Pictured: Smith Street Band frontman Wil Wagner (centre) with two fans.
The Smith Street Band have become a Melbourne icon and not just because of their ties to a much-loved street. Their punk rock vibes are distinctly Australian and they’ve touched their listeners with resonant lyrics. After their recent, local tour, Get High, See Everyone, Melbourne Uni was their final stop before a tour of the United States and Europe to promote their new album, Throw Me in the River. Before the band performed, we spoke with drummer, Chris Cowburn about their new album, their upcoming tour and a lack of Australian accents in music.
Why do you guys love Melbourne so much?
It’s our home and it’s where we’re from. We all grew up here in different outer suburbs and it’s sort of where the band was created and where we come from. It’s not to say we don’t love other places and other parts of the world but we’ve been lucky enough to see the world these days and it’s always really nice to come home and see familiar sights and walk down familiar streets. Obviously we’ve got a lot of friends here and the bars and the places we play at are familiar.
Do you have any favourite places on Smith Street?
On Smith Street, not so much anymore. I mean, we played a bunch back in the day at places like the Birmingham Hotel and that’s sort of where the band started. Wil was living above that pub and we sort of wrote the first album there. We used to play a lot of shows there [but] they don’t host live bands anymore. There seem to be a few venues that have gone that way on Smith Street but yeah, we don’t really hang out there too much anymore. We all sort of live in more North Melbourne and Footscray these days and that’s where we spend most of our time.
I noticed that your Australian accents are quite pronounced in your music – is that a deliberate choice?
No, not at all. It’s really funny, people say quite a lot, particularly about Wil and the way he sings, that he puts on this Australian accent. Or people ask why he sings in that accent and you only have to have a conversation with Wil for a few seconds to realise that it’s just how he talks and you listen to him sing and it’s exactly the same as how he talks. There’s even been a couple of weird questions like why do you sing like this or why don’t you sing in more of an American accent and that sort of thing and I find that really, really bizarre because why wouldn’t you sing exactly the way you sound?
Why do you think a lot of Australian artists and Australian singers do try to diminish that accent?
I don’t know and I absolutely hate it to be honest. That’s one of the first things I look for in music that I like personally, and that’s why I first fell in love with Wil’s songs because they’re so raw and honest and he’s showing more emotion by portraying himself to be exactly who he is. I guess it’s maybe a thing to get more radio play or to become more fan-friendly, I don’t know – there’s a bunch of bullshit terms you could throw out.
Sometimes I find there are people with really strong accents from any part of the world and when you hear them sing, everyone kind of sounds the same.
Yeah, which I think sucks, it gives you less of an identity within yourself. There’s a Scottish band, Frightened Rabbit, which are probably one of my favourite bands and the dude sings in such a thick Scottish accent and I just love it [but] I’m sure there are people who hate it. I know people feel the same way about Wil – people love that he sings in a thick Australian accent but there are people who absolutely loathe it. When we… did Like a Version [for Triple J], there [were] heaps of comments [on the video] like ‘Who is this guy?’ [and] ‘Worst voice ever’ and all that sort of stuff, which I find pretty funny but I guess that’s just the way it is because I guess people are used to a more generic accent.
How was your recent tour?
It was amazing fun. It was probably one of, if not the, funnest tour we’ve ever done. This was the longest tour we’ve ever done in Australia. It was 28 shows over about five weeks and we did the same tour about two years ago with our friends, The Bennies, and it’s sort of a great time to do a tour like that because it’s summer. This time we had a Canadian and a British band with us and we were able to take them to the beach in Byron Bay. These are dudes from Toronto in Canada and they were checking the weather every couple of days and there were quite a few times where the temperature was exactly the inverse – we were at 28 degrees and they [back in Canada] were at minus 28 degrees. So, these dudes have kind of never seen the beach before and to be able to do stuff like that, aside from playing the shows, was fantastic. And in terms of the shows, they were some of the best reception[s] we’ve had so far and we got to go to a bunch of places that we haven’t been before. We went to Darwin and did a bunch of shows on the east coast in new places, it was fantastic. To go to a place like Maroochydore, which is somewhere we’ve never been before, on a Wednesday night and [see] hundreds of people [show] up and [know] the words and [sing] along – there’s not much more of a special feeling than that. It was really fantastic, and just a good crew of people to hang out with over a month. Sometimes you tour with bands that aren’t necessarily bad people, [but] you just don’t click and they want to keep to themselves and they’re not up for hanging out, but this was the opposite of that. We were about 20 people because there were four touring bands and it was just a crew of great people who wanted to have a good time, and that always makes a huge difference.
Was this one of the first times that it was packed out and everyone knew the lyrics?
It’s been a steady build over the last four or five years, I guess. We’ve done things, I like to think, in a pretty organic way and it seems like each time we tour… more and more people show up and we’ve been really lucky in that sense. There’s been people coming to shows in that [way] for quite a while now. The tour we did in November with a band called The Front Bottoms from the US was sort of our album launch for Throw Me in the River and that was a similar size in terms of the rooms we played, but a much shorter tour – we just did capital cities. This one surprised me a lot because the capital cities were great but then we went further and further afield and those places were great as well. It’s been a steady growth but… this tour was the highest point we’ve reached, which was really nice.
So you’re headed over to America next?
Yeah, we leave on Monday. We’ve been to the States three times so this will be the fourth time… There will be a bunch of new cities. We got really lucky in 2013, the tour we did was with a guy called Frank Turner who’s a British folk rock musician and that tour was 43 shows or something across the States and Canada. I think we counted up and we ended up going to 28 states which was pretty exhaustive – you know, expensive… We’re doing about 20 shows this time and I’m sure we are hitting some new cities which is exciting but it’s a weird thing at the same time. Touring, you see a lot of the same things; you get a chance to hang out in a city for a couple of hours and then you’re on to the next place. There’s not really any days off or chances to see sights. The prime example is [that] I think I’ve been to New York a few times now on three separate occasions and I think I’ve spent a total of like five days there, three of which we’ve played shows on. I feel like I’ve been there heaps but haven’t really seen it – which is absolutely no reason to complain, by the way, but it’s an interesting sort of lifestyle. You see a lot of different stuff but it’s definitely not a tourist’s sort of adventure. You know, I guess one of the things that I love is you meet a lot of different people along the way so it’s good.
Is conquering America part of the plan, or is that just something that happened?
I wouldn’t call it conquering, but it’s a super hard and really huge place to even get a foot in the door. It’s bizarrely big. Everything is big, from the food to the cities to the people. So no, it was never really part of the plan. I guess it all stemmed from… a festival in Gainesville in Florida called The Fest, which is in its 15th year or something. It’s just this big punk rock festival and it goes over almost five days now and they have somewhere around 300 bands play from all across the world. We went over in 2012 with the intention to play… and we just [did] a self-booked tour of basements where we were playing to like 10 people a night in the lead up to that and we got to play a really great show there. The same as what I was saying before, you meet people and make friends and then we started bringing US bands over to Australia on tour and then you do like a tour-swap kind of thing and it’s great. I never thought I’d be able to say that I have friends in New York or London that [I] call close friends who [I] share [my] music with and stuff and it’s a pretty cool feeling.