Graveyard Train: ‘We Can Do Death Or We Can Do Monsters’
Guitarist and co-singer-songwriter Nick Finch talks to DOUG WALLEN about his obsession with death, balancing humour and horror and the hammer-and-chain as a “viable, actual instrument”. Live photo by ROBERT CARBONE.
One of the more head-turning success stories in recent Australian music, Melbourne six-piece Graveyard Train have parlayed a brash live show and gravelly songs about monsters into unlikely national stardom. Piling on four singers and instruments like washboard and, um, hammer and chain, the band are at the front of a fertile crop of dark, country-inspired Melbourne acts.
Following 2009’s The Serpent & The Crow and 2010’s The Drink The Devil & The Dance, their third album Hollow wrestles with the biggest monster of all: death. If certain song titles don’t tip you off, there are confronting lyrics like, “One day your eyes will see blackness for eternity”, and “No one has a soul/There is no great unknown.” And yet these timeless-minded songs are somehow empowering and fun.
You have quite a few songs about death. Was there a point when you realised, “Hey, this is something we can write about”?
I guess so. When we first started, we wanted to make it a horror country band. [But] we can make that whatever we want: we can do death or we can do monsters. It’s just gotta be dark, and we’ve gotta somehow make it horror. But as the years went on, we used up all the big monsters and all the schlocky stuff.
All the Universal Horror monsters?
Yeah. So the songs on this new album are definitely much more focused on death itself. Because I guess that’s the most horrific thing I can think of. [Laughs] It’s just like, straight-up, “Do we have a soul? No, we don’t. That is horrific. Let’s write a song about it.”
Do people ever bristle at that? When I saw you guys live, one of you said, “You’re all gonna die!” I’m okay with hearing that at a gig, but some people might not be.
That was me saying that. [Laughs] That’s one of my favourite songs to sing. People generally don’t seem to mind it. We played some festivals up in Canada, and I noticed a few people looking at each other a bit strangely and maybe not enjoying the points of the song. [Laughs]
And what song is it?
It’s called ‘All Will Be Gone’.
Yeah, yeah. We’ve never actually recorded that song. We were thinking about doing it for this album, but it’s a real kind of live, interactive song. I really work off the audience and whoever I’m looking at. It’s a bit of a shame because it’s a really cool song. I don’t know, I’m just obsessed with death. Not like a goth or anything; I’m just constantly worried about dying. It’s all I can write songs about these days. It’s really sad. [Laughs]
It’s not just death in a vacuum, though. There’s the spectre of religion there, but the way it’s portrayed in the songs, it doesn’t really help.
It doesn’t really work out, yeah. There’s a song called ‘The Doomsday Cult Blues’ that’s kind of a different take on that again.
‘The Sermon’ seems to be sort of, “No, there’s no afterlife. Get used to that idea.” And when there is a God, like in ‘The End of the World’, it’s a destructive God.
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess my mum’s Catholic, and I’m not. [Laughs]
So you’re getting back at all those nuns slapping you with rulers?
[Laughs] Yeah. I don’t know, it’s interesting. It’s gonna happen to everybody, and everybody is concerned with it in their own different way. A lot of that is religion and a lot of it’s science or whatever. I guess I’m just trying to deal with it through songwriting. But it’s terrifying.
If you think about death without the balm of religion, it’s a crazy feeling. So if you can channel that into something, I imagine it’s quite powerful.
Definitely. I guess in a songwriting sense, a lot of people write about broken hearts and all that stuff. But I’ve got a quite comfortable life, apart from the poverty from being a musician. I’m in a great relationship and have been for many, many years. I’m healthy and I’m white and I’m middle-class. My only real, big problem is the fact that it’s all gonna end. [Laughs] So I guess I’m just writing about my problem, which is everyone’s problem.
It’s funny at the same time as being scary, when you see Graveyard Train live. I think if it was just funny or just scary, it’d be a bit one-dimensional. But the two seem to play off each other.
We’ve always wanted it to be weird, and there’s definitely some humour. But we never wanted it to be like “Weird Al” Yankovic or Flight of the Conchords. It’s quite serious and Nick Cave-y and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-y in the storytelling. But you need some humour in there to deal with these things, I guess.
Do you worry about this shtick element? Between elements of the live show and the band bio showing you all in coffins.
In the early days, that was part of the idea. We were like, “Alright, let’s make this stupid horror country band. Let’s really push it as far as we can go.” We’ve been playing for four years now, and now we’re … not really moving away from that, but it’s developing. I guess we’re growing up a bit more. It’s just a natural progression. The shtick was always a bit of a worry, but there was always those serious, darker songs to go alongside. So I guess it is just the tightrope balance between the humour and the horror.
