ANDREW TIJS talks to the long haired gits from AIRBOURNE.
Horned fist in the air, wall of Marshalls at his back, Airbourne throat and axeman Joel OKeefe screeches Hello, Melbourne! at the sardined crowd at the Duke of Windsor. So is this industry-stacked crowd going to see four Warrnambool boys with stars in their eyes, or Australias next great rock export?
The next ten seconds confirm that we may well be seeing both. From the first note Joel shudders, wails and hops in an uninhibited frenzy. Their onstage uniform is from the purely practical school of pub rock: blue singlets, sleeveless denim jackets, spray-on jeans. They are also all clad in tattered white runners, mostly for flexibility since Joel seems to have a habit of playing atop beer-soaked bars midshow.
Its touch wood that I dont fall, Joel laughs as he leans back into an aged sofa at Brunswick Streets Labour in Vain and relates a story of someone slashing their arm during some rock-adrenaline-fueled stage shenanigan. Joel certainly cant afford to do that not when Airbourne are on the cusp of being Australias next big band.
Although theyre merely peeking into the limelight, the tale of Airbourne is already classic rock mythology. Its hard to imagine but Joel says their explosive stage show has evolved since they first came to Melbourne seven months ago. After seeing footage of a performance Joel was able to count the moves that he does on stage, Ive got about 28, he notes proudly. I dont use them all at each gig, because Ive started to forget some, but they come back at the weirdest moments. Of course there are new ones coming every day. He noted that during a recent show with Jimmy Barnes he gained two moves, just with the scope of a larger stage. Despite the fact that Airbourne go balls-out from the very first riff, supporting You Am I, headlining over The Living End during a secret gig, or facing a horde of die-hard Barnesy fans must be daunting. The fans down the front, waiting three hours for Barnesy to come out, he says, theyre the hardest.
But they put on such a brazen spectacle its hard to see how anyone could be disappointed. We dont come off stage without injuries theres blisters, theres blood, Joel notes earnestly, displaying his gnarled fingers and bruised knees. Its just because we play so hard and try to perform so hard, because we love the energy so much.
When the crowd really likes it, thats when it goes up another gear. You feed off, he says, wide-eyed. Stories have come back from bands theyve played with, gobsmacked that Airbourne can put on a whooping, stadium-sized show to twenty punters. But when a larger crowd responds, Joel says, Thats when it gets dangerous. Well, thats what someone else looking at it might look at it as. Thats the situation going to the unknown, where youve got to a point where you dont know whats going to happen.
This barefaced enthusiasm hasnt sat well with some within the industry, likening Airbournes antics to the contemptuous rocknroll pantomime of an act like The Darkness. But Joel is totally guileless, We cant play any other way. I like watching Bob Dylan, I like the way he just sits there and plays, we just cant do that. He chuckles, Its like weve got a deficiency or something. The only way we can play is to hurt ourselves and play hard, to really perform. Its easy to imagine the band pulling out all the rock moves when practicing in their communal living room. Its like it takes over, like you become a puppet of some fuckin Airbourne beast that wants to fuck you up completely. Thats just how it is.
Plus, when a punter has fronted up the cash, its only fair to return the favour, and Joel admits, The only thing we can give them is a stadium show. We got to play our hardest and give them blood, give them the whole lot.
Despite rarely advertising and shying away from press, between their first trip from Warrnambool to being residents of Melbourne Rock City, these four rocknroll disciples have generated a massive industry buzz. Evidently because, Joel notes casually, People have seen us and told others to come down and see us.
Their home turf and proving ground for the last couple of years was The Criterion Hotel in Warrnambool, a country hub on Victorias south-east coast. Joel still marvels at the boisterous vibe there, People just dont give a fuck. They start fights and get kicked out. Its the kind of place that has instilled the attitude in the band that, If someone throws at beer at you on stage it means theyre having a good time.
Joel and brother Ryan (on drums) started playing their instruments at home when they were ten years old. Neighbours continuously complained about the din the two made in their North Warrnambool home, resulting in many a visit from the police. They moved onto rehearsing at school eight years ago, when they were 14 and 11 respectively, using a dust-filled, dangerously wired rec room under some stairs (to add to the rock mystique, the room was also allegedly used by a pedophile). There they picked up rhythm guitarist Dave Roads (now 22 years old) and bassist Justin Street (now all of 19). Of course the pair are otherwise known as Melways.
Despite the fact that theyve only officially been Melbournites for seven months, the touring has been relentless, not only snaring quality support slots but playing every beer-soaked local. Joel is matter-of-fact, We just love playing. Its a really fun thing to do. Were trying to live off it and I guess were still alive.
