POOL HOUSE RECORDS:
Time To Shine
On a Saturday afternoon on the Easter long weekend a group of friends gather on the footpath outside of Pool House, the colloquial name given to The Smith Street Band’s Wil Wagner’s share house. A flat bed truck is parked by the nature strip and on it, the band’s gear and cameras strapped to a makeshift stage. Neighbours peer out their windows and traffic slows as people stop to look. An older man holds a clipboard and is on his phone, giving instructions to a small film crew inconspicuously dressed in black. That man is Paul Drane, former director of cult TV show Countdown, but today, most importantly, the brains behind AC/DC’s It’s A Long Way To The Top film clip. Some 41 years later the iconic clip is being recreated, this time however Swanston Street is replaced by Barkly Street in Footscray and AC/DC, with The Smith Street Band.
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Wagner later tells me, sharing just one of his many flamboyant film clip ideas, this one for the song Shine. “One day we were sitting in the second story of a café in Footscray and just looking out the window onto the street and I was like, ‘I want to do the AC/DC clip down this street,’” he grins. “We just made it happen. We got in touch with Tim Watts, the local Member of Parliament and he loves the band. We got in touch with the local council and they loved the idea, and we got in touch with the local trader’s union, who turned out to be a friend of a friend and it all just fell in to place.”
With band on the back, the truck makes its way down Barkly Street. Past the pawnbrokers, the Ethiopian hair salon, the Asian supermarket, the discount electrical store and the café where the idea was first conceived, as high rise apartments cast shadows in the distance. In bright green gaffer tape, the numbers 3011 glow from Wagner’s amp, the postcode to Footscray. Raised in the eastern suburbs of Box Hill, before spending his early twenties in Fitzroy and North Melbourne, I ask Wagner what draws him to the inner-Western suburb, five kilometres out of Melbourne’s Central Business District. “It has a real soul and personality to it. It’s the wrong side of the tracks, it’s working class and it’s punk rock. There’s a real sense of community,” he says. “It’s very reflective of my personality and who I am. It’s a little run down and kinda sketchy,” he jokes.
I walk beside the truck as it slowly makes its way to its final destination. It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment as the usually quiet end of the street becomes a buzz with noise. I begin to reflect on the original film clip and today’s homage, and the synergy to Bon Scott’s words as he lists the hardships of being in a rock and roll band; getting ripped off, breaking bones, growing old. On Wagner’s end, he flips the concept and shifts it inwards, using rock and roll as it would be, as his vehicle to overcome the distractions and detractors, musically or otherwise. “If you’re here to block my rays, you’re gonna have to get the fuck out of my way,” he sings in defiance. It’s barely gone 3pm but the words spill from his mouth with as much vigour as he has on any other stage.
After a handful of takes, the band disembarks from the truck. There’s a jovial mood in the air. A film clip many months in the making has come to fruition and the band has just received news that their new album, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, has debuted at number three in the Australian charts. It’s a typically overcast autumn day in Melbourne, but fittingly the sun comes out as band, film crew and friends head to the bar with much to celebrate.
Just over a week after their Australian album tour will wrap up, The Smith Street Band will head to Germany to begin a European and United Kingdom tour. A month and 20 shows later they’ll return home to play Splendor In The Grass in Byron Bay, before heading back overseas for an American tour centred around their performance at Chicago’s Riot Fest and a yet-to-be-announced big name support slot.
The transient nature of touring means The Smith Street spend upwards of a quarter of the year overseas, but Pool House, the “big ramshackle falling down house,” out West is what keeps Wagner grounded.
Featured in promo shots and film clips, it has played host to touring bands including The Menzingers, The Hotelier, Laura Stevenson and AJJ and it’s where Wagner has written many a song. He sings about cleaning up his bedroom in Birthdays, missing home in Passiona and sleeping in the cold top room in 25. Young Once was even written poolside in a moment of clarity. It’s only fitting then that the band’s newly established, self run label would be named in its honour.
“I remember we were sitting around throwing out names and I just said, ‘What about Pool House?’ It was one of the rare times where we’ve all unanimously agreed on something,” he jests. “We were like, ‘Yep done, let’s not talk about it anymore, let’s not over complicate it. Pool House is perfect.’”
Beyond the literal body of water that is dug deep in his backyard, there’s something more to the name, something which makes it particularly prfound. The label’s motivation is community and a sense of home, and with each member of the band, plus booking agent Chris Bosma contributing, it truly is a pool of talent. “We’ve always been a very self-sufficient nucleus,” says drummer and unofficial label leader Chris Cowburn. “All the creative decisions are democratically decided amongst all of us. I think technically we’re all CEOs of the company,” laughs Wagner, when I ask what his role at the label is.
Over the years The Smith Street Band’s music has subtly alluded to something greater existing outside of their recordings, with songs like Bigger Than Us, Something I Can Hold In My Hands and more recently Passiona standing as prime examples. They’ve booked their own tours, toured international bands and championed countless young and local bands. Starting their own label was the next natural progression.
