The Riot Fest Interview: Wil Wagner From The Smith Street Band
This past April, The Smith Street Band released its Jeff Rosenstock-produced fourth album, More Scared of You Than You Are of Me. The group has been known for its passionate fanbase that stretches far beyond its native Melbourne, Australia, driven by frontman/guitarist Wil Wagner’s intensely personal lyrics. Riot Fest spoke to Wagner about the band and its fans, and what it’s like to be huge at home while still being able to play more intimate gigs all over the rest of the world.
How did the band get started? What brought you together?
The band started seven or eight years ago, which was basically off the back of me playing solo shows. I would have been 18 or 19, I guess? I was sort of playing around town, doing punky acoustic stuff and just kind of fell in with the other three guys all pretty naturally through music. Our guitar player Lee released my first solo album and our bass player Fitzy engineered it, and then I met Chris, our drummer at our first set of shows, one of my very early solo shows. We hit it off very quickly and started touring—it all happened organically. We jammed like three times and that’s kind of been our ethos ever since—whether we’re ready or not, play as much as we can, tour as much as we can. Nothing too exciting, kind of your classic “bunch of guys kicking around a pub and get together and start a band”.
What bands are you into?
I’m a massive Springsteen fan—we were originally called Wil Wagner & The Smith Street Band, but it didn’t really make sense because we were a lot more collaborative than that. I didn’t feel comfortable, because everyone puts in equal work and then I get my name in front of the band? Bruce is the biggest one for me, as a human being and a musician.
Around that time, [Against Me’s] Reinventing Axl Rose was one of those records that made me feel like I could start a band, and that is still one of my favorite albums ever. The Weakerthans, The Hold Steady; lots of storytelling, lyrical bands that get heavy and stuff, you know? I was always excited by lyrics first before the music.
The Hold Steady is my favorite band.
Yeah, Craig [Finn, The Hold Steady frontman] came to watch us play in New York and everyone else met him and I walked off. I couldn’t do it. I was too nervous. [laughs] There are a few people I’d be terrified to meet because I admire them so much, he’s definitely one of them. [laughs]
Your SHOWS really remind me of them—especially the fans, BECAUSE IT feelS like they have a stake in the band. Why do you think people cling on to you guys and love you as fully as they do?
I think it’s probably a few things. I think there’s an honest kind of immediacy to my lyrics and in our songwriting in general. We’re pretty down to earth in that way. None of us have lofty ambitions of stardom. I think people relate to that, and a kind of everyman aspect of our music, if that makes sense? I relate to bands that sing about suburban life and cities I’ve never been to, but for some reason it’s so relatable. I feel like I can picture all the characters and the streets they sing about. It draws me to be very devoted to bands.
Especially in Australia. We’ve sort of never blown up and gradually got to the point we are now. We just released our fourth album and a few scattered EP’s through there. We’ve never signed to a big label—we were on a little indie and then we started our own label. I feel like especially in Melbourne, there’s a sense of pride or ownership around us, because we are the kind of shitkickers from the pub who were just like any other band. I feel like we’ve worked very hard and have had a lot of very good luck. We’re now at the point where we’re playing really big rooms and have good spots on festivals in Australia. You see bands that play three shows and then all of the sudden they’re playing to 2,500 people, and one can be jealous and shitty about that. But for us it’s been so natural and gradual. I talk to people after shows who feel very much a part of it and are proud of us. People will come up to us and go “This is my 35th time seeing you. I saw you play for five people at that community center in 2009.”
I’m sort of passionate about that and try to engage with that a lot. I do feel like we belong to everyone. I say that on stage. Just because it’s the four of us—six now in Australia—it’s kind of everyone’s success and journey that we’re on. All of the people in the crowd supported us from the start. If we weren’t the people in the band, we’d be in the crowd. It’s obvious to anyone watching us that we don’t feel above them. We’re just the lucky ones that got to do this, you know?
You sing such intensely personal things in your songs. I’m sure people have to be coming up to you wanting to talk about that. How does that make you feel? Does it make you uncomfortable? Are there things that you won’t sing because they’re too personal?
