How Three Nobodies Scaled The Music Industry’s Heights Using The Power Of Possibility

8 February 2016 | 1:24 pm | Steve Bell

Spiderbait have always been unlikely icons. Just ask them.

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Perusing their discography, you kind of get the impression that lauded Aussie trio Spiderbait were never really expecting to last 25 years as a band. Way back in 1991, they chose to name their inaugural EP P’Tang Yang Kipper Bang-Uh (adapted from an obscure UK film of predominantly the same name) and their first album proper, which dropped the next year, was titled Shashavaglava (Serbo-Croatin for either “crazyhead” or “dickhead”, depending on who you ask).

And then there’s the songs. None of the early Spiderbait classics like Old Man Sam, Run (a cover of a tune from UK comedy The Goodies), Bergerac, Footy and Fucken Ace — all great songs to this day — gave any real indication that Spiderbait would go on to become mainstays of the Australian scene, racking up a #1 single (their 2004 cover of Leadbelly’s Black Betty), two ARIAs and five Top 20 records, as well as topping the triple j Hottest 100 in 1996 with Buy Me A Pony.

But Spiderbait’s influence over the last 25 years can’t really be racked up in numbers or trophies. The trio — singer/drummer Mark “Kram” Maher, bassist Janet Engish and guitarist Damian “Whitt” Whitty — were friends from the small NSW town of Finley, before Kram absconded to study music in Melbourne. He eventually returned home and moulded his friends into a band, who then relocated to Melbourne as Spiderbaby — they soon enough changed that to Spiderbait and were off and running.

They quickly became scene stalwarts as well as champions of the underage scene, and soundtracked the lives of generations with their fun and distinctive brand of thrash-pop. Spiderbait’s music covers all bases from rock to pop to metal and even dance, but whatever they touch just ends up sounding inherently like Spiderbait. Their initial releases were all on seminal Melbourne indie Au Go Go, but by their second album The Unfinished Spanish Galleon Of Finley Lake (1995) they were on a major label and never looked back.

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Now, they’re hitting the road to celebrate reaching the stratified air of the quarter-century milestone. Kram, for his part, seems mainly chuffed that their 2005 Greatest Hits compilation is being released as a 2-LP vinyl set to commemorate the occasion.

"That was the weirdest thing when we did a ‘greatest hits’ record, it was, like, ‘Holy shit! I never thought that we would have a ‘greatest hits’ record!’"

“I’m glad they’re doing it because I play pretty much only vinyl at home and I’m yet to pretty much get past 1982 of late, I’ve just been going backwards not forwards, so any modern vinyl I can get my hands on is a good thing,” he chuckles. “It’s cool, I’ve always wanted to do a record of ‘couldabeen’s as well. I think our hits are great and we’re really proud of them and stuff, but there’s a lot of other great material that would make a good record as well. I’m sure every band’s the same.

“But with compilations it’s nice to know that you were around long enough to have a ‘greatest hit’! That was the weirdest thing when we did a ‘greatest hits’ record, it was, like, ‘Holy shit! I never thought that we would have a ‘greatest hits’ record!’ So we’ve kind of ticked all the boxes, especially the big giant ones that we never thought would have been ticked, and I guess that’s what this tour is all about — this ridiculous world of rock’n’roll or ‘pop music’ and all that, you do your thing and who knows what might happen.”

When Spiderbait started out, it seemed as a neutral observer that forging a career wasn’t a concern; that they were just a bunch of music and culture lovers living it large.

“A career didn’t exist — it’s hard to be concerned about something that has no existence,” Kram smiles. “It’s like talking about the internet before the internet was invented. That’s essentially what it was like — there was no national radio, there were no stations other than RRR and PBS in Melbourne, ZZZ in Brisbane and a little bit of airplay in Sydney from a few bits and bobs, but the idea that you could make a career and travel the world and have a great life doing this sort of music was ridiculous. Which, for a lot of us older bands — and I’m sure if you asked anyone else from my generation who have been in bands that have survived and prospered — was kind of the whole point, that you were doing it because you loved the music. There was a very strong sense of anti-establishment and anti-conservatism, and, ‘No, I’m not going to live my life like it’s expected to me, I’m going to do this and enjoy this road to nowhere as long as I can’. Only the road to nowhere ended up becoming a road to somewhere, which was not the only surprise!

