It’s around 5pm on a Saturday afternoon.
The University of Wollongong, usually a bustling metropolis unto itself, is mostly a ghost town today – partly because it’s a weekend, but more to do with the ungodly amount of rain that is hurtling down from the sky at a rapid rate. The only people in the UniBar – which on any other day of the week is the social centre of the university – are a couple of staff members, a sound engineer and Wil Wagner, the lead singer and chief songwriter of Melbourne’s pub rock heroes turned theatre-fillers The Smith Street Band.
Wagner is off in his own world, soundchecking for his headline solo show later this evening, strumming the same two chords over and over. He steps up to the mic, and his endgame becomes clear: he’s covering ‘Shivers’, the famously heartbroken anthem penned by the late, great Rowland S. Howard and performed by The Boys Next Door, the band that elevated both Howard and a young Nick Cave on their way to cult stardom. Wagner sighs out the song’s morose opening lyrics, his body in a gentle sway.
I’ve been contemplating suicide
But it really doesn’t suit my style
So I guess I’ll just act bored instead
And contain the blood I woulda shed.
Out the front, Chris Bosma – the perennial Smith Street Band tour manager, merch booth stocker, van driver, gopher and keeper-awayer, known almost exclusively by his last name – is marvelling at the song’s craftwork. “He was, like, 18 when he wrote that,” he says in between drags of his cigarette. A pause for thought. “Actually, maybe even younger.”
Bosma’s words hangs in the air as Wagner exudes the song’s “down my spi-yi-ine” refrain. It cuts abruptly short once the sound engineer has the levels sorted in the mix. “Too easy,” Wagner says. He stifles a nervous giggle before immediately returning to his normal self.
Wil Wagner live at Oxford Art Factory (photo: Ashley Mar)
Watching Wagner in action in an otherwise empty venue sets off two separate trains of thought. The first is how long Wagner has been in this game, and how young he was when he started. His debut album, Us Boys Run, was released independently in 2008 when Wagner was all of 18, and included a fair amount of songs written when the Melbourne native was even younger. The second is how so many of Wagner’s songs – much like Howard’s – come from a place of darkness, despair and hopelessness.
Nearly a decade on from his first release, these themes are still very much part of what Wagner – who formed The Smith Street Band to back him in 2010 – does as a songwriter. Howard had “I’ve been contemplating suicide,” Wagner has “When I said that I wanted to die, I meant it.” For a time there, Wagner could go pound for pound and line for line with any miserabilist you could find. With the impending release of The Smith Street Band’s fourth studio album, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, Wagner has gone from being firmly lodged in a place of despair to enjoying perhaps his strongest mindset and outlook in years.
“For about two years, I was really a mess,” he says. “We’re talking from 2015 to about late last year.” He’s now speaking over dinner at Saray, the Turkish restaurant at the top of Enmore Road in Newtown, before another solo set opening for American indie-pop singer Frankie Cosmos. “I was never sober, never happy… I was close, y’know? I was as bad as I’ve ever been. We were so busy touring that I had no time to do anything about it – I was just putting Band-Aids on these huge issues.
“Since we made the record, I got it all out of my system. We started our own thing with Pool House [Records]. I’ve got a really good psychologist now, who I can call whenever I need to and Skype with if I’m on tour. Chris [Cowburn, the band’s drummer and co-runner of Pool House] was the first person that I shared my bipolar diagnosis with, and the first thing he said was, ‘It looks good on you.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He explained that I looked so much healthier and so much happier than I did a month ago. It was true. Being honest, being vulnerable, being uncomfortable – it all helps.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s go part by part. Firstly, Wagner’s mental health decline can be – at least to a point – traced to a major relationship breakdown that came in the first quarter of 2016. In fact, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me more or less follows that relationship from its beginnings to its demise. Wagner understandably declines to directly mention the other party by name. Think of it like the ambiguity behind Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’, albeit running a little deeper than apricot scarves and clouded coffee.
“It’s basically a concept album about a relationship that I can’t talk about,” Wagner says. “It’s tough. Then again, pretty much allof my albums are concept albums about my most recent relationship. This one just happens to be a little more public. It’s not even legal reasons that I can’t talk about this relationship outside of the music – it’s personal. It’s very personal.”
It’s suggested, half in jest, that More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is essentially Wagner’s own Blood On The Tracks, perhaps Bob Dylan’s most famous break-up album. “It kind of fucking is!” Wagner replies with a slightly exasperated laugh. “I think it was always going to be. I don’t think that anyone that’s ever been in a relationship with me has ever been that surprised that I end up writing super personal love songs while I’m in that relationship – and then super scathing ones when it ends. I think the difference is that it’s always been [an] internal sort of scathing on previous records.
