Melbourne’s morbid country exponents Graveyard Train haven’t turned their back on horror for new album Hollow, they’ve just worked out that everyday human frailties are every bit as scary as zombies or monsters. Frontman Nick Finch tells Steve Bell about embracing death and mortality.
Anybody with even a vague eye on the Australian music scene would by now be conscious of Melbourne dark country overlords Graveyard Train, even if they're just peripherally aware of them as that band with the strange instruments – plenty of bands have used washboards in the past, but who hits a hammer with a chain? – and football terrace gang vocals, singing depraved songs about things that go bump (and worse) in the night. They've become a prominent force on the live scene with their creepy aesthetic and gang mentality, but until now – despite having two solid albums under their collective belts – they haven't really transferred this success into the recorded realm.
That's all about to change, however, with the release of their third album, Hollow. It's a marked change for the band, denser and heavier on a sonic level and lyrically less reliant on the monsters and ghouls that plagued their previous work and more focussed on the aspects of day-to-day life that are the most frightening: primarily death, mortality and the incumbent fears of just being alive. So it's still very much a Graveyard Train record, just one that strikes a little bit closer to home.
“It's a lot different to our earlier stuff – we've changed a bit I think, just for this record,” affable guitarist, vocalist and chief songwriter Nick Finch concedes. “We didn't rationalise anything beforehand. We've been playing with a drummer since the last record [2010's The Drink, The Devil And The Dance] came out – when that came out we didn't have a drummer and we've had drums since then, so that's changed our sound a bit. And we've been playing live so much and we get so fucking into it when we're live that it made us feel like we needed to put more steroids into the songs or something. So it's just like a natural progression. Josh (Crawley) the banjo player got a bit bored with his banjo so he's been toying around with the electric guitar over the last year, so that came into it a fair bit as well. It was just where we're all at at the moment and it just came out a bit more stompy and heavy than the last one. Less strings and trumpets and more telecaster.”
The band's relentless touring ethic meant that they hadn't had much chance to work on new material leading into the recording session. But once they had the date in their diaries, those creative juices began to flow again and in a more collaborative way than in the past.
“In a songwriting sense I went through a bit of a drought maybe a year-and-a-half ago, because we were just touring so much and when you get home from a big tour, the last thing you want to do is pick up a big guitar, you just want to fuckin' curl up on the couch and cry and wish I was in an office job,” Finch laughs. “But we decided that it was time to put out an album, so we set a date and took all of these little niggling ideas we had into a rehearsal room and turned them into songs and finished them all off. A bunch of the songs on the album were written in the last six months, knowing that there's an album to record. It's just the way we work; it's definitely the way I work. I work better with a deadline or I just get lazy and want to watch TV.
“I didn't [bring as many completed songs to the table] this time – that happened a fair bit more in the early days. A lot of them we really just jammed out in a rehearsal room, which we hadn't done much before – because we tour so much we never really get to rehearse, we just sort of rehearse on the stage, so because we actually took three months off touring and made sure that we got into the rehearsal room twice a week, we just had fun developing the songs together. So there's a bit more band input on this album as opposed to the other ones, which is probably why it's so heavy and weird, but also why it's so simple – it's quite a simple live-sounding album. We didn't worry about heaps of overdubs and strings and all that sort of stuff because we just wanted it to be a representation of where the band is now, playing live. Just us.”
Bands with a renowned stage presence often find it hard to capture this camaraderie on tape in the studio, but Finch claims that Graveyard Train had no such concerns when it came to record the songs for Hollow.
“It's pretty fun. In the studio we set up to do it as live as possible – we kind of feed off each other's energy – so we don't really do much of that overdubby U2 thing. We set up as much as we can in the studio to be like we are onstage, just so we can get good takes with a lot of energy in there. And I guess booze helps to get a bit of vibe in there,” he guffaws. “But it was fun: with the camaraderie, this album we spent seven days in the studio and we were kind of locked in there and did nothing else for seven days, just hung out together and we all went a bit crazy, but we really remained mates and we all had a really good time doing it. I think beforehand we were all a bit worried, because we've toured so much and when you spend so much time with guys there's always obviously ups and downs and stuff. It's like a permanent Christmas lunch situation – it's fun and everyone looks forward to it, but everyone gets a bit drunk and narky. But we all had a really great time as friends in the studio, which made it a lot more fun than hating each other and trying to stomp on each other's heads.
