The Story of a Boy Who Thought He Was a Fish
by Jake Cleland
There’s a risk of playing cheap for pathos in saying X Band Saved My Life but suffice it to say The Smith Street Band keep showing up when I need ’em most. You don’t even need to speak to the kids in the crowds to know how much this is true for a lotta their fans. You can see it in the electrified gaze and thrumming bodies thrown sweaty and free into their selfsame feeling neighbours, the sense that nothing could hurt ’em the way life hurt ’em and the Smith Street Band built ’em up again, so a little bodily harm ain’t a thing to fear. Sometimes in the doledrums of an existential grip, you oughta hear something which sounds as intense as you feel. It’s the basis for the success of artists from Bruce Springsteen to PJ Harvey to the entire pop-punk/emo intersection. Some bands take this even further into an explicit communion with their audience, which is what I’ve always dug about My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. I spoke to Gerard Way about it last year after one of his fans died and he seemed profoundly affected:
“I remember the meet and greets where she’d come up and she’d always have something nice to share. She always had something nice to say. She always seemed very genuine. One of the things I remember was that she always seemed like she was looking out for a lot of younger fans, which was really awesome, to see that kind of kindness come from somebody. You do get to know the really good ones, you know? The really good people are the ones who stand out.”
I can imagine The Smith Street Band’s Wil Wagner saying the same thing. This is a guy who’s made a point of being accessible to the people at the shows from the very first day, and whenever you do speak to some of those folks, you hear about the kinda genuinely invested interactions most folks reserve for their closest friends. In the past year or so, though, another element has crept in: folks who used to talk to Wil at the shows, but now can’t get a second with him. The Smith Street Band are becoming a big deal — constant international touring, recording when they’re not, dragging thousands of people to their shows — and Wil is just the one guy. What’s getting left behind?
Wil grew up in Boxhill South, born to a couple in the book trade. The house was full of books and records and his parents put a guitar in his hands at five. Footy was his first love, though, until a career ending encounter with Sever’s Disease put that to bed. Inspired by the writing all around him and his dad in particular, who played in a band called The Grownups right up until Wil was conceived, music took over. “Me and my dad would bond over music and me and my mum would bond over reading. But then also I was completely sports obsessed. The whole Melbourne package.” There were brief stints in choirs and acting school, but the songs started coming on the edge of teenagedom. “The first thing I recorded was with my band, we were called Ignore Alien Orders. We’d won some Battle of the Bands thing to get a day in a recording studio.” That band went on to spawn some great cultural entities: Matt Nielson you mighta heard heading up the Poncho podcast; Sam Gill blitzed the music scene with audio-visual duo Nayser & Gilsun and more recently Ara Koufax; Jake Strasser, their drummer, has been making moves in gaming having designed the now critically acclaimed Push Me, Pull You.
That band renamed to Plastic., and the vestiges of that project exist in cached MySpace pages and an abandoned triple j Unearthed page. Meanwhile, at 15, Wil emerged solo with an open mic night at Lentil As Anything down at the Abbotsford Convent. One fella in the crowd, a guy called Bosma, came up after. “That was cool,” he said. “Wanna play another show?” That led to a house party at the Fitzroy sharehouse of Ground Components’ Joe McGuigan. “He had this crazy house on a triangular block which had a warehouse and no neighbours and he could make noise forever.” Also on the bill: a pre-Dick Diver Steph Hughes in her old band, Love Is Science Fiction. A decade later, Bosma is still booking Wil’s gigs.
By the end of high school, Wil was a staple around the now defunct punkhole pillar The Arthouse, looking up to older fellas like Michael Fitzgerald and Lee Hartney. “They were the cooler, older guys who hung out at the Arthouse, and I really wanted them to think I was cool.” They obviously saw something in him too; when Wil started prepping to record a solo record, Fitzy came on board to record it and Lee started a label to put it out. Bosma and Wil were all living upstairs at the Birmingham Hotel — the Birmy, a thriving micro scene before it got taken over by shitheads — and in this little scene, punk politics were strict. Poison City Records, a label that seems inordinately benign up against a lotta the labels in Melbourne, was considered a kind of monolithic evil. But it was at a Poison City Weekender that Wil met Chris Cowburn. “Chris and I got talking after Weekender. He said the set was good, and I asked him, ‘Do you know any drummers?’ and he was like ‘Yeah, I play drums.’ We jammed the next week — we barely knew each other — but I’ve seen him virtually every single day from that day.”
Wil Wagner & the Smith Street Band had come to life and it wasn’t long before they’d carved up the territory around Fitzroy and Collingwood. Then the Arthouse closed, the Birmy went to shit, Poison City came on to release the Smith Street Band’s first full-length record as a band, and Wil’s divorce from the myopia of the punk scene had begun.
