Takin' It To The Streets

21 August 2012 | 9:27 am | Brendan Hitchens

"China came about when our bass player pointed out that the cheapest flights to LA stop over in Beijing. We had a contact over there, so we emailed him and 24 hours later we had five shows booked. I think it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock."

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Frank Turner gushed their praises on Twitter. International bands handpicked them as supports. Webzines and radio shows honoured them with album-of-the-year status. Fans covered songs on YouTube; many even had the album's artwork inked into their skin. They've been invited overseas, sold out shows nationwide and now Melbourne's The Smith Street Band will release their second album, Sunshine & Technology, the follow-up to last year's hugely successful No One Get's Lost Anymore.

Songwriter Wil Wagner says the praise, while slightly intimidating, didn't affect the band and there were no signs of difficult-second-album syndrome. In fact the transition between releases was seemingly uninterrupted. “As soon as we'd finished writing No One Gets Lost Anymore, which was probably six months before it came out, we began writing new songs,” he explains.

The son of an author father and publishing mother, Wagner has a natural penchant for words and is never short of inspiration. Sunshine & Technology seamlessly shifts between the personal and political, as he weaves subtle wordplay into melody. “They're really into the literary and arts world,” he says of his parents. “It was a positive influence growing up having books and music everywhere. Dad played in bands as well, so that made me want to really write.”

So write is what he did. “If society's taught me anything it's that writing is much easier than speaking,” he sings on the album's fourth track, with an uncompromising honesty. “Pretty much everything on the album is from my perspective; first person and personal. I feel comfortable with everything I've put out to the world, as far as the things that I've done and mistakes that I have made. A lot of the things on the album that I'm dealing with I wouldn't be open to having a conversation with somebody about, but I feel totally comfortable singing about them. I don't really think of it as writing, I just have to do it. If I don't write for a day or two it's noticeable how miserable I am.”

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Along with his first-person narrative, Wagner draws inspiration from authors and hip hop. “One of my biggest lyrical influences is Astronautalis, who does indie hip hop with really interesting wordplay. As far as authors, I read a lot of short stories. My favourite author is probably Raymond Carver, who Tom Waits was obsessed with. He writes these really bleak stories, that don't really have a start or an ending and he hardly uses adjectives. It's just a play by play of what happens. There's so much emotion between the lines that you become attached to the characters and he sucks you into stories instantly. He uses as few words as possible to get his point across and I find that inspiring.”

With a title reflecting our responsibilities towards nature in a digital age, drummer Chris Cowburn says the album is full of juxtaposed stories. “The two phrases fit as a metaphor for many of the album's themes: staying young versus growing up, day and night, love and loss.” Despite not being thematic in nature, Wagner admits there are recurrent themes throughout. “I realised when recording the vocals that there was a real yearning to stay young in the lyrics. I guess coming out of my teenage years and into adulthood I've been preoccupied with the idea of 'growing up' and what that actually means.”

Celebrating their youthfulness, recording for Sunshine & Technology began at Three Phase Studios on Sunday 20 May, the day before Wagner's 22nd birthday. Weeks prior, the band completed a month-long Wednesday night residency at Fitzroy's Old Bar, road-testing tracks of the, then, soon to be recorded album. After their first performance, the set soon surfaced on YouTube and the following week, fans had memorised all the words, something Wagner had yet to do himself. “The songs on the new album were still being written while we were doing the Old Bar shows. There were some songs we played that we had literally learnt the day before at practice,” he confesses. “But I think doing the Old Bar residency was as important as demoing the songs in the studio. You don't know a song well until you see how people react to it.”

Stepping outside of their comfort zone once again, the band will head overseas in October for the first time. “We were invited to play at The Fest,” says Cowburn, of the weekend-long Florida punk festival featuring Propaghandi, Lagwagon and Anti Flag. “For the last five years I've wanted to go as a punter, so to now do that as well as play, is overwhelming. When that opportunity cropped up, we thought we'd make the most of it and make a tour around it. If everything comes together, we should have 15 dates in the US.”

Prior to their American sojourn, the band will stop over in China for a week. “China came about when our bass player pointed out that the cheapest flights to LA stop over in Beijing. We had a contact over there, so we emailed him and 24 hours later we had five shows booked. I think it's going to be a bit of a culture shock,” Cowburn admits with a grin, “but I'm looking forward to that.”

Like their music, The Smith Street Band's name is twofold, simultaneously referencing their influences whilst at the same time, the colloquialisms of their hometown. Cowburn admits there is some anxiety about how their lyrics will go down in a non-English speaking country. “It's going to be interesting. We're a lyrical driven band, so playing to potentially a lot of people who won't understand what we're talking about, we may just have to play really tight,” he jokes.

The faith instilled in the band by the Chinese promoter is too reflected by their fans in Australia. Pre-sales for the album sold out weeks before its official release date, essentially all on goodwill as nobody has heard the album. “It's pretty daunting,” says Wagner, humbled. “You hope we're not going to rip people off. We've become so attached to this album now, that I can't hear it with an objective ear anymore. The response so far has all been positive and we're proud of it.” Add to that, the band sold out tickets to their hometown launch show at the Tote almost a month before the date. “Hearing that blew me away and made me want to go out and personally hug everyone who went out and pre-purchased a ticket. We've worked hard for a long time and selling out the Tote is something I've always dreamt of. If we break up the day after the show, I'll be proud of everything that we've done.”

Celebrating in style, the launch will see a combination of old and new songs. “We had a huge debate at practice the other day. Guitarist, Lee, wanted to play all of the new songs, but a lot of people will be getting the album for the first time at the launch, so it's not like they're going to sit in the toilets and listen to it and walk out and know all the words. That's wishful thinking,” jokes Cowburn. Given their fanatical following though, it wouldn't be a surprise.