When The Smith Street Band drummer, Chris Cowburn (far right in the picture above), suggested we do our interview in one of the band’s vans in The Corner Hotel carpark, I couldn’t help but point out that it sounded just a little bit seedy. It didn’t help that every now and then, he would accidentally press the lock button on the van key (“Haha sorry I just locked the van, yeah I’m locking you guys in“), eventually throwing it down on the seat, where it proceeded to go off on its own accord.
It sounds like the set up to a classic horror movie, but as I was about to find out, Chris is the polar opposite of seedy, and is in fact a person that should be admired, trusted, and – frankly – looked up to.
The band were about to play their last show on their totally sold out Australian tour, in their home city of Melbourne, and while all venues were ones that the band has sold out before, Chris is still amazed by the level of loyalty that their Aussie fans maintain – with one or two fans pointing out that this would be their tenth or even twentieth time seeing them live.
“I’m just like, holy shit thank you so much for, you know, like your continued support. Um, yeah, just the fact that people would continue to support us that long, you know I’ve never seen any band over ten times in my life. So that’s just so humbling and so lovely.”
Not only that, but this is the first tour the guys have done that has sold out in advance, so despite the level of expectation created by the success of previous tours, this is still a big one. It’s been a great way to finish this part of their career and lead them into the new single – Death to the Lads – and a new album cycle. Chris won’t go into too much detail – regarding either the new record or the tour that will accompany it – but hints that something bigger is heading our way with the next Australian tour, whenever that may be.
“I guess this one was a little bit strange because, not strange, um, you know, we’ve sold out these venues all before I guess, so you know, not to sound like a wanker but there’s like, sort of a level of expectation when you get to this stage I suppose.”
Sunday night’s show – the one that would take place that evening – was almost not added onto the tour. It was the first time TSSB have immediately announced two consecutive shows at the same venue, but with the Saturday night show selling out within hours, and the Sunday night show within days, there’s no doubt that it was a good idea. Not least because of the venue, The Corner Hotel, which Chris claims to be his favourite venue in the entire world, again making it the perfect way to finalise this ‘era’, so to speak.
The past few months have been spent focusing on the future, and a whole lot of energy has been put into finding new ways to help the band progress, the implementation of which has been nothing short of exhausting. Soon, though, other than a few festivals over summer (which have, so far, looked positively mind-blowing), the guys are to be rewarded with a well deserved break, something that – following the long nights and a severe lack of sleep – Chris, at least, is very much looking forward to.
“It’s been like a really, really hectic few months, um with recording a new album and playing overseas and travelling and having these shows as well, so like it’s been incredible, um, I wouldn’t trade it for anything but it’s gonna be nice to have a little rest for sure.”
Part of what has made the past few months so hectic, is that amongst writing and recording the album, and playing a few shows in North America, The Smith Street Band made the decision to leave their record label, Poison City Records, to start their own – Poolhouse Records. This is something that they’ve had in mind since 2012 when Sunshine and Technology was released, and while it almost went ahead at that time, it’s only now that it makes sense with the direction that they want to go in. Later on, during the show, frontman Wil Wagner explained that with Poolhouse Records, they’ll be taking other bands under their wing, and giving them the opportunities that they themselves have been given that helped them reach this point, where they are able to tour in places like North America and Europe.
While this is a huge step, Chris made sure to emphasise the fact that there is no negativity towards Poison City, and that they’ll always remain close friends with Andy Hayden and the other guys that run it – continuing to work alongside them with projects such as the I Love Life festival that they co-curated together in 2015 and 2016.
“Aside from the label, we’re basically like a um, self functioning entity and you know, we’re our own nucleus and this was kind of the last piece of the puzzle and now it’s just like, entirely the four guys in the band and [Chris] Bosma who’s like our fifth unofficial member who run the whole thing. So it’s something that we’re all just super, super excited about, you know like everyone’s sort of given us a bit of a new lease on life, you know like it’s a new thing to sink our teeth into and like um, look forward to so yeah, everyone’s stoked.”