“Even for my first solo record I wanted Poison City to do it. I just thought it was all so fucking cool and everyone seemed so nice. I went to a bunch of ska shows and stuff and everything seemed very scene-y and clique-y, which is weird for ska, it seemed pretentious. Fuckin’ Less Than Jake-sounding bands and everyone’s being a douchebag. So I tried to go to those kinda things and never felt comfortable or accepted, never wearing the right clothes, never doing the right thing. As soon as I found that Poison City world, they were playing the music that I liked and I was like, ‘Hey I remember those people! They were the three people who spoke to me at the show when I was running around by myself like this crazy 17 year old kid with a fake ID and bad ADD, they were the only people who talked to me!’ I sent the first album out to everyone and no one wanted it, which I completely don’t blame anyone for ‘cos it’s not very good, but Andy’s the only person who wrote back and said, ‘I’m not gonna put this out but you’ve got very good songs,’ and was very constructive with it. Felt like he was the only person to probably listen to more than the first 30 seconds like ‘This kid can’t sing, next!’ And then he did give me really good advice. ‘You’re on the right track, you’re just really young.’ As soon as I found that world, I very much wanted to be a part of it.”
When Andy Hayden finally came around for No One Gets Lost Anymore, the Smith Street Band copped shit for it. “Poison City was a big, evil label in their eyes, which is so goddamn funny. There are definitely labels to war against, but Poison City is not one of them,” Wil says. This all came from a crew who — Wil included, once — thought using tuners or getting an album properly mastered was tantamount to being a sellout. “That kind of attitude, ‘I’m not listening to anyone whose record was mastered because they’ve sold out.’ No, they just wanted it to sound good. That’s okay! We’re still a completely independent band and we’re gonna spend shitloads of money on a really nice studio to record our next album because we want it to sound good, and that’s fine! That level of being anti-ambition… I remember questioning whether we should even play on stages. Now it’s like, I want a fuckin’ barrier ‘cos I got pedals to protect! It’d be like ‘No band with barriers is any good,’ but now it’s like, no, they wanna keep their teeth! They wanna keep their stuff ‘cos they spent heaps of money on it and they don’t want it to break!’”
In any meaningful sense of the word, the Smith Street Band have been independent since the start. Tours, travel, recording, and almost everything else is worked out between the four of them, Bosma, and their friends. “And we all get paid the same. Even though I write the songs and do most of the creative work, Chris does most of the organizational work, and you can’t have one without the other. Fitzy is in charge of logistics, he’s getting vans, he’s getting flights. We all have these little jobs.” The concession they make is for an accountant. “That’s the kinda thing that’s scary and you might get six years down the line, the band’s broken up, and you get slapped with this massive bill from the ATO.”
They’ve had other offers, but none of them seemed worth it. Wil cites Steve Albini’s essay on the horror stories of running with major labels and how true to life it remains, where the slick A&R guy who only cares about the music, man has tried talking them into restrictive contracts, sweet talking with huge advances for a controlling stake in their music which the band knew they’d never recoup.
“I’ve got a friend, she was the drummer in a band in 2003 and signed to someone, now it’s 2016 and she still can’t release her solo record because she’s still owned by Atlantic or Sony or someone from 10 years ago. They can only release stuff in Singapore ‘cos it’s the only place the label doesn’t own her.”
No One Gets Lost Anymore came about, ultimately, because of Wil’s compulsion to write. “All my ideas and fears and worries and all the things I love are not only being played but loud and heavy and other people’s ideas are coming in over the top. I would so happily be a recording band and put out two albums a year and never tour. Not that I don’t love touring but for someone who loves writing as much as I do, it’s the most important thing in the world. It’s not even about releasing it, it’s about recording it. I listen to podcasts and my own music and that’s it, pretty much. Constantly demoing and trying to improve stuff. It could go to #1 or it could sell one copy but I get to sit and listen to it. I remember the first record we did, we recorded the drums and then this harmony and it was like ‘Yes! That’s it! That’s awesome!’ It’s the best, most satisfying feeling in the world.”
