Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band talks having a voice, writing music, and meeting your idols.

We caught up with Wil Wagner lead singer of The Smith Street Band early last week to get a look into everything from what motivates their brutally honest song writing to what it takes to be a decent person. Gearing up for their mid year tour with the usual array of talent in tow, we talked being vulnerable, embarrassing yourself and just putting yourself out there.

What pushes you to drive against apathy? To encourage people to feel something whether it be good or bad?

I think its really important, in my experience and in so many of my friends and people that I know, who have been haunted I guess by not really talking about their feelings. I still talk about mental health stuff a lot and I think that so many of the problems in society basically would be solved if people were okay with being anxious, and okay with being insecure, and okay with being a bit afraid and okay to talk to other people about that. I think so much of the aggression and posturing that happens in today’s society, the aggressive way that the human race seems to be leading, I feel like so much of that is to beat down problems and cover up things that could be solved with a quick conversation between friends. Especially with men, your not really encouraged to open up about yourself and talk about your feelings and make yourself vulnerable. But if everyone did everyone would realise that everyone else is also vulnerable! And we’d probably all feel a lot less vulnerable.

I recently saw a great clip on Instagram of one of your solo shows from the other weekwhere you raised $4,000 for a mate transitioning.  It seems every year there is a cause Smith Street are standing up for if it isn’t asylum seekers with the “Wipe That Shit Eating Grin…” campaign to joining with the Laneway artists for the “Musicians Against Offshore Processing”, what makes you go that one step further to give a voice for all these issues?

Its never really like that, I’ve been asked about that kind of stuff a few times, its never something that I’d really wanna force or be seen to be cashing in on for lack of a better phrase. There are things like LGBT rights that I’m very very passionate about but if i sat down and tried to write a song about it it would be a crap song and it would seem like I was trying to jump on the bandwagon.

It’s gotta be something that comes naturally, rather than us sitting around looking for causes its like ‘Cool this is something we can lend our voice to and can help make things better for people’. I think it’s one of the grubbiest things of all time to see people jump on – like you see gross dudes jumping on feminism just to pick up – and I never wanna be anywhere near anything like that. I’m very conscious of it at the same time, I’d hate for it to seem like we were using the plight of the refugees to sell records, its gotta be something that comes naturally.

That was sort of the “Shit Eating Grin” song and once it was written and recorded it was like ‘Sweet so how can we use this for our advantage but use it to help as many people as we can’. It was the same thing for Spence at the Old Bar, he’s just an old friend of mine who’s been transitioning for a while and we were talking and he said about how expensive the surgery was, and it’s barely something that you think about, like you think about all the social issues and the fucking weird judgement by society but you never really think about how it costs of tens of thousands of dollars just to be yourself which is such a strange idea.

So that was just a thing where it was like we are lucky that we have a bit of a voice and a bit of a position where I can put on a show and charge fifteen bucks and a bunch of people will come and it’ll make some money, and the day after the show he messaged me that we’d made all the money we needed to make and he booked it in with the surgeon. It was quite an easy thing to do and, I feel like you’d be an absolute asshole not to do it rather than ‘We’re so great and socially aware’.

Your next album might be nearing, have you already started writing? How does the band generally tackle this process?

I write the songs, like the words and chords, the basic structure and bring it to the band and then we build it all up from there. We’ve got like fourteen or fifteen songs written like that and probably another fourteen or fifteen to write and from that we’ll try and get ten that we all like and then try and whittle that list down a lot. It’s really, really fun we jam basically every day for weeks and weeks on end just writing songs and rewriting and playing it differently and recording them in different ways, just trying to get every idea possible out onto the table before we even get into the studio. It’s my favourite thing about being in a band; this process of bringing in these pre-recorded unfinished ideas and seeing what the other guys are gonna play on them and what they’ll bring to the table, its always so satisfying and fun.

What do you love most about touring? As a band I’m fairly certain you tour Aus at least twice a year, excluding festivals, more often than not there’s multiple shows per city. What keeps that love alive?

Running away from problems? Its funny, I’ve been home for about two weeks, we just got back from six weeks in America, and I got home and was like ‘Oh my god get me to my couch I just want to fucking do nothing, I wanna rest’ and within three days I’d jumped on like seven solo shows. The second I’m home I just feel so stagnant and useless, you go from being this constantly moving, constantly yelling well oiled machine and then its just like a guy on the couch – I cant handle it and I wanna go out and see stuff again.

