The Smith Street Band: ?I Just Want To Be A Rapper
Just a few years into The Smith Street Band’s rapid word-of-mouth ascent, frontman Wil Wagner reflects on fans singing his every lyric, the downside of a punk ethos, battling negativity and how he’s more inspired by hip-hop’s sprawling verses than by any mere hook or chorus. Interview by DOUG WALLEN.
Why do people love The Smith Street Band? Because they bottle the youthful messiness of figuring shit out as you go (usually too late). Wil Wagner’s songs aren’t fictionalised parades of stock platitudes but desperate, sweaty, real-life venting. ?I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for these chords,? he proclaims on one song, and nobody who’s seen the Melbourne band live would doubt it for a second.
The band also get around, touring regional Australia with a commitment that’s seen their audiences double in the past 18 months. They tour the US and Europe too, and often come back friends with some overseas band that they’re eager to take under their wing for an Aussie tour (see: Bomb the Music Industry, [Cheap Girls](/news/4607802), The Menzingers). Meanwhile, their records for local punk label Poison City have become an assembly line of 20-something anthems ripe for the shouting along. In his review of 2012?s [Sunshine & Technology](/releases/2001116)*, *M+N writer Trevor Block observed that ?these guys are sure to be fixtures? at ?next summer’s festivals,? and since then they’ve conquered Big Day Out and Meredith with equal directness and honesty.
That honesty is key to the quartet, who formed in 2010 and now include guitarist Lee Hartney, bassist Fitzy Fitzgerald and drummer Chris Cowburn. When interviewed, Wagner brings up the ?honest and personal? slant of his lyrics more than once, knowing that it’s what connects with people most. Well, that and his rambling everyman self-effacement, which comes through just as much in conversation as it does in Smith Street’s ramshackle songs.
A big part of the band’s live show is people singing along. When did that first start happening?
I guess around the time of the first album [2011?s [No One Gets Lost Anymore](http://thesmithstreetband.bandcamp.com/album/no-one-gets-lost-anymore)]. We went from having 30, 40 people at a show on a good night to having 200. I still remember the first time, being on stage and people singing, just knowing words that I had written. I still have to pinch myself to this day that people know things that I scribbled in my phone when I was drunk. It’s an amazing thing to have people sing those words back at you.
When you write songs now, does that put more pressure on you, knowing that people are going to be yelling these words at the top of their lungs?
Yeah. It’s a weird thing: between the first album and the second album [Sunshine & Technology], I felt that a bit. That was the biggest jump: from our parents and friends to a few hundred people at the shows. That was quite nerve-wracking, writing the second album. I wrote a bunch of songs for it and brought ?em to the band and learnt a few of them and they just felt quite forced. They didn’t quite feel natural, and it was because I was thinking about other people when I was writing. I think the thing that people relate to about my lyrics is the honest and the very personal nature of them, and I feel like I did get a bit nervous and try to write songs that were a bit watered-down and people would like. I pretty quickly worked out it didn’t work that way for me, and I went back to writing the normal way.
I try to take myself out of writing as much as I can. If you think about your audience, or even if I think about my parents when I’m writing a song, you want to imagine that those people will understand what you’re saying. You [just have to] try to be really honest and personal, and that’s something people relate to. If you try to write something all-encompassing, it sounds like you tried to write something all-encompassing. Like, if I try to write a love song or a breakup song that’s not really about anything, it comes out forced and weird. But if I write something very specific about a certain time, it seems like people can relate to that easier.
?I try and not think about what Future Me will wish I never said.?
Is it ever hard to draw the line with what’s too personal?
I do sometimes feel that. Sometimes I write a line and think, ?Ooh, that’s gonna be awkward the first time I sing it in front of someone.? But they’re often the most impactful ones at the same time, so I try and just not think about what Future Me will wish I never said at the age of 20-something. I do worry about it sometimes, but people in my life are very understanding. My parents are very, very good with that stuff. It’s almost like reading your 20-year-old son’s diary, for my parents, hearing my lyrics. It’s something most parents probably wouldn’t do, but they’re both creative – they both write for a living – and they’re very understanding of that creative process. I can play that angle a little bit and say, ?Oh, it’s about all* people, not just me,? but often it is just about me. [*Laughs]
So they don’t sit you down and say, ?Hey, we’re worried about you. We’ve listened to your lyrics??
