A Conversation withThe Smith Street Band
“Oh shit, I should text Frank”, says Wil Wagner. The Frank he’s talking about is Frank Turner, one of many British acts who are avid fans of The Smith Street Band, the Australian punks who over the last few years have managed to integrate themselves into the UK’s DIY punk scene. In that time they’ve amassed an incredibly loyal fan base because of the sheer passion they put into their live show. It’s hard to describe exactly what makes it so special, but after a Smith Street show you don’t feel like you’ve got a whole lot left to give. The openness and painful honesty that the band leave on stage each night makes it an almost spiritual experience, and although you feel spent afterwards you can’t help but smile from ear to ear. That might seem like bullshit, but I once saw them 6 times in a month and loved them more each time; they’re not a normal band.
Today they’re playing a sold out show at The Lexington and me and Wil, the band’s lead singer, are sat on the fire escape above the venue. They got into London from Australia yesterday so they’re still pretty jetlagged, but this isn’t too unusual as the band have been touring Australia, Europe and America pretty much non-stop since the release of 2014’s excellent Throw Me In The River. This hasn’t stopped them releasing new music though, notably dropping Wipe That Shit Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face in January. It’s a 7 inch single about the horrific treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian government, with the profits being donated to various charities, so it feels rather apt to discuss that in light of the events that have taken place in Calais this past week.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision of ‘we’re gonna become a band like this’”, says Wil, “because we recorded this for Throw Me In The River and it just didn’t really fit on the album. So then we thought we’d do it as a standalone 7 inch, and then that if we were going to do that then of course we were going to donate the money. None of us really thought people would feel differently on the issue, it’s like ‘of course people are pro-refugees because people are pro-people’. But it turns out it’s actually a very controversial statement to be pro-refugees, so we’ve copped a lot shit for it. But then we’ve copped a lot of shit from people who it’s a compliment to cop shit from, so we don’t mind.”
The song is a scathing attack on Tony Abbott, “Were we supposed to feel hope when you said you’d stop the boats? ‘Cause that’s some fucking evil shit, politicizing killing kids”, but it’s also a rallying cry against apathy, “It is not enough to be quiet on the train back home”, which has long been a characteristic of Wil’s song writing. The Smith Street Band has always been about feeling something, good or bad, and the band have always been political in a very personal sense as they offer an insight into a way of life that’s completely different to the one we’re told we should live. They don’t sugar coat and needlessly celebrate it, but they tell you that it’s there. Shit Eating Grin follows that formula and consequently doesn’t feel like it’s The Smith Street Band trying to do a political song, it’s a Smith Street song that just happens to be political.
“That’s why it didn’t feel as much of a stretch”, Wil agrees. “None of us are that politically well-read and I can’t spout a load of statistics off the top of my head. We wanted to give the everyman perspective, telling the story of people rather than just ‘these are the facts’, because it’s so easy for your eyes to just glaze over when you’re reading numbers and we wanted to make it a bit more personal.”
The song and the message around it has gathered a decent level of momentum in Australia, mirroring the bands own rise, and they’ve refused to shy away from it. They even went so far as to play in front of a ‘REAL AUSTRALIANS SAY WELCOME’ banner during a televised set at Splendour in the Grass festival last week; “We got a lot of shit for that too”, says Wil, “but I’m glad we did it”. Seeing how people have rallied behind them I’m curious as to how important Wil believes making political music is, and whether it will become a more regular feature of their output.
“I think it is important and it’s something I’m very conscious of now. I’ve had a lot of people asking if we’re going to write another song now, and there are things like gay marriage which I’m very vocal in support of, but I don’t think it’s something you should force. That was the thing with Shit Eating Grin, I didn’t sit down and think ‘I’m gonna write a refugee song’, I just wrote that song. I’ve got a similar song that’s probably going to be on the next Smith Street record about this thing that’s happening in Australia right now where everyone is just booing indigenous football players, and it’s really fucked; full stadiums full of people booing other people just because of the colour of their skin. So I’ve got a song about that, but I just read a bunch of articles and I was furious and the song came. So I think if people have it in them then I think 100% they should not be afraid to talk about it because if you put something into lyrics it does make it more accessible, especially if it’s something that you’re passionate about then it really comes across. So I think it is something that is important but it also isn’t something that is easily forced, but I think that’s true of most song writing, if I ever set out to write a song about one certain thing then it always comes across very cliché”.