I kind of go the opposite way—if something makes me too uncomfortable or is too personal, it’s generally good, so I’ll leave it in—possibly to my own detriment.
A lot of people talk to me about their own problems, and how much our music has helped them. It means a hell of a lot to me. They are pretty open about talking about having some mental health issues, I talk to a lot of people about that. I’ve had people come up to me after shows and say they’ve been through any possible traumatic thing you can imagine—all of these life-altering events. Even people in Melbourne will come up to you on the street and say that something horrible in their lives happened and “I listened to your music and it really helped me through everything.” That’s very important and very special to me, especially because I have those bands, [such as] The Weakerthans, [where I] turn to find comfort. As much as it is uncomfortable that I might overshare a lot of stuff with our lyrics, knowing that it helps people through vastly different situations is special to me.
When we were promoting the last album—which is about a pretty traumatic relationship and breakup, and the subsequent collapsing of my mental health after it—I probably did 150 interviews about the album. After about 120 of them I was like “Why did I write about this? Why do I have to keep reliving this horrible year?” [laughs]
Sometimes I wish I could do an interview about fuzz pedals or bands that I like. At the same token, I feel like it’s good for me to sing about [personal emotions]. It’s definitely very therapeutic for me to sing about that stuff, and the amount of people I’ve talked to that we’ve helped is kind of staggering. That always means more to me than a bit of discomfort doing interviews.
What do you read?
I’m actually rereading American Psycho. I read it in high school and I was like “Whoa! Killing!” I didn’t really get the subtext of that book. I really like reading, I don’t get to as much as I’d like to because I struggle to read in the van, and I spend most of my time in the van. But when I’m home, especially because it’s winter and we have a week or so off between things happening, I really like to read.
What’s it like playing huge rooms and having prime festival spots at home in Australia versus club gigs abroad?
I kind of love it. We’re playing staggeringly big rooms [in Australia], compared to the rooms we came from. I really like that we get to do a little of everything. It makes me appreciate the big shows. I don’t feel like “yeah, it’s just another big show.” The shine hasn’t worn off it, I just like playing.
I know that’s a pretty clichéd answer, but I genuinely like playing music so much. By the time we’re one song in, it doesn’t matter if we’re playing to 25,000 people at a festival or 25 people in Nashville. I love playing music with the other guys in the band. The tour we did in Australia, we were playing some of the biggest venues in every city. We had a banner drop, we had a full light setup, it was a big thing. It’s really fun, but it’s almost sort of hard to enjoy because there’s so much going on. It’s quite intense and it can be kind of scary.
The tour we did straight after was through Europe and the U.K. Touring through Europe—playing to 200 people in little squats in Germany and stuff—and having Australians come up to you and go “I saw you at The Forum, and now you’re here!” is fucking cool! It’s really fun. The idea of being a band that plays little club shows, that was my dream growing up. To be able to do that in America, Europe, and everywhere else—to live that dream—and then be able to come back to Australia, and play Splendour in the Grass, which is the biggest festival here, it’s sort of the Coachella down here—was incredible. The photos of how many people were watching us play are unbelievable. The show we played before that was for 80 people in Germany. It’s cool we get to do both things.
I was really moved watching that video of you giving a fan named Daniel one of your guitars at one of your Australian shows. How did that even happen? Was that just just spur of the moment or what?
He’s an actor and that was choreographed. [laughs]
No! We were playing two nights in a row in Brisbane. He was right front and center, and was really crying. [jokingly] I’ve seen a lot of people crying at our shows. That’s very flippant.
No, some do, especially during some songs, because it’s emotional, and that’s awesome. But he was just crying in a visceral way. He obviously was incredibly moved and affected by the show. It was one of those bigger shows—I noticed it, and I was wondering if he was OK. As soon as the set finished, I walked off stage quickly and the show ended. I thought “Ah, fuck, I should have given him a set list or walked down and done something.” But, it was a big venue, I was stressed, and I wasn’t as comfortable as I normally would be to jump off stage and give him a hug. So, we were talking about it after the show, and I was kind of regretful. I wish I could have gotten in touch with him to tell him it was so amazing to see him moved at the show. Then, we played the next night and he was in the same spot!