They do a little bit, I guess. [But] I see them a lot when I’m here and they know I’m doing OK. They’re super supportive. They’re amazing. They’re the best parents in the world.
There’s a line in ?Bigger Than Us? that says, ?I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for these chords.? What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t making music? What else can you envision?
Yeah, it’s kind of nothing. I was hanging out with a friend of mine I knew in primary school a couple of days ago. She came to a [solo] show I played in Brisbane and said, ?This is amazing. This is the stuff you used to talk about when you were 11.? I just feel like I’ve always had this real tunnel vision. I started playing guitar at the age of five – my dad got me one. I wanted to be a footy player when I was 10 and then realised that probably wasn’t a viable career option, so I chose a far more* stable career as a musician. [*Laughs]
But it really is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I feel like I’d still be playing as much and writing as much if we were getting zero people to shows or 100,000 people to shows. I just wanna make music. I just wanna create stuff.
Do you still play footy sometimes?
I did. I used to play a bit, but I was playing in a pub footy league in Melbourne – I was playing for The Birmingham against The Tote – and the bouncer from The Tote fell across my arm and snapped my collarbone in half. I was in hospital for a couple weeks and that kind of ended my footy career. [Laughs]
Who do you barrack for?
Collingwood. Big Collingwood fan. I’ve just become friends with a Collingwood player on Twitter and it’s probably the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me.
[Laughs*] [Tony Armstrong](https://twitter.com/TonyArmstrong19). He just moved down from Sydney and he’s playing for Collingwood now. He sent us a DM on Twitter and [I was so nervous] I didn’t know what to do. He’s like, ?Yeah, come down to a game? and I’m like, ?Nah, it’s too scary.? [*Laughs] I’d just freak out.
?It’s not like the 10 best songs go on the Smith Street album and the 10 duds go on the solo album.?
Are you working on the next solo record [following 2013?s [Laika](/news/4554676)] yet?
Yeah. It’s a weird thing with that. Every song I write, I bring to the band. And also every song I write, I work out myself as a solo song. So we’ve gotta figure out what the songs on the next Smith Street record will be until I can then sit down and work on the solo album. But it’s not like the 10 best songs go on the Smith Street album and the 10 duds go on the solo album; some of the songs work a lot better if it’s just me, and some of the songs are written with riffs and drum bits in mind. We’re working pretty hard on the next Smith Street record at the moment. Up until I went on the solo run, we jammed every day for month. We’ve got 13 songs demoed that we’ll be playing live on the tour we’re doing. We’re gonna record in the middle of the year, but we figured if we had as many of the songs down now – and we’re about to go to Europe as well – we could give all the new songs an airing live at least a couple of times.
Because I feel like that’s really, really important with putting out new stuff. You never quite know how a song works until you play it in front of people. Then you’re halfway through the interlude and you’re like, ?Fuck, this goes way too long.? And you never realised until you see people looking at their phones in the middle of the song. Even with solo shows, I’ll start playing a song where I haven’t quite worked out the words to a verse and get up to it and try to just improv something, like taking a stand-up comedian’s approach to writing. I love that idea of just walking out and being like, ?OK, I’ve got an hour. I have no idea what I’m going to say.?
I’d love to be able to do that with music. Bouncing ideas off people in that format where people are listening and you’re playing them songs, you can tell halfway through a song that this will be one people will like or ?I probably don’t need a seven-minute fingerpicked song about my anxiety. That probably doesn’t need to happen right now.? [Laughs]
With your relationship with the audience especially, it’s such an immediate sounding board. Other bands might test new material on the road, but I think you can read your fans better – and your fans are more expressive – than a lot of bands.
Yeah. I feel like, with the people who come to our shows, I don’t even really look at it as fans. I sort of recognise every face in the room, and even if it’s people I don’t know, you talk to someone for 30 seconds [and you feel like you know them]. One of the great things about being in Europe was having great conversations with people with thick German accents in broken English, and it’s like, this is the same shit some kid said to me in Sydney. Everyone seems to be dealing with the same 20-something, broke, university/job, breaking-up-with-people, blah blah blah blah blah. Everyone seems to going through the same kind of thing, so it’s nice to recognise that and be able to make a bit of a difference to people who are struggling with that stuff.
