The Hard Aches‘ new album Mess is nothing if not a conversation-starter. Throughout the record, the duo explore issues of mental health and well-being, filtered through the lived experiences of the people around them, with a focus on positivity, friendship, and self-care. Xavier Rubetzki Noonan (who, full disclosure, is friends with the band) sat down with singer Ben David to discuss the band’s perspective on the album, the realities of being a duo divided by states, as well as the hyper-masculine culture that surrounds Australia’s punk scene.
FIRSTLY, BECAUSE IT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE INTERVIEW, I WANT TO ASK ABOUT BILLY RAY CYRUS. HOW DID THAT INTERACTION COME ABOUT?
Ah look, he’s actually my uncle. No – I woke up and someone had just tagged us in a post on Twitter from Billy Ray Cyrus, and I was really confused about where this was going to go when I opened the link, and – yeah, Billy Ray Cyrus had obviously been walking around in Sydney and saw one of our posters, and I can only assume he related to our band name as the Hard Achey Breaky Hearts… and either checked us out and was interested, or made up a great big lie about us being a great band, but either way, you can’t pay for that kind of publicity, can you? We’ve sent him a record, we’ve got some people on the inside who’ve figured out his best mailing address.
IS HE ON THE DOOR FOR EVERY SHOW ON THE TOUR?
Yeah, you know, Billy Ray’s welcome any time. It’s not my favourite Cyrus, but you can’t pick, can ya?
YOU’RE A TRACE GUY. YOU LOVE METRO STATION, RIGHT?
That’s what got me into music. No, but I do remember teaching that to a whole bunch of kids when I was teaching guitar. They all wanted to learn that Metro Station song.
IN THE TIME SINCE THE LAST RECORD, YOU’VE MOVED TO MELBOURNE. IS IT A CHALLENGE TO BE A BAND THAT EXISTS OVER TWO DIFFERENT STATES?
I think it’s very normal, now, for bands not to live in the same place. I think having the ability to record at home and that everything’s done over a computer anyway – minus being able to rehearse every week, that’s the only thing we miss out on. Being so close to each other anyway, it doesn’t really matter: if we have to rehearse for a tour, or rehearse for an album, we just do it. We’re kind of past that point of having to rehearse every week to learn how to play together, cause we’ve done a thousand shows together, we’ve been playing together for so many years that it’s very natural now anyway. So as long as we can catch up and have some rehearsals before a show, it doesn’t feel like we’re missing anything. It actually feels like we’re probably being more productive, having these time restraints where we have to get it done in this small little time means there’s no fucking around. There’s no, “ah, we’ll do it next week, or do it later” – which is usually how I like to do everything in my life.
IT’S CLEAR FROM YOUR SONGS THAT PLACES ARE IMPORTANT TO THE WAY YOU FRAME THE WORLD AROUND YOU. HOW DO YOU THINK THE ATMOSPHERE AND THE MUSIC SCENE IN MELBOURNE HAS INFLUENCED YOU IN THE YEAR OR TWO SINCE THE LAST RECORD?
We’ve been touring since we started this band, and that’s definitely played a huge role in our songs – when you spend so much time travelling and being in different places, it’s always going to inspire you to write, cause you’re experiencing things that you wouldn’t if you were sitting at home on the couch watching Netflix. I think in that regard it definitely inspires the songwriting and it’s definitely the reason we do this, is getting the opportunity to hang out with different people in different places all the time… experiencing different cultures that are similar but they’re different in their own regard. You know, there’s like a Sydney sound, and there’s a Melbourne sound, and a Brisbane sound, and as much as we’re all the same, everyone does it a little bit differently, and getting to experience all of them so much, you become a band that’s not stuck into one little place.
We had to make our own fun, coming from Adelaide, hence why we always put on our own shows and our own festivals and booked bands from interstate all the time. If you weren’t doing that, you weren’t playing, or you were playing shitty front-bar shows all the time, cos there really is not as much going on there. There’s not many people, so you’ve just gotta start from the ground up, and create what you wanna create. We got lucky that we had a whole group of friends and people who got behind that, and supported every venture we tried to do, and still to this day – it’s beautiful.
I think I kinda got happier before I moved to Melbourne. So when I came here, I’ve been a very different me. I don’t know if Melbourne is responsible for that – my situation has changed a lot, and I’m in a position where I’m writing more positively and hopefully. I think I changed as a person at much the same time as when I moved here, so I can’t say which was responsible for which.
