UTG INTERVIEW: The Smith Street Band

smith street band

The past two years have seen Melbourne, Australia’s The Smith Street Band grow from local cult favourites to international touring folk-punk juggernaut. Much of that rise to prominence can be attributed to two factors; the unprecedented success of their critically acclaimed debut full-length album, Sunshine and Technology, and the band’s relentless and tireless approach to touring in support of that release. A sleeper hit that gathered momentum the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth, Sunshine and Technology opened the world’s doors to The Smith Street Band and the Melbourne, Australia based four-piece allowed their passionate live show and affable personalities to ensure that those doors were blown off of their hinges.

Coming hot on the tales of a UK Tour with Apologies, I Have None, a USA tour in support of Frank Turner and an impressive Florida Theater showing at Gainesville’s infamous The Fest, the band’s latest release, Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams, picks up where Sunshine and Technology left off, delivering five tracks of world-class folk-punk that wears its heart on its sleeve and its accent unashamedly upfront.

As the band gears up for a run of sold-out shows across Australia with Philadelphia stalwarts The Menzingers, before heading into the studio to finish writing and recording their as yet untitled second full-length, we spoke to drummer Chris about the band’s steady rise to prominence and the realities of a life lived on the road in the company of your best friends.

UTG: The last two years have seen the Smith Street Band grow from local favourite to international touring punk rock troubadours, how would you describe that experience?

Chris: Umm, that’s quite a question! It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, it’s just really been fun. I can only speak for myself but I am sure that the rest of the guys agree with the sentiment, but we just work really hard and play as many shows as we can, and do as much as we can when we are not playing to keep the momentum going. For example, today Fitzy and Will were in North Melbourne, while myself and Bosma, our manager, were downstairs booking shows and piecing together artwork, so it’s essentially just an all-in commitment when we’re on stage but also when we’re off stage as well. To be able to see that effort pay off in terms of seeing people at shows connecting with our songs and to have that translate into the opportunity to go on tours with a big act like Frank Turner throughout the USA or with dudes like Apologies, I Have None in the UK is something that I never thought that I would get to do playing music, and it really is just the best experience in the world and we just want to keep doing it, as much as we can, wherever and whenever we can.

So we aim to just keep writing and releasing as much music as possible and continue to try and push ourselves to take advantage of as many touring opportunities as possible, and hopefully people keep caring and giving a shit and supporting our style of music and by extending music from Melbourne and Victoria and Australia as a whole.

UTG: Of all the places you’ve been fortunate enough to tour, does any particular show or town or even country stand out as a highlight? Or do they all blend into one big awesome life experience?

Chris: It’s all one big awesome experience. I mean there were a couple of shows on the Frank Turner tour for instance where we were like, “well this isn’t the best show and the vibe was a bit weird,” but that didn’t happen too much. Along the way there have definitely been things that were really cool; one that stands out for me was our first show in the UK in London with Apologies, I Have None. When we arrived we knew the show had sold out, but we didn’t really know what to expect in terms of the audience reaction to our band, or have any real inkling of how popular we were with their crowd, but from the moment we hit the stage in this small, sold-out, 250-person room, there was people singing along to every word and getting into it and it just felt like playing a show in Melbourne, only with the words coming back at you in a different accent. So we were pretty blown away by that and from there onwards the rest of the tour through the UK followed pretty much throughout the tour.

As far as the states, the Fest was obviously one really big one that stands out to me. I mean as a kid I grew up loving punk music and had dreamed of just going to the Fest and at one point I had actually started working out ways to save money to be able to get over there for it one year, but never really got it together, so then to get the opportunity to be able to play it, was just a dream come true. And we got really lucky too in that because of the nature of the Frank Turner shows, we’d been playing in Austin, Texas the night before and Houston. Texas the night after the show, we basically had to do this insane amount of travel. We had to get bumped up the line-up and we got placed on the main stage which is the Florida Theatre and we ended up playing fourth last like two spots in front of The Lawrence Arms and ALL, so that was pretty mind-blowing for us, and the reception we got was really cool and the crowd was getting into it and singing along and treating us like we belonged in that slot, which was really cool.

Another experience that stands out to steal a story from Will is when we were in Detroit. Detroit as you might know is pretty dangerous and a bit of a weirdly run-down city and I had personally never seen anything like it before and we had driven around pretty much the whole country and from the moment we drove into Detroit we were confronted with the reality of the situation there at the moment, with so many places boarded up or abandoned and it was really quite sad. Will went for a bit of a walk and had a chat to the crowd and absorbed the culture a bit and got the impression from the locals that despite the town being in the state it was in they were still all really proud of their city and its heritage and its place in the USA and they wanted to really stand by it and help it get back to the way it once was, and Will went on stage and said something to that effect and acknowledged how cool that was as an attitude and how we all really respected it and thought it was a really admirable trait to have and the crowd just erupted. Obviously it was a pretty big show as they were there to see Frank, but after Will said that they were just all really happy and appreciative that someone actually gave a shit about them and their city. So yeah, cool little moments like that continued to happen pretty much throughout the whole tour and made it a really memorable experience for us.