Listening to No One Gets Lost Anymore makes it clear how the Smith Street Band climbed outta the million-strong morass of also-rans dotting their hometown. Avoiding the dirge which bogs down so many punk bands, No One Gets Lost Anymore is bright from track one: spritely guitar noodling over charging verses give way to a somber bridge leading into a pummeling final chorus, and sure this is pretty familiar stuff for pop-punk heads, but it’s edged into new territory by Wil’s polysyllabic tumbling in that unmistakeable ciggie-scratched shouting. With another singer, The Smith Street Band could’ve had a good few years on the Warped Tour, but that pub-chant bellow tramples any Jesse Lacey whinge into the dirt. Wil’s frantic urge to get as many words into the verses as possible has always reminded me of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn — they’re similar on stage, too — although Wil’d probably say it’s more like his now-mate and cited influence Jeff Rosenstock. It’s tough and tender in equal parts, fucking authority in one verse and then promise-singing “I’m gonna make you so proud of me” in the chorus. Folks called it folk-punk at the time, which risked relegating them to obscurity forever, but it was so much more fun than that implied: it didn’t wallow in self-destruction, it reveled in it. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it was grave and the band ran that gauntlet with arms outstretched, ready to take in any who’d reach out.
No One Gets Lost Anymore made the Smith Street Band an easy sell on support slots for international bands touring here, but it was more or less ignored by the alt-mainstream. That was all about to change.
‘Young Drunk’, the lead single from their second record Sunshine & Technology, hit young Jake at prime time. Still living at home and grasping in the neon-scorched near-darkness for warm bodies, finding cool and confused hearts instead, and justifying with too much ease too many almost-week binges, the way ‘Young Drunk’ staggered from hot suburban summers to frostbitten city nights captured a kinda spiritual displacement I knew like kin. I was splitting time between sleeping on the floors of rundown terrace houses in the north and clinging to family in the deep south, finding a home in a handful of people I was lucky enough to bump into. ‘Young Drunk’ sung to these things. It was all terribly romantic, and it had to be, to avoid the objective reality that it was a period of feeling shit all the time. I first heard ‘Young Drunk’ in my mum’s backyard. Wagner wrote ‘Young Drunk’ in his mum’s backyard. This serendipitous trivia only strengthened the idea that in Wagner, I’d found a distant friend. A couple months later I went to BDO with some friends and I told ’em with absolute urgency that I had to see the Smith Street Band. It’s a testament to how actually unalone I was that a friend straight got it, said “If you miss them, I’ll take you to a show back in Melbourne. They play all the time,” and then she came and saw ’em with me anyway. And this is where it all coalesced: a couple hundred ratty young things rustling their bodies and learning the formula for a Smith Street show, like when Wagner drops back during ‘Sigourney Weaver’ so the crowd can shout “DON’T YOU EVER FUCKIN’ TOUCH ME!” These were codes, y’see, a secret society had grown around these shows and the handshakes were knowing when to push your body into the stratosphere with the rest of the pocket rockets — subtle signs to make you feel a part of something. I was worried I’d joined late, but I’d come at a pivotal time: the breakthrough of ‘Young Drunk’ brought thousands more to the cause just like me, and here we were, defining the next sequence.
“Someone threw a shoe on stage that was more hole than shoe, and I sorta looked at it and thought, ‘This is really dumb, what you’re doing. This is not the way you were raised. You’re not this kind of person.’”
- On drinking beers from shoes.
Ever the sentimentalist, Wil’s primary milestone at the time was selling out the launch for Sunshine & Technology at the Tote, but things were about to kick up several notches. ‘Young Drunk’ had been picked up by triple j, which meant the band were on track — in Australia, at least — for the kind of backing no major label could offer them anyway. The shows jumped from dozens of people to hundreds, they slated tours for America and China, and they were showing up on festival bills around the country. Meanwhile, they were introducing their new fans to the concept of the shoey: where you take a beer, take a shoe, pour it in the sole, and gulp it down. The shoey was brought to the scene by Smith Street pals Luca Brasi but years later, Wil’s lost the taste for ’em, mostly ‘cos of a developed gluten intolerance. “I just had these incredibly bad pains in my stomach. I couldn’t sleep. People were like, ‘Ah, you’re just tryna be cool!’ I’m like, ‘I’m a fat stoner! If I could eat pizza every day I would but I can’t!’ I probably did, I overdid it on wheat. A life’s worth of pizza in four years and now I don’t get to do that any more. It was a culmination of that and, I remember once, someone threw a shoe on stage that was more hole than shoe, and I sorta looked at it and thought, ‘This is really dumb, what you’re doing. This is not the way you were raised. You’re not this kind of person.’ It’s just a bit disgusting.”
