Sunshine On A Rainy Day

23 August 2012 | 6:19 pm | Luke Butcher

Not content singing generic songs about the dole and breakups, Luke Butcher discovers from Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band that it only takes one album to get the attention of a nation.

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Not every interview starts with the subject teasing with his fondness for the often monotonous media trial that precedes the release of a highly acclaimed album, but The Smith Street Band frontman Wil Wagner may not be your typical claimant. “I'm happy to talk about how fucking great I am,” jokes the larrikin. Now I don't want to paint the wrong picture of Wagner; the 22-year old is as humble, forthcoming and irreverent in interview as he is behind a microphone, and as anyone who is familiar with the band will support, he is a particularly enigmatic character. For those uninitiated into the tales of the suburban twenty-somethings that comprise the majority of Wagner's songs, it may not be too long before you too are converted. The group is one of those acts that penetrate the masses with a sound that is familiar enough despite its originality and engaging enough despite its personal tales.

Speaking about the issues confronting those who have escaped their teenage years relatively unscathed and are left facing the world questioning 'what now?', Wagner is candid. “I sort of worry that people put too much influence on making money and their career, and all that kind of stuff. I worry that people aren't having enough fun.” Wagner elaborates, “I just write what I'm experiencing and what I'm feeling I guess. A lot of the socially conscious stuff just comes from watching the people around me grow up and change. I'm 22 years old now; I'm not quite an adult, but I'm definitely not a teenager anymore. It is kind of a weird place to be in; in-between two worlds and neither of them really accept you.”

Speaking of growing up, the band has experienced some significant growth themselves since gestating from Wagner's solo act into Wil Wagner & The Smith Street Band, and now their current and final moniker. However, Wagner stresses they aren't just a frontman with a subservient backing band. Despite writing the lyrics, basic chord structures and some of the central riffs, Wagner acknowledges the importance of his band members, particularly this time round with Sunshine & Technology. “With the first one (debut album No One Gets Lost Anymore), I had some solo stuff and then put a band together, so it was kind of them just playing along with what I was doing. But with this album I wrote it all with them in mind; I tried to bring it to them as bare-bones as possible. I wanted to make sure we got everyone's voice on there,” stresses Wagner. “When we first started we were called Wil Wagner & The Smith Street Band as a take on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. We never actually released anything in that name, the first 7” was The Smith Street Band. As soon as we started playing it felt like something more, it felt like something bigger than just me and a couple of guys standing behind me.”

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When propositioned on the success the band has achieved and the near palpable hype surrounding the band across the country, an almost embarrassed Wagner takes it all in his stride. “The way I think about it is I've put out four EPs and three albums with Smith Street and my other stuff, and there's been one album that people have liked and everything else no one's given a shit about. So my sort of thing is we're never gonna say we're a cool-guy band now, we're gonna do cool-guy stuff; it's all happening now, let's fucking make the most of it.”

With the act firmly planted in the Australian punk scene already, the conscious decision to attack more mainstream audiences was a strategy the band had to consider with Sunshine & Technology. “There was a while when we were talking to a few different labels to really try and figure out what we were trying to do with this album; is this going to be the album that's going to be bigger?” reflects Wagner. “We sort of fucked around with that for a while, then we all just sat down and figured this isn't us, we're not trying to gun for radio play, we're not trying to get on the big festivals.” A refreshing reflection from Wagner who despite the band sitting on the cusp of greatness, assures that the band still have their feet firmly placed on the ground. “There are people who if we charge five dollars for a show, they'll just say we're sell-outs and we're not punk; it's pretty frustrating,” Wagner confesses in a somewhat surprised manner. On discussion of the band's place in the music scene, Wagner seems as adamant as could be possible about what the band has ahead of them. “We don't listen to the radio; we don't go to the big festivals, there's no point trying to be some band that you're not. As soon as we realised that, we decided that yeah, we've got to do this with Poison City (Records) again.” Wagner refers to the Melbourne-based punk label/record store that hosts the band as well as some of the biggest names in the community including Paper Arms, Hoodlum Shouts and A Death In The Family.

Having toured the country extensively with his best mates, Wagner appears nothing but thankful for what he has experienced and is committed to ensure he can keep it going. “We shouldn't think we're some sort of important band; we're just five dudes who don't have jobs and are trying to play shows. We know where we stand in the music world, we know that we're very much the bottom of the pile,” the self-deprecating frontman states. Tackling the life of a musician with a particularly strong pair of rose-coloured lenses, Wagner understands what has allowed him to achieve what he has at such a young age. “The only thing that got us to where we are now is just hard work and playing every chance we get. That's what we've got to do, that's why we started a band in the first place, that's what we'll always do.” Heading around the country again and to Perth on the last day of August, the band are looking forward to reacquainting themselves with some old friends, citing local acts including the perennially underappreciated (and label-mates) Grim Fandango, The Decline and Ex-Nuns as great friends of the band. The enthusiastic frontman even goes as far as citing the band's recent show at 208 as, “maybe even my favourite Smith Street show ever. It always just runs on love and everyone is there to have a good time.”