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Taking the songs of Smith Street to the world

Wil Wagner's band -- born in a Melbourne street, taken to the world -- has many stories to tell, including about the front man's own life, writes Louie Cina.

On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss the Smith Street Band as a hyper-Australian group that just sings songs about getting drunk.


Whilst hyper-Australian may be undeniable, especially given the band’s name is a direct nod to a popular Melbourne street, the last part could not be further from the truth. 


“It’d be easier if we could do a song about partying and we’re cool party dudes, but I’m not a cool party dude,” grins frontman Wil Wagner, reflecting on 15 years of music that has been described as raw, punchy, and hard-hitting.


“I think if we were trying to fake anything, it never would have really worked.” 


Wagner’s charisma and unique stage presence give the band a lofty reputation for their live shows. (Photo: Will Johnstone)


This honesty has defined the band, with their music garnering a large fanbase both domestically, and overseas thanks to lyrics that transcend cultural boundaries, Wagner's charisma and the band’s instantly recognisable Australiana sound. 


It’s been a whirlwind 15 years for the group and Wagner, now married with a young daughter. Before the start of their tour, he joined us to discuss what it’s been like helping redefine the sound of Australian rock, being candid about mental health, playing music all over the world, growing up alongside his fans, and just what the last 15 years have meant to him. 


The Smith St Band formed in 2009, under the name Wil Wagner and the Smith St band, an homage to both Bruce Springsteen and an apartment Wagner was living in on the titular street. A name change, constant national touring, and two critically acclaimed albums later saw the band explode onto the international scene via a slightly unconventional tour of China.


The three-week tour was an experience Wagner describes as equal parts “really crazy and fun”.


Laughing, he recalls playing the opening show of their tour at a venue that had just opened.


“I plugged my guitar into an amp, and a bunch of people had never heard a guitar played through an amp before and turned around like ‘What the fuck was that?'!" 

 

Wagner is fascinated by cultural differences like these -- both in how music is played and in the music itself. “I was really influenced by artists like Billy Bragg, Jamie T, and Frightened Rabbit, all singing in really specific accents about streets they’re walking. I don’t know this specific Tube station [they’re] singing about, but I know Melbourne Central.”


Wagner believes these unique cultural references give lyrics their genuine edge, something constantly on display in the band’s discography. “If you talk about things from an honest place, then it becomes universal because everyone gets the emotion behind it.”


This emotive writing, alongside the production from Jeff Rosenstock, a giant of the American alternative music scene, saw their third album, Throw Me In The River receive massive amounts of praise as the band embarked on tours of North America and Europe. 


The best was yet to come for the group, who in 2016 recorded their fourth studio album, More Scared of You Than You are of Me, something Wagner describes as one of his proudest achievements. “We recorded at Stinson Beach in California … and when we finished recording, I sat on a bench overlooking the ocean and I just cried … the fact I’m here is crazy and listening to this thing here with these people that I love.”


On the band’s achievements, Wagner says that the group still being intact, especially after COVID is “a pretty big achievement”.


During the pandemic, the band released two albums and played alongside the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra, reworking several of their songs in a show that was broadcast on Triple J.



Wil Wagner playing with the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: Will Johnstone)


But what motivates a band to keep going after 15 years?


For Wagner, it’s in part because songwriting isn’t just a job, it’s cathartic. "That’s why I started, long after the band’s done, I’ll still be doing it, I love it.” 


The sharing of lived experiences is important for Wagner and the band.


“I think it’s so important to talk about things, for me I talk a lot about mental health … I’m always going to be able to write about that. I’m experienced, I know the language, it matters to me a lot. And when other people talk about it, it resonates with me because that’s my lived experience.”


Lived experience dominates much of the band’s catalogue, noticeably their single Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face.


“I wrote [the] song after seeing a girl in a hijab walking through Federation Square and someone said something to her. I got so incensed by that that I sat down right there and wrote something on my phone.”


The track lambasts then prime minister Tony Abbott and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers. 





Protest songs are often criticised for their tokenism, a way for artists to show they’re trying to drive change without doing anything meaningful, something Wagner is aware of.


“We aren’t going to be the ones to change the world,” he says, citing candid advice Billy Bragg once gave him. “If we can provide ten minutes of escape for someone who is doing a really important thing, that’s actually our job.”


It's a job Wagner doesn’t take for granted --- as evidenced as he stood on stage during the Melbourne leg of the band’s 15th-anniversary tour, thanking the crowd repeatedly, and talking about how privileged he was to play and work with such talented people. 


 “Music has brought me everything, it’s brought me all my friends, it’s how I met my wife, it’s how I have this beautiful baby girl now… I don’t know who or where I’d be if I didn’t have music.” He says, grinning, before changing the topic to his second favourite subject, football. 





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