The Smith Street Band's Will Wagner Discusses Their New Album, Touring and Cricket
2017 is shaping up to be a pretty big year for Melbourne's own The Smith Street Band. The group are set to release their highly anticipated fifth album More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me on the seventh of April, and will embark on a mammoth world tour in support. The new album sees the group continuing to explore their distinctive punk-inspired sound, but with even more variety in their sound. Choirs, strings and synths all feature on this record about the ups and downs of human relationships, as well as some killer riffs. As well as a place on the 2017 Groovin' the Moo lineup, the band will be playing some huge venues in their upcoming Australian tour, including a show at Metro City in Perth on June 9. We had the privilege of chatting on the phone with frontman Will Wagner, who was more friendly than you could possibly imagine and clearly excited about what's to come.
N: To start off with, I’m really excited to catch you guys live soon on your upcoming Aus tour, with some pretty awesome opening acts as well. Does the size of the venues you’re going to be playing intimidate or excite you more?
WW: It’s a pretty even combination of both, I’d say. I mean, we’re playing all these crazy, prestigious venues I could’ve only dreamt of playing in the past and it’s very exciting. But also, it’s all these crazy, prestigious venues, which is kind of scary! It’s very exciting and I’m stoked that we get to do it. The tickets have been going well so far, so hopefully people come.
IN: How do you approach bigger shows to make them have an intimate quality, given it’s a fine balance?
WW: Yeah, it’s a strange one. It’s definitely something we’ve noticed going from playing like, you know, Mojo’s-sized rooms to bigger rooms. Everyone is a bit further away instead of right up against you, so it’s a bit of a hard one sometimes. I think we just… I mean, for these shows we’re going for like, a big stage show, we’re gonna have projections and all this stuff, we’re gonna try up that a bit. For me I just try and make eye contact with people in the audience, and try and be personable and have silly conversations with the crowd. I feel like that makes people feel a bit more like it's a normal show rather than one in a big room, you know? It’s a strange one, though, I’ve asked a few of my more successful friends like, say my friend Frank Turner who does arena tours. I’ve asked him a lot, “How do you make them feel like lounge room shows?” He’s given me some tips, like you move less but in a more defined way and all this other strange stuff that I’m just going to forget the second I start playing. *Laughs* But yeah, we’re working on these to make it feel a bit more like an old show, but also trying to make it The Smith Street Spectacular with a bunch of over-the-top stuff, so hopefully we find the middle ground there.
IN: Here’s hoping your June show here in Perth doesn’t end up like the last one.
WW: *Laughs* Yeah, oh well, you can’t win them all.
IN: You actually just finished a solo tour, is that something you’re interested in pursuing more later down the line? Perhaps a solo album or EP or something…?
WW: Yeah, I’d love to. I’ve been playing solo for longer than Smith Street’s been a thing, it’s sort of my mode, you know? As soon as I start playing solo, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I feel very comfortable doing this!” I feel quite at home playing by myself. But yeah, Smith Street takes up an awful lot of my time so it’s hard to find time to project that, but it’s absolutely something I really love to do and this solo tour I just did this year was just, like… Smith Street had three months off for the first time ever, so I thought I’d try and cram in 16 solo shows as well. It’s better than sitting around doing nothing. But yeah, I’ve got, probably two solo albums written that I’m just waiting to get the chance to record. I’ve got a bunch of different slower, stranger songs that I’d like to work out with, like, a string section and all these kinds of things, but Smith Street is like three full time jobs. Definitely not complaining though, they’re good jobs.
IN: So how do you decide “this is going to be a Smith Street song” or “this is going to be a song that I hold back and use for myself”?