“And now everyone’s got a road to somewhere, because all styles of music are mainstream, and it’s almost like if you go to Laneway you don’t know if you’re going to see metal or trip-hop or you’re going to see something that’s folk or something — everything can be equal and have the equal possibility of being successful. I think that’s one of the great things about that mid-‘90s change, when bands like us got lots money and got signed to major labels — and I’m sure it was the same for any band from that era — none of them really changed. Their music might have changed a bit but the ethos of the band didn’t really change; the business changed around the ethos and that’s why we’re here today.”

When the crew who would become Spiderbait first moved to the big smoke they quickly became entrenched in the fertile scene revolving around The Tote in Collingwood, and Kram believes that these early forays built the foundations for later successes.

“Absolutely, our first gig was there,” he recalls. “Probably our first five gigs were there. Wally Kempton from The Meanies and Even booked our first show — we were pretty crap but we had a great time, and that place has not changed since. I remember when the pub was closing down [in 2010] and Bruce Milne, our old label boss from Au Go Go from like 20 years ago, asked us to play there — he also asked The Drones and a few others trying to raise money to stop the closing of this iconic pub which goes back to Squizzy Taylor and John Wren, this pub is part of the Collingwood of old when it was dodgy and you could get your throat cut if you blued with the wrong gang. There’s apparently a secret tunnel under the pub, which goes to one of the other buildings up the street! So it’s great to have that as part of our music history. Especially if you look at Sydney and places like the Sando, and just legendary venues.

“I remember we played as CBGBs in New York once before it shut down, and it was great dealing with the ghosts that had gone before, but if the tomb is demolished the ghosts tend to disappear too. That’s why I love The Tote, and it was great to be a part of, I guess, helping it to survive. I remember me and Dan Sultan went down there for a beer once — it was last year and we just walked in for a beer off the street — and it was literally exactly the same to me. He was, like, ‘This is exactly the same as it was in 2000!’ and I was like, ‘This is exactly the same as it was in 1990! I’m older than you!’ It hasn’t changed.”

“There’s certain things that happen in bands, and I think in any type of art — maybe it’s the same with all walks of life — but if you feel like you’ve got something that’s unique, then you feel like you’ve got something."

The Spiderbait sound was incredibly unique from the get-go, and Kram explains that rather than some grand masterplan this is just the sound that emanates naturally when these three get together and plug in.

“There’s certain things that happen in bands, and I think in any type of art — maybe it’s the same with all walks of life — but if you feel like you’ve got something that’s unique, then you feel like you’ve got something,” he ponders. “It might not be very good — it might need improving or it might need to be made worse — but if there’s something about it that really feels like it’s yours and no one else is kind of the same, it really gives you a lift. And we’ve had that feeling ever since our first rehearsal. All three of us were really kind of, ‘This is actually… good?’ And that’s one of the reasons that I think we’re still together and have been so successful is that there’s something about the band that’s ours.

“And it has been a thorn in our side over the years as well: we’ve been signed to labels internationally who promptly after signing us dropped us because they couldn’t work out what to do with us. We’ve had that for years, but fortunately in Australia everyone kinda ‘gets’ it.

“I mean, Janet’s all over triple j at the moment singing this beautiful pop song with a hip hop act [The Meeting Tree’s I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself)], and I’m probably going to play our first song at the first gig of the tour and it will be heavy metal! Both of those worlds can co-exist because that’s what we grew up listening to — it’s, like, ‘let’s listen to The Bangles! Okay, now let’s put Slayer on!’ That’s our band, that’s who we are, and it’s nice to have that variation. If you’re a film director, some people just want to make horror films but others want to make all sorts of different things, and that’s how we look at the art.

