True Grit

1 August 2012 | 9:15 am | Brendan Hitchens

"They started getting all these right-wing weirdos coming to their shows. I hope that doesn’t happen to us.”

A manic merger of country and surf sounds played out by an inner-city band, The Toot Toot Toots' music is full of dramatised juxtapositions. Influenced as much by performing on stage as they are recording in a studio, the Melbourne band released their debut album Outlaws earlier this year to much acclaim. Launched at a near-capacity show at the Hi-Fi Bar in May, the event drew an audience from all walks of life. From “the rockabilly crowd” to the “doom-country crowd” to “oldies from outer suburbia”, much like their music, The Toot Toot Toots' appeal is ever encompassing and always engaging.

“I think mariachi just happens when you play country with horns,” begins co-vocalist Dan Hawkins on where the Mexican sounds come from. His fellow vocalist Giuliano Ferla elaborates. “That spaghetti western sound comes from the guitars, the twangy-ness and the dancy rhythms,” a sound pioneered by Italian composer Ennio Morricone in the '60s and prevalent in the band's foot stompin' sound.

Their musical inspiration ranges decades, and atop sits a literary influence to match. “David Milch who wrote Deadwood [the American, western-themed drama series] was a big inspiration for the aesthetic and where we approached Outlaws from,” Ferla reveals. “I really like [Charles Portis's 1968 novel] True Grit,” adds Hawkins. “And Nick Cave,” Ferla nods in agreement. “I think Nick Cave tells great stories. The way he channels the Gothic country sound and also a really suburban lyrical inspiration. He was a big influence, especially on our first EP.”

Perhaps though, and not surprisingly to anyone who has glanced through the lyric booklet or witnessed their live show, The Toot Toot Toots' biggest influence comes from theatre. Ferla and Hawkins met through a university performing arts course and both remain active in the scene; Hawkins a high school theatre studies teacher and Ferla, a playwrite and theatre company operator. Motivated by their backgrounds, each of the band's releases to date has been thematic and centered around rich fictionalised concepts. Their 2010 EP Curse The Crow was set in a suburban dystopia and focused on the misfortunes of a hapless family. Outlaws, their first shot at a full-length, tells the tale of a Jewish migrant drawn to the goldfields of rural Australia. Amid themes of vengeance and bloodshed, lust and loyalty, lies a gift of vivid story telling. It's an art Hawkins and Ferla wish to further explore in the future.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

“We keep on saying that we're not going to write a concept album for the next release, but we always find a concept and do,” jokes Ferla. “The one that we're currently working on, I have this big plan of making it a trilogy of albums that all link up to each other.” Ambitious, like everything the band do, Hawkins agrees, explaining the merits of developing a plot though musical imagery.

“I like doing concept albums. I think that if you can write a cohesive story that goes over 12 tracks, but each track can also stand alone as a pop song, then there's no reason why you shouldn't do it. Ideally, when you listen to one of our songs, you can take it out of context and enjoy it for what it is. Then there's the added extra where you listen to it in the context of the whole album and it works on two levels,” he pauses, before qualifying. “It's always a thin line. The danger is if you take it out of context, some of the themes might seem harsh or violent. It's kind of like Dead Kennedys when Jello [Biafra] used to write ironic or sarcastic songs and some people would take it literally. They started getting all these right-wing weirdos coming to their shows. I hope that doesn't happen to us,” he laughs.

The band's theatrics aren't limited to lyricism. Though they've only been together little more than three years, they have developed a reputation as one of the city's finest live acts. Honed from extensive touring and monthly residences at Fitzroy's Old Bar, for which they have played each Sunday night in June for the past three years, they have created a healthy balance of serious recordings and elaborate live shows. Known to feature everything from spaghetti-western screen projections to on-stage go-go dancers, the band make no apologies for their extravagancies. “You can't bank on albums that are entirely all fun,” says Hawkins. “You listen to the albums and it's a bit of a flash in the pan. There might be something that's hilarious or of the moment, but that only lasts for a few listens. You want to do something that is a bit timeless, so you have to take it seriously when you go into the studio,” he says of creating solemn recordings. “But live shows are a fleeting thing, because they're of the moment.”

