Interview: Chris Cowburn, The Smith Street Band
They say that the tipping point is the specific moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just like a single infectious person can start an epidemic, so too can a small but precise push bring a new band into the wider public consciousness.
To the uninitiated, The Smith Street Band’s rapid ascension into the Oz music scene may appear to be a sudden onslaught, but in reality the band has been working on a steady burn for the past five years, cultivating a solid fan base since the release of their debut EP, South Facing Wall, in 2011. They’ve since followed it up with an intense touring schedule and a few more EPs and LPs thrown in for good measure; including the latest, Throw Me In The River, let loose to stellar reviews last month.
An afternoon of non-stop press sees Makers of Melbourne allotted a 20-minute phone slot with Smith Street drummer Chris Cowburn. There’s so much excitement surrounding the interview that I jump the gun and begin dialing his number a couple of minutes early. A voicemail message is left requesting a return call.
Chris: “Something sort of snapped. We were touring more, and more opportunities began presenting themselves. We really all just started enjoying playing together and things just clicked. It’s grown from that. Once we released the first EP we were all really vested in it and it has certainly become my passion and it’s going pretty well so far.”
Cowburn has dialled back and we’re deep in the thick of discussing the groups “tipping point”. But playing music for a living wasn’t something that came naturally to the drummer. He openly admits that he wasn’t that phased about playing in a band for the first few months, although he enjoyed the camaraderie, it was lead singer Wil Wagner’s unique lyrics and vocal style that resonated and really got him taking the lifestyle seriously.
Chris: “The way he [Wagner] writes songs and in terms of his inspiration, he has a beautiful knack of being able to articulate himself really honestly, like no one I’ve ever met before. He maintains 100% honesty and integrity. Some people are still baffled that Wil sings in his own accent and I find it a bit perplexing that people would expect that he would change himself. With the lyrics that Wil writes, if he was trying to sing like someone else it wouldn’t work and the band would be terrible.”
At times polarising, Wagner’s distinct vocals have been garnering attention since The Smith Street Band’s inception. Half spoken word, with an equally strong punk and hip-hop influence, the performer has been compared to Bruce Springsteen, Paul Kelly and Billy Bragg. As well as playing with the group, 2013 saw the prolific songwriter release a solo album, Laika, and tour nationally to support that effort.
With focus back on the group and a national tour about to get underway to promote Throw Me In The River, I can’t help but ask the drummer about the recording of the album, which took place in the small Otways town of Forrest.
With a population of just 170 people, The Smith Street Band formed some solid bonds with the small community. They were treated like neighbours, given beer and baked goods and thrown parties, like the infamous bonfire that ended up being the cover art for the album. Having a big city band in town became somewhat of a talking point with locals, “We made the Forrest Post, which is the monthly newsletter,” Chris says, “The lady from the Forrest Post was very excited to talk to us, I think we even made the front page.”
And it’s not just the Forrest Post that’s paying attention. With our 20 minutes almost over Chris has several more interviews scheduled before his afternoon is up. “Things are so wild, it’s a pretty fun time right now,” he tells me before we exchange our goodbyes, “I never really had any expectations about the band but things have just grown and grown. The more gigs we play, the more people come out to our shows and to get to where we are today, I’m feel super grateful and super lucky.”
The Smith Street Band play The Corner Hotel, Richmond from Wednesday 26th November - Friday 28th November.
Throw Me In The River is out through Poison City Records now