For most bands, the time-worn evolutionary process starts with a menial job, runs through local and domestic stardom, then international acclaim. It’s not often that the overseas attention and big recording contracts come first.
Then again, Violent Soho were never ones to do things by the book.
The Friday release of new album ‘Waco,’ the fourth LP from the Brisbane grunge-rock outfit, is the culmination of one of the most powerful redemption tales of contemporary Australian music. To know the story of Violent Soho is to understand the meaning of career peaks and troughs, of feast and famine, of getting it all, losing it all, then clawing it back through sheer determination and grit.
From their origins in a chapel band to the bright lights of America and the allure of one of the world’s hottest record labels, to being unceremoniously dumped and moving back in with their parents and getting jobs at McDonald’s, to playing some of the largest festival crowds in Australian history and running an assault on local airwaves and charts after a new mindset of doing things “their way” -- it’s been some kind of ride.
As of Friday, ‘Waco’ is #1 on the Australian iTunes album charts, and they’ve sold out seven massive theatres around the country for their May album tour, with the remaining three not far behind.
“We’ve never had this stuff happen to us before. Anytime before, it was just us talking to each other about it, not talking to people like you (journalists),” guitarist James Tidswell tells The Huffington Post Australia.
“Not in the last five years did we ever think this stuff would happen, but it’s like when you lose your keys -- when you stop looking for it, you find it.”
Violent Soho are four high school friends from Mansfield, a small suburb on the outskirts of Brisbane. The few blocks of Mansfield are known as a ‘Bible Belt’ of Queensland, for its concentration of churches.
For a band taking musical cues from the likes of grunge icons Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, Tidswell and frontman Luke Boerdam -- who we manage to catch together, as part of a marathon promo schedule for ‘Waco’ -- say it was a surprisingly nurturing environment.
“There were a lot of bands coming out of Mansfield, but not a lot going anywhere further than Mansfield. Because of the church groups, there were a lot of all age shows, lots of spaces for bands to get up and play, but not really any opportunity to get further and play,” Tidswell said.
Violent Soho started making the trip into Brisbane and Fortitude Valley, building a name for themselves and playing shows to mere dozens of people a night. It was a long slog, a hard slog; then like a bolt from the blue, Thurston Moore, leader of revered indie-rockers Sonic Youth, came a-knocking. He offered up a place on the roster of his label Ecstatic Peace, as well as the chance to move to the United States for a year, tour non-stop and record with their pick of megastar album producers.
As a band striving to even make a dent in the music landscape of their homeland, Violent Soho grabbed the chance.
Moving into a “pretty slummy” area of Brooklyn, New York City in 2010 was a big step up from the Brisbane 'Bible Belt'.
“It was like we’d been thrown in a washing machine,” Boerdam said. He’s relatively quiet during our chat, letting the more boisterous Tidswell do most of the talking. It’s the same deal at their ballistic live shows too, with Boerdam singing but Tidswell taking on the on-stage banter between songs. I mean to ask them about that, but don’t get around to it.
“We got plucked from Brisbane and thrown into this whole other world. We got over there and not much was in our control, besides the music -- as for where and when we played, we got a list each day, and just went off and did our job.”
They recorded their second album, a self-titled effort, with famed producer Gil Norton -- behind seminal albums from Foo Fighters and Pixies -- in the hills of Wales. They got a tour van, played shows six nights a week, and dropped into radio stations along the way to perform acoustic covers every day. They toured with bands they called “our heroes.”
It was this endless grind -- play a show, drive, do an acoustic set, drive, play a show, drive, rinse, repeat, drive -- that crushed the band’s spirit, but ironically, set them on the path that led them to their spot today.
“It felt like you were always trying to catch up. This constant feeling of no control over anything. We never had time to sit down as a band and talk about if this is what we want to do. We had to hit the ground and do the work, and by the time you ask a question you were suddenly in the middle of it,” Boerdam said.
“We had no idea what we were doing. It was impossible for us to keep up, so out of our realm,” Tidswell added.
“Once I got in trouble at a festival. It was 10am, we had three shows that day at (music industry showcase) South By South West, and I got in trouble from a woman at the label for not headbanging enough.”
Things came to a head over a decision the band made about their next tour. The label wanted them to team with a then-popular alternative rock band on a big tour of large, packed venues; Violent Soho wanted to tour with a favourite band of theirs, cult favourite punk rockers The Bronx. The band made their decision to play with the band they liked, piled in the van and were again left playing to mere dozens of people a night. It was the beginning of the end for Violent Soho’s American ambitions.
“We had the time of our lives touring with a band we loved. We were making decisions based on what we wanted to do, not what the label considered career steps forward, which led it to go south,” Tidswell said.
“We were ready to go home and be like Frenzel Rhomb or Grinspoon, who were doing all this touring in Australia. We’d rather play to 150 people at home than those crowds over there. Music was supposed to be fun for us; if we wanted to be stressed and on deadlines, we’d go get a job.”
