The Wombats Prove They’re Still the Kings of Landfill Indie
When The Wombats burst into the public’s consciousness in the mid-naughties with a trio of Top 20 hits, they never did so with the same swagger or bravado of some of their contemporaries. While a legion of bands spent the 2000s attempting to emulate the cigarette-smoking, leather-jacket-wearing aesthetic that The Strokes had popularised, the Liverpudlian rockers couldn’t have been more far removed from that scene if they tried. If anything, it would have been easy to confuse early promotional photos of the baby-faced three-piece with the cast of The Inbetweeners.
To put it lightly, The Wombats were never an inherently cool band.
However, 15 years on from their debut album, ‘A Guide to Love, Loss and Desperation’, The Wombats find themselves in front of a sold-out John Cain Arena, the fourth of a seven-show Australian run. Opening with the jittery ‘Flip Me Upside Down’ from their latest album ‘Fix Yourself, Not The World’, the 11,000 Wombat faithful are met with frontman Matthew Murphy exclaiming “Spare me the drone of your conversation / spare me my lack of sophistication“. Murphy, now 37, knows his band aren’t all that cool and lets us know they were never trying to be.
The John Cain Arena, a step-up from their 2018 Melbourne show at the 3,000 capacity Palais Theatre, signalled a remarkable change in career trajectory for a band that was commonly mocked by mainstream publications. In 2008, journalist Andrew Harrison coined the culturally significant term ‘Landfill Indie’ to summarise a plethora of bands that had contributed to the general public’s neglect of guitar-based music. Journalist Simon Reynolds similarly reflected in The Guardian in 2010: “All these bands… Where did they come from? Why did they bother? Couldn’t they tell they were shit?”.
The Wombats found themselves lumped into that group by association, resulting in the dreaded phrase following the band around like a fox follows their namesake. Harrison’s expression signalled the commercial death of a number of bands, namely Brighton-bred The Kooks, who have fallen so far into obscurity that their upcoming album ‘10 Tracks to Echo in the Dark’ is being released in three separate EPs, supposedly to avoid an embarrassingly low chart position. Elsewhere, The Fratellis failed to chart with their sixth album ‘Half Drunk Under a Full Moon’, an effort best left for the bargain bin.
Yet through all the smoke, The Wombats are somehow bigger than ever. ‘Fix Yourself, Not The World’, a bold album filled to the brim with sonic experimentation, soared to Number 1 in the UK charts earlier this year, culminating in a worldwide arena tour. While I had always wondered how this trio of misfits had survived, their John Cain Arena show proved they are far more laudable than they are landfill.
Over the course of the evening, the Melbourne crowd, ranging from teenyboppers to teachers, was treated to a host of Wombats classics. Through a scintillating 21-song setlist, it was hard not to be enthralled by the adolescent-like gusto the band play with. ‘Kill The Director’, a fan-favourite that playfully comments on all the tropes and cliches within Hollywood, did not at all deviate from the breathless pace set by drummer Dan Haggis. Meanwhile, ‘Moving To New York’, commonly considered a staple of The Wombats setlist, was played with bassist Tord Knudsen grinning from ear to ear, almost as if he couldn’t believe his band had graduated to playing arenas. For a trio of musicians that have played both songs every night for the last fifteen years, their enthusiasm for their own material could be mistaken with that of a student at an O-Week karaoke night.
Yet, what was most compelling about the live show was the strength of The Wombats newer material, something that distances themselves from the bands that they are commonly compared to. Eight songs from the hit-filled setlist were taken from ‘Fix Yourself, Not The World’, with the Melbourne crowd just as enthralled with ‘Ready for the High’ as they were by the bands earlier work. A slow-burner with guitar parts that seem heavily inspired by Blur’s more Americanised efforts in the late 90s, the song builds to a euphoric chorus featuring some uncharacteristic brass instruments, further showcasing The Wombats sonic evolution. Murphy’s lyrics are interesting too, as he ponders, “Maybe Generation X are the chosen ones / they’ve got everything they need beneath their aching thumbs”, a cheeky nod to the revival of the bands back-catalogue through TikTok. Meanwhile, on ‘Everything I Love is Going To Die’, Murphy recalls with a grin “What a crazy pranged out year / and we spent most of it kissing teeth / locked in a quarantine”. While I had initially dismissed these lyrics for their lack of subtlety, they found a whole new meaning in the context of a live setting. When considering the lockdowns Melbournians have faced and the lack of live music they had been exposed to, the nihilistic anthem felt like a real moment within the set.
As we crept into the latter stages of the evening, the synth-laden ‘Tokyo (Vampires and Wolves)’ further highlighted The Wombats willingness to take risks sonically. Featuring a noticeable lack of lead-guitar parts, the track was considered a wild change in direction for the trio in 2010. As Murphy turned the microphone to John Cain Arena to sing the last chorus for him, it now seemed like a masterstroke. Furthermore, ‘Greek Tragedy’, a deeper cut taken from their third album ‘Glitterbug’, found itself positioned right before the encore due to its TikTok resurgence. As Murphy opened with the lyrics that helped achieve the songs virality “We’re smashing mics in karaoke bars / you’re running late with half your make-up on”, the young girl behind me gleefully mentioned to her friend: “It’s the TikTok song!”. While I imagine some of the more seasoned Wombat faithful would be annoyed by that comment, it really just shows how much the band have expanded their fanbase.
A three-song encore followed that contained slow-burner ‘Method To The Madness’ which promptly transitioned into the biggest cheer of the night, as Murphy began playing the riff to undoubtedly The Wombats biggest song, ‘Let’s Dance To Joy Division’. Voted by NME Magazine as ‘Best Dancefloor Filler’ in 2008, there’s no telling how well it’s aged, and while the whole song radiates updating your MySpace profile energy, you’d have to be a big fibber to say you’re not going to sing along after a few vodka lime sodas. While Murphy’s ear for a catchy melody has always been apparent, it must be quite vindicating for him to finally hear his songs break through to arenas after years of toiling in smaller venues.
As the trio break into the last chorus, a hoard of adults dressed up as Wombats run on stage, dancing around a cackling Murphy. While it’s not the type of playfulness you’d ever see The Strokes or Arctic Monkeys take part in, it served as a firm reminder to the audience that once again, The Wombats are never concerned with being a cool band. With a Number 1 album under their belt and a worldwide arena tour nearing completion, it seems that these marsupials have made their way out of the landfill and now find themselves sitting pretty in an indie lagoon.
Article written by Romesh Cruse
Image courtesy of Kane Hibberd
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