But the relationship we have with the people who come to our shows is inspiring to me. We’ve had a few violent incidents and some unsavoury times when we’ve been on stage, so I wound up being quite preachy on stage for a while. I could be a bit bossy, which isn’t really what I was trying to do. After some things went down, it was quite hard to shake that ?anything can happen? thing out of the back of my head and I’d get really scared that people were going to get hurt, especially as the shows got bigger. We did a run about a year ago where the shows almost doubled in size and we were playing the same venues. We really didn’t expect that kind of a leap, so there were a few shows that were just way too crowded. There were times where we had to stop songs because it felt like people would get hurt.
?People say, ?That pit was crazy, but someone fell and six people went down to pick them up.??
I guess now I’m really into the idea of community rather than a scene. A lot of music gets put in these pigeonholes. Hardcore music’s a really good example of it, where there’s all these crazy rules for going to a hardcore show. [But] everyone who’s coming to shows or playing gigs is kind of doing it for the same reason – it’s a room full of people who didn’t have many friends in high school and have found some likeminded weirdos. I really just want to encourage that and make a real community atmosphere around the shows. I’m trying to do that now not by ramming it down people’s throats as much as trying to keep positive and create a caring and fun environment at shows. And it means the world to me when people come up and say, ?This is the best show I’ve been to.? A lot of people will say, ?That pit was crazy, but someone fell down and six people went down to pick them up.? You can see that from the stage as well.
You mentioned the shows doubling in size all of a sudden. Was that around the time of [the amp getting stolen](/news/4607140)?
[Laughs*] That was a little bit after. There was a month where – we did a show in Byron that wound up with one of the guys from [tourmates] [The Bennies](/news/4618578) in hospital. And there were a few guys at a show in Newcastle that were starting fights. I asked one of them to leave when we were on stage. Which was quite heavy-handed in hindsight, but it was like two days after this horrible thing happened in Byron. I was so conscious about that happening again and so on-edge that maybe I snapped a bit too hard at this guy. But then him and all his mates got on Facebook and started calling us fags, so I was like, ?Ah, thanks for proving my point. You’re a fucking asshole.? [*Laughs]
All this stuff happened and then the amp thing happened. But I feel like all of that stuff got turned into positives. The horrible thing with Jules from The Bennies getting hurt, that became ?Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams?. And the thing with the amp became the best bit of PR that’s ever happened to us. And people still think it’s a PR stunt. A friend of ours had all his mics nicked out of the back of his van when he was moving house – he’s a sound guy – and we posted a picture of the mics saying, ?If you know anything about it, let us know.? And all these people got on our Facebook: ?You fuckin? PR people, tryin? to do another ?ampgate?. You’ve gotta take better care of your stuff.? Well, no, we had nothing to do with this. There’s just 15,000 people on our Facebook page, so let’s tell people.
Even with ampgate, we had people saying, ?I’ve had so much stuff stolen and I never got it back? and sort of blaming us for that. I’ve had three guitars stolen and I didn’t get any of them back. I was due. [Laughs] It’s a weird thing. It’s weird that people can find negativity in whatever they want. Like us putting up a picture of our friend’s stolen mics becomes ?You fucking assholes, what are you doing trying to get more PR?? We’re trying to get rid of that from our lives as best as we can, that weird negative – without sounding arrogant, almost like a tall poppy thing.
Do you consider yourselves a punk band?
I think in mentality more so than in music. We’ve never signed a contract with any of the labels that we’re on and really don’t want to. We’ve been talking to labels about the next album and it’s like, we’re not going anywhere from [Poison City](http://poisoncityrecords.com) in Melbourne and have turned down some quite significant offers. We want to stay with our independent label, and our manager is our friend. We don’t have bookers in Australia or anything – we do try to do everything ourselves.
?It’s like as soon as you have a punk ethos, you can’t do anything.?
Again, though, it’s like as soon as you have a punk ethos, you can’t do anything. [Laughs*] Like we charge $20 for shows and people give us shit for being sell-outs. Well, we’re bringing a band from Perth and a band from Philadelphia. And $20 isn’t that crazy. We don’t want to play that [punk] card too hard, because then someone finds out that one of us is vegetarian and not vegan and then it’s just fucking over. [*Laughs] I’m very into animal rights, but half the punk kids I talk to about it, it’s like, ?Shut the fuck up. Not everything has to be a crazy, preachy cult thing.? It’s like people bailing on religion to join the cult of Richard Dawkins – I’m an atheist, but those people piss me off just as much as Catholics. You don’t have to ram everything you believe down everyone’s throats at all times. People can do whatever they want and, as long as they’re not hurting anybody, it’ll be alright.
