Wil Wagner and the Snowball that is the Smith Street Band

-by Patrick Smith

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you will have heard of The Smith Street Band, and chances are you are familiar with the brutally honest voice of Wil Wagner. Armed with a suburban Australian upbringing and the usual early adult troubles of a Melbournian, Wil writes some of the most stunningly honest and relatable lyrics you are likely to hear in rock’n’roll. The Smith Street Band have just recently wrapped up a tour around the States, a hectic schedule of touring their third and most successful release to date, Throw Me In The River.

When I chatted to Wil he was still beaming with excitement. “It was our first headliner in the US. There where so many dates and we went to all the bigger cities…it was crazy! I’m smiling just thinking about it”.

The band has essentially been touring the album non-stop since it’s release almost two years ago, but hitting the major cities of Australia one more time was never going to be a worry. “Fuck yeah, touring is the best! It’s why we started playing music in the first place. The first thing people ask me is how do you tour so much. And I reply how do you work a job so much? What is the other option? I could have a job or try and play enough shows to live off that. It’s such a fun way to live your life I don’t know why anyone would live any other way”.

And how does the band’s health fare after such a long tour? “Once you’ve toured as much as we do, you get a lot better at picking your battles. You know, maybe a Wednesday in Tampa, Florida we will keep a lid on it.”

“It will be hard on this upcoming tour with Luca Brasi though, those guys don’t fuck around!”

Wil’s lyrics are often very direct in their description of places and things, especially around Melbourne. It’s one of the reasons Australia has fallen in love with Smith Street, their very referencing their habitual performances on one of Melbournes most iconic streets. But how do the American crowds react to these specific references? “They probably don’t get it. But that’s sort of the point. I listen to lots of rap and hip hop and they’re constantly referencing things but you find you own meaning in things you know? If you write about a specific place or a specific person people can still relate that to a moment or a person in their life”

“And also I just think they think it’s funny. When I get on stage and say ‘how ‘ya goin’ I think most of the crowd laughs!”

Wil’s lyrics seem to have developed over the course of three studio albums to represent where the band was at the time. The first album was very local, the second branched out to a more national feel and the latest offering seems to encompass a worldlier vibe, signs of a band well travelled. For Wil, being on the road is no hindrance to his craft.

“I tend to be writing all the time. I try and write a verse and a chorus every day just to keep my brain going. It’s very easy to spend a whole tour drinking and then playing and then getting stoned but I try to keep active, try to always think about music. For the better part of the last 10 years that’s always how I’ve worked. So many people think of lyrics as a chore, but I love writing music, I love singing and playing guitar so even when we have a day off I’ll work on some shit upstairs while everyone is down at the bar”.

It’s a man who is completely in control of his art. All of the idea’s in his head must amount to dozens of records worth of music, but for the singles we’re falling in love with, the process is a quick one.

Surrender just sort of fell out of me, I have no idea were that came. And there’s like another five or six verses to that song that we didn’t record.”

It’s not all easy going on the writing front though.

“There’s times that I have written and re-written over and over. There’s a song we’re working on at the moment and I was like ‘fuck, this is like four girlfriends ago!’ so we do work on things for a long time sometimes. Some things we demo and re-jig for ages and then we get to the end and it’s exactly the same as the first take.”

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The success of Throw Me in the River was phenomenal. It earned the band nominations at the 2015 AIR and Rolling Stone awards and a win at The Age Music Victoria Awards for best live band. Wil has said before that he is often not fully aware of the themes of his work until six months later when he is able to sit back and observe it more. So how is he coming to grips with Smith Streets latest offering?

“There are definitely songs that I’m very proud of and mean a lot to me… but looking back I was like, shit I was really angry then haha! You know I’ve often thought ‘shit I didn’t realise that, that relationship affected me so much’. The benefit of hindsight is wonderful, looking back thinking I should probably call that person and apologise!”

“But I try not to have too much of the old stuff in my head because it would be too easy for me to just go back and re-hash the ideas. You know just go back and write Young Drunk version two… I might call it Old Stoned! It’s something I try to avoid, I always try to look forward. Now I have a new shitty break-up to write about!”

It’s something I had always wondered. The themes and characters and places in the songs are so specific, surely an ex has called up with a please explain?
“Yeah I think I’m a pretty bad person to break up with… There’s a new one that is really fucking mean and specific, I might as well just put her name in it. I might call her and say ‘hey sorry I really go off on you and your family’. Hopefully she doesn’t hear it! But you know what, fuck it, don’t piss me off!!”

I wouldn’t dream of it.

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Photo Credit: The Smith Street Band

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