Interview with The Smith Street Band

When he wasn’t busy tearing up the Pyramid Rock stage, we managed to catch up with Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band to talk origins, inspirations and 2013 plans. 


First up, how did The Smith Street Band start as a band.

 Well I was playing solo for a few years before we started and then met Chris who plays drums and I had a band we had just banded and thought I should get a new band and called it The Smith Street Band, we were originally called Wil Wagner and The Smith Street Band like a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rip off and then I didn’t want to have my name at the front of the band because it’s too arrogant so we got rid of it and now we’re just called The Smith Street Band and yeah we’ve been playing for 3 and a bit years and it’s been really fun.


Explain a bit about the genre of music that you play.

 When we first started it was really folk punk kind of influenced by early Against Me! It’s folk punky, bit epic stuff. We’re very P.O.D. influenced, Rage Against the Machine influenced, hard rock with a lot of groove. I listen to The Hold Steady, Titus Andronicus, and big epic punk bands. I don’t know if we sound like them but that’s what I want us to sound like.


How did you get into that genre of music?

 Well I grew up with music, my dad was in bands since I was born so there was always like Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen and Paul Kelly and stuff like that around the house, great singer songwriter people. So that’s how I got into playing solo and then I guess the more you learn, we tour all the time so we’ve toured Australia a bunch and done America and China and every time you do that you find another 30 bands that you love. I listen to heaps of good Australian music, there’s a lot of good music out there.


So you guys write your own material? Who is the main songwriter?

Yeah, we write all the songs. I write the lyrics and chords and vocal melodies and then we write it acoustically and jam it electrically but yeah, I write all the stuff and everyone writes their own instrument’s part. It’s all pretty organic.


Explain the meaning behind the name The Smith Street Band. Is it because of Smith Street in Collingwood?

 Yeah, when it started I was living like on the corner of Smith and Johnson Street it was a year that was great but I don’t really remember what happened and yeah, when we first started it was called that and then Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wil Wagner and the Smith Street Band we thought it was a funny thing and now that my name isn’t in the band name anymore so the band name makes no sense it’s now kind of a shit name but, that’s alright. There are worse names but there are definitely better names.


Tell us about the journey you had as musicians, and how you began to really make it in the industry and how you’ve made it here today.

We formed and then I think our second or third show on tour, we pretty much went on tour straight away, we played this café in Nowra which is in the middle of nowhere and our first show in Sydney was at the back of a cemetery which was really fun. As soon as we started playing we started touring and released something pretty quick, and then toured and played every show we got offered. We did nearly 100 shows this year and would’ve done that probably the last two years as well and that’s all we’ve really done, everything else has happened by accident, like getting to play Pyramid and we get Triple J play and all that stuff.


Who’s your biggest music inspiration?

 Bruce Springsteen would have to be up there, Joe Strummer and The Clash and then Billy Bragg and all those kind of seminal people. At the moment our record label Poison City Records from Melbourne, pretty much everything they put out will get a fair run in the band, there are so many fucking awesome Poison City bands and they’re our peers so you hear one of their albums and go “fuck you I’m going to write a fucking better album than that.” It’s a very friendly competition but it’s really good to have that. We have a yearly weekender fest which is 3 days of shows in Melbourne with all the Poison City bands and every band brings their A-game and everyone’s talking about their new stuff, everyone wants to show you their new stuff. It’s a really good environment to be a part of so that’s what I’m really inspired by.


What’s been, in your opinion, the band’s best performance so far?

 I reckon the most fun The Smith Street Band show is a tie between when we were in China and we played at a lecture hall at a university and they must’ve told everyone we were really famous so there was 50 or 60 people out the front waiting for us when we pulled up, saying “Smith Street like Green Day like Green Day!” and we’re like “yeah yeah!” and everyone’s going crazy. There was a packed lecture hall and everyone’s sitting down but cheering and everyone had glow sticks and it was a really strange thing. And then two and a half songs in all of the power went out so all of the power, the lights, everything was just pitch black. And everyone starts screaming and we borrowed an acoustic guitar off the other band that was playing and I stood at the front of the stage playing and there was no power so you couldn’t hear anything so I just walked up one aisle and around the back and down the other aisle just singing and everyone’s looking at me and taking photos so that was really nuts. Then when we were in America we played this festival called The Fest which is a big punk rock festival in Florida right down the bottom of the country and we got to play a secret show there at this big holiday Inn in the centre of town and that’s where you sign in for the festival so after that they had a pool party and we had to play at the pool party and we were just playing on the roof of a hotel next to a pool and it was fucking mental, so fun, people were going nuts and a guy from Tassie actually, he was wearing Speedos and a wizard staff, like taped all his beers together so he had this massive staff of beers and he was like crowd surfing with his dick hanging out pouring beers into people’s mouths. It was so good. Mainly because of that guy, he was my favourite.


Does it ever get difficult being in a band? Ever have any disagreements?

 Everyone fights when they’re in a band, everyone’s a bunch of creative people which means we’re all just fucking sooky little idiots so no one actually says anything everyone just sooks about, I mean, we’re all fine, we get on really well it’s like brothers we all fight. None of us have any money ever, we’ve all toured too much to have any proper jobs so it affects relationships with people a little bit, I won’t go into my recent break up but there are strains on stuff like that because you spend so much time away but I wouldn’t stop it for anything in the world. This is what I love doing and we all love what we’re doing, I mean I don’t really have a choice, I can’t really do anything else.


What do you think the difference is between playing at a festival such as Pyramid, compared to a smaller crowd at a venue? Is there one you prefer?

It’s really different, we’ve only done a couple of festivals like this, I did a Big Day Out solo and a couple of smaller stages at festivals and same with when we support bigger bands it’s the same thing, it’s really fun doing that because no one knows who you are so you have to prove yourself every night and also there’s no pressure on us today like, if Tame Impala fucked up everyone would be like “Tame Impala fucked up.” no one gives a shit if we fuck up, anything could go wrong and it wouldn’t matter at all, there’s no pressure, all we have to do is show up and fucking play our best and then leave. Which is really nice, because when we do headline shows they’re always way smaller rooms and we sell out most shows on our tours and you’re playing for like an hour every which is fucking awesome but gets pretty tiring and it’s a fair bit of pressure on you, especially because we organize everything ourselves so you show up and it’s like “oh fuck, we didn’t get a door person” so there’s always shit like that that you forgot and then you’re running around and you’re on in 10 minutes and you realise no one’s got an amp, there’s always those added pressures whereas playing like this it’s pretty nice to just roll up, plug in, play, if we’re good people will remember it, if we’re not good everyone’s going to say “oh that band is shit” and just forget but it’s fine, there’s a lot less pressure on shows like this. I prefer headline shows for sure, but it’s nice to do a few of these every now and then because it’s easier to get in your comfort zone during a headline show when everyone knows the words to everything so it’s nice to do one of these because you’ve got to bring out the big stuff which is always pretty fun.


What are the plans for 2013?

 I’m touring in January; I’m doing a solo tour with some other people, a guy from Sydney, a guy from Adelaide and a guy from Hobart. And we’re going around the country and we’ve got a tour that’s all of February as a full band just going everywhere, and it’ll be a big tour which will be fun and then we’re going to try and write an album maybe in March and hopefully go to Europe sometime in the middle of the year and record somewhere then we’ll be going back to America in September, October. So yeah, we’re going to do heaps of stuff!

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