The Stabs: ?We?re A Little Proletarian Band
Despite overseas tours, a stint at All Tomorrow’s Parties and admiration from the likes of Nick Cave, The Stabs tell REN? SCHAEFER they’ve only ever had one strategy: getting 10 songs together for a gig.
From a bunch of ne’er-do-wells with a penchant for onstage chaos and self-destructive behaviour to a consistently powerful live band, the trajectory of The Stabs has been fascinating to observe over the past six years. Formed in 2003 by guitarist Brendan Noonan, bass player Mark Nelson and drummer Matt Gleeson, the Melbourne trio have managed to carve out a niche for themselves in the Australian music scene.
Following a clutch of vinyl singles and 2005?s much loved album Dirt*, The Stabs unveiled their new opus *Dead Wood earlier this month. It’s the culmination of a process of growth that has seen them ditch some of their more reckless behaviour, such as pitching cymbals and guitars at each other on stage when songs failed to ignite, in favour of a more focused attack.
Over a few ales in the beer garden of a pub in Fitzroy, Noonan and Gleeson fielded some questions regarding their creative process, life and art. Nelson was absent due to a rehearsal with Love Of Diagrams, who have recruited him as second guitarist. As the interview commenced, the other two musicians were keen to point out that the bass player would probably have entirely different views and opinions about The Stabs. What ensued was a thoughtful conversation, far removed from the usual rock’n?roll hubris.
You are about to release your second album. What has become clear is that The Stabs are in this rock’n?roll caper for the long haul. Where do you see yourselves fitting into the Australian music scene now?
Brendan: I don’t think about it in those terms. For me, the band has been a personal journey. I feel surprised and happy about the fact that we are releasing our second album, and also optimistic that we might make it to a third one. Early on, there was every chance we would self-destruct. We’ve done way more than I ever expected. When we first started, I just wanted to do a 7? single. That had been my dream since I was a teenager. Everything after that has been icing on the cake. I never expected to tour overseas with The Stabs, for example.
Matt: We’ve only ever had one band strategy: let’s get 10 songs together, because that’s enough to do a gig. We’ve never thought beyond that. I guess we’re living in the ?Zen moment?. I can’t think about the future of the band and I try not to think about the past either.
There must have been a point after the first album, after you used up those first 10 songs you wrote, where you decided to write another 10.
Brendan: At that point, three years ago, it was hanging in the balance. We were doubting whether we could maintain the personal relationships within the band. The initial set of songs I had been working on for five years, maybe even 10 years in some cases. I tend to go through little purple patches with my writing. I’m having one of those at the moment, so I’m writing and recording every day. This doesn’t happen consistently though. The reason we made it to a second album is that we found ourselves with 10 songs that we are actually happy with.
Matt: When we started rehearsing new songs, it filled us with a sense of doom. It took a long time to get our second set of songs together. We stuck at it and persisted. When we started rehearsing the track ?Dead Wood? it was almost a different song. It took ages to work out, and at one point I despaired and asked Mark and Brendan if they wanted to get somebody else in to play the drums on this song, because I thought it was a bit beyond me. Now it’s become second nature. For a while I was doubting if we’d make it to a second album. It wasn’t looking good, but we stuck it out.
When you find yourselves in that situation, where does inspiration come from?
Brendan: We tend to give it a bit of a rest. If the songs aren’t coming naturally, we don’t bother forcing them. There were plenty of times where we would go to rehearse, set up all the equipment, have a few stabs at a new song, and if it wasn’t working we would just pack up again and go home.
Matt: We don’t play in a band to be successful. The questions we ask ourselves are: Are we still having fun? Are we still in love with each other? Does the music still move us? Are we making music that we would listen to?
Along the way you have garnered a fair amount of respect from the music community. You were invited to play All Tomorrow’s Parties, you’ve toured overseas and you occasionally play bigger shows like the Flip Out festival. Does that recognition reinforce a belief in yourselves?
Brendan: Not really. I remember in the early 2000s I felt that playing in a band was quite an arrogant thing to do, to get up on a stage and demand that people shut up and pay attention and applaud you at the end. I thought that this in itself was too commercial. At the time I thought that I would prefer to just write songs and record them on my four-track. They’d be finished and then I could move on – it was all about the creative process. But then The Stabs got to play with Mudhoney in Seattle, with Lubricated Goat in New York, we got to do ATP and be on the same bill as The Saints, The Bad Seeds and The Dirty Three. What that feels like to me is like we’re punching above our weight, to be honest.
Doesn’t the acknowledgement from musicians you respect bolster your confidence in what you are doing?
Brendan: Back when I was more than satisfied writing songs privately in my own home, and didn’t worry about playing them to people, I would go out and see bands like Sea Scouts, Bird Blobs or Ninetynine. At the time, I felt very much on the outside of that scene. I could see that all these people knew each other; I could see that they had a thriving music community that I wasn’t actually part of. So, when we are involved in events like ATP, I can’t help thinking of all the great bands that don’t get to play these gigs. It makes me feel that in some ways we have become disconnected from the real cutting edge of underground music in Melbourne, and from that feeling I had seeing those earlier bands, observing that music community and thinking, ?Wow, these bands are amazing, and these people seem to be great artists. It must be really great being part of that.? I’m part of that now, but I don’t feel like we deserve it.