But new success meant new problems trying to reconcile it with their punk roots. Tom Lawson, Wil’s best friend and the Smithies first guitarist, was holding onto those roots tighter than most, so getting played on triple j set a bad mood. “He was very much in the using-a-tuner-is-selling-out school of thought. He had a lot going on but I guess for him, he wasn’t comfortable with any sort of success. When we got played on triple j, he was like, ‘I fucking hate this so much.’ None of us were looking for that, and it did make me uncomfortable as well.” Getting to know Kingsmill’s halls better helped Wil come to terms, but when they went to China to tour Sunshine & Technology, it became clear that Tom wasn’t coming to terms with them. The rest of them were rising to the occasion with an encroaching sense of professionalism. Tom was still showing up to shows with two strings missing, refusing to tune up.
They’d gone out to a festival way off in rural China. First they took a train, then a ten seater plane with no life jackets. No smoke machines on stage, either: just a couple guys with a bucket of coals and some fans, blowing smoke into the band’s face for effect. After the set, the band found the tent where all the booze for the festival was kept. They’d pick up a case of this cherry beer, walk past the guards with machine guns — who couldn’t stop laughing at them, apparently misunderstanding that the band were stealing — and go drink it all in the Chinese bush. By 3am, everyone was outta their minds, and this is when punches started getting thrown. Tensions had been simmering for the tour already but now they’d reached a boiling point. Wil walked off into the dark and out onto the street outside the festival, no passport, no ID, trying to cope in his drunken state with the idea that he’d be trapped in China with nothing but a guitar and having to eke out the rest of his life there. A fortuitous taxi showed up, took him back to the hotel, and the fight started again.
“There was this whole big drunken blowout. The next day we sat down in the hotel room before we had to leave.”
The band told Tom he couldn’t be in the band if he kept on like that. Tom told the band he hadn’t wanted to be in it for years anyway. They finished out the tour, and that was that.
The surreal part of all this was Wil was getting more encouragement for his music than he’d ever got before. Back home, Sunshine & Technology was introducing the Smith Street Band — and by extension, Poison City — to new crowds, and now they were standing on the Great Wall and signing records and having photos taken at shows abroad off the strength of the record. It was the first time Wil felt like people were really into it. “Like maybe I could do something with this…”
Sunshine & Technology upped the anthem count over No One Gets Lost Anymore with bigger choruses and better shoutalong moments. You watch the livid looks on the masks of the crowd as they contort to lines like “I CAAAAAN’T FEEEEL MYYYY FAAAAACE / BUT I CAN FEEL YOURS!” and “WE’RE / GONNA GET / OURSELVES / OUTTA HEEEEERE!” and feel how they feel ’em. Again, Wil tints misery with trying to find solace in small moments: there’s death in the suburbs but also peace, we’re killing ourselves to live, but what a life it is. And then there’s ‘Young Drunk’, with its ‘Don’t Stop Believin’-rippin’ opening riff which Wil has since forgotten how to play and its precision perfect capture of early twentysomething poverty and the alluring retreat beyond the metro limits.
Sunshine & Technology solidified what No One Gets Lost Anymore had promised, which meant facing an inevitable question: what else ya got? And true to form, their effusive new EP wouldn’t come until they’d gone through some tragedy first.
By 3am, everyone was outta their minds, and this is when punches started getting thrown.
At an all-ages show in what amounted to a storage shed in Byron Bay, an older bloke — big, broad, and drunk — was shoving the kids around. He had a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, and the other was pushing the younger folks to the ground. Drunk moshing is one thing, but this guy was lookin’ for a fight. Four or five songs into the set and not one of them had been played without him interrupting them by throwing some poor kid into the band. Every time, Wil was trying to chill him out. “Please calm down, dude,” he kept saying. “You’re ruining this for everyone.” And then one last time, Wil looked him in the eyes, and the guy dropped a 16 year old girl in front of him.
“I cracked it, like ‘You fuckin’ get out, you fuckin’ stop that.’ And then he lifts up this bottle like I’m gonna kill that cunt and starts coming at me.”
The Smith Street Band were touring with new friends The Bennies, whose Jules Rozenbergs then grabbed this guy in his bear arms and pulls him outta the scrum. The band kept playing, thinking at least it’d keep everyone inside rather than spilling out onto the streets where it could all kick off. It didn’t help: Bomb! The Music Industry’s Jeff Rosenstock, another of the band’s new friends and also on the tour, ran up to the front minutes later shouting “Stop! Stop! You gotta come out.” Wil ran for the door, dragging his pedals and guitar behind him, and outside this guy is wrestling with Jules.
“Jules has him in a bear hug and he’s saying ‘Where are your friends? You gotta calm down dude. Everyone here’s pissed off at you. You should bail.’”
But it’s not enough. The guy still has his bottle. He reaches over his shoulder, cracks Jules over the head, and in the scuffle that ensues Jules gets stabbed under the arm. Wil comes out to greet this scene: both of them lying on the ground, a pool of blood collecting under Jules, while he’s shouting at his attacker, “DON’T FUCK WITH OUR DREAMS! DON’T FUCK WITH OUR DREAMS!”
