & Technology’ we actually had another guitarist in the band, so it’s weird!
This album is quite different, it’s much darker..have you still noticed a good response from it?
Yeah it’s very different, I think Wil was going through a bit of a rougher time, and it’s definitely a lot darker, but I think that sort of makes it more mature. Hopefully the music that goes with it suits that, because we’ve all grown up a bit. I go back and listen to ‘No One Gets Lost Anymore’ and Wil sounds like a boy rather than sounding like a man, and even though you don’t hear it so much, the drums and guitars…it’s a similar thing too, I’ve got better at drums you know?
S0 there’s no one really begging for the old stuff back?
Well you know everyone’s going to say that at some point..
Do you get caught up in criticism much?
I actually like to read it! I know Wil hates reading it but I kind of love it. I’m curious and I’m also not easily offended, so if someone wants to say it’s shit then that’s fine, it’s their own opinion and I kind of enjoy that in a way, at least someone has an opinion on it. We do what we do and if people like it then that’s sick, and if they don’t then, well, I like it so that’s really all that maters. But people do like it! So that’s great too
Do you guys have a preference for playing those dingy pub gigs or huge festivals?
Yeah I still really like playing small shows. I mean don’t get me wrong it’s so cool to play in front of a massive crowd, but depending on the room and how it’s set up, especially for me playing drums ..because you’re so far back, and then there’s the drums then everyone else, then the gap, then the barrier then the crowd..sometimes you’re so far removed that it takes a little bit of the feeling and the energy away.
Any shoeys to be expected on stage tonight?
Wil fucking hates doing shoeys! He cracks the shits now, and just really regrets that he made it a thing, I mean LUCA BRASI originally started doing it and then Wil kinda took it on. I think it was when we first went overseas, and Wil was like ‘this is such an Aussie thing, we can really get in people’s faces by doing this’ and now he massively regrets that…so probably not…unless someone really, really wants one..
***Side note: No shoeys were completed on stage that night ***
So you guys recorded ‘Throw Me In The River’ in Forrest in the Otways?
Yeah it’s an amazing place, I’d never been to Forrest itself before. But I knew the area pretty well.
Was there much difference between recording there and in Melbourne? Less stress?
Recording is a stressful thing, whatever situation you put yourself in, to some extent it’s going to be stressful. I guess just the time constraints though..and to sound really cheesy…the vibe. ‘Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams’ was done really really quickly, in about five days and this was about five weeks. Being in a studio you have a set amount of days and it always comes down to the last day you end up staying up til 6am, working 24 hours and still not getting to do things you want to do and it’s never finished. Whereas this, we were at our own pace, we didn’t even need a month, we got to do extra things, and stuff that we haven’t ever felt we’ve had the time to flesh out before. Just to be able to get up and light a wood fire, while there’s someone else is making breakfast, cooking everyone eggs…
Did the locals mind you being around?
The neighbour we were most worried about was this 80 year old lady who lived across the road, and we met her son at the pub and he was like “nah she loves it!” That was the overarching vibe of the entire town. People were interested that something was happening, and we got to know the locals, some of them came over, we got baked goods! It was a good experience for sure.
For obvious reasons The Smith Street Band has a massive fan base in Melbourne. Has much changed since early days? Or do you still notice the same faces in the crowd?
Definitely still the same faces. That’s something that’s really cool about Wil’s songs, I’m just a superfan of Wil as well. His song writing is interesting, it makes people want to connect and want to feel something and stick around. Yeah there’s definitely still people that I just call friends now. There’s people from the Birmy days and obviously…thankfully there’s heaps more people at gigs these days too.
What do you think about the idea of “selling out” in the music industry? Is that viable comment or is it just something people use to cut artists down?
I feel like selling out would be doing something that is against your morals, or perhaps the morals that you started on.
Have you guys been called sellouts?
Maybe people have said that about us..but I don’t know. The fact that we play much bigger shows, I wouldn’t at all call that selling out. The way we operate is still the same as the way we did five years ago. We don’t do anything now that we didn’t do then. I’m the first to say how grateful I am that I don’t have to work a job anymore, I’m not afraid to say that, I don’t have to go to work..this is my job now and that’s because people come to our shows..if that’s selling out…then so be it. We just want to be a band where we play music, people can come and see the music, and as many people can come as many times as they want, and it’s just honest and that’s it.
Earlier songs were really focused on the idea of being a local dweller, lots of familiar references were made about Melbourne which dropped off a little as you guys started touring – does that mean Wil does all his song writing on the road now?
Yeah I guess the last album was. There’s references in the lyric sheet as to where it’s all written, and that’s the nature of the beast when we spent 6-8 months on the road this year. Wil is constantly writing, he’s always got his headphones in. Wil’s really prolific, we’re so lucky. I sort of get weird when people are too precious about music. It’s something pretty fleeting and I guess, I like our vibe of bashing it out and it is what it is. People either like it or they don’t. I don’t think it’s a good idea to hold back on something because you’re afraid of it being perfect, it’s never going to be perfect so just go for it.
Despite all the travelling, do you still feel connected to Melbourne?