THERE ARE A FEW MELBOURNE PERSONALITIES THAT POP UP ON THE RECORD AS WELL – YOU’VE GOT GEORGIA [MAQ, OF CAMP COPE], CRAIG [SELAK, OF THE BENNIES]…
Yeah, and Jeff [Rosenstock] is kinda honorary Melbourne. It’s definitely a hub here – like a lot of bands come from here, and a lot of bands end up here, especially from places like Adelaide. I feel like a lot of bands end up spending a lot of their time here. But it just so happened that Georgia and Craig are both from Melbourne, who were both the only people, apart from Jeff, that we’d hoped would end up being on the record. So recording it here, it made sense to include people from Melbourne, and Jeff was luckily here for Poison City Weekender, so that worked out well.
DID YOU WRITE SONGS LIKE ‘HAPPY’ OR ‘FAMILY’ WITH GEORGIA IN MIND?
‘Happy’ was never intentionally written as a duet, but it was written with two people’s stories weaving in and out anyway, but it was just me delivering both sides of the story. So, we were gonna get Georgia in to do ‘Family’ (and that one’s just a no-brainer, it made sense for her to do that at the end), and then I had the idea to try & do this in ‘Happy’. We tried the duet thing, and it took the song to a whole other world, and I can’t imagine the song without it now, like I’m scared to go back and listen to demos without it now, or do a tour where someone can’t do that second part.
YEAH, WHAT DO YOU DO ON TOUR?
So Antonia [Susan, of Antonia & the Lazy Susans] is gonna play acoustic guitar & sing on this tour, which is really rad. It gives us a whole other thing to play with live – to have someone come in and guest, without it being some tacky guest, standing there the whole time with a microphone… Y’know, we get someone who we love, and respect what they do with their own music, and say hey, y’know, d’you wanna play this song with us? It makes so much sense listening to it now that it is the way that it is. It really makes sense to have two people telling the story, rather than me telling two people’s stories.
THE RECORD HAS SO MANY GREAT SOUNDS, AND IN A WAY IT SORT OF STRETCHES PEOPLE’S NOTIONS OR PRECONCEPTIONS OF WHAT A 2-PIECE PUNK BAND COULD SOUND LIKE. HOW DO YOU FIND THE BALANCE AND MAKE SOMETHING THAT’S POLISHED WITHOUT SEEMING OVER-PRODUCED?
See… I think…
I’M TALKING ABOUT THE TROMBONE.
For me and Alex, we both share this view: a live version of a song and a recorded version of a song are two different songs. As much as they’re the same, you owe it to yourself to make the recorded one the best version of that song you can, while remaining true to your sound, and being able to reproduce it so that you have a live version as well. Especially being a two-piece, we’re limited to what we can do in a live scenario, there’s only so many dynamic steps and changes we can do, but we approached this record trying to make it as raw & live as we possibly could, just with a little bit of sugar on top. Nothing that makes you step back and go “What is this bullshit? They can’t do this live.”
Pretty much all the riffs on this record, and everything that sounds like it’s not one guitar, can be done as one guitar, that can be reproduced live. But if you have the opportunity to have someone beautiful come in and play some shredding trombone, you’d be fucking stupid not to take advantage of that. Myself and Alex once being big fans of ska music, every record we’ve joked about having a brass section on there, and we finally did it. That first time it comes in on ‘Feels Like I’m Dying’, every time I hear it I’m like, “Yes!”
I THINK PART OF THE REASON MOMENTS LIKE THAT WORK IS THAT IT IS JUST A REALLY WELL PUT-TOGETHER ALBUM. YOU WORKED WITH SAM JOHNSON AS A PRODUCER – HAD YOU BEEN HOPING TO WORK WITH HIM FOR A WHILE?
Sam’s always been on the radar for us. When you meet Sam, he’s the kind of guy you’d like to spend time in the studio with, and we recorded the ‘Brain Drain’ single last year with Sammy, and it just felt good, and felt right. From that moment, we didn’t want to make a record with anyone else. Being a band that’s not… a conventional band, we’ve been experimenting with making records up to this point. The ‘I Freak Out’ EP, we got to go and work with a producer who made the record that got me into playing music (Lindsay Gravina, who produced The Living End’s self-titled debut). So that opportunity was great, but now, we wouldn’t make a record like that.
This record we’re experimenting with different sounds and techniques, and I think it’s the best sonic representation of how we want to sound, and who we want to be as a band. We’re not a balls-to-the-walls punk-rock band, we’ve never wanted to be a dirty rock’n’roll band, we always wanted to have something more than that in there, and Sammy helped create that. It’s a very organic-sounding record, like, the drum tracks don’t even have gates or anything on ‘em, the vocals aren’t compressed, it’s so raw – we spent so much time making the sounds that we didn’t have to manipulate the sounds.
