They were the first-ever Australian band to hit number one on the triple j Hottest 100.
Their hits have transcended pop and youth culture both here and abroad. They’re still one of the best damn live bands you’ll ever get the chance to see. From the streets of Finley in regional New South Wales to the main stage of Falls and back again, Spiderbait are one of those rare Australian bands that have crossed over from generation to generation and lived to tell the tale. It all began a quarter of a century ago, when those long-haired hopefuls wound up in the big smoke trying to score a gig.
“Our first gig ever was at the Tote in Melbourne,” recalls Mark ‘Kram’ Maher, the band’s drummer and co-lead vocalist, who now calls Byron Bay home. “Wally Kempton, who most people know as Wally Meanie, was booking the venue at the time. We just rocked up to town with our demo in hand and somehow managed to land a gig there. It’s weird, actually – the Tote is one of those venues that’s never really changed. You walk in there now and it’s more or less the exact same as when you walked in there back in 1990. It’s a very punk room with a very small stage, the kind of place where more loose and spontaneous bands could thrive. It suited us so well back then, so it’s funny to think about how we adapted to becoming a band that would play on the main stage of festivals. We were so used to rooms like the Tote. We actually got to play there again a few years back when it was threatened with being shut down, and it felt just like we were starting out again. It felt pretty incredible to go full circle like that.”
Aside from perhaps Wally ‘Gotye’ De Backer, Kram is unquestionably Australian music’s most famous singing drummer. Watching him in the flesh is a true spectacle, as many will attest – think of Animal from The Muppet Show if the little furry guy was also certifiably nailing a high-end wail without missing a beat. It took a lot of practice for Kram to be able to get to that point of seemingly effortless multitasking – something he says he’s glad he stuck with, as it assisted in giving the band a unique angle and a firm identity.
“I’ve pretty much had the same set-up since the band started,” he says. “The mic has always come in from an angle on the left of my hi-hat, so that it doesn’t bleed into the drum mics and is easier to access. The kit itself has definitely changed a fair bit – the kind of kit I get around on now looks pretty heavy metal, actually, which is a lot of fun. I was definitely apprehensive about doing the double duty when I originally started out – I’d done it back in high school, as I was pretty confident in my abilities as a singer and as a drummer, but the bands I was kicking around with back then weren’t nearly as high-energy as what Spiderbait was. It took a bit of getting used to – I think my voice really had to learn how to catch up to the speed of my drumming.”
Spiderbait’s early releases – including their 1991 single, ‘Circle K’, their 1992 debut album Shashavaglava and the even more unpronounceable EP P’tang Yang Kipper Bang-Uh from the same year – were all lo-fi, distortion-heavy and fuelled by both youthful exuberance and punk-tinged brevity. For the band – completed by vocalist/bassist Janet English and lead guitarist Damian ‘Whit’ Whitty – it was all about playing as loudly and as quickly as they humanly could. Their appreciation for songcraft, as it would turn out, wasn’t to come until later on.
“‘Scenester’ was probably the first song that I wrote for the band where it actually had some proper kind of structure,” says Kram with a laugh. “You could actually even call it a song! Most of what we’d done up to writing that song was very jam-heavy. I said before about being unsure of doing the singer/drummer thing, and I think that’s very much reflected in those early tracks – I’d be playing really fast and really crazy, only putting in a few lines of lyrics here and there to kind of give me a moment to catch my breath. The early days of Spiderbait pretty much consisted of me trying not to pass out when we played. I’d like to think we’re a bit better at pacing ourselves these days.”
A lot has happened for Spiderbait in the years since – they scored a huge breakthrough hit with a cover of Leadbelly’s ‘Black Betty’ in 2004, had the lion’s share of their albums score top 20 chart positions and picked up a whopping 19 ARIA nominations, winning two of them along the way. They returned to action in 2013 with a self-titled album and have toured at least once every year since. Next month’s tour, however, will be especially huge in the Spiderbait camp, as the trio are celebrating their 25th anniversary in style, playing some of the rooms they played when first coming to major attention. With Perth hopefuls Tired Lion in tow, Kram is excited to share the band’s history with fans both old and new.
“We’re going to try and change it up every night,” he says. “When you’ve got as much music as us, there’s no way you can stick to just one setlist. We’ve got a lot of people that will be seeing us for the hundredth time, and a lot of people at their first show. We’ll do our best to accommodate to everyone.”
So, with 25 years and counting under their belt, what keeps Spiderbait going after all this time? Kram takes a moment to think about the question, before affirming the bond between himself, English and Whit. For all the things that have changed in the world surrounding Spiderbait since their inception, they’re still the same slacker kids from Finley at heart.
“It’s our friendship, first and foremost,” he says. “We all grew up together in a small town in the middle of nowhere. We all have the same sense of humour, which you have to have in rock’n’roll. It’s an extremely fickle and demoralising business if you take it too seriously. Living by your art can give you lots of ups and downs, but by the same token, it can also be really freeing and really liberating to do. You’re able to express yourself every time you write a song, or sing a song, or play live. It’s all at your fingertips.
“The core of Spiderbait’s whole existence is our friendship. We’re three very different personalities, and we’ve had our tough times. I think that’s why we mesh so well together still, after all this time. We’ve survived any of those sort of obstacles. We’re still the same people and we’re still the same band, whether we’re playing to 20 people or 20,000.”