UTG: Lyrically, many of your songs focus upon the minutiae of a life lived in the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne, which as a Melbournian makes me damn proud, however it does lead me to ask how those lyrics translate to audiences across the country and the world? Do you find fans from other areas interpret the songs differently or do you find that the general themes are relatable enough that the words and the emotions still cut through?

Chris: I think it’s relatable enough that people can connect with it, or at least it seems to be so far. I mean Smith Street, I am sure there is probably a Smith Street in every city in the world, or at least in the English speaking world anyway. It’s a pretty common kind of name after all. So while a lot of the street names and towns and references Will makes in his lyrics are quite Melbourne-centric, the themes and the emotions are easily transferable to other places. Kind of in the same way that when I went to see Springsteen the other night I felt like I had a connection to those songs and those are all obviously about New Jersey, so I can’t speak for anyone other than myself but I think the themes and the emotions are all pretty relatable, no matter what city you’re from.

I mean I can’t speak for Will, but from my perspective, he is just a normal dude that goes through normal life experiences, like working, relationships, break-ups and the ups and downs of life in general. So his lyrics are just an honest perspective of that and most people go through those experiences at some stage in their life, no matter where they live, so I think that really helps us connect with audiences outside of Melbourne and Australia.

UTG: The music you play and in particular the vocal delivery is not exactly what your typical A&R type might call ‘commercially viable’ but as a band you appear to be making it work quite well. With your shows offering a rather mixed crowd, what is it about the band that you think is helping you to connect with people outside of the usual punk circles?

Chris: In some ways it’s quite eclectic music, I guess if you look at it from one sense we are just a rock band, but if you look at it from a purely lyrical perspective it is more folk music, in the sense of what I believe the purpose of folk music was originally anyway, and that’s music of the people and it’s about storytelling and I think that people like it from that aspect and it probably goes back to what we were talking about earlier about how it is really relatable and because of that you might not necessarily have to be a fan of the genre of music to be able to find something to connect with in the songs. Will and I are also heavily into and influenced by hip-hop, and I think he borrows a lot of elements from that in his delivery and that also helps us to connect with a different audience that otherwise would be unlikely to listen to our kind of band. Having said that, appealing to an audience is not something we really want to have to consider too much, we just want to continue doing what we do and if that continues to work and expands our fan-base then there is no reason to really question it or try to define what it is. We really do get a really mixed crowd.

UTG: An example of your mixed crowd is that my old man likes your band. He calls Will the ‘Punk-Rock Paul Kelly.’

Chris: It’s funny, man- people have been saying that about Will since 2009 when we were like the shittiest band in all of Melbourne, and still to this day people come up to me and say that Will is much like a dirtier, grittier, punk-rock version of Paul Kelly and to an extent I definitely agree. I mean I love the songs of Paul Kelly, they’re iconic and something that I grew up listening to with my parents, and I think the key to what makes his music work is exactly what makes our music work and that’s how easily accessible and relatable the stories being told with the music are.

UTG: The latest release Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams was a nice little progression from the excellent Sunshine and Technology. How did you find the release was received by fans, and what can fans expect sonically from you moving forward to your next release? Also lyrically, has the focus changed? I mean you’re certainly in a different position than you were when Sunshine & Technology came out.

Chris: Number one, I can definitely say that yes it was well received by our fans and it gets back to the point that we were discussing earlier about how we have grown not only in terms of our audience, but in terms of our abilities as musicians and storytellers and we continue to keep growing and it feels like this has been the ideal transition release moving towards the new album. The second part of the question going from Sunshine and Technology to Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams is probably different courtesy of the recording style. Sunshine and Technology was all tracked individually, whereas when we tracked Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams it was all done live, and we just went back and redid the vocal parts, so there’s a difference in the rawness and the energy on the two releases as well. I think also we were a lot more prepared for Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams than we were for Sunshine. Like for example, the song “Young Drunk,” when we went into the studio that track wasn’t anywhere near finished. I mean when I was doing the drums we were literally going part by part and piecing it together to make a full song and yet it became the most popular track on the album.

For Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams, we were completely prepared and just go in and bang it out- all the four of us playing in one room at one time and I like to think that’s why it sounds a bit more raw and has more of a vibe. So yeah, we played those tracks over and over again and were a bit more prepared. Sonically moving towards the next record, everything is just starting to sound a bit bigger and a bit more musical and a lot of that has to do with the addition of Fitzy, the bass-player who is a massive tone and gear nerd, which we’d previously not got into too much and he’s always showing Will new ideas on how to incorporate new tones and sounds and just little ideas that’ll make the tunes sound bigger or fuller or stand out a little more on the record. An example of that is a song like “Ducks Fly Together.” Like there’s lots of weird bass feedback and stuff going on and he isn’t quite a stock-standard bass player and he really adds something different to the band. He’s more like a lead bass player than just a part of the rhythm section, and that’s really added something to the overall sound of the band. So we expect that that evolution sonically will continue moving on with the new record and the songs we’ve got so far are a lot darker and a bit sadder and more intense, and we’re trying stuff we haven’t tried before.

UTG: This upcoming tour with The Menzingers sees you headlining over them, one of the world’s best punk rock bands. How does it feel to be able to share top billing with a band of that caliber?

Chris: It’s stupid, man, it’s so stupid, in that I can’t believe that it’s actually happening. I mean, it’s just so bizarre to me, but it’s cool. We’re really lucky in that sense and the reasons that tour came about is because of our mates Restorations who we brought out here last time who are from Philly and they are mates with them, and yeah it’s just all worked out and it’s really awesome to be able to bring a band people really like and are into out here. I’ve always heard such amazing things about their live show but have never had the opportunity to check them out and now we get the opportunity to play with them every night of this tour and it’s just such a surreal experience. We’re very lucky to be able to do that.

And it works out well for us too because we can become mates with them and then hop on tours with them in markets like the USA, where they are a big band in the scene, certainly much bigger than us, and that can help to continue to expand the reach of the band and also make touring those areas more of an attainable goal. I mean we’re getting there slowly in terms of our reach over there, but nothing like the level they are at. So it’s good to be able to provide a similar kind of experience for a band like that out here, as bands like theirs have done for us overseas.

It’s quite a surreal thing to be able to do and personally, Menzingers, I got into them when I was a teenager, early 20s checking PunkNews and whatever to find new bands and I got into them off of their very first release doing that and if you had told me that 5 or 7 years later I’d be headlining over them I’d have told you that you were crazy, man. And I have heard such great things about them as people that I can’t wait just to jump on that tour and hang out with them every night and just embrace that experience.

UTG: With such a hard-hitting touring lifestyle as Will expertly describes on Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams, do you find that your relationships with your fellow band-mates are changing, either for better or worse, and how do you all stay sane when you’re essentially living out of each other’s pockets?

Chris: It is an interesting one; I would say that they have changed for the better. We kind of are at the stage now where we are just like brothers more or less and we can openly tell each other what we think and fight with each other or take the absolute piss out of each other and no one really takes it to heart too much. If someone fucks up, everyone knows they fucked up and people are going to give you shit about it, and you just have to let it be and let people hang it on you and I think with other bands it’s when people start taking that kind of thing to heart that things start to go a bit awry and egos start to get hurt and thankfully we aren’t at that point.

At the end of the day, no matter what happens, all five of us, or however many of us there are at the time, the crew does seem to be expanding a lot at the moment, but we all pretty much know we are in this together. It’s a really cool experience to be able to share with your best friends and I can’t really imagine us ever really doing it any other way. I mean we all still live together — with the exception of me, as I just moved out down the road from the house the rest of the boys live in — but even on our off-days, like today you’ll find us all hanging out. Like right now for instance, there’s myself and the boys and Bosma just kicking back having a beer and relaxing and enjoying each other’s company while we do a few interviews and things and it’s just a really cool lifestyle to be able to live like that all the time with your best mates and share so many experiences with them.

UTG: So that cat stays at home when you go on tour then? Sinclair stays and guards the house?

Chris: [Laughs] Yeah, man, Sinclair has to stay here when we all go on tour, man. He’s becoming more popular than we are though, so he might have to start doing his own tours soon.

 

Unequivocally emotional, unashamedly sincere and absolutely genuine, The Smith Street Band are a textbook example of what can be achieved if you are willing to truly commit yourself to the progression of your art. Even if no one else believes in it. It’s an attitude that permeates throughout everything that they do and one that continues to drive them to achieve greater things with each release. It’s also an attitude that has helped to earn them ringing endorsements from artists the caliber of Against Me! and Frank Turner, as well as the genuine love and appreciation of an ever expanding fan base worldwide.

As Chris hung up the phone to gear up for yet another tour, it was hard not to think that they might just be on the verge of becoming something infinitely more special. They might be on the verge of becoming your new favourite band.

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The Smith Street Band are on tour throughout Australia with The Menzingers in March — dates and ticket details can be found here.

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