“But when we play live, it all kind of gels into one form, and this is one of the things we’ve always had where the band on record and the band live are actually quite different. Sometimes songs are very difficult to replicate [on stage] — I know we’ve had that with a few tracks over the years. A few tracks on our records sound very produced whereas live you get there and something just starts to happen — you don’t know what it is, but you like it.”

On the road to their massive commercial victories the Spiderbait sound definitely evolved but it also stayed true to the band’s core roots and values. It must be satisfying that they didn’t really compromise to make inroads?

“That’s massively important to us, that our success has come through being ourselves,” Kram concurs. “We didn’t change anything. I know Black Betty is a cover — and to some people that’s kind of awesome, to some people it’s not and others don’t care — but the fact is that we used to play that song really early. But I love that our biggest hit is a kickass song, that’s really great, but then I also like that a song like [1997 single] Calypso — which is so different — had such a resonance for people as well. It’s nice to have stuff that, artistically speaking, worked out really cool, but also to be successful as well. You’d hate it if your biggest hit was a pile of shit — that would suck. Which does happen. Maybe that’s being disrespectful, maybe they’re not a pile of shit, but a song that doesn’t really truly represent what the band’s all about, and that does happen quite a lot in the history of pop music.”

"We never had grand expectations of ourselves, and we also never had no expectations."

Was it difficult balancing art and commerce when it all hit that critical mass for the band?

“There were a few difficult times, but the way to counterbalance that is to think, ‘Well, what happens if it all falls apart, do you really give a shit?’” Kram offers. “It depends how much you enjoy art, or maybe money. But we pretty much always stayed on top of that stuff. We never had grand expectations of ourselves, and we also never had no expectations. Live is a good example — on our night, like at a Splendour In The Grass or something, we’re as good as any band in the world. And I have no shame in saying that to the press — people can call me a wanker, but anyone who’s seen us at our very best at a massive show I truly believe that — it’s epic, it’s supercharged, and we strive to that. And the fact that it’s us is strange — we’re country kids from Finley!

“And we’ve played with some really big bands who after seeing the show have come up and said, ‘Whoa, that was awesome’. But we can also be woeful — we can also play terribly! Maybe not the bigger shows, but at smaller shows. So we’ve kinda always had both of those imposters living with us the whole time, and the way that the whole money thing works is just the same — you kind of just have to be a bit humorous about it, but when it’s time to concentrate and make it happen you’ve gotta be ready to go. I think we’ve kinda done alright in that regard, but this tour hasn’t started yet so we’ll see what happens. We might completely fuck it up!”

 Humour been a constant motif  throughout Spiderbait’s career — both in their music and their general demeanour — and not many bands get to pull that off without being relegated to novelty status.

“Not in the scene at the moment — I don’t think there’s that much humour,” Kram reflects. But you’ve got two types of bands — you’ve got your T-shirts and you’ve got your collars. Your T-shirts are generally more humorous and your collars are generally less humorous. Collars’ heroes are guys like Nick Cave, T-shirts’ heroes are probably just fucking weirdos and geeks and everyone else. But both make great art and both are valid points of view. Like melancholy ideas sparked some of the greatest work of all time, and some of the greatest has come from positivity. We’re just in the positive, ‘this is fucking ridiculous’ camp, but I think when we’ve had our best moments on record and live we can create some really magical art and be as good as anything.

“So it just depends on what your orientation as a person is. It’s also in the way we interact, just the three of us. Like if I was in a different band with different people… I know when we did that triple j Nick Cave tribute tour, that I really gelled in with all the other guys and those beautiful songs of Nick Cave and that whole respect we had and I really invested myself in that headspace — I was almost like an actor playing out the role as I felt it. And that’s totally different to Spiderbait but they’re both me — so it’s as much about us as a trio as anything else.”

Which ties in nicely with Kram’s earlier offering about Spiderbait’s innate chemistry, and he elaborates that the band’s friendship is a huge aspect of their longevity.