Halfway through the set I was wondering “Should I give him my guitar?” I was sort of having an argument in my head during the set. It was a guitar that was very special to me. Our tech had just spent hours fixing it up and changing the pickup out. I felt like a bit of a dick for being like “Thanks for doing all that work on this thing! I’m going to give it to this person that none of us know!”
By the end of the night, he was crying again and people had seen him in a video. By the end of the set I said “Ah fuck it, I’m going to give him my guitar.” So, I jumped offstage and gave it to him. I just gave him a big hug, and he said some stuff in my ear that was quite sad and probably personal, that I feel was between us. But I said “Here, you’ve got a guitar now, start a band, this will help.”
Little did I know, he didn’t need it! He’s got a bunch of guitars and a sick band. He started doing press about it afterwards and was getting interviewed by radio stations about it. We were all kind of worried “Oh, I hope he’s not a dickhead and hope he’s a good representation of people who like our band.” But He was just such a beautiful conversationalist on these radio shows and was so genuinely lovely. I was really glad he got that. Then one radio station got in touch and flew him down to the Melbourne show and put him and a friend up in a hotel. I took him backstage and showed him my rig and he was so excited to see my pedals and stuff. It was really special.
He’s actually building me a fuzz pedal that he’s going to send me. It’s really amazing.
You worked with Jeff Rosenstock, who CURRENTLY seems to be taking over the world, on your last two albums. What was that experience like and what did you learn from him?
Working with Jeff was incredible. He’s another of one of my heroes growing up and he’s now one of my very best friends and someone I love very much. I’ve learned a lot working with him—we think about music very differently, in a way that compliments each other. His melodies are incredible. He’s always thinking about harmonies and chord changes and adding notes to songs, whereas I’m thinking dynamics and buildup and loud and quiet. I’ve been working on some new stuff and he and I will be sending each other demos of songs we’ll be working on. I feel like we give each other the same advice every time. I’ll be like “You should drop down and build up in that last verse!” and he’ll be like “You should change the chords up in the second verse!” Being in the studio with him is incredible. He’s a positive force. It’s very hard to have a bad day when you’re working with Jeff Rosenstock. He’s an amazing guy.
You guys are coming BACK TO THE STATES soon. What are you most looking forward to, and what do you plan to do after?
I fly out in like a week. I’m looking forward to playing with Midnight Oil in L.A. at the Greek Theater, which is one of the first shows of the tour. As a music-loving left-wing Australian, they’re kind of the pinnacle of bands. They reached out and asked us to open, and we’re doing a show with them in Melbourne too. That’s going to be pretty fucking amazing. Playing the Greek Theatre is sort of staggering. Then the next day we’re playing the Hi-Hat in L.A. which is a little club.
Really, I’ve been loving playing the new songs. We were touring on Throw Me In The River for two years, and a lot of those songs are worn out by us now. So getting to play the new stuff and getting to see people react and sing along to it is really exciting. We get to do a lot a lot of shows with Astronautalis, who is one of my favorite lyricists. My weed dealer in high school played me his first records when I was like 16, and I’ve been obsessed with him ever since. I’m looking forward to making him be my friend and getting to watch him perform every night, which will be awesome.
Is there anyone you’re looking forward to seeing at Riot Fest?
We’ve never been, and I’m pretty sure we’re playing the Friday and Sunday in other places. I’ve learned the really hard way not to look at festivals and get excited for who I might see, because we are guaranteed to not be playing the same day as them. I got to see Run the Jewels at Leeds. Wu-Tang Clan is playing, so I’m excited to see Wu-Tang. I think everyone is pretty keen on the Jawbreaker reunion. I don’t know, I’ll show up and I’ll see who I know is playing on the day.
The Smith Street Band plays its first ever Riot Fest set on Saturday, September 16th.