Q&A: The Smith Street Band
By Alana Mazurke
I first noticed The Smith Street Band when I moved to Melbourne because Smith Street was the only street I had really ventured to and found the name quite humbling. Turns out it was more ironic than first thought, the title deriving from a usage my fellow old mate route 86. They’re known for their ridiculous on stage energy and off stage antics, solidifying their name as time goes on as an iconic Melbourne band. I managed to get some answers from Chris Cowburn whilst in the midst of the lengthy drive from France to Germany; the band is currently on their massive European leg of their tour and has some interesting comparisons.
You’ve already sold out 4 shows for your upcoming Throw Me in the River Tour; do you ever anticipate selling out gigs, especially in Melbourne?
Yeah it’s crazy and we’re really excited for the tour. Usually before we announce any tour I think that nobody is going to come and do everything I can to make sure anyone and everyone knows about it, haha. Even when you’ve been at it for a few years and you realise that people like your band and probably will come to the show, I think having any expectation of selling out a show is the wrong way to think about it. The exciting part about going on tour is continuing to push forward, meeting new people, playing with different bands (both locally and internationally) and keeping things fresh so that people will want to keep coming to hang out and make shows fun!
How do you think the Melbourne music scene compares to other Australian cities?
I’m completely biased, but Melbourne has the best scene in Australia in my opinion. There are so many different little pockets of great communities within it, and so many great venues that you can go out pretty much any night and see a great show. That’s not to say that there’s not great stuff going on everywhere in Australia though, we have some incredibly awesome friends/bands everywhere in Australia. I reckon the Australian music scene in general, and particularly the punk community is pretty strong right now!
Your attitude to playing music seems pretty easy going yet you’ve already got two albums soon to be three under your belt and a newly released EP. What’s the band’s writing process when making new music?
Yeah Wil’s a very prolific song writer and is constantly writing. He uses it as a diary or a form of therapy I guess. Wil will usually write all the lyrics and basic structure and send around acoustic demos he’s recorded on his phone. We’re usually always messing around with new stuff between touring, and having so many demos to work on makes things a lot easier.
The film clip for ‘Surrender’ is ridiculously good; how did the band team up with Callum Preston the creator of the masterpiece?
Thank you! Callum’s been a friend for the last few years and has done a few bits a pieces for us. I’ve always been a bit of a design/art nerd and followed him and the Everfresh crew for a long time, so I’ve really wanted to have his creative genius help us out properly for a while now. It was actually myself and Andy Johnson (the amazing man responsible for the vast majority of our photography, and the Throw Me in the River cover photo) who did most of the planning and lead-up work for the clip, but when Callum heard the idea he was totally into it and keen to help out, and some of his ideas and his help with direction on the day was totally invaluable. Both he and Andy are such positive and creative guys and we’re so lucky they’re keen to help us out. Very much looking forward to doing more stuff with both of them in future!
You’re either currently overseas or had just played a string of shows overseas (I’m not sure when exactly you’ll get this) – where are you now and what’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you overseas?
At this very second I’m sitting in a van on the 9 hour drive between Tours, France and Freiburg, Germany. We’ve had some truly great experiences on this trip so far, the majority of the shows were with the Menzingers and the Holy Mess, both from Philadelphia, and both bands of entirely awesome people – so that was a blast. There’s plenty of weird stuff that happens overseas and if you come at it from the right perspective, it’s usually all good weird! We’ve been in France doing our own shows the last few days. A couple of days ago we literally just played a show on a guy’s farm in a tiny country town and everyone we talked to had either a) never heard of it, or b) never heard of a band playing there. But it’s those situations that you see the real beauty in people… This guy Hervé and his wife opened up their home to us and treated us so well. We played a show to almost no one, but then we ate like Kings, drank red wine and French moonshine and tried to explain Australian slang through a language barrier! I think the best weird experiences I’ve ever had were in China, once a bunch of uni students swamped our van like paparazzi and told us we were “famous like Green Day”… Haha!
How does touring overseas compare to touring in Australia? What are the most notable differences?
All in all they stack up fairly similarly in the end I think. It takes a little while to get the hang of touring somewhere new, but that was the same as early Australian tours, and that’s exciting. No matter where you are, there are people who are excited about seeing live bands and hanging out and having a beer. Places like Europe and the US tend to be a little bit easier travel-wise because there’s so many options for cities you can play in, and promoters in Europe particularly are really great and always provide great (and free) food and accommodation. Each place we go tends to have its positives and negatives, but it’s kinda always a positive at the end of the day because were travelling the world playing music.
If people hadn’t heard of the Smith Street Band, how would you summarize your music to them?
Ahhh I always struggle to answer this question… Even after 5 years! I guess these days it’s folk, singer songwriter type stuff, but with a more sonic and dynamic thing going on. Wil also sounds very Australian and sings exactly how he talks. I always laugh when I read a review or hear someone say that he sounds too British or American or that he’s putting the accent on too thick. He sounds like him and it’s awesome.
‘Throw Me in the River’ is set to be released soon; where did you first meet Jeff Rosenstock and how did you know he would be the one to produce the album?
Jeff’s the best – we first met in early 2012 when we toured with him doing Bomb the Music Industry solo around Australia! Since then we’ve been lucky enough to tour, play shows and hang out a bunch in both Australia and the US. We’re all very passionate about the band and usually every decision we make has to be carefully navigated because we all have differing views. Asking Jeff to produce was the opposite of that. Not sure who first had the idea, but instantly all of us were on board and knew it was what we wanted to do. We’ve never had a “producer” before, so it just needed to be someone positive who we knew we’d get along with and who’s opinion we trusted. Jeff was all those things and is an incredible thinker with an amazing sense of melody to boot. I reckon it made the process a whole lot more production (duh!) and less stressful for us, having the fresh opinion of someone who wasn’t so emotionally attached to the songs ruled.
How do you decide the band is ready to make another full length rather than opting for another EP? Alternatively, why release ‘Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams’ rather than waiting to release it as a long play?
That’s all just a case of timing. As I said earlier, Wil is always writing and there are always new songs about, but it ebbs and flows in terms of when we have the chance to jam them around touring and whatever else is going on. We generally push ourselves to schedule recording time though – it keeps us on our toes and keeps things productive. There’s also the thematic aspect of it. “Dreams” was a conscious decision to do an EP because the songs were all written in the same time period and roughly based around one event – we wanted it to be raw and immediate, so we recorded it live over a few days and released it as soon as we could.