“[At the start] Janet couldn’t play; she’d never played music before — she was an artist,” he tells. “And now she’s ended up having, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful voices in Australia. Especially on record. Her voice is so pure and amazing. She’s not a singer — she’s not someone who would ever see herself as a classical singer, she just has this beautiful voice. And Whitt’s sorta done everything — he’s done everything from trekking to climbing mountains to surfing to building and guitar playing, he’s an adventurer is how I’d describe Whitty. I’m really the only one who’s studied music and did that, and really I think if it wasn’t for these two guys my music wouldn’t be as good. They helped to shape and make me better because of the way they were.

“And it all comes from friendship — we all grew up together. That’s the same with a lot of the greatest bands — there’s no bigger example of that than The Beatles’ friendship. You’ve got The Beatles who are great friends (even though I know George hated Paul, and fair enough) and then you’ve got lonely old Elvis — that’s the loneliness of the genius solo artist. It’s a lot more fun being in a band.”

That easy camaraderie that the Spiderbait gang displayed was a huge asset in the early days — they always came across as a group of mates who don’t seem that different to you and your own circle of friends living their lives and coming of age in Australian cities.

"We changed in one show, and we’ve been that ever since. Sometimes you need the crowd to make you believe that you can truly be."

“Well, the crowd seems to go with us,” Kram agrees. “It’s like we sorta represent everyone, the bunch of mates up there doing it. I always felt that way about Green Day as well when I saw them play — they had a similar vibe. But you can’t survive on that alone, you have to be a kickass band eventually or you’re fucked. And I was saying to someone earlier that that sorta happened to us when we did the Big Day Out in Sydney once and we played Old Man Sam and had 30,000 people singing this song — which was just ridiculous, it’s such a ridiculous song, so heavy and powerful and exciting — and we walked onstage a pub band and walked off basically a stadium rock band. We changed in one show, and we’ve been that ever since. Sometimes you need the crowd to make you believe that you can truly be, and that’s the power of audience. It’s a really spiritual and emotional thing. It’s fucking great.”

Is there one particular highlight that stands out from their 25 years of adventures?

“Well, apart from that Sydney show, I keep coming back to a lot of the old shows,” Kram continues. “Those early Tote shows were really exciting, and playing with bands that we just idolised like Cosmic Psychos and Celibate Rifles and the Hard-Ons and stuff. I remember we played a Livid once [in 1994] when [UK punks Dead Kennedys’ frontman] Jello Biafra was watching us, and he was one of my all-time heroes.

“But then last year’s Splendour [In The Grass] was very special for us, and the one before — the last two Splendours we’ve done have been I’d say spiritual experiences. The size of the crowd, the feeling in the audience and just how epic it is — I think maybe later in your career you experience these moments more. I brought my daughter out onstage — as dads do — and the crowd went so nuts; they even went crazier for her than they did for us,  although she is five so she has an advantage. But then the last time we played Meredith — and we hadn’t played Meredith in about ten years — was similar, and we got to play with Nile Rodgers.

"This interaction between the band — these three nobodies really — and these thousands of people is just like the biggest party and the biggest injection of possibility that you could ever have."

“These shows in this last four- or five-year period that have been really big — when maybe we didn’t think we would make it this far — not only were they epic shows but they were spiritual. It was, like, ‘Wow, we’re not just here for the past, we’re her for the present and we’re here for the moment’, and those moments should be cherished.”

It must be humbling in those special moments when you realise that you’ve significantly impacted a lot of people’s lives with your music.

“Well, they’ve impacted ours too, man!” Kram states emphatically. “That’s the symbiosis between audience and performer. I think one of the greatest examples of that would be Bruce Springsteen, and I’ve heard Leonard Cohen can be similar — it doesn’t have to be supercharged ‘I wanna fucking tear my shirt off and run to Hawaii underwater’, like it seems people feel sometimes when they see us — but it can be very emotional and sentimental.

“But being able to really recognise that and yearn for it, sometimes during our shows I’m thinking about that as much as playing the songs: this interaction between the band — these three nobodies really — and these thousands of people is just like the biggest party and the biggest injection of possibility that you could ever have, and that’s what our band is all about. It’s about possibility.”