“It came outta nowhere as well, that wasn’t anything anyone had said on the tour, that was just the first thing he thought when he was being stabbed. ‘He ruined my friends’ night! Someone’s gonna have to take me to the hospital!’”
The guy recovers enough to come at Jules again, threatening to kill him, so Wil steps in. Now, Wil’s no small guy. He’s tall and he’s got the stop-you-dead breadth of a linebacker, and suddenly he’s using it to keep this guy away from Jules.
“I chested up to him and I was like ‘You gotta go, dude. There are a lotta people here who’re Jules friends, and myself included, we kinda wanna kick the shit out of you right now. Nothing good’s gonna happen if you stay.’ And I’m so broad that I sort of walked and he was stumbling and screaming at me, trying to keep balance. So he turned and he left.”
The Bennies’ Craig Selak threw Jules in the car and sped off to the hospital. Later, the doctors would tell them the difference between life and death, or at least paralysis, was half a millimeter and one millimeter: one from a main artery, one from a nerve.
The band didn’t want everyone hanging around in case the guy came back with his friends, so they found the nearest beach, and half an hour later, with an acoustic guitar and the sea behind ’em, Wil picked back up where they’d left off.
“Why has my way of coping become a reason to spill blood?”
Wil is still dealing with the weight of that night and you can hear it in the song that came after, with the lyrics “Why has my way of coping become a reason to spill blood?” When you’re putting all your life into this one thing which should be communal and cathartic, but is ending up in violence, what’s the point? It’s the one nagging pain in the Smith Street Band’s career: shoving and groping at their shows. Wil often gives a speech at shows tryna encourage young women into starting bands — he’s got evidence that these speeches, particularly one at Tym’s Guitar in Brisbane, have worked — but no matter how many times he says it, it’s always gonna be undermined by the fact that some women don’t feel safe at Smith Street Band shows. The band are still trying to figure out how to manage their audience like that.
“I try to say a lot of positive stuff and try to cultivate the kind of environment where that wouldn’t happen anyway. But also, at every other show a girl gets groped, someone gets punched. And it’s only in Australia. There are dickeahds everywhere, but the groping especially, that doesn’t happen anywhere else. There comes a time where I’m like, I’m having a really good time and making sweet cash but in a roundabout way, we are responsible for these things happening. That’d be the thing that stops me playing shows before I get sick of it. There’ll come a time where one more person’ll send us an email and then I’ll be like ‘Fuck it. Fuck you, Australia. If you can’t be in a room with people without someone trying to grab someone’s arse, then fuck it. Then you don’t get shows.’ But also there are plenty of bands and musicians who wouldn’t care or wouldn’t talk about it. You really wanna enforce a positive environment where that wouldn’t even be an option. I remember a funny story of violence, there was a punch on at one of our shows, this one guy grabbed a girl’s boobs as he walked past. And this big guy goes ‘Wil said not to do that!’ and decked him. 99.9% of the time I’m against people getting punched in the face, but yeah, punch that guy. So hopefully that kind of thing happens more. Self-policing. But you see things differently from the stage, and it is just one person. They’re ruining 15 people’s nights. And I can see! Why are you doing this? One guy at an all-ages show, there was this young kid standing in front of him, and he’s just smacking him on the back of the head. The kid turned around and goes ‘What’re you doing?’ and the guy shoves him and gets all up in his face. And I stopped and went ‘You’re a fuckhead’ to the guy and then he starts getting up at me.”
The answer, Wil reckons, isn’t more security. They’ve had enough run-ins with fuckheads from the other side of the barrier to know a lanyard and a company t-shirt doesn’t make you righteous. The Corner Hotel staff, he loves: “The security at the Corner practice with a crash test dummy when they get hired. You gotta catch their neck, support their spine and lower ’em onto the ground. You see ’em doing it while you’re playing and everyone turns around like ‘Yeah, bud! You nailed that!’ or kiss the security guards and stuff. You’ll see, someone’ll grab their neck, someone’ll grab their lower spine — never the bum, always the lower spine — put them onto the ground, pat ’em on the back, say ‘Have a great night, there’s some water there if you wanna grab some!’ Everyone loves going to the Corner. Our next tour, we’re just gonna play eight shows in a row at the Corner or whatever, because it’s so great.”
