The Smith Street Band are truly one of the most honest, hardworking, and likable bands in the country. Within a short time they’ve earned themselves the reputation as being one of Australia’s best and brightest new offerings. Following on from their 2011 release ‘No One Gets Lost Anymore’, coupled with a growing fan base, new release ‘Sunshine and Technology’ positions the band nicely. It’s a full-length that promises to deliver more of the same earnest, melodically rich and lyrically brilliant anthems that have earned them praise and a slot at Gainsvilles ‘Fest’. We caught up with front man Wil Wagner to get a bit of backgorund on the band’s origins and rise to success.
You’ve probably done a stack of interviews by now, so for something different do you want to tell us about some of your earlier experiences when you were a solo musician?
Sure, well I started playing solo shows when I wast 16 or 17 and was just kind of playing around Melbourne and getting kicked out of the venues I was playing in because I was under age. I started a band when I was about 18 and we sort of fell apart and maybe six or so months later I met the Smith Street Band guys. We jammed once and just sort of really clicked together and we’ve been playing together ever since.
Did those guys have a project they were working on, were they already a band?
Well, when we originally started it was me, Chris who plays drums, Tom who plays guitar and this guy Jimmy who played Bass with us for the first year or so of the band. Chris was in The Go Set and he just left quite recently and Tom and I lived together so we’d sort of been fucking around with music. Fitsy and Lee have joined the band now. Fitsy actually recorded my first solo album and the first Smith Street Band album and the first Smith Street Band 7 inch as well, and he joined the band on bass maybe nine or so months ago. Lee who put out my first solo thing, well I broke my collar bone playing pub football for the Birme and we had a few shows lined up so he filled in on guitar and he worked really well in the band so he’s been in the band ever since, they were both in Hawaiian islands as well as Lee and Fitsy.
So when you were young and first starting out what led you to pick up the guitar and have a crack?
Well I’ve been playing guitar since I was five, my parents told me to learn guitar and I was typical kid saying ‘I want to I want to’ and so played sort of Suzuki guitar until I was about twelve and then started teaching myself more electric guitar and folky stuff ‘cos I was just more learning more sort of classical pieces up until then. I remember going and seeing this band Wolfman Jack when I was probably sixteen or seventeen. I went and saw them and just, I don’t know, watching the singer Josh who now sings in Fox Trot something just clicked in me and I realised you can just be a guy with an acoustic guitar and yelling and people will come and people will be interested. That sort of introduced me to Defiance Ohio and Against Me! and all those really seminal bands and yeah I just started. Figured I might as well start playing and played at the mental as anything open mic thing and this guy Buzzmer who now kind of manages was just there by chance and saw me and we’ve been working together ever since.
So acoustic folk punk bands like Against Me! are an influence?
Yeah totally, well my dad played music when he was younger and growing up there was a lots of singer songwriter stuff in the house and dad kind of got me into Bruce Springsteen, Billy Brag and you know Paul Kelly and that kind of stuff, real typical songwriters. And that really grabbed me at first and then meeting up with people when I was sixteen and then getting into bands like Against Me! and Defiance Ohio, those sort of folk punk bands like This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, bands like that really kind of opened my eyes to the fact that you didn’t need money and you didn’t need to be good looking and you didn’t need all these kind of rockstar things and it was actually really obtainable to play music. It was the first time I sort of realised that anyone could play music, not because they’re bad bands but because they’re first recordings were kind of crappy and you could tell they didn’t have fancy instruments. They were singing about things I understood and could relate to and it really opened my eyes that music isn’t made by people on a pedestal, music isn’t made by like Bon Jovi. Anyone can pick up a guitar and make music and that was really drew me to start playing.
Being The Smith Street Band I’m guessing you lived on Smith Street?