“The idea for a label was first talked about just before Sunshine & Technology came out, that was at the stage when we had a lot of record labels trying to court us,” recalls Cowburn, looking back to the year 2012. “The initial conversation I think was between Lee (guitarist) and I, about maybe doing it ourselves and starting a label. We watched a bunch of Ian MacKaye lectures on YouTube and were like, ‘Yeah, we can do this,’ but ultimately at the time we couldn’t. We just weren’t ready for it and we didn’t have the knowledge and experience we do now.”
Years later, after relentlessly touring locally and abroad, the band was equipped with the desired experience, but it came at a cost. Relationships were strained, tensions were rising and Wagner’s health was becoming worse. As if by fate, the idea behind starting a record label surfaced again and refocused the band’s energies and passion for creating music together, giving them a greater sense of purpose beyond their bubble.
“It wasn’t actually until shortly before we released Death To The Lads that the Pool House idea came up, which was mid to late 2016. It’s no secret that over the last few years, it’s evident through his song writing, that Wil has been struggling and, it’s true that the vibe of the band over the last couple of years, but probably mostly between Throw Me In The River and the latest record, was not the best at times. We were recording in this beautiful place and everyone just felt a bit lost. It was time for a fresh approach and to shake things up a little bit,” says Cowburn, with the same candidness and vulnerability that embeds the band’s music.
“There were a bunch of reasons why we wanted to go out on our own, some that are personal and some that are professional. At the end of the day, it just made sense to do our own thing,” Wagner tells me. “Why not? We’ve always been people that have tried to use our profile or success to further causes or help out other bands, so this just made sense as a way that we could do that.”
In Shine, Wagner sings of flight paths, taking chances and making the most of moments, in a song that unassumingly reflects the career of the band and the sacrifices each member has had to make.
After completing high school, a young Wagner began his further education at RMIT University, enrolling in a Bachelor Of The Arts in Music Industry. Not long after, The Smith Street Band would release their debut 7-inch, South East Facing Wall and go on their first national tour. Wagner would drop out of the course, ironically learning everything it would offer, firsthand on the road. “I wasn’t particularly interested in going to university because I always knew I wanted to do the band,” he says of his early career aspirations, which started with busking outside of a suburban bookstore as a 10 year old in the school holidays, writing Sigourney Weaver on the family piano at 15 and doing his first gig at an open mic night at a converted convent at age 16. “I was doing the course and then we got offered a tour with my favourite band, Defiance Ohio, for two weeks. I asked the lecturer if I could take time off and he said, ‘No.’ It was like, then what is the point of doing this course?” he laughs.
It’s a fairly similar story for Cowburn. “The band had started when I was in University (studying Communications Graphic Design and I.T at Swinburne), but it wasn’t until after I had graduated and got a full time design job that the band properly took off,” he says. “I worked for a clothing company and they were always chill with me going on tour. We went on the Frank Tuner tour in March of 2012, so I took time off and used up the last of my leave. Then in April and May, the next month, we went on tour supporting Bomb The Music Industry, so I had to take leave without pay. By the time I got back there was another person working in my job. I went to my boss and said, ‘Am I being fired?’ and they basically said, ‘It’s time for you to make a decision. You can work here or focus on the band.’”
I put it to Wagner that, perhaps subconsciously, the foundations for Pool House Records were put in place many years ago. At 18 years of age, under the guise of Wil Wagner And Friends, he released his first album Us Boys Run. Unbeknown to him at the time, those friends would go on to have a significant impact on his future and in many ways, the release would act as a premonition for Pool House Records some eight years later. The album was recorded in the upstairs studio of The Arthouse by Michael ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald, who later would join The Smith Street Band as their bass player. It was released on Corsican Records, a label run by Lee Hartney, who would become the guitarist for the band. “It’s pretty fucking special. That’s not something that I think about enough,” pauses the soon to be 27 year old with a wisdom that belies his years. “There’s a lot of things that you just can’t build up in any way besides knowing people for such a long time.”
As insular as it may seem externally, so much of the music industry revolves around networking and relationships, and for The Smith Street Band, that’s one of their greatest strengths.
Naturally, the Pool House Records roster boasts The Smith Street Band and Wagner’s future solo music, but in April, their first external release came in the form of Jess Locke’s Bitter/Better single. While the news of the signing is little more than a month old, the relationship dates back many years — in fact Locke’s break out single Paper Planes was recorded by The Smith Street Band’s bass player Fitzy in the band’s rehearsal room. “We had plans to record Paper Planes somewhere else but that fell through, so Fitzy helped us record it in their rehearsal room one day,” Locke tells me. “That worked out well so he recorded our album. And now we live together.”
With the self-release of her single Paper Planes in June of last year, Locke, and band, toured the country in support of The Smith Street Band, playing sold out shows in each of the major capital cities. The tour solidified a friendship that had existed for many years prior. “Chris (drums) and Jim (bass) have known the guys forever and I have for quite a while now too, just from being around the place, but I got to know everyone a lot better when they took us on tour last year,” she recalls.