But that’s the exception. At Laneway earlier this year, a security guard hopped up on his own unwarranted sense of self-importance nearly put Wil down. A communication error meant there wasn’t any security down at the barrier, so Bosma and their tech, Brad, ran down to make sure kids jumping off the stage or over the barrier had someone to catch ’em if they misjudged the gap and started heading for the pavement. But this security guard doesn’t like it. He starts shoving Bosma and Brad, telling them to get out. Meanwhile they’re telling him he’s supposed to be helping these kids. Wil sees it happen and gets on the mic about it: “Laneway, get four security guards to the front of the stage, ‘cos my friends are getting hurt.” After, the guard comes up to Wil. “You gotta fuckin’ control your crew,” he says. He’s chesting up to Wil, Wil’s just asking him to back off, but the guard keeps going. “I run this whole area,” he boasts. To which his boss, within earshot, comes over and says, “You don’t run anything, mate.” Things chill for a minute, but the guard won’t let up. “This guy keeps coming back after his boss leaves, shoving me and trying to start fights like three times.” And the funniest part? The back of his shirt read “Infront Security,” only the ‘front’ part was small. A cosmic joke, then, to have this bozo chesting up to Wil while his t-shirt advertises “IN-SECURITY.”
“We’ve seen security do heinous things to people. And then nothing happens. The worst was in Brisbane again, we saw security basically kill a guy then laugh with the cops about it and everyone left and the guy was still knocked out on the pavement. That stuff I have no time for. If I see security take kids into a corner and start beating them up, I won’t even talk, I’ll jump off stage and get in the middle of it. ‘cos if a security guard sees me, it’s like ‘Ha! You can’t do anything to me, so I’m gonna tell you exactly what I think of you and you’re gonna listen, because if you punch me in front of a lot of people who’ve come to see me sing…’ You see it, ‘Oh no, it’s the guy from the band!’ ‘You ASSHOLE, treat people with respect!’”
Jules getting stabbed put a downer on shows for a while, and for a band who make their living on persistent gigging, that coulda spelled d-o-o-m. Instead, they took shit and spun gold. ‘Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams’, the title track of their next EP, was first played to Jules himself. “I went round and played it for Jules when he was recovering and we were both crying. I remember him saying ‘This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me but that song’s gonna do really well.’ That was his attitude the whole time. ‘You wrote a song? That’s awesome!’ I would just be like ‘I don’t wanna talk about it!’ It was a very, very scary thing.”
For his part, Jules came home to a hero’s welcome. “He already had very much a cult following, but after that it was like, ‘You can’t even kill him!’”
On election night, September 2013, a month after Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams had come out, I double booked myself: first at a place in North Melbourne to down a bottle of wine and watch the polls roll in, second at a place in Richmond, the Corner Hotel, to see the Smith Street Band. I sat on a couch in a cramped lounge room with a dozen friends watching the rainbow worms creep across the screen, meaningless numbers tallied and re-tallied by the minute, describing just how bad the next three years would be. We’d seen the final addresses: Kevin Rudd’s impotent spiel after having instigated the most repressive treatment of asylum seekers the country had ever seen; Tony Abbott promising working Australians the world, as false as the green screen backdrop of a footy oval his team had inserted in an appeal to fair-dinkum true-blueism. I watched the clock count down, weighing how late I could be for the sake of seeing the election called. Finally, it was: the prognosis was an Abbott prime ministership. I peeled outta there with the desperation of someone defeated and seeking reaffirmation. At Richmond station I saw the streams of Collingwood fans with their hung heads winding back towards home after another punishing loss. Defeat, it felt, was in the air.
The band and the crowd had all heard the news, so top to bottom the set burned with the ferocious energy of folks clinging to each other for hope. The band attacked their instruments like they were seeking revenge, the crowd churned like violent rebellion against those who would divide them.
“The bullshit, money-hungry racist right got what they want,” Wil says from the stage. “That cunt’s only got three years. Fuck him. We’re gonna be okay.” And then ‘Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams’.
The EP couldn’t have come at a better time. With its pleas for community and compassion and doing things on your own terms, it felt prescient that we’d all be relying on ourselves sooner or later while Abbott’s government took care of the affluent minority. ‘Bigger Than Us’, the EP’s centerpiece, is especially affecting like that. “Maybe with a little hope and a dash of self-esteem / We could start something that our little world has never seen.” Let’s start something bigger than us. It’s obtuse on autobiography, instead pledging to look beyond self-interest — that’s Their game, anyway — and do something that’d make the lives of those around you a little easier, a little more uplifting. There’s one first-person verse in the song, and it includes this particularly straight forward line: “When I tell you all I love you, fuck I couldn’t mean it more / ‘cos you know that I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for these chords.” And like the chorus of ‘Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams’, it’s the kinda thing you’d shout at a Smith Street Band show having repurposed it for yourself, where you’re not singing as Wil addressing the crowd, but as you, addressing the band and the people around you, comfortable in that sense of community Wil’s been looking for all along.
