Today Smith Street, Tomorrow the World

3 May 2017 Lachlan Kanoniuk

Today Smith Street, Tomorrow the World

After a morning riverside jog, Wil Wagner, the leader of The Smith Street Band, sits down for breakfast in the courtyard of his local cafe. It’s noisy; a nearby toddler is giving a toy glockenspiel a workout on the lawn. “It’s funny, I can sit here and do work with my headphones on, then all of a sudden I look up and there are 80 kids running around,” says Wagner, wearing the T-shirt of fellow noisemakers The Nation Blue.

Blending folk storytelling with punk/anthem triumph, The Smith Street Band’s honest and emotive songwriting has resonated since their 2010 beginnings in the inner-northern Melbourne street – route 86 on the tram – from which they take their name. Constant touring, along with steady EP and single releases, means momentum hasn’t stalled between albums. More Scared of You Than You Are of Me, The Smith Street Band’s fourth record, continues the trajectory of their growth, while retaining a sense of intimate relatability. It’s a winning formula: turning deep introspection into choruses and verses for punters to sing along with.

The strength of connection between The Smith Street Band and its fans is not unnoticed by Wagner. “There are 50 people that I can think of in every city that I will see at every show and talk to at every show,” he reflects. “We’ve been on this journey together, they’ve followed us along this whole time and they can take responsibility for it, because they have been the ones that have come to all the shows and they’re the reason that we’re doing this. There’s something magical about that.”

More Scared of You… refines the strengths of previous albums – Throw Me in the River, Sunshine and Technology, No One Gets Lost Anymore – spiking emotional punch with matter-of-fact turn of phrase. Concurrent with increasing venue size and festival billing, More Scared of You… achieves a grander production scale. The result is an album capable of commanding thousands-strong audiences, while proferring Wagner’s most personal lyrics yet, which deal directly with mental health among other issues. It results in something communal, something relatable.

“When we play, people are applauding my bad decisions and patting me on the back for feeling sad about something,” Wagner says. “I can sing ‘I’m having panic attacks on German TV’, which can come across as goofy. But if you listen, it’s like you can actually see the video of me having that panic attack. I like the juxtaposition of what is brutally honest and weird alongside less serious themes.”

It’s a juxtaposition Wagner sees within himself as well. “I think I’m very contradictory as a person, but I’m very sort of serious and driven and ambitious and I also don’t take myself seriously whatsoever,” he continues. “With this album I’m more comfortable writing as myself. Whereas I would have censored myself a bit previously, this time I just went for it. Anything that made me feel uncomfortable, I left in intentionally; if it makes me feel uncomfortable, then it’s making me feel something. Then hopefully other people will feel something too.”

Still young at 26, Wagner’s vivid storytelling has got stronger on successive albums. His parents, Jane Godwin and Michael Wagner, have enjoyed successful careers as children’s authors. “I know that they’re still panicked that one day they’re going to wake up and not be able to write anything. But I think that everyone kind of has that fear.”

Despite having just released More Scared of You…, and facing an imposing run of tour dates in Australia and across Europe, Wagner is eager to put the wheels in motion for what’s next.

“I wish we had the fifth album written and ready,” he says. “I’d like to record that next week. But it is intentional to always have something keeping fans’ interest. Maybe we’ll try to record something in a few months when we have a bit of downtime, so that we can release something and not be a band who releases an album and then you don’t hear from them for three years. We’re always trying to stay on top of things and not just let people go.”

Maintaining that connection with a passionate, and growing, fan base is the key to The Smith Street Band’s ascension. Wagner displays grounded wonderment as he tries to examine the journey so far – every gig he still sings ‘Sigourney Weaver’, a song he wrote aged 15. His personal development is charted throughout a songbook, watching crowds join in to shout lyrics about smoking cigarettes long after he himself has quit the habit. There’s a generation of rock enthusiasts growing up with The Smith Street Band. And The Smith Street Band is growing with them.

by Lachlan Kanoniuk
» More Scared of You Than You Are of Me is out now. The Smith Street Band tours Australia 25 May to 10 June.

This article first appeared in Ed#535.