The Smith Street Band: Meet Me By The River
The Smith Street Band show no signs of suffering the third album slump. Wil Wagner talks about putting together their most “band” release yet and his hopes that people will be nicer to each other at shows.
“Recording can be stressful when it’s like, ‘Your guitar has to be done by the end of today’ and you just get stuck playing this one riff that your fingers forget how to do,” says Wil Wagner. Unlike some previous efforts, Wagner and his bandmates in The Smith Street Band took their sweet time with the recording process, with less in the way of strict, day-by-day deadlines. Recording album #3, Throw Me In The River, saw them hole up in Forrest (population 170) in The Otways, about two hours’ drive out of Melbourne. With River, unlike their debut (five days), follow-up Sunshine & Technology (two weeks) or EP Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams (three days), the Smithies spent a month tracking in their rented space in the Hinterland of the Great Ocean Road.
“And normally you’d be freaking out in the studio, but this time it’s just, ‘Oh, I’m just going to have a cigarette and walk around in the forest and see a kangaroo and then I’ll come back’,” says Wagner.
There’s a hint of stress around, though. It might be nothing more than superstitious gibberish, but the curse of the Difficult Third Album is in the back of Wagner’s head. You can probably think of one or two examples of great bands eating shit on their third full-length. Perhaps they forgot what they did well. Or maybe got fat and lazy from success.
“I look at bands I really love and a lot of the time it’s the first two records that I really love and the third one’s the one where they lose that,” offers the frontman. Wagner says his hard-working band might have a little insurance against the hoodoo.
“I guess we’re lucky in a way,” he says. “A lot of the times it’s because bands become bands that aren’t broke anymore by the time they get around to their third album, if they’re successful. But we’re all still completely broke and I still have all the same problems I had when we started,” he laughs.
Besides the amount of time taken in the recording process – demoing began before a European tour with Restorations in April – this is also the first time Wagner and co. have used a producer. Having Bomb The Music Industry’s Jeff Rosenstock behind the desk helped the band members re-think what they were trying to accomplish, and to think in terms of the whole song.
“When you’re writing you’re trying to write the best bass line or the best drum thing you can to fit the song,” says Wagner. “For me I get very attached to the lyrics and sort of engrossed in my own parts, and I think everyone does. And I guess having someone come in with a bit more of an overarching view was really helpful for that kind of stuff.”
It’s still very much a Smith Street Band album. Wagner’s popular story-driven lyrics are still able to collect a few of the right observations about fairly ordinary things and polish these into something brilliant. Sure, he might claim “all of my songs are kind of about walking around and smoking ciggies” but there’s something special going on there. Also, the anthemic choruses that are at least as much fun to yell out as Sunshine & Technology’s “Young Drunk” – the shimmering, twinkly, guitar leads and the nervy, change-direction-in-a-nanosecond gymnastics of the band all remain.
But this time around, the new studio approach brings up a few surprises. The title track, for example, has some of the most barely-there verses, some of Wagner’s rawest yawping, some of the biggest dynamic leaps within a song we’ve heard from the band, and it’s quite different to anything they’ve done before.
“Originally it was aimed to be really, really stripped back and now there’s piano and strings going through it and the whole section has pretty much no guitar and it’s just kind of piano and cello,” Wagner explains. “Again, that’s just having time… It was like, ‘This song should be quiet, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be dynamic’. There was a lot more thought. I think having a producer as well [mattered].”
No One Gets Lost Anymore sometimes gets called a Wagner solo album with musicians tacked on, which it was, and Sunshine & Technology saw Wagner’s name dropped from the band name and the vibe being more of a group project. This time around it is more of a band effort yet again, says the frontman, who plays nowhere near as many solo shows as he used to. The Smithies, however, clocked up over 300 shows as a band last year, and who will be back in the UK by the time you read this. The near-non-stop gigging is the only way to go for a band of people who don’t have day jobs. Coming home can be confusing, says Wagner, and there have been times when he felt things had changed back home after being randomly abused by strangers at gigs at Melbourne. He puts this out there in “Surrey Dive”, one of River’s strongest tracks.
“I don’t even know where it [the hostility] came from, I guess it was like, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are to come and hang out here?’” the singer tells us. “I like everyone in a band coming to shows and going through the same shit. Everyone in a band is a kind of sad weirdo in their own way and we should be supporting each other and taking care of each other and not punching each other. That might be a controversial thing – I don’t know,” he laughs.
Despite the generally posi, huggy, mock-meat-loving nature of the band, they still get the occasional boof-headed fuckwit at their shows. Wagner gets frustrated at not just the aggression that sometimes makes its way into the folk-punk pit at gigs, but at working out the right way to get the kids to knock it off. He gets uncomfortable when he thinks about a fairly well-publicised shaming and kicking out of a jacked-up punter making a nuisance of himself at a show at The Metro in Sydney.
“It’s so awkward, that thing,” Wagner says. “I fucking hate doing it and I feel so horrible doing it. But then it’s got to a point now where after every show we play someone comes up and says, ‘That was really good, but some guy stuck his hand down the back of my pants’ or, ‘That was really good until some guy punched me’. And when you can see that – it’s always in the back of my mind, you see it happen from the stage and it’s such a fucking hard thing to deal with.”
Pits are fun, ditto for dancing like a spazz, crowd-surfing and doing something other than folding your arms and standing stiffly while seeing a band. Just don’t make a fuckwit of yourself.
“It’s a really hard line to try and walk,” Wagner admits, “I don’t want to be Ian Mackaye telling people not to have fun at our shows either.”
Throw Me In The River is out now on Poison City.
The Smith Street Band are currently on tour with PUP. Check out all the dates here.