YOU MENTIONED NOT WANTING TO BE A FULL-BLOWN PUNK BAND. I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT THIS TREND WHERE PUNK AND ROCK BANDS START GETTING BIGGER AND ATTRACTING MORE FANS IN MAINSTREAM AUDIENCES, THAT THEY WILL START TO ATTRACT THE WRONG TYPE OF CROWD – PEOPLE WHO ARE DISRESPECTFUL AT SHOWS, OFTEN MEN – IS THAT SOMETHING THAT YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED?
We used to, a lot. I think we’ve been outspoken about what we expect from people at our shows for long enough now that all the arseholes are either not being arseholes anymore ‘cause they’ve taken a step back & looked at themselves, or they’ve been like, “well, fuck these guys.” For me it was a bit scary to get up there and be like, “stop being a fuckhead, you don’t deserve this space any more than the person next to you, and you’re making everyone else uncomfortable, so we’re asking you to leave.” There was this tour when, every single show, we had to stop mid-song because we could see someone doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. That really fucking sucked, it sucked that we were creating environments where people felt like it was ok to act in that way.
I think through having bands like Camp Cope and Luca Brasi, and everyone getting behind the cause of calling bullshit out, it’s created a new wave of kids who are coming to shows, and maybe because they’re younger & don’t have that attitude of entitlement, they’re willing to listen and learn. Honestly, our crowds have completely changed, and it’s been so beautiful to see. I fucking hate that people might not feel comfortable enough to go to a gig – for me, that is my safe space, and the fact that people were taking that away from others and ruining something that could be so special and important to someone, it was really heartbreaking.
Obviously, having this amazing band Camp Cope who have inspired all of us to be better and use our platform for a bigger reason than to just play music – I think having everyone get behind it means that people can’t get away with it anymore.
DO YOU THINK THE PRESENCE OF THIS KIND OF HYPER-MASCULINITY WITHIN PUNK AND ROCK CIRCLES IS UNAVOIDABLE? WHAT SHOULD ARTISTS BE DOING TO ENSURE THEIR SHOWS ARE SAFE AND WELCOMING ENVIRONMENTS FOR EVERYBODY, PARTICULARLY AS THE SHOWS GET BIGGER?
A lot of it is just people not being aware that the way that they’re acting can be affecting someone else’s experience in a negative way. I don’t think people necessarily come to a show to be a douchebag, but I think the mix of alcohol and excitement can all lead to trouble. But most people are willing to learn and get better. Of course you come across some people who are like “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want”, but they will soon enough not feel comfortable being at your show anyway, because they’re surrounded by x amount of people that are gonna say “Nah, that’s not okay.”
So I think as long as you keep on it – and for us, it has changed; I stand up there and look at everyone, at every show, and I know the audience has changed. It never used to be the case that the first ten rows were girls, and it’s so fucking rad that they now feel like they can be right in there and not get hurt by douchebag crowd-surfers or people throwing their beers in the air and jumping around like dickheads – or, you know, being touched inappropriately, or all the other disgusting things that have happened to just about everyone that goes to a show. I think it’s changing. The conversation is being had, and it’s being had everywhere, not just in music, so I think we’re in a good position where things are getting better, and everyone’s getting behind it – which, you either get behind it, or you’re a piece of shit, right?
I THINK PEOPLE, INDIVIDUALLY, ARE GETTING BETTER AT IT AS WELL – CALLING IT OUT BAD BEHAVIOUR AT SHOWS.
It’s something that was never talked about, or never frowned upon until now. We used to have crowd-surfers at all of our shows, and people getting pissed and doing whatever they do. It wasn’t until it was shown to me from the other side that other people are feeling very uncomfortable about this, this is preventing people from coming to shows – you really stop and realise it’s not very safe, smart behaviour to be happening in an environment like this. There are still bands out there that are promoting the wrong things, but it’ll change. The time will come.
THE NEW RECORD HAS A FOCUS ON MENTAL HEALTH, AND OPENING UP THE DIALOGUE ABOUT A TRADITIONALLY TOUCHY SUBJECT. DO YOU FIND IT CHALLENGING TO REPRESENT YOUR EXPERIENCES WITHOUT TRYING TO GLORIFY THEM?