After that show, the band left on a 71 date tour around Europe. There couldn’t have been a better time to leave the country.
By the point Throw Me In The River, the band’s third album, started coming together in notebooks, the band had been consistently touring for three years, and much of that away from home. Wil was caught in a relationship that wasn’t doing either of them any favours, and being away from therapy for half a year at a time — especially in the volatile realm of touring, where immediate concerns like where to find a guitar lead before a show trump any deeper introspection — meant writing was how he started working it all out. Earlier Smith Street records were marked by their ultimate sense of triumph; no matter how much shit one has to endure, there is always virtue in keeping on. But Throw Me In The River shone on the cracks in Wil’s certainty that everything was going to be alright after all. Lead single ‘Surrender’, with its refrain “You don’t have to surrender if you don’t want to,” still made the case, but there was a hint in Wil’s voice of pleading with himself to believe it.
His relationship to the audience had become complicated as well. The incident with Jules in Byron was one thing, but Wil’s always been a socially anxious guy, and the band’s escalating popularity around Australia made it harder to keep up the off-the-clock interactions which meant everything to a fan. Around this time, I started hearing from people who knew Wil that they’d started getting disenfranchised with what seemed to be a schtick about being everyone’s friend. Folks who could get time with him after shows in older days felt forgotten for the throngs of kids trying to get time with him now. This was all down to Wil’s virtue becoming a kind of curse. You see it as endemic to the socially anxious: when you care so much about how another person sees you, you inevitably put more into those interactions than anyone who’s indifferent. Spend a minute in Wil’s presence and you might feel like you knew him your whole life, but like with any best friend who falls outta contact for new adventures, that can come with a sense of betrayal.
And this is where the comparison to Gerard Way falls apart: yeah they might both take the responsibility seriously — “I feel incredibly honoured by the position we hold in some people’s lives, as an important band that helped people through stuff,” Wil says — but a band like MCR are stratospherically famous. You’re never going to confuse the attention of a rock star from the other side of the world as anything but fleeting. When you see that guy hanging around the same bars, stalking the same streets, wearing the same clothes, and liking the same kooky pop cult dust as you do, you might get it in your head that you’re of a similar world. And no matter how much Wil wants that to be the case, it simply isn’t true.
“I pretty much don’t go into the crowd anymore. I’m just too anxious basically. It’s either before the show and I’m freakin’ out and I’ll go watch the support band for a minute, and then as soon as one person wants a photo then everyone wants a photo. I guess my thing is, I wanna do a good job of those interactions. I feel like when people come up even if it’s just for a second, for me it’s just a blur but for them it’s something maybe they’ll remember… not forever, but tomorrow. I wanna be nice to these people. I feel indebted to these people who come see our band. When we play I don’t get nervous about people coming, I get nervous about whether I’ll do a good job. We’ve had shows where the crowd’s gone crazier than any other show and I’ll walk off really pissed off because I sung like shit. I wanna do a good job for the people that come and I feel like when people come up and ask for photos, I inevitably fuck it up. I’m just so bad with those social interactions. I’ll make a gag that they don’t even hear and it doesn’t work or I’ll say something that’s just not right. It’s like fuck, I’m just trying to be nice but I don’t know who you are so I don’t know what you care about. I feel like often I’ll fuck up most of those interactions. So a lot of the time I’ll hide. For my own selfish reasons, not for not wanting to talk to people. It’s definitely lost a bit of the intimacy.”
“I wanna do a good job for the people that come and I feel like when people come up and ask for photos, I inevitably fuck it up. I’m just so bad with those social interactions.”
In other parts of the world, they’ve still got that three-years-ago closeness. In cities where they’re playing support slots before moving on, rather than selling out three headline shows in a row, Wil can still catch the opening bands without confronting The Fame.
But here, in the hipper parts of the east coast capitals, Wil goes recognised. “I walk into the shops, it’s seven at night, I’ve been writing in my room all day obsessing over something. And then I’m like, I’m done, I’m gonna go get some food. So I’ll be listening to something I’ve written and completely in my own world and someone’ll come up and say something like, ‘Hey man, so sorry, I just wanna get a quick photo!’ And I constantly feel like I come across as rude. I’m never trying to be rude, I’m just like eight levels into my own head right now, you’re literally the first person I’ve spoken to all day, all I’ve done all day is listen to my own voice. I’m just a bit taken aback by an interaction.”