WW: Um… Some songs I’ll begin to write, and thirty songs into writing it I’m like “Yep, this is a band song,” and sometimes it’s the other way around. All the songs that are like, three minutes and catchy become Smith Street songs and all the six minute dirges get pushed to the wayside, I guess? *Laughs* To me, it’s always kind of obvious. The other thing is, with Smith Street, we learnt maybe 25 songs for the new album, and only recorded about 15 and we’re only using 12 on the record. So there’s a bunch of these songs that I’ve tried with the band that just got me like “This doesn’t work, this just works way better with me playing by myself.” There’s this whole series of songs I don’t want anyone playing guitar on, I want it to be me with a cello, double bass and violin, and then there’s some big band stuff… I have a lot of things I want to try! To me, though, a song will just feel like a Smith Street song straight up.
IN: Well, that all sounds pretty cool, hopefully they see the light of day eventually!
WW: Yeah, well, if Smith Street breaks up I’ve got my next four albums sorted! *Laughs* I mean, I hope that doesn't happen, but gotta keep the other guys on their toes, you know? *Laughs*
IN: So, let’s get on to discussing this new album. It’s another awesome effort, a lot of these songs stand up against some of my favourites by you. You recorded your last album in Victoria, but this one was recorded in California. Why did you feel that change was necessary?
WW: Yeah, so, we recorded Throw Me in the River in basically a holiday house in rural Victoria, which we kind of turned into a studio. We basically wanted to have the same thing, where we’re in a beautiful location and we’re all living there and sleeping there, and we wake up with coffee and start work then work until we sleep, which is a really fun way to make a record. Especially just being out of town in the middle of nowhere- you can’t think about anything else, you don’t have time to go home and fuck around and get out of the zone, you’re just working on making a record. So, we wanted that similar experience. We were trying to find somewhere in Australia where we could do it, but then we found this place in California and it wound up being about the same price as doing it here. We recorded on the side of a cliff overlooking the ocean about an hour out from San Francisco in this amazing studio with, like, a fully professional setup that just happened to be in the middle of nowhere. There were families of deer walking through the front of the property when we woke up every morning. Every morning, I’d wake up early before everyone else and I’d get out my headphones and listen to what we’d been doing the day before and go for a walk along the clifftop overlooking the ocean or down to the ocean and have a swim. It was so magic, you know? I’m so stoked we found that place. It wasn’t like we were going to make this album in California to seem like we are trying to be rock-stars and make it in a fancy studio in LA or anything. We just wanted to find somewhere beautiful where we could chill out and make music and the panoramic house we recorded in was perfect. It was a good time.
IN: For some reason, when I think of you guys recording an album I just think of this massive therapy session full of group hugs, is that about right?
WW: *Laughs* Oh yeah, group hugs, group tantrums, we get into it! We like to track everything live, so, the first week and a bit of recording was just all four of us in a room playing every song, and if someone fucked it up we would do it again, and that can be uplifting and infuriating. We would scream at each other and hug each other… It’s an incredibly cathartic thing, to record. Especially for me doing some of the vocal parts. The guitar parts, too, but especially the vocal parts where it’s like… I’ve been trying to hone these words for over a year, sometimes, and I’ve been trying to get the perfect way to express them emotion. So when it’s finally time, and I’m in the vocal booth, it’s so exciting, and when I’m listening back it’s like, “Yes, that is exactly how I wanted it to sound like!” It’s such an amazingly fulfilling feeling. Especially in this album, when there’s a lot of extra instrumentation, I’m hearing the things I’ve been hearing in my head for a year, but now they’re real! It’s the most exciting thing. We go through every possible emotion when we’re recording. With this one, we had a bit of extra time and we were in such a beautiful place, so we could, if we had spent six hours just playing things over and over and it wasn’t sticking… Like if Chris couldn’t get this drum part, or I couldn’t get this guitar part we could say, “Alright, let’s take two hours,” and there was a zen garden in the backyard with a Buddhist statue and we’d all just sit there. The phone reception didn’t work out there, so we would just sit there and relax and watch deer walk past and you’d feel fine then and go back and work on the album again. That’s really important. We recorded in the city before, and when we had those stressful times we’d walk out of the studio onto a main road with traffic everywhere and people around, and it was hard to relax and declutter our heads. This time, if we got stressed we would go for a swim and be ready to record after an hour, or something.