Taking a brief break from the heavy topics the conversation moves on to the artwork for the single; a wonderfully unsettling portrait of Tony Abbot’s filthy smirk, painted by the excellent Shaun Thatcher. It’s a brazen statement that perfectly contrasts the music, which doesn’t fall into the trap a lot of political writing does of being too obvious and preachy, and its subtleties.
“The artist who did works with lots of layers, so he spent a month just staring at Tony Abbot’s face, poor guy”, Wil laughs. “The painting is massive and it’s beautiful, so I was thinking about hanging it up, but then I was just ‘I don’t want that in my fucking house’. So we were thinking of auctioning it off for charity, but then I don’t think anyone who would give money to a refugee charity would want a painting of Tony Abbott in their house.”
Somehow in between touring and releasing Shit Eating Grin, Wil has also managed to put out a solo record, ‘I Hope I Don’t Come across Too Intense’, as a cassette only album. There are just two songs from the album online, “It’s hard to rip a tape” Wil says with a smile, but because he’s just the fucking best guy he gave me a copy at the show and I’m listening to it whilst I write this up. It’s a really charming album of home demos that’s full of the honest story telling that Wil excels at. Whether it’s the poetic on Feel All The Feelings, “lying naked in the sunlight you notice the little things, that can let you fall in love with someone despite the dangers that it brings”, or the slightly silly, such as the “fuck off and die” refrain on I Don’t Love You Anymore, it's so simply done and open that it feels like Wil is sat in the room with you, asking what you think of some songs he’s written. It’s a lot softer than a Smith Street record, and much of Wil’s previous solo work, but there are strong similarities that run throughout, so I’m curious as to how Wil decides what’s a solo track and what should be for the whole band.
“It’s quite hard”, he concedes. “We always write more songs for an album than we need, so a few of them we’ll go through and play a bunch of times and the guys will just be like ‘nah, this is a you solo song’, or vice versa and something I think is acoustic will end up being really heavy. I just try to write everything with both in mind and never pigeon hole it from the start. It goes back to not trying to force things and I try to let the song write itself and when it’s done we’ll listen to it, play it through and work it out.”
The interview winds down with some scattergun chatter about a new Smith Street album (“All the songs are written, but we just need to find time to all get together to finish it which is difficult now because half of the band live over here”), The Front Bottoms (“I got to see them play a one off show in Williamsburg, and we’ve toured with them in Australia but seeing them play to their home crowd was insane. I almost cried watching my friends do something that powerful”), and his unreleased hip-hop album (“I broke my collarbone and I was on loads of painkillers and couldn’t play guitar. So I made beats on a Casio keyboard and recorded a rap album; it’s fucking horrible, it’s really bad”). I offer forth a moniker of Ghostface Wilah for any future rap projects (“In light of the Action Bronson thing I don’t want to fuck with Ghostface. Don’t fuck with Wu-Tang, just don’t it”) and we end a rather heavy interview with some silliness.
The show later that evening is a triumph. There are familiar faces everywhere and each one has a childlike grin on it. Every word is sung back, people throw themselves off the stage and when someone falls they're pulled back up straight away. The biggest cheer of the night comes when Wil introduces Wipe That Shit Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face, and it’s a beautiful realisation that people over 15,000km away from Australia truly care about what they’re singing. It’s during the chorus of that song, screamed back by every person in the venue, that I realise what the true beauty of Shit Eating Grin and the band as a whole is; it’s that when Wil sings “change is gonna come”, you don’t doubt him for a second.