When the band first started I was living above the Birmingham hotel on Smith and Johnson and that was when we first started jamming, I wrote a lot of the ‘No One Gets Lost Anymore’ songs when I was living there and it was a really inspiring time in my life just living somewhere where I knew the bookers for the venue so it was always good bands playing and it was always sort of someone hanging out with a guitar. There was a recording set up in one of the rooms so it was just like, being surrounded by music and also living in that part of Melbourne where on a Tuesday night you can just walk to one of 15 bars and go and see someone play. It was really kind of exciting being drenched in music and surrounded by creative people doing stuff and that really inspired me at first to start playing. I now can’t afford to live on Smith St and none of us can really afford to live there and now everyone time I go there I get quite frustrated that it seems to be becoming more and more gentrified and we may as well be called the Chapel St band in a few years, I’m sort of worried about that a little bit, but I guess Smith is such a generic street name that we could be from anywhere. But yeah, when we first started playing it was really the Birmingham especially that was a sort of special place and we were all just sort of hanging out there at the time and I then I was Wil Wagner and The Smith street band witch was an obvious Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band rip off and pretty soon after we started playing we realised it wasn’t just me and a backing band, it was far more collaborative than that and we dropped my name from the front.
I like the Bruce Springsteen reference there…
Yeah, well you’ve got to get at least one in, I also like that our band name has The Smiths in it, if I wanted to make a hoodie that was just a zip up hoodie with The Smith Street Band on it I’d have one side of it say The Smiths.
Nice. In a similar style there’s a Canberra band called Yoko Oh No with an album ‘Only Built For QBN Lynx’ a play on words from a Wu-Tang Clan album ‘Only Built For Cuban Lynx’.
Ah that’s awesome referencing a Wu-Tang album, I 100% approve, I’m wearing a Wu-Tang shirt now actually.
ODB for life, so something for me that stands out in your song writing is that it’s so honest and sort of earnest as well, is that something you aim for or does it just come naturally?
It’s pretty natural I think, without trying to sound like a wanker, I don’t try to think of anything when I’m writing I just let the writing happen and don’t worry like ‘ah no what if someone hears this they might not like it’. It means I do have to do a bit of explaining to my parents every time something gets released, but they’re fine with it. I sort of find that if you’re writing with something else in mind or you’re writing for someone that’s not you or you’re saying ‘I’m gonna write this song, you know this breakup song I’m gonna write a break up song’ then it just gets lost in trying to sum up things and trying to think like and assume that you know how everyone else is feeling. I guess the way I write is very personal and yeah very honest, I try to not censor anything and pretty much everything I write I’ll try not to edit too much and I try to make it all sort of, as it is on the page. I think that’s really important on all the bands that I clicked with listening to, you can hear the pain in the singers voice or you can really hear that the emotion comes across so strong. I judge bands by lyrics, there’s plenty of music I listen to where the band sort of annoys me, but if there’s good lyrics I’ll always keep listening. And I’m mainly influenced by hip hop more than any other genres purely because of that, I think that lyrics are super important.
Would it be fair to say that some of your music is a reaction to the get a job, get a mortgage, get a family, settle down kind of life expectations?
Yeah totally. I’m at the age now where my friends have finished their degrees and people I went to high school with are doing real life stuff and yeah I guess just speaking to people and watching people change who go through these career paths or some fucking awful phrase like that. Every time I see some friends of mine they’ve lost a bit more individuality or started trying to say the right things instead of saying what they mean and you know I guess there is a part of me that wants to justify what I’m doing to those people as much as that sounds silly. It’s pretty easy to say you’re in a band and you want to fuck around and smoke pot and you know get drunk all the time and that sort of stuff but, you know, this is what I want to do with my life, this isn’t a temporary thing, if no one was listening to Smith Street Band we’d still be playing just as much as we are now. We all live for what we’re doing. I guess it is a bit me wanting to justify to people like ‘I’m doing a real thing’ and also it’s kind of a reaction to seeing people who really drastically change and say, things that we used to really believe in or something like that you sort of bring it up and get, you know ‘roll your eyes, I’m not vegetarian any more, that was a fad’ or ‘nah I don’t care about that anymore I’ll vote for whoever’ which actually is a common thing, all that kind of stuff. Just people being a bit complacent I guess, and it’s sort of frustrating and kind of sad watching people lose the childlike way that you look at the world when you’re young. And that kind of overriding idealised way of thinking, which I guess it is part of growing up, but I don’t know, I don’t really want to grow up I want to keep believing in stuff.
Nice, it’s a great attitude to have. We might wrap it, I just thought I’d check if you had an opinion on vocalists singing with American accents?
Fuck ‘em unless they’re American.
(laughs), well said, thanks so much man.
No problem, thanks.