A Chat with The Smith Street Band

By Ben Madden | @benmaddentweets
Image Credit: MusicFeeds

The Smith Street Band are a group of hard workers. In the midst of touring with Groovin The Moo, having already played Laneway Festival this year, and on the back of releasing their triumphant 4th album, More Scared of You Than You are of Me (which came in at #3 on the ARIA charts on its release week), Catalyst had a chat to drummer Chris Cowburn about their Australian tour, starting a  label, and what it’s like to be getting exposure overseas.

Catalyst: How was Groovin The Moo? You’re not finished yet, but how’s the first weekend been?

Yeah man, it’s been pretty wild. It’s only the second touring festival we’ve ever done, the other being Laneway, and the vibe of both is very similar and really, really awesome. You just get this sense of camaraderie between all the bands and crew, everyone’s really friendly, and it’s really great to be able to interact with bands and hang out with bands that you wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to do so in your regular pub circuit. Thundamentals is a really sweet example, we met those dudes on the Triple J One Night Stand thing we did 2 weeks ago now, and they’re really lovely and super like-minded fellows. We’ve had the chance to hang out all weekend and socialise and drink beers and stuff. We wouldn’t normally play a gig with them on one of our own headline tours, you know what I mean? So yeah, it’s been really sweet, and the shows themselves have been really mind-blowing. So many people watching us play, and it’s really fun to be able to play songs from the new album. We really really get taken aback by the fact people know the words already, it’s only been out for a couple of weeks, we’re having a blast. We can’t wait for Bendigo, because that’ll probably be the most hometown one for us.

You’ve just played the Triple J One Night Stand. Firstly, how was that? And secondly, you’ve mentioned previously that it meant so much to be selected, why was that? Was it everything you expected?

Yeah it was! It was a really really cool experience, and again a similar vibe. We’re really lucky that Triple J have been so supportive to us over the years, and obviously that’s a big part of Australian music from whatever genre you play. I was actually saying to Mikey, who’s the drummer from Violent Soho, over the weekend at Groovin the Moo that it’s funny because the reason I pushed and campaigned to get on both the One Night Stand and Groovin the Moo – which are two things that have just happened for us over the last two weeks – is because several years agoI saw Violent Soho do both of those things.  I saw the amount of people that were watching them play and was pretty taken aback, and I thought that they looked like really awesome gigs to be a part of. We were kinda laughing about that, the fact that we’ve just followed in their footsteps a little bit. It’s totally true, though. they’re a band that we look up to, and they’re a band that are one step ahead of us, and it’s nice to have someone there that you trust.
On the One Night Stand specifically, it’s really really great to have a gig of that size and capacity that can occur in such a rural spot. Me and “Mikey Soho” were talking about this as well. Theirs was in Mildura, and I think there were 15,000 people there or something. Obviously, in Mildura, people from Melbourne can feasibly drive there, but we were in Mount Isa, which is over 1000km from the nearest decent sized city, which is Townsville, so it’s literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s so isolated, and there were  still over 5,000 people there, which is crazy to think. It’s such a good opportunity for somewhere that doesn’t usually get to host bigger performances. It was all-ages as well, and it was broadcast on the radio, which was awesome and terrifying at the same time. No opportunity to make mistakes when it’s going live-to-air to like hundreds of thousands of people!

It was a really really great experience, something that not many bands at all get to do. I was very grateful that we got given that opportunity!

Is it starting to feel like more doors are opening to you as a band? Also – how do you find going to regional areas that you may not have been to, and having so many fans there already?

It’s a really really cool thing! It’s funny you ask, because we did a regional-ish tour at the end of 2015, and we went to (Darwin). We’ve been to Darwin a couple of times before, we love going up there, and we were initially surprised by the amount of people who came to see us when we were up there., We went to Cairns and to Townsville for the very first time on this tour – both shows were like 400-capacity rooms, and both of them sold out. We were just blown away, we could not believe that anyone in this town knew who we were, let alone the fact that we could sell out a room of 400 people in both places and have people singing the words and stuff. That was a really humbling feeling, and it makes you want to do more of it. It’s a little way off yet, but we’re in the throes of doing another regional Australian tour, which will probably happen early next year. It’s really great to be a part of, and I think people in those areas tend to be appreciate of bands that make the effort to go out there, because they don’t get to have those opportunities so much.

Going into those regional tours, is it a big leap for you not knowing what to expect?

I wouldn’t call it a leap. We have toured everywhere, and we started out with it being tiny and there being no people, or 50 people, you know? We will do a European tour directly after our Australian tour coming up in June and July, and the Australian shows are probably all going to sell out. We’ll have 1000s of people at them, and then the European shows, there will be a couple of them where we will be lucky to get 100 people. I don’t think it should deter bands from going anywhere really, you still get to travel to another part of the world, whether it be regional Australia or regional Belgium.