Definitely, I think I’m as guilty as anyone else that for a long time, my lyrics and songs were very self-indulgent. I feel like depression and mental health issues can be very self-indulgent things that happen in your life, and it can be harder to see beyond what’s going on in your own little world. It wasn’t until I started feeling better and getting better that I took a step back and looked at it as a bigger picture – as much as I feel like I’m the only person in the world who’s going through this, everyone’s touched by this in some way, whether it’s personally or someone close to them.
We’re in a good position now where these conversations aren’t taboo anymore, people are getting better at talking about mental health, but it’s still not there. People shouldn’t be feeling like there’s no hope, or that the only way to deal with something is to self-harm or commit suicide. That is so heartbreaking, that people get into that place in their head that they feel like there’s no other side to this, this is it. I think Australia especially has this, “you’ll be right” culture, where it’s seen as a weakness – especially as a man – to be feeling sad or upset… It’s so toxic.
We’re really lucky that in our small little communities, there is a big support network, because everybody’s going through the same thing, but that also means that sometimes it gets glorified a little bit. On this record I definitely actively tried to talk about these things in a more hopeful light, and like – it’s okay to be feeling this shitty, but it can be better, and we all have your back. It took me having some of my closest friends (who I saw as these big, strong, invincible humans) breaking down and not being okay, for me to take a step back and be like… this person I thought was invincible is dealing with the same or similar shit to what I have, and what can we do about it, you know? Trying to break that stigma that it’s a weakness, and that it’s not okay to not be okay. When it is okay to not be okay.
I THINK PART OF THE REASON THAT THE NEW RECORD IS SO EFFECTIVE IS BECAUSE IT DOESN’T WALLOW IN THAT – IT’S MORE HOPEFUL. I THINK IT’S MORE INTERESTING, AS A LISTENER, TO HEAR NOT JUST ABOUT HOW SOMEONE IS STRUGGLING, BUT ALSO WHAT THEY’RE DOING TO OVERCOME IT. WAS THAT A FOCUS?
It was sort of half-intentional, half-just happened like that. I think because I’d taken a step back in my life, and looked at my own mental health in a different light, it made me see it in a different way. When I was writing about it, I didn’t want to do another woe-is-me record that’s glorifying being sad. I don’t think that’s the right way to make things better and create a change. I think being like ‘Oh, I’m sad, I wonder who else is sad too’ is a pretty bad way to help people not be sad – which a lot of people get stuck in, and I’m guilty of that too. It’s easy to do that, and people relate to it. But I didn’t want to do another record like that, I wanted to do something bigger-picture, about the things that were happening around me, and to people around me, looking at it from a different viewpoint, and actually making a conscious effort to make it a more hopeful album.
IS SONGWRITING THE MAIN OUTLET YOU USE WHEN YOU’RE STRUGGLING WITH MENTAL HEALTH? I KNOW YOU LIKE TO COOK. TELL US A BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU DO FOR SELF-CARE.
Music’s always been the one. I think I, like a lot of people, struggle with articulating things and talking about things, but putting them down in a song feels comfortable, even though that’s probably the most exposed way you could process something. I would struggle to sit down and talk with you about what’s going on in my head, but I could write a song and sing it in front of you and I wouldn’t feel that same way. I’m really lucky that I’ve had that for as long as I can remember. I’ve always written songs, and it’s always been on these themes, ‘cause it’s something that’s very real in my life, but… you’ve gotta find the things that make you tick. I enjoy cooking… mostly because I enjoy eating. I love my dogs, obviously – it’s really hard to be bummed out when you’re surrounded by two beautiful dogs. Dogs are very intuitive, and they know when you need them to come and sit on your lap and lick your face – they just get it, dogs can pick up on vibes, and they can always lift you up.
My happy place is away from the city, going where there’s fresh air and nature, and – for me, I play music, that’s pretty much what I do full-time, and you’re constantly out late, constantly tired, not looking after yourself as well as you want to be – you’ve gotta find those things that can balance you out. So many people that tour, or live a similar lifestyle, do have mental health struggles, and there isn’t a support network that caters to that. It’s crazy, like – if you’re smart, you just get out of it! Just don’t do that, and it’s okay! But it’s not that simple when it’s the one thing that keeps you going. It’s a weird balance to have to try and find. But coming home to my dogs is always a nice one.
AND NOW YOU’VE GOT ONE ON THE ALBUM COVER.
Yep. It’s gonna go straight to his head. T-shirts, beanies, posters… he loves it. He’s already got a big ego. Small head, but a big head, y’know?