Although the band are undoubtedly buzzing with anticipation to see where this new label will take them, there is something very bittersweet about the decision to move on from their good friends at Poison City. The announcement was made through an Instagram post back in November, and if you’ve followed TSSB for any length of time, you’ll certainly be able to empathise with the words that accompany the post. Anyone who’s around them for more than 5 minutes can tell that they’re a family, and to actively make the decision to cut loose what has been such a vital part of that family can’t have been easy. The caption was written by Chris in San Francisco, after they’d finally “figured out some contracts and all of that crazy shit” in amongst playing shows and recording the album – all of which had, naturally, left them all feeling totally spent, and emotional.
“I was exhausted, like I hadn’t been sleeping, just trying to do all this stuff and that was kind of the last thing that I had to do, and it was like late and night and I sat there and I got half way through it and I just started bawling my eyes out.”
There’s one thing that you definitely cannot say about Chris Cowburn (or – I’m sure – the rest of the band), and that is that he is ungrateful. There’s nothing insincere in the way he gushes in appreciation for those that have helped the four guys (or five if we’re including best mate, Bosma), and he wastes no time giving Andy credit for building “something that we just like, absolutely cherish to be a part of”. He’s humble. It’s the only word that comes close to describing the way that he talks about what TSSB have achieved with Poison City, and it’s incredibly heartwarming and reassuring to see in a world of lawsuits and sell-outs.
“It’s like completely changed my life and like, the other guys’ too, so you know we sort of wouldn’t be where we are today without [Andy’s] help. You know, other people’s help as well but, yeah. Bittersweet. Definitely.”
While the shows the guys put on in the States were not their primary incentive for heading over there (that being recording the new album), TSSB found that they went down exceptionally well considering just how difficult it is to build a fanbase in North America. This is something that Chris somewhat puts down to the luck they’ve had in regards to bands they’ve been able to support in the past, such as The Front Bottoms and Frank Turner. The band found that after the show, they would have attendees come up to them to say that they first saw them during one of these support slots, which for a self-managing band that comes from the other side of the world, is the best – and perhaps only – way to do it. They’ve built up a pretty decent support system over there now, having made plenty of friends, and it’s only a matter of time before their U.S fans start spreading the word, turning crowds of 50 into 500.
“So um, the shows are a lot more humble, they’re a lot smaller but you know, that’s equally as fun like we did a show in LA or just outside of LA, like north of LA, a place called Pomona, it was this little warehouse space like, it’s basically a shed and we played on the floor and it was probably like, fifty people there, and we hadn’t played a show like that for so long, uh like years and it was so much fun, we all just came out and were like, “Fuck yeah, that was awesome”.”
The Smith Street Band have introduced this new chapter of their lives with their latest single, Death to the Lads, a track that – at its core – tackles the band’s opinion on asshole dudes. It’s a fantastic song and, as I was to find out a little later that evening, one hell of a belter when performed live. The best thing about it, though, is the music video. The guys were still in the U.S when they planned to release it, and so naturally, they did the only possible thing they could have done and asked their mums to replace them. I’m talking live audience with mums on stage, acting as their sons in their absence. It’s a masterpiece. Everything is golden, right down to the clothes and the way they walk. It’s blatantly obvious whose mum belongs to which band member and I just don’t think I’ll love anything as much as I love this. Take a look at The Smith Street Mums below:
I asked Chris what possessed them to put their video in the hands of their mothers, and as it turns out, it was bass player, Fitzy’s, idea. It began as a funny concept. You know, having their fifty-something year old mothers taking their place and being worshipped at a gig is hilarious, right? Absolutely. But somewhere down the line, it turned into a much more complex platform, through which the band were able to thank their mums (and the rest of their families) and let them know that they appreciate all of the times they’ve stuck by their sons, despite what this life sometimes forces them to miss. They’ve all missed birthdays, and Chris himself nearly missed his own brother’s wedding, in which he was supposed to be best man, as a result of nearly missing his plane back from the U.S. The inclusion of their mums, while still exceedingly hilarious, became almost symbolic, too.
