“I’ve absentmindedly made myself a cup of coffee for every interview” 6 coffees down and Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band was chatting to Rochelle about all things Laneway Festival, touring the US and playing solo sets opening for old friend Courtney Barnett.
It’s been an epic year and a half for the iconic Australian band since the release of 3rd LP Throw Me In The River. In that time, there’s been countless tours covering the country and major milestones (see, an emotionally charged Splendour In The Grass set).
“I apologise for talking too fast.”
You guys just wrapped up a few shows in Tasmania – what were some of the highlights? I SAW YOU SIGNED A CAR OR ALL THINGS.
That was definitely a highlight. That was one of my musical highlights, I think. Someone just coming up to me being like ‘Hey if I pull me car around the back can you sign it?’ and I was like ‘fuck really?” That’s amazing!’ That was fun. I love playing in Tassie – I love Tassie so much. I even have a tattoo of Tassie on my ankle – it’s Tasmania in a love heart. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.
We did an all ages show and and over 18’s show at The Brisbane Hotel in Hobart, and then we did an overage show in Launceston as well and it was great! Really good turn outs and great crowds. I feel like Tassie is always fun, it’s a bit weird and a bit loose. Like, I was in bed all day yesterday recovering. It was a perfect Tasmanian expereince – I loved it, can’t wait to go back.
Do you have any plans to head back any time soon? Or when it comes up it’ll just come up?
Yeah, well we’re working on a another Australian tour for the middle of the year. Sometime in winter we’ll be heading back down there. That’s when Tassie really comes into it’s own and there’s snow on Mount Wellington. It’s a great time to be down there.
You’ve toured quIte prolifically over the years – reaching many regional areas of the country. How important do you feel it is to play in areas which aren’t necessarily major cities?
It’s awesome. I think it’s really great for both parties. I think for us, we’ve toured so much that going to Sydney is cool but you know, it’s my 15th time going there now. I know the good cafes, I go and get the food that I like and we always stay at the same place. So it’s cool, but it’s kind of like, a bit familiar you know? So, for us to get out and play in places like Darwin and Townsville, all up in the east coast of Australia and these crazy tropical places. It’s so cool, and it’s so fun to be able to go there and actually have people come out and watch us.
I think on the other hand for a lot of people in those areas, they probably wouldn’t get that many bands coming through most of the time. I think for them to see a Melbourne pub kind of show is a pretty cool expereince. People in those places are so appreciative that you’ve made the effort to come. That, and a lot of the time people will just show up even if they haven’t heard of the band. It’s just always really fun. And I love that part of Australia, the real Australiana desert and ocean kind of scenery. I love getting out into the weirder parts.
for years The Smith Street Band has been one of the hardest working and touring bands in Australia. Did you ever set out with a certain goal in mind?
Not really. We’ve never really been I don’t know, a ‘success’ driven band for lack of a better phrase. For us it’s always been just about making something that we’re happy with, and us playing the songs we like playing in a way we like doing it. My dream when I was a kid was to play the Corner Hotel once – and we’ve played there a bunch. Everything after that has been a complete win for me. The fact that we’ve been able to do 9/10 overseas tours, so many tours of Australia… and basically every venue I’ve wanted to play in my entire life, I’ve gotten to play at. Everything from the last 3 years on has been a complete bonus for us.
You wrapped up a series of solo shows supporting Courtney Barnett recently. How does it compare to a normal Smith Street show?
It’s pretty fucking terrifying to be honest. The Sydney show especially. It was at the Enmore theatre – and I’ve walked past that venue so many times just thinking one day I’ll get to play there. That was pretty crazy. I don’t feel like I played very well, I was so nervous. I had a half an hour set that I’d meticulously planned out and I played for like 23 minutes, because I played everything so quickly. That was honestly such a blur.
For the Melbourne show, I was a little bit more comfortable and was able to take a second to be like ‘fucking hell’ this is cool’ and appreciate it a bit. I love doing solo stuff though – it is very different, but I like being able to play slower songs especially when I’m doing my own show. I’ll write a set list and then not play any of it because I play whatever people yell out. I feel like it’s a bit more personable – because it’s me on a little stage in a little room doing solo shows. It’s nice to have that bit of a change too, still being able to play music but have that bit of variety. I feel very lucky to be able to do that.
Like A change of scenery?
Yeah totally, and I guess to play old songs that Smith Street would never play, or trying out new songs. And yeah, people will call out stuff and I’ll be like ‘Yeah! I remember 80% of that song, I’ll do that.” It’s fun to have a bit of spontaneity.
You’ve been involved with POISON CITY RECORDS since the very beginning. what has their support meant for your music and how you’ve grown as an artist?