Matt: I disagree with that. A lot of newer bands seem to rate The Stabs for some strange reason. I believe the cutting edge of Australian music isn’t in Melbourne these days anyway. It’s in Sydney, where there are bands like The Atrocities, The Whores and The Nevada Strange, who are harkening back to that Black Eye label sound that we like as well.
Brendan: Sydney is where it’s at, right now, because bands can’t get gigs in pubs. There are bands in Sydney who refuse to play pubs. It’s hard enough to get a gig there, and if you do, they treat you like shit. So, in Sydney there is an attitude among bands of wanting to do it on their own terms. All the good gigs are happening in warehouses, people’s backyards, house parties, art galleries – not traditional venues for rock’n?roll.
?We’ve tested our personal relationships, our collective creativity, all those things, and at the end of the day we still want to go into the rehearsal room or go out on the road together.?
Maybe younger musicians see The Stabs as a band that has done it on their own terms. They are still at the start of that process you went through.
Brendan: I’m not sure. It’s a bit different. A band like Naked On The Vague has come out of this incredibly fertile warehouse scene with no commercial impetus behind it, in which they have been able to thrive and evolve. That background has allowed them to become what they are now, which is a band that may be played on the radio.
Matt: Castings had their own warehouse in Sydney and they’re a real ?out there? kind of band – avant garde even. They asked us to play with them a couple of times. I enjoy their respect as much as I would Kim Salmon’s or Nick Cave’s. Ultimately, what Brendan and I can agree on is that what other people think of our band isn’t very high on our list of motivations.
I can see The Stabs fitting into a succession of bands that stretches back to the beginnings of punk in this country and will continue to be replenished with new blood.
Matt: It’s nice to imagine that people might regard it like that, but it’s hard to agree with that when you are actually doing it. It would seem wrong for me to compare the music we’re making to, say, Lubricated Goat, or to see it as a continuous lineage. That would suggest that we are as good as any of those bands.
I don’t mean to make qualitative comparisons. Rather, I see that there is a tradition of Australian music that exists outside of the mainstream, which is a bit ?difficult?, confrontational to some extent, but still resonates with audiences. You can get 50 year olds coming to a Stabs show and teenagers, and they both seem to get something out of it. This may not be something you have cultivated, but I wonder how you feel about that?
Matt: It’s nice that people would consider us as part of that lineage. Time will tell. Maybe in 50 years people will mention us in the context of some of those other great bands, but that’s more than we set out to achieve. I used to go and see Lubricated Goat, and one thing that I remember quite clearly is that there weren’t many people at those shows. The fact that a lot of people now tip their hat to Lubricated Goat proves to me that the kind of music they were playing had legs all along. People didn’t think so at the time. Back then, this grungey, noisy swamp-blues music was pushed aside by the more polished pop of bands like The Clouds. People thought The Clouds and The Falling Joys would be the music everybody would be talking about in 20 years? time. Now it turns out that the bands that everybody ignored have become more influential. I find that encouraging to any band that doesn’t feel part of the mainstream.
Those bands you’re talking about, the more abrasive ones, seem to appeal to a lot of younger people who never had a chance to see them in the first place. They have become aware of them through their recorded legacy. Then there are legendary bands, like Primitive Calculators, The Scientists or Grong Grong, who reform, or whose members have never stopped being active.
Matt: I always thought that those more confrontational bands were unique. It’s good to see that a lot of Australian bands weren’t just a flash in the pan, which everybody predicted they would be. It’s hard to tell whether we’ll be like that. I have no idea.
Brendan: I would hate to be a ?fireworks? band, which plays a couple of gigs and suddenly has a huge buzz about it. We’ve been kicking around for six years now and we’ve developed incrementally over that period. To me, a big buzz is just a big fall waiting to happen. It’s not built on solid foundations. We’ve tested our personal relationships, our collective creativity, all those things, and at the end of the day we still want to go into the rehearsal room or go out on the road together.
You are clearly positive about the songs on Dead Wood. How has your songwriting developed?
Brendan: We definitely benefited from not rushing this album. Luckily we’ve never had any record company pressure to do anything. Nothing came to bear on us other than being satisfied with our own work.
Matt: As Brendan said earlier, he hit a purple patch. At the same time Mark came up with some of the best stuff he’s ever written. These songs are Mark’s personal favourites out of everything he has done. If you imagine Dead Wood* as a vinyl release (which hopefully it will be eventually), you can think of it as ?Side One? and ?Side Two?. Regular attendees of our shows will be quite familiar with Side One – that’s a rocking ?live? side, sort of like side two of *Abbey Road. Side Two stretches out a bit. There’s piano on some songs, some call-and-response vocals, field recordings of broken glass. It’s more indicative of where we might go on a third album. We’re still working out whether we can perform these songs live. We’ve recruited JP Shilo [Rowland S Howard band, ex-Hungry Ghosts] to play keyboards at the album launch. We’re going to try our best to play all the songs off the album. JP is like Brian Jones in a way – you can hand him any exotic instrument and he can bash out tunes on it.