IN: The way you’re describing this place… it sounds like an entirely different world.
WW: Yeah, it was incredible. Our friend made a video of the stuff he shot while we were there, and we were all watching the footage to edit it and we all almost started crying, we all wanted to go back so much!
IN: So you still find the whole writing, recording and touring process cathartic after all these years?
WW: Yeah, yeah. I mean, writing is my favourite part of being in a band. Before we went in to record we’d spend maybe five weeks literally rehearsing every day, just writing songs, performing songs, scrapping songs… I could just do that every hour every day for the rest of my life. I get so much out of writing and playing, especially with the other guys in the band who are my best friends and we’ve all grown as musicians together over the last few years, so we bounce off each other really well. I can say, “I kinda want this kinda vibe for this song?” and everyone just gets it immediately, because we’ve all been through it before. It’s really, really special to be able to do that. And now we’ve been rehearsing our set for the tour, and I’m so excited to play these new songs live! So yeah, the shine definitely hasn’t worn off for me yet, I still love getting to do what I do.
IN: And we love hearing it! So as you touched on, this album encompasses a lot of sounds, you’ve got choirs and strings and everything. Were you quite conscious of pushing yourselves into new territories sonically or was it more of an “anything goes” approach?
WW: A bit of both, really. To me, this is how I’ve always wanted us to sound, but we never had the time or know-how to do these things. With Sunshine and Technology and No One Gets Lost Anymore, we recorded them in about a week, so you’d have about 20 minutes to find a guitar sound and that’s how your guitar would sound for the rest of the album. But for this one, I could really dig in and, like, go through five different amps to find the best sound for each song, and I could really… Hone stuff a bit more. I’ve always had string and brass parts and choirs and synths and stuff in my head, but we just never had time to get that all down. But for this record, we did.
Also, we were a bit more confident and ambitious as a band. We weren’t worried about making something that sounded like the last record so people would like it. We just thought, “Well, there are enough people now who will give this album a chance even if it does sound totally different.” We had a bit more faith that even if they didn’t like it on the first try they would at least give it another go and then get it instead of just listening once and saying, “Ah, this band sucks,” and move on. I mean, people might still do that. *Laughs* We just had more time and wanted to push ourselves a bit more. There’s a part in “Birthdays” with a full 80s synth section which I probably wouldn’t have said yes to a few years ago, but now I think, “Fuck yeah, this sounds great, why not have an 80s synth section in this song?” We don’t need a formula, if it works for the song, it works for the song. Same thing with the choir part, it might be strange for a Smith Street song to have a 10-part choir in the middle, but I love how it sounds, it works well, so we did it.
IN: “Run into the World” is certainly one of the highlights on this album for me, how did you get Tim Rogers AND Laura Stevenson (two pretty cool artists) on board for this one?
WW: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy! I’ve known Laura for many, many years, she’s good friends with Jeff Rosenstock who has produced a lot of our stuff. We were mixing everything in a New Jersey and wanted a female part that I had written in this song. I wanted three voices singing for this part, and we called Laura and she was super stoked to do it. It’s amazing getting her, she has such an amazing voice. We’d be tracking the vocals and I’d say, like, “Can you just sing this and this instead of this and this,” and she’d just get it the first time. She was so great to work with, I love her a lot.
And Tim Rogers was quite a get, I still can’t believe he’s in a song I wrote. We played at… I think it was Festival of the Sun? You Am I were playing too, and after the show he came up and was, well, Tim Rogers. He had a drink in his hand and was wearing a suit and said he liked the band and wanted to talk about some stuff. We’ve become buddies, we bump into each other in airport lounges and talk a bit and he sends nice emails about my songs and I try and not freak out when I write back. *Laughs* He was in New York and we were trying to work it out so he could be in the studio with us, but it just didn’t work out. When he got back to Australia I sent him the song and he sung his parts and I chopped and changed them about with Laura’s parts and pieced the whole thing together, and that’s what you’re hearing in the end of the song. I still can’t really believe Tim Rogers sang on our song.