It’s kind of the same as The Corner. When I first started, the thought was ‘If I get to meet Andy who runs Poison City that would be the coolest day of my life.” The fact that they’ve put out all our stuff is just fantastic. They’re adamantly independent and the way they go about stuff is so honest and upfront. None of it is about tricks or meaningless bullshit that so many bigger labels will get caught up in.
I feel like a lot of big labels have ulterior motives and people are out to fuck bands over. But Andy and Aaron and Thommo – the three people who run the whole show are just the most honest and upfront people. They are so passionate, and so committed to what they’re doing and that really comes across in everything that they do – and every band that they’ve signed. I don’t feel like Poison City have put out a bad record, ever.
I find that in music things can become quite cliquey and elitist, but that’s something that doesn’t happen with Poision City. The same for Courtney and her Milk Records crew too, it’s not like that if you don’t want it to be like that. If it’s just a bunch of nice people working hard, then it’s just a bunch of nice people working hard and you don’t need to be worried about meaningless trivial shit. Which is inspiring and cool, and an environment I always want to be a part of.
There are so many other independent labels and I’m sure if you asked that of bands on those labels they’d all say the same thing. That’s how your survive as an independent label, you’ve got to really love what you’re doing. I feel like if you’re going to run something like that you’ve got to be really committed to making it special and important. There’s so many great independent record labels who are doing that.
Your Splendour In The Grass performance last year was emotional, powerful and so joyous. Is that expereince something that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life?
Oh yeah. I really appreciate everything that’s happened – things like that, getting to play Splendour and being able to do the big Real Australians Say Welcome banner drop made it all the more special for me. When I’m an old man, I’ll look back on those things and be very, very proud of them. It’s a very cool feeling. And especially to get in those kind of things which are a little industry based… You know a lot of times when we went to meetings with bigger labels trying to take us from Poison City they’d say things like ‘you’ll never get played on Triple J’ or ‘you’ll never get on Splendour if you’re not with us’. But it just shows that if you work hard you do get those things.
It’s very inspiring – and you know, looking at the lineup for Laneway, there’s us and there’s High Tension, Royal Headache and all these other bands that are pretty DIY, hard working bands who have managed to get this cool opportunity. It’s really awesome. And yeah, I got to play in front of thousands of people. It was fucking insane. It was something that I’ll never forget. At the very end of the set I just stood with my arms out in the air and cried – it was the first time I had my eyes open all show.
The band is playing Laneway soon – another really special festival. What are you looking forward to most about it?
Oh, so much. From what I’ve heard from other people who’ve done it before it’s like a cool school camp expereince where all the bands end up hanging out the whole time. I’m looking forward to that. Our friends High Tension and Violent Soho are on the tour, so we get to hang out with them. I get to watch Battles, Purity Ring and a whole bunch of bands that make noises that I do not understand. I just really want to look at their pedal boards!
after Laneway you’re heading over for another round of shows in the states. What’s in store for those shows?
We’re doing about a month in America with a band called Hard Girls – I have a big tattoo of them on my shoulder, they’re one of my favourite bands and I’m really fucking excited to tour with them. It’s going to be so awesome, we have rotating support bands too – like different bands doing a couple of weeks at a time. It’s also the first American headline tour.
We’ve done a few support tours, but it’s the first time going out on our own. I have no idea if one person is going to come, or no one is going to come – or if 100 people are going to come? We’re kind of stepping out into the great unknown again. It’s going to be fun, and I love touring America, it’s like walking into the corner all over again – I just think, how the fuck did I get to be in a van, driving across America, for the 6th time? It’s bonkers.
once you return from america, what’s on the agenda?
We’re writing at the moment, we’ve got a bunch of songs written for the next record. We might play a few new songs at Laneway, or maybe not. We’re not sure. Going to try and record sometime mid this year, with the aim of having something out by early next year – if not the end of this year. We’re going back to Europe and doing a bunch of shows there.
We’ve spent the last 6 weeks bunkered down trying to get this record written. We’re going to try and take a longer time to record this time, so we can experiment with different sounds.
I’m sure we’ll get offered a few tours and as we can’t so no to anything we’ll probably end up playing 100 shows and not making an album again. It’s very hard to say no when someone’s like ‘wanna come play in Sweden?’ Yes please.
The Smith Street Band play St Jeromes Laneway Festival this weekend. After that, they’ll be jetting over to the states for a huge tour.
Remaining Laneway dates:
Saturday 13 February – Melbourne – Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) And The River’s Edge.
Sunday 14 February – Fremantle – Esplanade Reserve And West End.