Q&A: Chris Cowburn, The Smith Street Band

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Photo courtesy of Remedy

The Smith Street Band, an Australian group from the rich music scene of Melbourne, has worked their way up through years of building an international network of fellow musician friends and gaining recognition in Australia and abroad. After putting out their first LP five years ago, frontman Wil Wagner and the group became a full-time touring band and has not looked back since.

This week, the band started a month-long North American tour with some good friends and a few bands they have never met before. Hard Girls, an American band out of San Jose, will be with them the whole way through as additional acts join up along their travels. The Smith Street Band’s drummer, Chris Cowburn, took some time before the tour to talk about the band’s experience and influences, as well as what they hope to bring with them to the DC9 show on March 31.


WRGW: What is the Melbourne music scene like for bands in the area?

Cowburn: It’s a really tightknit community over here and it’s really cool to go out to small shows out at bars in Fitzroy or Collingwood or wherever and meet people and learn how the bands and the worlds connect. For example, there’s a band on Poison City Records, on our label, called Batpiss. They’re like a pretty heavy [band] and Thomy Sloane, who plays in that band, is the brother of Bones, Courtney Barnett’s bass player. You know, that’s just one example.

Once you really dig into it, everyone knows each other and it’s really fun. It’s an awesome thing to see a band, or someone like Courtney, who has come from our little part of the world, and she’s just taking over the world.

I remember first seeing her play and it was probably like five years ago. It was in a tiny little bar to probably about like 20 people. And to see what she does now, it’s just incredible.


WRGW: For the band, it seems the city is a theme in a lot of what you do, most obviously in the name. Does Smith Street, in Melbourne, have a special meaning to you?

Cowburn: Yeah, it totally does. So it is the Smith Street that borders Collingwood and Fitzroy. That bar that I was talking about that I saw Courtney play at, it was called the Blue Tile Lounge, and she actually worked behind the bar there, that was on Smith Street. And yeah, the reason specifically for the name “The Smith Street Band” was based around a pub and hotel on the other end of Smith Street, on the corner of Smith and Johnston, called the Birmingham Hotel, which is where Wil used to live.

It was when Wil was probably 17 or 18, playing a lot of solo shows and that was where he lived when the band got its start. A lot of the songs from the first album, No One Gets Lost [Anymore], were written while he was living there and it was just a really cool time. It was when we sort of met each other and met a lot of our friends. We started to play shows in bands and we were all young and excited and enjoying hanging out around that area because, as I’m sure you know, there are so many good bars and shows and all of the stuff that happens around that area. Maybe it’s not so much anymore, it’s starting to become a little more gentrified unfortunately. But even as short of a time as five years ago, it was a really thriving scene.

That area is really, I’d say, basically the hub of Melbourne’s punk, rock, indie music community. That’s where it lives. So to be named after that area is pretty cool.


WRGW: The band seems to be very deeply invested in and inspired by music and life, which comes through in the band’s music. What inspires the songs you play and what are some other bands or artists you love?

Cowburn: Do you want me to answer this one personally or from Wil’s point of view because they are very different? Actually, maybe they aren’t that different. I’ve always been inspired by singer-songwriters and I suppose that’s what drew me to Wil’s music in the first place. Having some sort of connection with what someone has to say is generally more important for me than the music itself.

People that I have connected with range from anything like Paul Kelly, who’s a famous Australian songwriter, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello then to like punk music when I was a teenager that had a political message. I was really into The Bouncing Souls that had more of a message, like Wil I guess, about growing up within society.

That’s definitely how I came to fall in love with Wil’s music and Wil’s songwriting. The first time I heard it, the first time I saw him play—the way he writes songs and the way he carries himself is so full of emotion and so raw and it has the ability to speak with honesty in his lyrics and in everyday life, not a lot of people do. It’s really rare to be able to voice yourself with such [raw] honesty. I think any musician who can voice that and convey that really well is what’s cool and what inspires me.


WRGW: You are taking on a tour of the continent in just one month. What are your hopes for the U.S. shows and what do you expect?

Cowburn: I think this is the fifth time we’ve been to the U.S., but it’s basically the first time that we’ve done a headline tour, like our own shows.

Those tours [supporting other bands] are great because they’re really fun and there’s no pressure. It’s someone else’s show. You get to play in front of a lot of people every night. These [headlining] bands are really popular. Whereas, this [tour] is scary because who knows who’s going to come. But that’s exciting as well.

Yeah, we don’t really know what to expect. The only barometer we have is we did a headline show in Brooklyn on the last tour with The Front Bottoms and it was great. There were a bunch of people there and we had the best time and it was really fun.


WRGW: What are you looking forward to on your D.C. stop?

Cowburn: Apart from the obvious stuff, the White House and stuff you hear about, I know nothing about D.C. I guess like, Fugazi is from D.C.


WRGW: Yeah, there was, and in some ways still is, a large punk scene in D.C. Another thing that we have a lot of in the springtime are squirrels, which I don’t think you have many of in Australia.

Cowburn: Awesome. Well, there you go. Punk rock and squirrels: my two favorite things. It’s going to be fun.


WRGW: The band recently released a single called, “Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face” and it seems in line with what you said about having a message in music. It is a political song that Wil spoke about to Melbourne students briefly on stage when you performed last year. Can you talk a little more about this?

Cowburn: I guess the main push of that single, the Tony Abbott single, was around [Australia’s] asylum seeker policy. I’m not really sure exactly what Wil said on that day. But it was something really important for us to stand up and voice our opinion about and I guess to be able to voice it to a bunch of uni students, intelligent young people who hopefully have the power to do something about changing the way, in particular in this case, the refugee policies were, but you know any number of policies that our country puts forth, I think that’s really important.

I think bands, and us personally in this case, we weren’t and we aren’t the most knowledgeable people on the issue and we don’t have the most facts and figures on the asylum seeker policy but to be in a band and to have a voice to young people in particular and to put forth your ideas in particular about something that you have a lot of discontent for is a pretty precious thing. So to be able to get people talking about all sorts of issues is fairly important to us and this one, the refugee issue and the Tony Abbott issue, was particularly important to us around that time.

In general, if bands can speak their voice on opinions that they are passionate about then they should because it’s the young people of any country that are going to be able to change it.


WRGW: Are you working on any new material?

Cowburn: In terms of a new record, we’re deep in the throes of writing one right now so we don’t know when we’re going to record and we don’t know when it’s going to come out at this point. But we have a bunch of songs written. Maybe, hopefully, we’ll play one or two of those when we come over to the States.

For the last five years that the band has been around, we have released something every year and put a lot of pressure on ourselves to release new music. I think right now we’re all just like taking a bit of a step back from that and taking a little bit more time and being a bit more precise or considerate with things.

And it’s nice to just chill out and not have to stress about it too much. It’s been a hectic few years so just taking it easy.


WRGW: It will be great to see you here in D.C.

Cowburn: It’ll be cool to come over and play some good old sweaty pub shows.


Interview conducted by Everly Jazi.

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