I guess Antwerp is the biggest city, and we’ve only played in Antwerp once but we’ve played in these regional youth centres in Belgium like 3 times. It’s really fun, you get given unlimited beer, you get to stay the night in their accommodation, and only like 25-30 people come to the show – but it’s great! It’s a totally different experience. It shouldn’t be a leap or a deterrent to stop you going anywhere, just because you might not sell out the show. I think you play shows and you play music because you like to do it. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you don’t get raptures of people coming – I would see that a bonus.

That is always a good thing though! *laughs*

Absolutely! I’m not discrediting that at all. That’s one angle to look at it, that we wouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to go to many places had we not had people come to our show.  They  gave us their time of day and their attention and their money to be able to make us some money and go to different parts of the world. So yeah, not discrediting that at all. We’re all very grateful for that.

With the new album, you released it on your own label – Pool House Records – after being on Poison City Records for so long. What led to that decision, and how have you found being entirely on your own label so far?

It’s been really great! The decision was that something that was in the pipes for quite a while, it was something that we actually talked about amongst ourselves before Sunshine and Technology, our second album, came out, but I guess we didn’t feel quite ready for it and we didn’t end up doing it. It’s always been a dream of ours you know, we’re big Fugazi fans and big fans of being wholly DIY. I guess this time it just felt like we were prepared and we had things well enough in place that we had the option to do it. We went for it, and it’s been particularly on myself and Bosma, who’s our manager, and now also running the label with me.It’s been a really really hard slog, and we pushed it pretty hard,but it’s been really fun.It’s been an eye-opening experience from both a promotions sense and a business sense.

We’ve been running the band ourselves for years now, but we’re not business people, we’re just finding our feet with that stuff. It’s awesome, it’s really cool to give the opportunity to other acts and be able to say ‘hey, we’ll give you some money to record and put out a record’. We’ve got Jess Locke who’s going to release a record in September this year, and she’s the first artist who isn’t Smith Street on the label.It’s not that I’m not excited by all the things that we’ve done, but I’m almost more excited when things are happening for Jess, because that’s something new for us. The Smith Street/Poolhouse relationship is just us and it’s all insular, and it’s us just continuing what we’ve been doing for 7 years now and perpetuating that more, whereas having Jess is a totally new scenario for us. We’re delving into new realms of what we know, and where we can push things. So yeah! It’s really fun, and we’re having a great time.

You’ve got the Australian tour coming up (with Joyce Manor, Ceres and Allison Weiss). What are you most looking forward to with the tour?

It’s a total dream to be able to play the Forum. It’s actually a weird one for me because The Forum was never an expectation for me, at all. I’ve been to see a handful of shows there – it’s such a beautiful place, such a beautiful theatre, and it’s got all this history behind it. You see these wonderfully big shows happen there,and I never expected that our scrappy, folk-punk rock band would have the opportunity to play there. The Corner (Hotel, Richmond)? That was a goal, an expectation, and I think that that was a reasonable one. It was still a dream, though, because the first ever punk shows I went to were at the Corner. To be able to sell that out, then sell it out multiple times and do multiple shows there on different tours, to then find myself being comfortable playing on the Corner stage that was going past what I considered a dream being realised. Now, when you put that in context of us having jumped ahead to the Forum, I don’t really have any words to describe it. It’s very next level, and it’s number 1 level of excitement for the next tour. Not to discredit any of the other cities and the other venues, because there’s some equally beautiful venues happening on the tour!The Tivoli in Brisbane and the Enmore in Sydney, for example. But a hometown show with all our friends and family there, all while playing such a crazy and historic place is going to be a very special couple of evenings.

What are the plans for the rest of 2017?
I can’t say too much yet, probably because there’s not too much to say. We’re still figuring things out for a US tour, but by the time we finish up in the US, it’s probably going to be towards the end of October, which doesn’t really leave too much time left in the year. Where did 2017 go?

We’ve got a couple of little things in the pipeline for the New Year’s period, and aside from Smith Street, Pool House will be promoting a couple of tours. They’ll be announced in the next month or two, and that will be keeping us busy on that side of things. Once we hit Summer 2018, that’s when we’ll ramp into doing more Smith Street touring. We’ve got a couple of other things planned, but we don’t wanna rush things with this album. We’re taking a little bit more time in terms of how we go about things on this album. There’s a few super exciting things in the works, but nothing I can speak to just yet!

You can catch the Smith Street Band on their Australian tour throughout May and June.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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