So it was back to Australia; from living in the centre of the music universe in Brooklyn, back to the country that had so far failed to properly embrace them. Back to living with their parents, in their childhood homes, with their wives. They had no label, no money, and despite picking up a few choice support slots after returning home -- with the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Jebediah and the Laneway Festival -- it was a time when the band had little hope for the future.
Tidswell, needing cash, even applied for a job at McDonald’s, when a serendipitous “sliding doors”-esque moment opened out before him.
“I pulled into the carpark for my job interview, when my mate texted me saying congratulations. I had no idea what he was talking about. A kid in McDonald’s recognised me from a festival we played; I knew this was going to suck, but I needed money,” he remembers.
“They said I was going to get the job, so I got in the car and was driving home, and I heard the ARIA nominations come through -- and we were nominated for one. That’s how close it was. I’m thinking, the day I’m nominated for an ARIA, I’m getting my first job at Mcdonalds.”
The ARIA nomination was a rare bright spot on the horizon. Boerdam said the return to Brisbane was a downer, but in hindsight, it sowed the seeds for their revival.
“It was ironic to be back in the bedroom where I wrote most of our songs, in my 16-year-old bedroom. We called our manager, he said ‘just sit and write.’ Well, OK, but we had no money and no plan. We were off trying to rehash our lives again. There was no talk of breaking up, just having a breather,” he said.
Boerdam did what he was told. He sat and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Eventually they had enough songs for an album. They got in a makeshift home studio with a mate who took leave from his day-job as a tree-lopper to help them record, having recently signed to indie label I Oh You. They saw it as a “last hurrah” for Violent Soho; a last record, one tour, then back to work.
That album was ‘Hungry Ghost,’ the now gold-selling album which reached #6 in the ARIA charts and spawned their biggest hit -- and arguably one of the biggest Australian rock songs of the last decade -- ‘Covered In Chrome.’
It kicked off a run that saw Violent Soho sell out their initial short run of live dates, then sell out the extra added ones. Then another tour, where tickets disappeared just as quickly. Then another. Then another. The run of touring hasn’t really stopped, as they took on almost every major music festival in the country, playing to massive crowds including reportedly the largest daytime crowd ever assembled at Byron Bay’s Splendour In The Grass.
The country that had pushed them to one side for their career to the date, had somehow instantly connected with the new album. ‘Hungry Ghost’ lit a fire under the Australian public in a way no Aussie rock band has since Silverchair or Powderfinger. These days, it’s hard to go to a rock gig without spotting at least one Violent Soho shirt in the crowd.
Needless to say, nobody was more surprised than the four guys behind the album.
“Our self-titled sold 3500 copies. We expected to sell about half that many with ‘Hungry Ghost,’ maybe sell 1500 copies. We booked the tour expecting to go back to work. We pressed 500 copies of the album on vinyl. That’s how little expectation we had,” Tidswell said.
“I took a promotion at work the next week, I thought maybe we could do another record; that would be cool. Then we started getting all these offers to play shows. Four months after the album, we played Falls Festival and there were thousands of people singing every word,” Boerdam added.
For 'Waco,' they didn't try to change the formula too much. Despite their new status on top of the rock totem pole, they went back to their mate to record in a small studio. Rather than writing for an hour every few days, as on 'Hungry Ghost,' Boerdam could use writing as his full-time job. A more considered approach than their mostly balls-out grunge rock of its predecessor, 'Waco' draws in more sources of inspiration than ever before: lead single 'Viceroy' and album opener 'How To Taste' owe as much to pop-punk icons Blink-182 as to any godfather of grunge; 'Blanket' is pulled straight from a modern post-punk playbook, calling to mind Bloc Party; but then again, 'Like Soda' is as unabashedly straight-up rock-and-roll as anything they've ever committed to wax.
It's a statement from a band getting more comfortable in their own skin, pushing the boundaries just enough to stay interesting while settling nicely into the groove they have fought their entire career to settle in.
The machine chewed them up and spat them out. It was when they went back to doing things the way they wanted to, and stopped taking cues from higher-ups, that they finally cracked the big-time. In a way, it’s the ultimate punk rock tale -- do things your own way, forget “the man.”
“I think we learnt a lot (from America), that we couldn’t even participate in that machine. When we came home, it was re-setting the band with the four of us, taking into account what we wanted out of it, but not at the cost of not being ourselves or being uncomfortable,” Tidswell said.
“We said ‘this is what we want from the band.’ We didn’t want idiots telling us what to do with our own band. We’d gone through enough crap in America that we made sure, when we came back, that we surrounded ourselves with people who knew that and understood it,” Boerdam added.
“What we learnt was, we’re not that kind of band. We’re not going to buy into that machine with the vague promise of being that sort of band, because it doesn’t interest us.”
'Waco' is out now, while tickets remain for their May tour. See Violent Soho's website for more.