Just keeping in beer and noodle money shouldnt be a problem for much longer. They have a high-profile booker and have just aligned themselves with Greg Donovan, best known as Grinspoons longtime manager. While industry bigwigs have been spotted at every gig, the band is careful not to get involved with what Joel calls sharks. Their bullshit detectors have kept them in the safe hand of good blokes. Despite fielding label interest theyre not too desperate to commit. Its hard to describe what we want so much as we just want to be able to play for the rest of our lives. We want to play all over the world. We want to take Australian music and kick overseas ass with it.
You can feel his passion and commitment. Undoubtedly the band are unbelievably skilled players and Joel fawns over his gear. A guitar accompanied our chat because he feared for it sitting in his car. As he plucks at the strings Joel muses, You know how they have guitars on the walls at Hard Rock Caf? Theyre like gorillas in cages, they need to be liberated.
To listen to their eight-song Ready To Rock EP, recorded at Hothouse Studios and self-produced, is to know Airbournes worship of classic rocknroll. The titles are pure rock primitive: Ready To Rock, Stand And Deliver, When The Girl Gets Hot (The Love Dont Stop), Come On Down, Runnin Hot, Hotter Than Hell, Women On Top and Dirty Angel. The sound is hell for leather, widdling blues rock la, you guessed it, AC/DC. We dont mind the AC/DC tag, it doesnt faze us, Joel admits. The first thing we put out is fairly heavily influenced. When we get back into the studio well see how we go, but itll still be Gibsons and Gretschs and Marshalls because we love those guitars and amps.
So to the crux of the matter: How does Joel react to those in the rock scene who suggest that Airbourne are merely a highly skilled AC/DC cover band? Do they own all AC/DC records? he snipes. Do they recognise that we havent stolen one riff? Its the same as Jet, they didnt steal anything. So they plugged a Gibson into a Marshall and put the mids up. When every band starts off people say, Oh, they sound like them or them. Well, do you even like the band that they sound like? No? Then fuck off. Were not out to steal stuff, or be a tribute band.
Theres only one way we like it, he implores, Its gotta be rocknroll. It cant be some watered-down version or some experimental this or keyboards that. Its gotta be meat and potatoes, straight down the line, no bullshit rocknroll.
A younger Joel was sneaking records from his uncle in Sydney for years, and in addition to Acca Dacca its exactly what youd expect Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest. But technically he is of the generation where grunge was king. Joel sneers, I just hated it. I wanted to fight against it but then it got to a point where I thought, Let them be who they want to be, were still gonna fuckin rock. Rock never dies. It might go out of the media for five years but that doesnt mean its dead. The Denim Brigade is one of those things you cant kill.
Of course it is a fortuitous time for Airbourne to blossom. The sun is shining, riffs are royalty, and Bon is god. But Joel is staunch. Rock and roll is not a fashion. Hopefully (scenesters) get into the music or go see a live band and not go to a club. Hopefully they get into it and not worry about pink shirts and all that shit.
Airbourne have already been deigned in by those most fickle fashion followers at Vice magazine, playing a Vices 2nd Birthday party in Sydney with Japanese psych-pop nutters Limited Express (Has Gone?) last May. A lot of comments from the people there were like Ive never seen people screaming Fuck Yeah! like that. A couple of guys got thrown out for having too good a time, Joel recalls. The amount of grins on peoples faces, that was good to see, especially from those sort of people. People who Joel describes as the type who think Well, if hes gonna like it then I have to because hes got a better jacket than me so he must be cooler than I am.
Whether it be dyed-in-the-wool bogans hollering for Barnesy or drug-fucked hipsters desperately trying to look nonchalant at a Vice party, Airbourne will bring out the fireworks. Its just a chance to perform, Joel says. Like theres 400 people who dont know who we are, probably dont know that theres a band on now, and were just going to go out with the biggest thing weve got and give it to em.
Airbourne have huge goals, love what they do, and have no shame doing it. Joels zeal is infectious. If you can just play as well as we can, do what you love, youll be happy.
Weve never had a disappointed audience. Theyve never stood there and not clapped or cheered, he says. I mean, everyones got their own taste, were not going to force people to like what we do. For every person that likes us, theres going to be someone who doesnt. Hopefully its not 50/50. Then with a twinkle in his eye Joel does the maths, How many people are there in the world, six billion? Sure, I guess that sounds right. He laughs, So thats, like, three billion fans?