A minority of people, and a small one at that, have criticised the band as a gimmick, but Ferla believes people often overlook what live music is and should be about. “I think it was Red Symons who said 'No one wants to watch a musician perform in their bedroom',” he says. “I think so many people forget the importance of a live show and they become self-indulged in their music. You want to go to a live show and have people perform to you. I don't want to go to a show where I see people staring at the ground, or so involved in themselves or their music that they don't reach out to the audience.”

Doing just that and reaching out to their followers, the band will host two of their most flamboyant live shows at the Workers Club this month, with what Hawkins describes as “a crossover theatre show”. For the first time, they will perform Outlaws in its entirety, with a slew of special guests including a narrator. “The songs will be bridged by someone narrating the stories and filling in the gaps of things not said in the album as well as reaffirming some themes that may have been ambiguous,” explains Hawkins. Added to that, both shows will feature “go-go dancers, cool projection art and some great supports” in Fraser A Gorman, Mojo Juju and Made For Chickens By Robots.

Their last Melbourne shows until late October, the quintet will take a much-earned break from playing live as members travel overseas or focus on other creative projects. “We've played a lot of live shows over the past year and I think it's definitely paid off, as far as how tight the band is now and our ability to read each other,” says Hawkins. “I think our worst now is better than our best 18 months ago,” they smirk.

The extensive touring has paid off in more ways than one. Glowing reviews from both word of mouth and national street press have led to bookings, radio play and festival appearances, as well as record label interest. Outlaws was recorded by Loki Lockwood, who has previously worked with similarly eccentric bands including The Drones, SixFtHick, Digger & The Pussycats and The Stabs. So impressed by the band, he signed them to his Spooky Records label and released the album. Given the band's global sound, it's little surprise they are also signed overseas, with Spanish label Grabaciones de Impacto releasing their 2010 EP. Slowly amassing an international following, Hawkins divulges the album has had ample online sales in the United States, UK and Portugal. With Spanish-inspired sounds and label support, Ferla says the band harbour plans to tour there and beyond. “We were supposed to go overseas next month but had to cancel,” he says with a sense of disappointment. “Due to the European economic climate it was really difficult to book shows. People are struggling over there at the moment, so when someone comes over and asks for money to play a show and they've never heard of you, they're less likely to take a chance.”

With a crossover appeal that transcends genres, demographics and borders

In its alliteration glory, Toot Toots Toots is a curious band name. Given the vivid imagery and storytelling synonymous with the quintet, singer Dan Hawkins says there's no such fable behind the moniker. Dreamt up during a drunken conversation at a bar, for a one-off gig, the band soon became permanent and so too the name. “Originally we were going to call ourselves The Chutes, as in the laundry chutes,” he says coyly, “but decided it sounded too indie or hipster. I can't even remember how it happened, but I assume it was because Toots rhymes with Chutes. It's not a very exciting story.” Regardless, we traced the name through time and found the word Toot to be more common that just a throwaway rhyme.

This 1923 song from American entertainer Al Jolson was made famous in the film The Jazz Singer. The song tells the desperate tale of a heartbroken man, as he stands on a station platform watching the love of his life disappear into the distance.

Written by Louisiana rhythm and blues musician Rockin' Sidney in 1984, this song was an instant worldwide hit, winning a Grammy Award and later being covered by countless artists including Fats Domino and John Fogerty. With the royalty cheques, Sidney went on to purchase his own radio station, a six-acre entertainment complex and started a record label.

The ARIA award-winning, ninth studio album from child entertainers The Wiggles, features lead track Toot Toot, Chugga Chugga, Big Red Car from which it lifts its title. Split Enz/Crowded House drummer Paul Hester (aka Paul The Chef) contributes percussion on a handful of songs.

This Jamaican roots-reggae group, fronted by Kingston born Toots Hibbert, are renowned for writing 54-46 That's My Number, Pressure Drop and Monkey Man. The band gained a second wave of success during the late '70s courtesy of punk-inspired covers from English bands The Clash and The Specials.

This mysterious bootleg album is from the only Lennon/McCartney recording session after the demise of The Beatles. The impromptu jam featured McCartney on drums, Lennon on guitar and a slew of in-and-out guests including Stevie Wonder, Bobby Keys and Jesse Ed Davis.