Yeah, I personally feel more of an affinity with Melbourne now that I’ve done a lot of traveling. I love to call Melbourne home now more than before I’d been out and seen the world. In terms of the band, yeah totally. The three Corner Hotel shows we just did all sold out, the atmosphere was so good there. There’s something really special about playing a home town show.
What about the idea of Smith Street changing, becoming more ‘gentrified’? Does that bother you guys?
Nah at the end of the day it’s just a name. The name is still connected to the feeling, and what it meant to us back then. Things are always going to change, apartments are always going to be built and they’ll drive out the people who made the place cool in the first place. You can do your best to stop it but that’s just the way it goes.
What’s the worst part about touring? Do you guys get pissed off at each other?
Absolutely! Fuck yeah we do, it sucks sometimes! There’s some days where you have to drive like eight hours a day, there’s no rest, you have to put up with whoever doing that little thing that annoys you, because you’re so close the whole time. We did this tour once where it was 36 shows in 38 days..and there was 11 people in an 11 seater van..that’s the shit side.
The other side of that is traveling to the other side of the world and seeing cities we’ve never seen before, I’d never even been overseas before touring with the band. Meeting people is another great aspect, to have friends from London or…Wiesbaden in Germany, that’s something I never thought would happen to me.
Do you guys ever just think about slowing down?
We are, kind of. 2015 will be the slowest year we’ve had. But then again..the first tour for 2015 is a 30 show Australian tour so I’ve just contradicted myself!
Have you got a good reception overseas while you’ve been touring ?
It’s so weird, and awesome…we can play a show in London now and maybe around 300 people will come, and I can pretty much pin that on one dude. There was just this one guy who got in touch with us, and he was just so keen and loved the music so much he wanted to put it out, and that’s how we met APPOLOGIES I HAVE NONE. This guy showed them our music and they’re pretty big there. It’s crazy, we’ve met so many friends through that one guy!
How much of a role does social media play in getting your name out?
The first show we ever played in London was with APPOLOGIES I HAVE NONE, to about 200 people and it was sold out. We just figured it was sold out for them, which was still awesome, but we didn’t know if anyone would even know our music. Then the whole crowd was singing our songs and we were just blown away. That was all without releasing any music in the UK, so it’s all down to social media, illegal downloading..whatever..
Do you have a stance on illegal downloads?
Yeah I have a stance that it’s fucking great! It’s just a thing now that happens, and that’s fine, I download a lot of albums, I also buy a lot of records. It’s just another way to consume music and people have to accept that now. We wouldn’t be as popular in places like the UK, or be able to tour as much if that wasn’t the case. Those tools are so valuable to bands now, people talk about a ‘global community’, that’s totally true.
Do you consciously work to keep a “sound” despite changes like growing up and being away from home, or does it just happen naturally?
Both. Wil writes the basic song, and the lyrics and basic chord structure and the crux of the song. So in a sense, that’s always going to sound like Wil. I don’t think it can ever sound like anyone else which is really cool. Then the rest of us get our hands on it and flesh it out. I’m better at drums now, but Fitzy and Lee have been in bands a lot longer than Wil and I, they have a lot of ideas and there’s no real restrictions. Wil’s song writing will always sound the same no matter what we do to it. Wil’s voice…people absolutely hate it, and people love it, but it’s always going to be Wil.
Seeing as it’s festival season, any tips for our readers?
Ummm oh wow I don’t know, don’t take too many drugs, don’t die ?
Eat fruit and vegetables? Call your mum?
No! Don’t do any of that. Just have a good time and see some cool bands.
Poison City Records & Jackknife Music Presents
THE SMITH STREET BAND – GET HIGH, SEE EVERYONE TOUR
with special guests PUP (Canada), Great Cynics (UK) & Apart From This
Sat Jan 24th – Railway Hotel, Darwin (TSSB only)
Wed Jan 28th – Musicman, Bendigo
Thu Jan 29th – Barwon Club, Geelong
Fri Jan 30th – Karova Lounge, Ballarat
Sat Jan 31st – The Hi Fi, Melbourne
Sun Feb 1st – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne (Under 18s)
Wed Feb 4th – Sol Bar, Maroochydore
Thu Feb 5th – Spotted Cow, Toowoomba
Fri Feb 6th – The Hi Fi, Brisbane
Sat Feb 7th – Crowbar, Brisbane (Under 18s)
Sun Feb 8th – The Northern, Byron Bay
Wed Feb 11th – Coffs Hotel, Coffs Harbour
Thu Feb 12th – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Fri Feb 13th – Metro Theatre, Sydney
Sat Feb 14th – Factory Theatre, Sydney (All Ages)
Sun Feb 15th – Magpies, Canberra (All Ages)
Tue Feb 17th – Mariners, Batemans Bay
Wed Feb 18th – The Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine
Fri Feb 20th – Party in the Paddock, Burns Creek, Tasmania (Apart From This not appearing)
Sat Feb 21st – Railway Hotel, Fremantle
Thu Feb 26th – Prince of Wales, Bunbury
Fri Feb 27th – Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Sat Feb 28th – The Gov, Adelaide
Sun Mar 1st – The Gov, Adelaide (All Ages)
Words By Adriana Barro