IN: You said “Shine” has some of your favourite lyrics on the album, can you elaborate on what that song means to you?
WW: That song means a lot of different things to me, but it’s basically, like… I wrote it when I woke up one morning. So, like, the whole album tracks this relationship and break up. I’m sure you’ve been through this as well, but this song is about how you sort of have this morning where you’ve been going through this horrible break up and you feel like it’s never going to end, but then you woke up one morning and you think, “it’s ended!” Like, all of a sudden it’s gone. So that song is like a kind of “goodbye negative feelings, I forgive you but I feel good now” song.
It’s also about… That “Down here in the flight path” line is about friends of ours, mainly bands but also people who have never been cool or hyped or anything but just keep doing things because they think it’s good. I think there are bands that, like, in six months are suddenly ten times bigger than all these other bands, and it’s sometimes like they didn’t deserve it or something when, like, I have five friends who are doing the same genre a lot better than this band but for some reason they’re massive, you know? It’s a strange thing. I have this huge respect for people who are just doing stuff, and that’s what that line represents. People will take off and fly right above your head, but me and my friends are happy in the underground just making our stuff. And the last bit of the song is about being comfortable with yourself and who you are, for better or worse, and not feeling sorry for yourself but just making it work.
IN: It’s funny how you mention that whole… Being in the underground thing when, like, that is how your band started and suddenly you’re playing these massive venues. It’s quite a trajectory.
WW: Oh, yeah, but it’s been a steady thing the whole time, there wasn’t a sudden jump. And we are still the same people. You know, our friend who booked our first shows, I met him when I was sixteen and he booked the first show I ever played in a venue and he’s booked the next decade of shows after that. And that’s why we started our own label Pool House, we want to provide that community for people and just help our friends who make great shit who are under-appreciated. That’s very important to me.
IN: I’m sure venues like The Rev in Footscray have played a role in fostering this music scene. In your own words, why is it important to preserve venues like this for the future in light of the lockout laws?
WW: Yeah, I mean, there wouldn’t be bands if there weren’t these venues. We were playing for years before anyone cared, and we played at The Art House and all these pubs that don’t have big bands playing or anything. But to me, those venues… That’s where all music scenes and communities grow from. In Sydney now, like, the Newtown Social Club is closed, and Black Wire Records is closed. If we’re booking a tour for a band and they came to Perth, the first time they’re playing at Mojo’s or that little room at the Rosemount. But in Sydney now, there’s nothing within a 200-300 capacity range, so bands will either play big rooms and get about 200 people in a 500 capacity room or they will play in Wollongong or Newcastle instead of Sydney. It’s crazy. I mean, our first five or six shows in Sydney were at Black Wire, and then when we became too big to play there we’d do secret shows there on a Monday after a tour. I’ve probably played there more than ten times, because it’s so important and gave so many bands like us a start that are now doing great stuff. Without those rooms, the bigger venues may as well not exist, because no one is gonna weigh up to playing those venues because they won’t get a chance.
IN: Finally, I just wanted to ask, considering the rumoured Groovin' the Moo Ashes match [theoretically also featuring Violent Soho vs The Darkness and Architects]... Are you more of a bowler, batter, all-rounder, keeper…?
WW: *Laughs* I was once asked this question as a kid before a school cricket game, and I said, “Oh, sort of an all-rounder.” I got bowled first ball and then bowled an over and got smashed out of the park.
IN: That happens to the best of us, though.
WW: True! But yeah, during my high school cricket career I was, like, a number six batsman who was a half-decent slogger and a pretty mediocre leg-spinner. Hopefully I’ll play a bit of a Glenn Maxwell-type, but probably not as good.
IN: I’m sure you’ll still do us proud!
WW: Yeah, I hope so!
IN: Thank you very much for speaking to us, I can’t wait for the world to hear this one and look forward to seeing you soon!
WW: It’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you so much!