“Everyone fell in love with Jess’ songwriting on that tour,” says Cowburn. “I hadn’t heard much of her music beforehand but Fitzy had just done the Paper Planes single that they had recorded for the tour. That song is so catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head every night of that tour.”
Despite another alluring offer on the table to contemplate, Locke says the decision to sign with Pool House was an easy one. “I think the fact that we have a pre-existing relationship with the Pool House peeps, including recording and touring together, just made it seem like a very natural step,” she says. “They have been really supportive of me and the band and it’s also very exciting to be part of something new.”
Along with being Poll House’s inaugural signing, the Melbourne, via Central Coast of New South Wales singer/songwriter has already been a subtle contributor to the label. She’ll join the band on their Australian tour as their third guitarist, having already made a cameo appearance in the film clip of Shine and provided vocals to their song Birthdays. “Chris, Jim and I were staying in a house in Queenscliff making demos for our own record and we got an email from The Smith Street Band who were in the USA saying here is a song, and can you please sing on it and send it back. So we recorded a couple of takes and sent it back and that was about it,” she says casually.
With her album getting mastered at the moment, before working on vinyl pressing deadlines, Cowburn predicts a September release, while Locke says a new single and video aren’t far away. Having just returned from a New Zealand tour and with the single receiving radio rotation across the country, the album can’t come soon enough for both parties.
I meet again with the band separately, Wagner at sound check for the band’s live-to-air performance for community radio station Triple R, and Cowburn at his house in Flemington. I ask them largely the same set of questions, and unbeknownst to them, the responses are largely in sync, particularly when it comes to their label.
When asked on their influences and what record companies inspire them, Wagner reels off a slew of diverse labels, from Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment to seminal North Carolina indie, Merge. He also lists the labels he has worked with over the years including Asian Man in The States, Uncle M in Germany and Banquet Records in the U.K. For Cowburn it’s very similar, naming Ian Mackaye’s Dischord label, but particularly the band’s current and former labels in Poison City, SideOneDummy and Specialist Subject. They both make a precise point of the community nature of the labels they have worked with.
With that in mind, I reach out to Jamie Coletta who works for The Smith Street Band’s North American label SideOneDummy and is in charge of the band’s marketing and publicity for the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Above all she is a friend and a fan.
Over the years Colletta has worked for Capitol Records and Sony subsidiary RCA, before joining the independent label in late 2012. With a wealth of experience, she’s a critical friend to the band and has been a sounding board for Pool House Records. “It’s not easy. There are a lot of things that go into successfully running day-to-day at a label that most people don’t even know about,” she says frankly. “But these guys are professionals and have essentially been running their own business for years. They have hit us up here and there with some questions but for the most part, they’re taking what they’ve learned from years of their own hustle and now applying it to the label.”
I ask her about her reaction when the rough takes of More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me came across her desk for the first time, and such is Wagner’s innate ability to evoke a range of emotions, even within the space of a song, it’s an array of sentiments. “Joy? Empathy? Excitement?” she says, as we exchange emails across time zones. “As a fan, I was stoked; this was easily their best material to date. As a friend, I felt for them; it couldn’t have been an easy record to create. As their U.S. rep, I was thrilled; I knew this could be the record that would finally break them in the States. Honestly, I listen to the album at least 2–3 times per week and get something new out of it every time.”
It’s the week before Shine is released as the third single from the album and Colleta is feverously working behind the scenes pitching the film clip to publications to premier. Like so many who have written about the album already, Shine is her highlight.
“I love how confident Wil is on this track,” she tells me from the label’s California office. “It reminds me of Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams, and the idea of totally owning your career/hustle. I relate to this song probably the most out of any on the album for that reason alone. When you’re doing well, people will hate. They will get jealous and throw that jealousy at you in the form of gossip, ill-will and negativity. It can be really difficult to rise above that and just continue forth being proud of how far you’ve come. But that’s what Wil does on this track and with every listen, it’s a constant reminder for me to do the same,” she says, articulating the feeling that is shared by so many, no matter what circumstances they frame the song around.
Like his songs, Wagner’s tattoos tell a story. On his arms there’s the elephant and bear from the cover of the band’s 2011 debut No One Gets Lost Anymore. Further down is Laika, the Soviet space dog and title to his 2013 solo album. His latest addition, done on release day of More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, are the words Shine. As much a mantra as a song title, it’s a message of hope and self-determination.
“We were actually going to call the label Shine Records after the song but there were just too many things already called Shine,” he tells me on the personal significance of the song.
That’s not the only temporary title the band has toyed with. The album was originally to be titled The Breaking Of A Person, only to be amended to More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, the lyrics from the chorus of their song Passiona. “It is dwelling on the negative and this album is positive in many ways,” he says of the tentative title. “There’s a lot more to it than an album by a sad guy about a bad break up,” he says, momentarily letting his guard down. “This album was the end of a chapter and now we’re starting something new. I originally wanted to do two albums. The Breaking Of A Person and The Building Of A Person, the negative and the positive, but we ran out of time,” he laughs, but not joking for a second.
The band has every reason to be positive. Having recorded their most ambitious album to date and released it via their own record label, after years of plotting their flight path, now is their time to shine.