Wil’s girlfriend, Georgia Maq, has been playing striking, incisive folk music not unlike Wil’s own for years, but recently she started a new band. Camp Cope, formed with Kelly-Dawn Kelso and Poison City’s Sarah Thompson, have shown up in these pages recently, but they’re more frequently seen under the fluorescent lights of Melbourne’s bars nigh on weekly since they began. And even at these shows, Wil sees people outta the corner of his eye watching him in the crowd.
“I can’t watch her play without crying, because I just get so proud of her and happy for her and I know what all the lines are about and some things are really sad and quite personal to us. So I go to her shows, and I stand up the back, and there’s gonna be someone who turns across and I’ve left. But it’s not because I hate the music, it’s ‘cos I’ve gotta go tear up so I’ve gotta go stand outside for a minute and catch my breath. Sometimes I’ll do that three times throughout the set, and I just know people would be like ‘Wil’s a fucking asshole! He’s come to watch Georgia play and he’s out having ciggies the whole time!’ Like no! I needed to pretend to go to the bar ‘cos I actually just started crying. Or like, I’d walk into a pub and think people are looking at me, but then I think ‘No they’re not, you’re just being paranoid.’ But Georgia will go ‘Oh no, those people are pointing at you and talking about you.’”
While most of the relationship bits on Throw Me In The River addressed Wil’s previous romantic turmoil, one song in particular was about Georgia. ‘I Love Life’ is the ultimate track, both in the sense that it closes the record and reconciles the angst which preceded it. Scribbled six months after the rest of the songs were done, ‘I Love Life’ was inspired by a weekend at the Meredith Music Festival where him and Georgia took pills and reaffirmed everything that’d brought ’em to that point. This sounds like cliché nonsense, but it being near identical to the origins of my own love story, I can relate: away from the rest of the universe, getting high and seeing one person in particular, the mountainous weight of the previous year splinters and falls away in the sieve of this other person’s presence. Of course someone gacked outta their gourd’ll shout “I LOVE LIFE SO FUCKING MUCH RIGHT NOW!” but when the chems melt away, both of you might still carry the embers of that feeling. Ultimately, that’s what burns in the song.
The other reason not to dismiss the sentiment despite its goofy roots is ‘cos moments like that deserve to be treasured. The glow from a good weekend might tint the next week, but inevitably, shit starts creeping back in. The Smith Street Band’s next record stumbles further on the brink of the abyss. Wil cites one song in particular, inspired by the death of someone close, that he can’t even demo yet because it’s too sad. “I played it live once, solo, and I really feel like…” — he falls dour for a moment — “that was uncomfortable.”
“There’s one line in particular, it’s supposed to be comic. The line’s like, ‘I was a fat guy bumming a cigarette out the front of a heart trauma ward.’ Which is supposed to be a joke but as soon as you say it, it’s like, that’s not a joke! That’s super intense. There’s a few things like that, that’s not doin’ anyone any good. The very dark stuff that’s maybe a bit more poetic than that I’m maybe more attached to. But lines like that, I don’t need to be dark for darkness’s sake. We wanna be different, we wanna progress, we wanna grow, but we don’t wanna do any of that stuff just for the sake of doin’ it.”
Jeff Rosenstock is returning to produce like he did on Throw Me In The River, only this time instead of retreating to a beautiful house in rural Victoria, they’re retreating to a beautiful house an hour north of San Francisco. Wil reckons they’ll go in around September or October. He’s already got nine songs down, with another 20 for the band to learn before they start putting the record together.
But amid all the abyssal talk, in spite of the blood shed, tears wept, money lost, relationships broken, never doubt that Wil is in this for life. When we spoke, on the lawns of the Abbotsford Convent a decade after he played his first show there, Melbourne’s poet laureate of the ashtray hadn’t touched a cig in 64 days. The gluten intolerance means beer is kept to a minimum, and not that there aren’t substitutes, but never before a show. A cornucopia of years-stealing foods are off the table now, too. He’s even starting new projects: screenwriting for kicks with a friend and more collaborating with Joelistics for his long-teased rap project.
These will all come and go on Wil’s terms as they always have. That’s another thing enviable about all this: The Smith Street Band, besides that early triple j bump, have never sustained themselves on buzz. The critical press have rarely kicked up much fuss about them at all, but they keep on playing, this town and that city in every country that’ll have them, welcoming new folks into the fold a little at a time. That’s all that matters now, that they wanna play and you wanna see ’em. And if you haven’t yet, no matter where you are in the world, go give ’em a shot. Maybe you’ll see Wil around after, his headphones in, listening to their latest demos, and know what it’s like to want a perfect stranger to be happy, knowing they just want the same for you.
Originally published in STRINE WHINE: ISSUE NINE