So I get sort of worn out with the punk thing. But no, I listen to hip-hop and I just write rap songs and then the band does what they want to them. I just want to be a rapper. [Laughs]
Well, that thing you were talking about before with improv-ing the song sounded like freestyling.
Yeah, I love the idea of it. I’ve been doing some stuff with local hip-hop dudes and it’s opened all these doors for me. I love that kind of big, long, stream-of-consciousness thing that you get in hip-hop. I’m very lyrics first and music second when I’m listening to bands, and sometimes you’ll get a hip-hop song that’s as many words as are on a punk band’s album. And every line rhymes and every line is fucking great. It’s the most immediate and just impressive art form.
Like that song on Nas? Illmatic: ?N.Y. State of Mind?. That song, you can hear him going at the start, ?I don’t know how to start this shit.? And that’s because he wrote that entire song walking into the studio and came in and did it. This classic fucking hip-hop song. Even someone like Lil? Wayne, who’s sort of laughable at times – I watched [a documentary](http://www.lilwaynehq.com/filmography/the-carter-documentary) on him, and there’s songs that are on albums where you can just see him, word for word, just freestyling. It’s a five-minute fucking song with a chorus and he nails it and brings lines from the first verse back in the second verse.
It’s fascinating, and it’s something I’ve never really experienced or been a part of. For us it’s always working on the music and then teaching the songs to people, but with hip-hop, my friend sends me a beat and he’s done. And I can just sit there and write songs over it. I’m never gonna show it to anyone ?cause it’s horrible, but it’s really fun to do. [Laughs]
Your songs are like that too, though, that stream-of-consciousness thing. That always strikes me when I see you guys live, how it goes out in this ramble that doesn’t censor itself too much.
Yeah. And also people like [Courtney Barnett](/news/4640516) – I’m a huge fan of hers. Just her stream-of-consciousness way of delivering, it’s like monotone and cheeky as well. It’s like sitting there having a chat with your mate Courtney. I love that kind of music. I grew up on Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen – there’s big, lengthy verses in all those songs, and that’s what hits me more than a great hook; a great line in the second verse that sticks in your head. That’s what I really get grabbed by and relate to. You hear that line that’s 15 words and it sums up every single thing that you’ve ever felt about that topic. It’s the craziest, most inspiring thing to hear shit like that.
And music’s always doing that. There’s always something new and something new to find, and people doing things that you’ve never heard. You get into Dinosaur Jr. and it’s like, ?Oh, you like Dinosaur Jr.? Well, here’s 40 bands that are influenced by Dinosaur Jr. who are also really good.? There’s all these pathways that you can go down. It’s like digging for gold and then you find that fucking chorus or those two lines in the verse that just smacks you. It’s amazing. It’s incredible the power that music has.
Are you still amazed that you wield that power?
Oh shit. [Laughs] I hadn’t really thought about it like that. I guess so. That’s really the most rewarding thing for me – I’m quite a depressive person and have some issues mentally and all that stuff, and having people come up to me and say, like, ?I was having a really depressive period and I listened to Smith Street and that helped me through it,? I’m getting tingles just saying it. To someone like me, I know how much those bands that helped me through those times mean to me, and that you can have that effect on someone is such a fucking inspiring and incredible thing. And it’s really humbling as well.
##The Smith Street Band’s latest release is last year’s 10? EP, [?Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams?](http://thesmithstreetband.bandcamp.com/album/dont-fuck-with-our-dreams). They’re on tour now with The Menzingers (US) and Grim Fandango (Perth); dates below.
Wed, March 19 – Prince Of Wales, Bunbury, WA
Thurs, March 20 – HQ, Perth, WA [6pm, all ages]
Fri, March 21 – Rosemount Hotel, Perth, WA
Sat, March 22 – Uni Bar, Adelaide, SA
Sun, March 23 – Karova Lounge, Ballarat, VIC
Wed, March 26 – Brisbane Hotel, Hobart, TAS
Thurs, March 27 – The Pav, Launceston, TAS
Fri, March 28 – The Small Ballroom, Newcastle, NSW
Sat, March 29 – The Lair @ The Metro, Sydney, NSW [1pm, all ages]
Sat, March 29 – The Lair @ The Metro, Sydney, NSW [sold out, 18+]
Sunday, March 30 – Transit Bar, Canberra, ACT