“With this record, it’s kind of the first time that there’s been anger directed at someone else. It’s the first time I’ve had the confidence to be able to say, ‘It’s kind of your fault,’ y’know? ‘My therapist says so, so does my support group – and they’ve got no reason to be pissing in my pocket.’ So I don’t know if that’s because I have more self-belief and I’m less insecure, or it’s because…”
There’s a pause. Not a prolonged one, but just long enough to assert the reticence that comes with Wagner’s completed sentence. He continues, albeit slightly quieter, as if telling a secret: “…or it’s because I’m right.” Another pause. “It’s a weird thing to say. It doesn’t feel natural.”
Of course, listeners will have the chance to judge for themselves when More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me hits shelves – a moment Wagner awaits with both excitement and the usual anxiety. Recording for the album – which took place in California through 2016 with producer Jeff Rosenstock, an acclaimed punk singer-songwriter in his own right – wrapped up approximately six months ago, but a few major changes in regards to the band’s musical home resulted in its release being pushed back to 2017.
This brings us to the second point: The Smith Street Band are now at the helm of (and signed to) Pool House Records, a new independent label. After being part of Melbourne’s Poison City Records for nearly their entire lifespan, it was announced in conjunction with the release of the album’s lead single, ‘Death To The Lads’, that Wagner and co. were venturing out on their own – both a massive risk and an exciting new opportunity for a band that has never lost sight of the DIY ethos.
“We made it official about halfway through tracking the album,” Wagner says. “We’d been talking about it forever, though. It feels like it’s a quite natural progression for us. It felt like it was the right time. If we had started making this record and everyone was only feeling kind of OK about it, maybe we wouldn’t have taken such a big risk. When we were making this record, though, we all knew that we wanted to back it 100 per cent. It’s us, y’know? We want to start a community. We want to be what we’ve always wanted to be.”
Talk turns to how The Smith Street Band were instrumental in bringing Poison City to a wider audience, taking bands associated with the label from dive bars and pubs to major theatres and clubs across the country. Wagner explains that, while he and the rest of the band will be forever indebted to the work done by their former label, there came a time when an executive decision had to be made in the best interests of both parties.
“I look back on those days when the first album came out [2011’s No One Gets Lost Anymore] and those first few Weekenders [Poison City’s annual music festival] as some of the best times of my life,” he says. “Bands like us, A Death In The Family, The Bennies, Luca Brasi – they all helped to shape that initial community surrounding Poison City. In a lot of ways, that community has kind of disbanded – some bands aren’t playing any more, some people have moved on, some are doing other things. With Pool House, I feel like we’re trying to get that magic back. What inspired us to start Pool House is what inspired me to be on Poison City in the first place. The camaraderie, the inclusivity, people working hard and making music. It couldn’t be more influenced by Poison City.”
Lastly – and perhaps most pertinently – we arrive at an issue Wagner has only felt comfortable talking about in the last few months. In fact, the songwriter had never acknowledged his bipolar diagnosis publicly until the very night that begins this story – standing onstage hundreds of kilometres from home, talking openly about the disorder in a room filled mostly with strangers. It’s while he’s introducing ‘It Kills Me To Have To Be Alive’ from the new album – one of the most bare, honest and emotionally draining songs Wagner has ever penned.
Make plans for birthdays
That I don’t care if I celebrate
I’m sorry that I can’t be
What everybody wants from me
I do not feel that I am loved
And I do not reach out enough
I’ll let this all fall down around me.
It’s so forthright that no one in the front row is looking directly at him. One fan is even suppressing tears, lips quivering from the restraint. “That song’s brutal,” Wagner says exhaustively afterwards. “It’s almost embarrassing how brutal that song is – I mean, I’m literally crying in the vocal take. I kept thinking that the lyrics were just too much, but it’s what I was feeling.
“It was pretty silent in the band room when I played it to the rest of the guys. Afterwards, Chris came up and was quietly like, ‘…You all good?’ The thing is, we’ve spent the last five years living in one another’s pockets. We know everything about one another, and there’s a real trust there. When I was finished recording it, I felt so empowered. I was so inspired by what we’re doing.”
Wagner goes on to say that his newfound openness surrounding bipolar stems in part from the openness that comes with writing such autobiographical songs to begin with. “I’ve got to be honest with people. I’ve been going to therapy on and off for about 13 years. I can remember it all the way back to my first year of high school, which came with a diagnosis. I’ve had a few different ones over the years, but the general consensus seems to be that it’s bipolar.