The first song on Hollow is called ‘Get the Gold’, and I was wondering how much you’re interested in having this Australian context and history to play with.
In the very early days, we wanted to do more with that. We were much more country. We had a song about Mad Morgan. [The Toot Toot Toots] do it really well, the whole concept-album thing. We were actually thinking of doing an Australian, much more country, concept EP in the pretty near future. We’ve got a few songs kicking off that are kind of Australiana country. So yeah, there’s a lot of history to tap into.
When you tour overseas, do you think you’re acting as this weird representation of Australia?
[Laughs] Yeah, “They all play hammers and chains in Australia.” But y’know, there’s a bit of Americana in what we do as well. But we’ve twisted it, like the banjo and the Dobro. I hope people don’t think we’re a representation of what Australian music’s like. [Laughs] Or they won’t want to come here.
Speaking of the chain and hammer, when did you decide to bring that in and actually make it a full-time instrument?
[Laughs] A viable, actual instrument? It was there from the start. The concept of the band came before our first rehearsal. It was sort of a drunk idea at the pub and, as we got drunker, it got more and more stupid. And the outcome of that was that Adam [Johansen] would play a hammer and chain.
But it’s gone to this weird level: we were at the Vancouver Folk Festival about six months ago, and Adam got put on this percussion stage/workshop with all these international percussionists. Some tabla player from India and bass drummer from Norway, and they just chucked him on stage. He had to just stand there and do his one trick, which is to play a chain in 4/4 time. [Laughs] It’s not a real instrument. People think he does these amazing things, and he sort of does. It’s really hard to play, and obviously he’s got massive biceps from playing it so much.
Was it meant to be a chain-gang rhythm thing?
I guess so. It was part of that but part pragmatism. We wanted to have a rhythm section but not have to lug around a drum kit. And something where he could sing. But yeah, now he’s an international percussionist. It’s pretty silly.
There are several singers in the band, right?
Yeah, there are four main vocalists on this album.
Is it ever tricky to manage that?
It’s fun. It keeps us on our toes. It really helps the live show as well, ‘cause you can have a break.
Do you think it helps keep everyone’s ego in check?
I guess so. I’m the frontman of the band, if you can say that. We all stand at the front, but I talk to the audience [and] live I sing most of the songs. And I really, really love it when the other guys sings. I think it definitely helps. When you have this many people in a band, you don’t want to just be playing a washboard the whole time and standing on the side. I think it keeps everybody interested and it’s part of the reason we’re still together. We all step up.
You’ve done quite well. Have you been surprised by the band’s success?
Absolutely. It’s been really fun. The surprising thing is, we can play to a lot of different audiences. Maybe it’s that some of the songs have that humour and more light country stuff and some of them are darker. We go up to the Tamworth Country Music Festival and play to I guess an older, more regional Australian crowd and they really like it. Then we can play to some club in Melbourne to dudes with neck tattoos and they can dig it as well. It’s got this cross-crowd appeal, which is just really lucky. I can’t really explain it.
“I’ve got a quite comfortable life, apart from the poverty from being a musician.”
What were your bands like before Graveyard Train?
Well, I still currently play keyboards when I can in Cash Savage & The Last Drinks. I used to play a lot more for her, but in the last few years Graveyard Train has taken up quite a bit of my time. Josh [Crawley] plays occasionally with Cash but also occasionally with a band called Eaten By Dogs, which is the ex-bass player from the Brothers Grim [sic]. That’s a country thing. Most of the guys haven’t been in bands before. Like Beau [Skowron], who’s the other main singer, this is his first band. And Matt [Andrews], the washboard player. Adam the chain player and I, before Graveyard Train, were in this ridiculous kind of psychedelic blues band called Johnny Curtin & The Pelmets. [Laughs] It was just stupid. It was kind of like Graveyard Train, but electric and just idiotic, psychedelic blues/garage stuff that was very, very short-lived.
You’ve mentioned Cash and The Toot Toot Toots and Brothers Grim. Does it help to have these kindred spirits, to feel like something’s happening and that other bands are receptive to it?
Absolutely. There’s obviously a really amazing music scene in Melbourne, but within that music scene on a more personal level, there’s a great connection between bands. There’s a great friendship between bands like The Toots and Cash and Brothers Grim and Little John and Plague Doctor and Cherrywood. We all play together and tour together and just are really great friends. There’s no competition; it’s just this camaraderie. It’s just great to be part of that. It is really helpful, because it spurs you on and we help each other out and play on each other’s records. It’s really beautiful.