“The other take on it that I kind of like is that, you know, the space that we wanna create like, the vibe that we wanna create around our music is an inclusive one. Where everyone should feel welcome and safe, um, and like they can enjoy themselves and I guess, our mums being like, you know, what are they, like fifty-two to I think like sixty-five year old women, if they can be around this space and like, you know, rock out and have a great time then, sort of anyone can.”
It’s incredible that this is the message that The Smith Street Band want to spread: inclusivity and acceptance, regardless of who you are or how you identify. This accepting and kind mentality seeps into every aspect of their career, whether that be the fans, their family, or the people that work alongside them to help make their art. For this video in particular, they had to let go of control – something that Chris claims isn’t exactly easy for them to do – and surrender it to Neal Walters and his crew. What happened next impressed the guys beyond belief, and resulted in all of them singing his praises – never even hinting that they might take credit when it should be given to someone else.
“We got like the first cut of it, and we all just sat around my laptop and just like laughed and cheered and everyone was so pumped, and you know that was just the first, roughest cut um, Neal actually made me so proud or something. So he finished filming and it was like six hours later, they finished filming at like six pm at night in Australian time and we got the clip at like, 2am. “
It seems as though TSSB might just be the most hardworking band, like ever. They’ve sacrificed everything from sleep to family birthdays, and they know that these are sacrifices that don’t only affect themselves, but everyone else around them. This is the case with all musicians, and yet with these guys, while there is no doubt frustration coming from all sides at times, I can’t imagine that anyone affected ever feels as though this fact is shrugged off, or that they are taken for granted in any way. Everyone involved in their career is graciously thanked, and even just being one of tens of thousands of fans, I feel important. Whether you’re talking to the band members, or listening to Wil give one of his empowering speeches at a show, it’s very clear that they’re empathetic and caring people. Something that is definitely not the case with all musicians.
I couldn’t leave the shady, shady van (that was really not shady at all, it was actually very airy and clean), without asking about New Zealand, and Chris was launching into his apology before I had even finished asking my question:
“So you guys were supposed to do a couple of shows in June which you didn’t make it to, are you planning on coming back again at any point?”
The short answer to this question is, “Yes“, but I’ll get back to that. A week or so before they were due to come over, Wil screwed up his leg at one of the Aussie shows, and while they desperately wanted to make it, the doctor gave a solid “No way” – particularly since they were due to be playing in Europe a couple of weeks later. The three NZ shows were the first they had ever cancelled, and Chris relayed the whole story with the hope that it would make me (and the rest of New Zealand) feel better.
“We got to Europe and Wil had a horrible time, like felt so sorry for the dude, the first show we played was a festival in like, this beautiful, big rolling field and he was just like sat in the van, we didn’t have a backstage or anything, he was just sitting there, couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t do anything, and he had to sit down the whole first few shows, and we actually got to like three or four shows in and it got to like, do we need to just pull the pin, like is this too much.”
Shockingly (not shockingly at all), this did not make me feel better at all, in fact all it made me want to do was jump out of the van (providing I had not actually been locked in, ready for that horror movie climax), find Wil, give him a hug and say, “It’s okay dude!” And it really is okay, because, as I said, the short answer was “Yes”, and TSSB have very vague and secretive plans in mid-April, where they’ve been given a “pretty cool opportunity”. Even if they don’t make it, though, they’re determined to come back a little later and either way, NZ will be exposed to one of the best intimate shows they’ll ever see. Be sure to watch this space, I’ll be making a very excited post the moment the announcement is made.
We finished up our chat with a quick fire round of “Which of the Smith Street boys is most likely to…”
Have the messiest bunk?
Spend the longest time doing their hair?
Block the tour bus loo?
Fitzy, because it’s happened before. Not a bus, but um, a hotel in China.
First to pass out from drinking?
Be found calling their mum?
Win in a dance battle?
Fitzy? Maybe? I don’t know, we’re all horrible dancers. Maybe me? I don’t know. I don’t think any of us can profess to being any good at dancing. We’d all lose.
All in all, I think we’ve learnt that The Smith Street Band are super musically talented, top blokes
who love their mums and who can’t dance for shit. 10/10, would recommend.