“I’m very passionate about breaking the stigma that comes with mental health. Every time I’ve said something about it onstage, I’ve had people come up to me after shows and tell me how much it meant to them for me to say it. They’re going through the same thing a lot of the time, and it makes them feel better. I know how much it means that I’m saying it, even if it can be embarrassing to talk about. So often, people belittle these things and demonise them. What I want to show people is basically, ‘I’m up here, doing all these great things – and I also have this thing that you might have too. Look at all these people that support me – they’re going to support you as well.’
“That’s Poison City. That’s Pool House. That’s everything.”
The Smith Street Band (photo: Ian Laidlaw)
Wagner’s Wollongong show comes as part of a solo tour alongside three fellow singer-songwriters – Laura Stevenson of American indie rock band Laura Stevenson and The Cans, Lucy Wilson of Melbourne soul outfit The Sugarcanes, and Iona Cairns of English punk band Shit Present. The tour has been going well, with attentive and supportive crowds across the board. Tonight, however, doesn’t go off entirely without a hitch. While the backstage toilet is in use, Wagner ventures out into the venue to use the public one. On his way there, he is yelled at by a drunken fan who attempts to grab him and corner him in order to get his attention. It shakes Wagner, who is already having an off mental health day, and nearly derails him entirely.
“There are 100 ways to meet me,” he later tweets through the official Smith Street Band account. “If you barge into [me] backstage or grab me when I’m trying to walk to the bathroom it makes me v[ery] uncomfortable.” Later, he adds: “…I’m a fragile and anxious person who sometimes needs their own space.”
A few weeks removed from the incident, Wagner is not fazed by it – rather, he takes the opportunity to discuss his love for the majority of the band’s fans.
“For every one person that yells out ‘shoey’ in between every song or sneaks backstage without permission wanting to shotgun a beer, there’s 100 people that come up quietly and tell me that they like my band. That counters it all out. I could never complain about my position in life. Look at me – I’m a weird, manically depressed fucking loser. I could never complain about how lucky I’ve been. I’d rather be sad and anxious and then go out and play music about it than be sad and anxious and then go work in an office.”
One fan who has had a massive impact on Wagner is Jakson Mills, a 21-year-old uni student who lives in Canberra. Mills studies politics and international relations, and is in Wollongong for the fourth of five shows on Wagner’s solo tour, having attended in Brisbane, Byron Bay and Newcastle the previous three nights. In Newcastle, Mills met up with Wagner to share something very important: his brand new Smith Street tattoo. Taking up the top half of his right arm, it’s an artwork that incorporates elements from the covers of the three Smith Street Band albums up to this point – No One Gets Lost Anymore, 2012’s Sunshine & Technology and 2014’s Throw Me In The River. Wrapped around it are lyrics from ‘It’s Alright, I Understand’.
Stop living day to day
Night to night
Dream to dream.
“He was pretty gobsmacked,” Mills laughs. “He was just staring at it for something like two or three minutes – all he said was, ‘Wow.’ You could see how stoked he was that something he’d done was now on me permanently.”
Mills – who discovered The Smith Street Band with the release of their 2013 EP Don’t Fuck With Our Dreams – wanted to get the tattoo in order to show thanks to the band for being there in a time of need, and is incredibly proud to share its story with anyone who asks.
“Music’s always been a really big thing for me,” he explains. “I’ve been playing instruments since I was about ten years old, and all the tattoos I have are music-related in one way or another. The Smith Street Band came along at a time that was really shaping me as a person, so I wanted to get something to commemorate that. The thing with Wil’s lyrics is that there’s just so many, and it’s really hard to pick just one to go with out of context.
“I knew I had to go visual with it. I saw an artist called Chris Costa do an etching based on the song ‘It’s Alright, I Understand’, and I thought it was really cool – I definitely knew that I wanted to do something similar to that. I just wanted to get something to kind of thank the band for getting me through a really tough time.”
It’s not the first tattoo story from this tour, either. Whether it’s a reference to The Smith Street Band’s artwork or one of their lyrics, more and more fans are committing themselves to the band on a permanent basis.
“I played in Fremantle recently, and these three guys came up to me after I’d played,” says Wagner. “They all had ‘TSSB’ tattooed on their ankles, and the first guy just burst into tears the second that he saw me. He gave me this big hug, and I’m there just trying to console him – ‘It’s alright, it’s alright.’ He starts saying, ‘You have no idea – your music saved my life.’
