Today, for the first time in months, Wil Wagner has nothing to freak out about. The frontman and driving force behind The Smith Street Band has just finished tracking the Melbourne group's third album, Throw Me In the River. "It feels fucking great," says a cheery Wagner from a beer garden in rural Victoria. "Months of work ended last night."
He's not kidding about the workload. "We jammed really hard on this record. Five or six days a week, nearly every day for a month and right after we came off tour. By the time I finally got to plug in guitars, it was like, 'Fuck, I feel like I've recorded this album three times already.'"
The Smith Street Band – Wagner, guitarist Lee Hartney, bassist Fitzy Fitzgerald and drummer Chris Cowburn – are used to a frantic pace. Since coalescing behind Wagner's songs in 2010, the self-managed group have spit out two albums and two EPs of folk-tinged indie punk, while forging a hectic local and international touring schedule. Which is why for their new album, they had to slow down.
"We like to do things as hard and cheap as possible," says Wagner, who books and manages the band himself. "But with this we said, 'An album's a big thing. It's going to be released around the world. Let's not spend 18 hours a day in the studio freaking out and having fights. Let's take our time.'"
With American friend and musical hero Jeff Rosenstock producing, the band laid down basic tracks at Melbourne's Sing Sing studios, before decamping to Forrest, in Victoria's Otway Ranges, for four weeks. With a population of under 250, the sleepy township was quickly alerted to the band's presence. A neighbour asked if the vocalist would mind his language, says Wagner laughing, "but on the second day a lady across the road said, 'Sounds fuckin' great!'" With Rosenstock as calming influence, the serenity helped. "You'd do a take," says Wagner, "and be like, 'Fuck it, this is shit and I'm the worst!' Then you'd walk out on the balcony with the cockatoos and everything's fine."
Wagner's fondness for Forrest might also be attributed to the calm before the storm. With its release secured across three continents, Throw Me In the River looks set to capitalise on the impact of Sunshine & Technology, the 2012 LP that caused the band's grassroots following to explode. "The jump from no one to 200 people at a show was a lot more confronting than a gradual build," says Wagner. So, too, the increasing number finding solace in the singer's clear-eyed, personal lyrics, making a Smith Street gig feel more like a communal cleansing ritual than a rock show.
Familiar subjects remain on Throw Me In the River, though tales of the band's travels are creeping in. "There's a lot of break-up stuff," admits Wagner, "because I feel like I just went through that one – the Armageddon break-up. But it's the same shit: being drunk and smoking cigarettes. But instead of singing about Melbourne I'm singing about other places now." There's some hope, too. "Normally we get to this point and I hate the album and myself and everything I've ever done," he says. "I don't hate this yet. That's a really good thing or a really bad thing. I can't tell."
Two months later and Wagner is still excited but sounding weary. The album is mixed and artwork sorted, but the safehouse of Forrest is 17,000 kilometres away. The band are crashing at a sharehouse in Peckham, south-east London, ahead of a tour that will squeeze in 28 shows across Europe and North America in 39 days. "Sometimes you think, 'How am I even going to be able to play?'," says Wagner of the gruelling schedule. "But as soon as you walk onstage you feel incredible. Then afterwards it's, 'That was amazing, I'm the best!' And you're asleep in 10 minutes."
But the singer recognises that intense live shows are as valuable to him as they are to the community he sees expanding every time they take the stage. "I don't know what the fuck I'd be doing if people didn't come see this band," he says. "It's so inspiring to have things I've written mean stuff to people on the other side of the world. It has a lasting effect on you. Even if someone's seen us before, I want this to be the best Smith Street Band show they've seen."
This article features in our latest issue (#757, December 2014), available now.
The Smith Street Band's Throw Me In The River Tour starts next week. Ticket info for the handful of shows that aren't already sold out is available via the band's website.
Wednesday, November 19: Brisbane Hotel, Hobart (18+)
Thursday, Nov 20: The Gov, Adelaide (Lic. AA) *
Friday, November 21: The Hi-Fi, Brisbane (18+) *
Saturday, November 22: Manning Bar, Sydney (18+) *
Sunday, November 23: Zierholz @ UC, Canberra (18+)
Monday, November 24: Factory Theatre, Sydney (Lic. AA)
Wednesday, November 26: Corner Hotel, Melbourne (18+)*
Thursday, November 27: Corner Hotel, Melbourne (18+) *
Friday, November 28: Corner Hotel, Melbourne (18+) *
Saturday, November 29: Rosemount Hotel, Perth (18+) *
Sunday, November 30: Railway Hotel Beer Garden, Fremantle (18+)
* Sold out.
Topics: The Smith Street Band