It’s the best; it’s what we all started playing music to do. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t play as many shows as we do, and lots of bands do, but it’s always a weird one when people are like ‘You guys play so much, you guys tour so much’ like yeah that’s why we started a band to play gigs and we get all these free gigs so we’re gonna play them all. I don’t know why you would do it any other way.

How do you find all these excellent international acts to bring on tour with you every time? I feel like each tour is a musical education, I ended up listening to The Front Bottoms obsessively after one tour.

It’s crazy I feel the same way, I felt so weird to get an email back from The Front Bottoms because it was like ‘Oh my god my favourite band *jibberish*’ haha yeah I got really excited about that. That is genuinely my favourite thing about touring I’ve met so many of my hero’s basically and I’m now friends with some of them. In the last little while I’ve felt a bit isolated from the Melbourne music community because it’s so insular and weird, you get home and feel quite lonely but then when I’m anywhere in the world there’s like this amazing global community of other weirdo’s who get to do the same thing we do and everyone has the same weirdly specific problems that only like a hundred people in the world would understand.

It’s really special to make these bonds with people, and the bonds and friendships that you make on tour are just so intense, so much more full on then just hanging out with friends at the pub because your living in each others pockets and your dealing with everything back home and dealing with all the stress and troubles of being on the road together. So you get these crazy bonds with people, it’s the absolute best, and to have that with people who’s records I’ve listened to for like a million years growing up is really special.

How do you take on critics, writing such vulnerable and personable songs?  Do you find giving it that punk rock raw emotional energy makes it easier to express certain themes?

I don’t bother with critics at all, I don’t read any reviews or interviews. I think that that’s so important to most music I like and especially with our music; I don’t think we’re doing anything too outside the box or too fascinating musically, I think the vulnerability and honesty of the music is what a lot of people relate to. So to get scared out of doing that then that’s the worst thing that could happen – I just try and make music that I’m proud of and write lyrics that are kind of embarrassing but not mortifyingly embarrassing.

I guess the question attached to every sentimental song like that is, is it based on actual stories or just an amalgamation of the bands experience as a whole?

The lyrics are always, 90% of the time are always? Based on very specific true events; like there are songs I wrote a few years ago that are like ‘Let’s just let a bit more water under that bridge before we release that really specific song about this one person’. It’s kind of a bit of a fine line with that stuff. That’s sort of what I see my job is to live a romantic life and try and experience as many crazy things as I can because then I can filter them and turn them into songs. So I try and be as emotionally vulnerable and open as I can and just continually get my heart broken because that eventually equals profit!

Isn’t that what all the famous songwriters say?

That’s the same thing my mother told me when I was really young and I first started writing, she was like ‘Nothing bad could really happen to you, because even the worst thing that will happen to you will just become material’.

Speaking of meeting your idols, you probably hold among the most down to earth affable reputation in the Australian music scene, do you find that makes fans more nervous?

I don’t know, its interesting, I feel like the only people who really approach me at the show are the drunkest people, I’d love it if people came up and wanted to talk to me about stuff that’s not being smashed. I hope that’s the reputation I have! That’s nice to hear. I like to think that I’m approachable; sometimes I’m very obviously unapproachable like in the hour or two before a show it’s like I can’t talk to anyone because I’m trying not to be sick. Unless its a huge show and it’d be a problem for the venue I do always try and come out and talk to as many people as I can.

People always come up and are like ‘I’m so sorry I’ve just got to tell you something’ and then give me a compliment; its like why the fuck would you come up and be like ‘I’m so sorry, this thing that your really into, you did a really good job of’ it’s not like I’m gonna be like ‘Well fuck you’, like that’s awesome! I love it when people come up, I don’t get many compliments in my real life so its nice when strangers come up and tell me nice stuff. If I don’t want to be bothered I’ll be back stage; if I’m out the front and I’m watching the bands and I’ve got a cider in my hand come up and say g’day I’d love to talk.

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You can catch The Smith Street Band with special guests Luca Brasi, Joelistics & Jess Locke Band on their upcoming June tour. Check the website for shows and tickets.

Photo by Ian Laidlaw

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