“That conversation has added on a decade on to the time I will spend playing music. I could not understand more where those words come from. That’s me with The Weakerthans. That’s me with Bruce Springsteen – if I ever met Bruce in person, I would straight up cry my eyes out. I’m not in any way comparing myself to Springsteen, of course – I’m just saying that I get it. Having people come up and say that stuff is meaningful on so many levels. It’s rewarding and beautiful. I appreciate it a lot.”
More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me
It’s just after 8pm in the surrounds of Newtown Social Club. Despite having been delayed getting into Sydney, Wagner is much calmer and more relaxed than at his Wollongong show. He happily chats away with a small group of people in front of the stage – including Mills, who once again has made the trip up from Canberra. Soon after, Wagner’s new partner arrives, softening his mood even further. During his set, Wagner invites up a couple, Peter and Carissa, who know all the words to his songs in ASL sign language and have earned the nickname of The Smith Street Hands. Despite him throwing a very new Smith Street song at them – More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me’s second single ‘Birthdays’ – they absolutely ace it. Later on, he even joins Frankie Cosmos onstage to make Tim Tam slammers – the Australian invention that takes a glass of milk and replaces a drinking straw with the humble biscuit. Tonight, Wagner is less Rowland S. Howard and more like his friends in The Bennies – not to their extreme, naturally, but just enough that it’s noticeable.
The importance of the Inner West of Sydney as a musical location isn’t lost on Wagner. Up the road from Newtown Social Club is the Town Hall Hotel, where Wagner sweated through more than his fair share of either boozy or hungover solo sets. Across the way is the Factory Theatre, a venue The Smith Street Band have comfortably filled on a few consecutive national tours. Somewhere in the middle of it all stands the Enmore Theatre, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious live venues. Wagner first played there solo – a shaking, nervous wreck – opening for Courtney Barnett. In May, a month and a half after the release of the new album, The Smith Street Band will headline there for the very first time alongside Joyce Manor, Ceres and Allison Weiss. With the same incredulity and self-aware surprise that came with Wagner saying “I’m right”, he says of the Enmore show: “We’re ready.”
“Of course, I’m terrified,” he clarifies. “But it’s the same with every show – I mean, fuck, I’m terrified to play Newtown Social Club. The big one for me on this tour is going to be the Forum [Theatre in Melbourne]. That’s where I saw Sufjan Stevens. That’s where I saw Arcade Fire. That’s where I saw Neutral Milk Hotel. The fact that the venue even entertained the idea of us playing there in the email that we sent is just so incredible. It means so much.
“We’ve played a significant amount of shows as a band – I want to say in the thousands. When we step onstage at the Enmore, that’s every Black Wire Records show. Every Jura Books show. Every show at the Townie, the Sando, the Annandale, the Metro… it’s going to be so special. The fact it’s a tour we booked ourselves for an album we’re releasing ourselves, playing with these acts that are our friends, means the world to me. It’s the most amazing feeling – and I want that feeling for every single person that comes to any of these shows. I owe that feeling to them.
“I remember when we first played the Corner [Hotel in Melbourne] back in 2013. I was crying at the end of it, honestly asking myself how things could possibly get any better. Every single year, it does. I want these shows to be full of justification, catharsis, therapy, happiness, pride – I want that to be felt by everyone. Because we are everyone. We’re not fancy people that are above our station. We’re underdogs. We’re shitkickers. This wasn’t supposed to be us. It was supposed to be far more handsome bands with better singers who write three-and-a-half-minute songs about partying, not five-minute songs about manic depression. Everyone who has listened to and seen this band is just as responsible for getting us to where we are as any of us in the band.”
The Newtown Social show is over. Most of the sold-out crowd has shuffled downstairs and into the night. The Smith Street Hands are by the stairwell, explaining that they travel all the way from Bowral in the Southern Highlands to come to Wagner’s shows. “We learn [the songs] on the train,” says Peter. They’re now trying to learn one of the new songs – ‘Laughing (Or Pretending To Laugh)’, the closer on More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me. The song, while not resolute or definitive in its findings, ends the album on a positive note following a brief fling Wagner had somewhere in New York City. It’s a song about starting over, accepting yourself and coming to terms with the fact that you are not always your own worst enemy.
With his best friends backing him, Wil Wagner is learning how to be himself all over again. He’s still scared – he probably always will be – but he knows there’s enough people out there to be scared together with. His bandmates. His partner. His mates. Every single person who has told him The Smith Street Band saved their life.
As he grabs his guitar and schleps off into the night to eat pizza and hang out with some friends, there’s only one thing left for Peter and Carissa to work out: how do you do ASL for a lyric like “piece of shit”?
Main photo: Ian Laidlaw
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