I just hope he stays away from swimming pools.
Brendan: It remains to be seen if the album will be received well. We have benefited from the generosity of friends and strangers who have helped us to get where we are. Every release we’ve done has been put out by a different label. If it weren’t for the individuals who run these labels because they love music and don’t expect to make a profit, we would never have had anything released. We’re lucky to never have had any commercial pressure put on us to do anything.
That’s really the story of independent music in Australia. There is no expectation of making money or becoming famous.
Brendan: We’re a band which is the product of the Department Of Social Security, not Centrelink. We all left school and went straight on the dole. We were able to spend our formative years – from 18 to 25 or thereabouts – honing our craft. Back in the late ?80s, early ?90s, you used to be able to say, ?I’m an artist and I’m on the dole?, and people would respect you for that. There would be a begrudging respect that you had chosen poverty over affluence and success because you love art – art is what you do. What has happened to social security since then means that doesn’t exist any more. You can’t sit on the dole for five years and hone your skills. This applies across the board in different artistic fields. Someone like [Dead Wood engineer] Loki Lockwood or Lindsay Gravina at Birdland would have spent 10 years in their bedroom learning their craft. The only reason you could do that was because the welfare state allowed you to. Now you have to be ashamed when you say, ?I’m an artist and I’m on the dole.? Young people in the generation after ours have grown up with affluence and the prospect of earning a good wage, because the economy has been going bananas for the last 10 to 15 years. They could go straight from school to university and into a successful job. Back when we grew up, the dole was a viable option. It isn’t anymore. I see The Stabs as being a direct result of that.
Matt: Having chosen a life where we’ve followed our artistic inclinations has meant lives of poverty, residential uncertainty, difficulties with our interpersonal relationships and with our families. It’s a tremendous sacrifice, but what are you going to do?
Brendan: It’s fucked, really. As someone who isn’t on benefits now, but was for most of the last two years, I can say that the only way you can stay on the dole as an artist is to use medical certificates. You have to declare mental illness to a doctor in order to be left alone by Centrelink, otherwise they badger you and force you off it. A lot of the music scene of the 1990s, especially the all-ages scene, had a direct relationship to the days of the DSS. Bands like The Meanies, Spiderbait, Magic Dirt, You Am I, Tumbleweed – they were all on the dole and they wrote all their best songs while they were unemployed.
Matt: We’re a little proletarian band. Brendan’s a struggling self-employed odd jobs man, Mark packs boxes in a factory and I’m on a disability pension.
Brendan: Well, [Mudhoney’s] Mark Arm packs boxes in the Sub Pop warehouse.
Kim Salmon and half of Melbourne’s rock musos pack boxes at Shock Records.
Brendan: Someone like Mark Arm or Kim Salmon, who have contributed what they have to their respective societies through their art, deserve to be able to live off what they’ve done.
Would they still be making the same art if they had government grants or an artist’s dole, like they have in New Zealand?
Brendan: Yes, I think they would. Given the opportunity to do so, artists will make art. If they have time taken away from them in order to make a living, then that’s just less time they have to make art.
Matt: In the times in which we live, being productive is defined in terms of generating wealth and being able to spend on commodities. If you are making art or music, technically that is not generating wealth. Even though the artist would argue that their art has a social function, society does not respect that.
Brendan: If you look at the model of the artist’s dole in New Zealand, it acknowledges that the artist’s contribution to society is not immediately quantifiable. On the other hand, Crowded House put New Zealand on the map world-wide. AC/DC did the same for Australia.
Matt: Yes, and both bands have been very well paid as a result. But this should also extend to the person in a small community, who assumes the role of the artist but will never have their name up in lights, or an exhibition, or a record, but what they contribute to the people around them is incredibly valuable.
You would be hard-pressed to find to find artists or bands in today’s cultural climate who can represent their country or community as comprehensively as Crowded House or AC/DC.
Brendan: Given the opportunity, it could happen though. I’m thinking of the way Sea Scouts represent Tasmania to an ever-growing group of people. The longer that band’s been dead, the more important their legacy is becoming. The same goes for Lubricated Goat or The Birthday Party. No one gave a shit about The Birthday Party when they were playing in Melbourne.
Matt: I asked someone who saw The Birthday Party in their heyday how big they were at the time. They compared it to how big Eddy Current Suppression Ring are now.
Brendan: Tim Rogers doesn’t make a living off music. Tex Perkins has to go out and [pretend to be Johnny Cash] to make money. The market in Australia is so small that you would have to be a complete fool to think that you could earn a living from music. What that means is that people are making it for the right reasons. Someone commented to me the other day that they reckoned The Stabs would be making a bit of money from playing these days. I laughed. Fuck no! If we break even on a tour it’s like we’ve won the lottery.
Matt: Being a musician is not a lucrative career. It’s an expensive hobby.
?DEAD WOOD? LAUNCH DATES?
Friday, October 30
The Tote, Melbourne, VIC
w/Witch Hats + The Saddests
Friday, November 13
Alhambra Lounge, Brisbane, QLD
Friday, November 20
The Sandringham, Sydney, NSW