The Smith Street Band interview: Wil Wagner on Australian humour, the band's new album, and making positive things out of negative situations

'We’re just saying everyone deserves an equal shot at happiness and success because surely no-one can disagree with that? Surely no-one thinks, at the bottom of their heart, that some people deserve to be unhappy?'

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The Independent Culture

While it’s far from unusual for bands from overseas to find their footing in countries other than their own, their sense of national identity can often feel slightly diminished, watered-down somewhat, in an effort to maximise their appeal.

Fortunately for Melbourne’s Smith Street Band, they embody an Australia that’s both stereotypical yet fitting of their generation.

Easy going, though unflinching in their opinions, they harbour an intelligent sensitivity that’s a far cry from the machismo associated with Aussie culture. Something evident in both the band’s music, and their politics.

It’s a strange though somewhat fitting dichotomy; a blend of brash Australian humour, heartfelt honesty and liberal ideology that allows their records to feel familiar, a facet present not just in their lyrics, but in their conversation too.

"The way I think about Fitzroy might be the way someone feels about Camden or a suburb in Manchester," says frontman Wil Wagner when asked about the resonance of his often Aussie-centric lyricism.

"These places become placeholders for what the listener interprets. It’s like Salford Lads Club, I’ve never been there, but seeing that photo of Morrissey and hearing him singing about that area, I painted this whole image of what Manchester is like in my mind and I like that people can do that with Australia." 

Across the course of the band’s career, these images of suburban Australia have acted as quasi-exotic backdrops for the narratives that play out within - narratives that resonate with audiences across the world. 

Conveyed almost conversationally, never feeling melodramatic or overwrought, Wagner’s lyrics pack an emotional punch that feels more real than other punk bands, particularly on their new album More Scared of You Than You Are of Me.

"I haven’t really held anything back. I haven’t even gone out of my way to paint myself in a good light, I’ve been as honest as I could" he says of the record.

Honesty is something Wagner himself seems to radiate, laughing freely, even turning questions around occasionally. It’s his politics however, where his honesty really shines: It’s f***ing infuriating, I feel like the Left have really dropped a ball and I feel like a lot of it is people who agree with each other on so many things not being able to get past these tiny differences, even for the betterment of society." 

Though obviously Left-leaning, Wagner is considered, if not quiet in his opinions. "I think it’s sort of our [the left] fault," he continues. "So much time and energy is spent infighting, and people agreeing about 99.5 per cent of things but fighting about that .5 per cent.

"It’s very easy to be a Republican. There are these are the five things they care about and they never waiver on them. It’s so simplistic there’s this really effective unifying force and I think that’s what Trump did”. Naturally conversation gravitates towards the new president, but it’s the refugee crisis, and the fear mongering with which it went hand in hand, that dominates."

It’s something the band feels strongly about, releasing 'Wipe That S*** Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face' in 2015 - a single inspired by the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees by the then prime minister, Tony Abbot.

"Australia has a deplorable human rights record," Wagner says. "The way the first settlers treated the indigenous people, and even now the way we treat refugees is as bad as anywhere in the world. People say horrible things about refugees, but they’re just people who haven’t met a refugee. If you get those people to think about them as human beings on an emotional level, they can connect with their struggle a lot more."

Of course, it’s been two years since that single was released, and the world seems to have gone from bad to worse in that time. With his opinions on Left-wing infighting, does Wagner think the Left are living in their own bubble?

"Absolutely, with the impact social media has on our lives, and Facebook algorithms only letting you see stuff you agree with, that’s why it gets to bickering, because all you ever see is things you agree with; news articles targeted to you so then when one phrases something wrong you get angry with that rather than looking at the bigger picture."

This idea of a bigger picture is something Wagner harks back to over again, if not in so many words. Far from being the “snowflake” liberalism is often attached to, he is intelligent and considered - not easily offended - but disgusted by the legitimate issues facing the world over.

"Let’s get to the point where society thinks that gay people can get married, I can’t understand why that is an issue, same with legal abortion in America, that should have stopped being a conversation twenty years ago.

"How can we be more effective at getting that message through to people who need to hear it? How can we break in to the minds of the people who are just having bulls*** shoved down their throats by Fox News and Piers Morgan and disgusting people like that? How do we show people that this isn’t a political issue?

"We’re just saying everyone deserves an equal shot at happiness and success because surely no-one can disagree with that? Surely no-one thinks, at the bottom of their heart, that some people deserve to be unhappy?" 

Across the course of their four albums, a humorous self-deprecation has always eased the emotional impact of lyrics that are often as hilarious as they are devastating, and the band’s new album, though seemingly more upbeat than Throw Me in the River, is no exception.

"I’m a big fan of trying to rip positive things out of negative situations” Wagner says. "[The album] tracks and charts a very tumultuous and destructive relationship that I had, from the happy early stages to the harrowing demise and it rounds off with me meeting someone new and feeling better again.

"I’ve always wanted to tell an overarching story throughout a record but I haven’t had the necessary heartbreak to be able to do that, so I guess should be thankful to the person that broke my heart because I got a whole album out of it. Swings and roundabouts, you know?"

With a toxic relationship behind him, and a new album under his belt, it’s clear that things are looking up for Wil Wagner, but with the current state of global politics, does he think it’s going to get worse before it gets better?

"Oh God I hope not. If you’d have asked me this question three years ago I probably would have said there’s no way it could have possibly got any worse, and then then it’s got A LOT worse.

"I don’t know. Maybe this is the death rattle of the old f***ing arseholes. I mean surely, when our kids are our age there isn’t going to be another Donald Trump. He’s got to be the last bastion of a bygone era that we’ll never see anything from again, rather than The Dawn of The New Alt Right.

"It’s f***ing scary man. I hope the world is turning in the right direction."

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