“Beau [Skowron – vocals/dobro] and myself are always trying to get a bit more Phil Spector-y and trying to get a bit more production stuff going on – we love strings and trumpets and getting all that crazy stuff on there. But I think going into this recording, we as a band wanted to try and just make it 'us', make it raw and Graveyard Train-y – all the overdubs and keyboards we'll do ourselves – so going into recording an album knowing that, everyone was on the same page and we all did it... The next one's going to be full of strings, harps, pianos, children's choirs – I'm going to go fucking bananas I reckon.”
The lyrics throughout Hollow are still perversely dark and macabre, but there are less of your typical horror tropes and more reflections on the sort of dark realities that people try and deflect attention from in their everyday lives.
“Yeah, definitely,” Finch concurs. “Part of it is that we ran out of all those typical horror monsters and stuff, but also I've kind of been thinking a lot – not that I should – but I've been thinking a lot about death and I guess part of this album is about the horror of being human and the human condition. Songs about not having a soul and doomsday cults, we've gone less for the monster type of horror and more just the fucking horror inherent in the fact that everybody's going to die – your life will end. Which is far more scary than a zombie or a vampire I think – it's a bit more subtle and a bit more grown up for Graveyard Train, but in the end it's far scarier than all of the older stuff.”
On paper that all seems very disturbing and not something you'd be keen to delve into in your spare time, but fortunately – on top of the excellent, timeless music alleviating the mood – there's a sly sense of humour in the Graveyard Train armoury that transcends the songs' often heavy subject matter.
“Yeah I guess so – hopefully it's not some sort of morose, suicidal thing,” Finch grins. “We have heaps of fun as a band and we're all kind of pretty light-hearted dudes, despite the fact that I'm always thinking about death. I guess there's a humour and light-heartedness that comes through and there's some pretty sweet, nice country stuff on there as well – it's not all doomy music. I guess you've got to have the humour with the horror: it's a really fine line and you have to walk a tightrope between being a Goth band and not. But it's a fun band – I think that's why we've stuck together for so long. Everything about it is fun: we all sing – everybody singing together is fun – and the stupid fucking instruments and the whole kinda nonsense of Graveyard Train, it's just a fun thing to be a part of and that's why we're still here. We've been together four years. You get less time for manslaughter...”
According to frontman Nick Finch, the formula that makes up the unique Graveyard Train sound was concocted partly by inspiration and partly by dumb luck.
“Finding the right members for the band was a bit of a lucky accident, but with the concept of the band – a whole bunch of guys onstage making a big ruckus and singing horror country music – it just happened to be that the band members all happened to be at the same pub at the same time when the idea was formed,” he recalls. “Adam [Johansen – hammer/chain] and Matt [Andrews – washboard] have no prior musical experience really. They were just barflies at a pub who went, 'That sounds good, I'll be in the band!' That's why they play hammer and a chain and a fucking washboard. So it was a real lucky accident in that sense – and they can sing, which helps.”
Is Finch concerned that the novelty value of such instrumentation might override the actual music that they produce?
“I don't really worry about it. I'm sure that some people don't take us very seriously, which is fine because for the most part we don't take ourselves very seriously. He does play a hammer and chain – it's pretty fucking ridiculous. There's not very much highbrow about that. We've got some pretty great fans and I hope that that's because they think that there's some substance there – it's not just Adam's biceps from wielding that hammer and chain all the time. Although I'd probably go and watch a band just to watch a guy play a hammer. It's really hard to play – as much shit as I give to him, it's amazing that he can keep doing that for a whole gig; he's a pretty strong dude. He's gone through a few hammers; the wood wears away and you get to this point where it's, like, 'Dude, that is going to kill someone! Go and get another fucking hammer!' And of course now he's got this crazy expensive taste in hammers, he'll go to Bunnings and want like the Fender of hammers, he'll be going, 'But it sounds better!' and we're, like, 'Fuck off, it's a fucking hammer!' It's ridiculous.”