If you live, work or play in the music industry, that name will have you nodding your head in instant recognition – those guys, the ones everyone keeps telling me about. The next buzz band. If you’re drawing a blank, commit to memory, stat. The Sydney-based trio are hotly tipped to become the Australian music’s Next Big Thing.
When Andrew Stockdale [guitars, vox], Chris Ross [guitars/organ] and Myles Heskett [drums] started playing their powerful 70s inspired Led Zeppelin-bunking-down-with-Cream-and-Pink-Floyd live shows earlier this year, they set their sights modestly. Play 20 or so gigs, and maybe, just maybe Steve ‘Pav’ Pavlovic, owner of boutique independent label Modular Recordings might just hear of them. Home to an innovative roster of seven local acts – Ben Lee, Bumbelbeez 81, Cut Copy, Rocket Science, The Presets and The Avalanches – Modular boasts both enviable street cred and a track history of internationally acclaimed artists. Healthy industry word-of-mouth saw Pav at Wolfmother’s fourth show. Negotiations began after six. The band signed in early August and to date have played two sold-out East Coast tours, were added to this year’s Homebake line-up and were whipped off overseas to play showcases in New York, London and LA. All off the strength of a handful of live shows and one three-track demo.
When a little band from Melbourne called Jet becomes the first Australian band to ever win an MTV Video Music Award in the Rock category as a nod to their debut album, Wolfmother look as if they’re on a watertight trajectory. The turn of the century has seen the success of first The Avalanches, then Jet and The Vines on the international stage, an Australian focus not witnessed since the early eighties; the heyday of outfits such as The Triffids, The Go Betweens and The Birthday Party. The tail end of the much-touted ‘rock revival’ is still simmering warmly, leaving audiences with palate for revivalist rock with an edge – music that’s strongly rooted in a nostalgic rock tradition, yet is still exciting and new.
“When I hear that Pav has hand-picked a band I know that band will get introduced to all the right people in America and all the right people in the UK,” comments Rachel Newman, editor of Rolling Stone. “So long as they’re writing half decent songs with room to develop, that’s almost all you need.” Indeed, for a new Australian band to do well, an international focus is a necessity – the local industry and touring circuit being both too small and too tiring respectively to sustain the band as a primary way to make a living. Well, that’s it then, right? Hold the cover NME, we’ve got another Aussie Invasion ready to send your way! What could possibly go wrong now?
Todd Wagstaff has just left the music industry to follow his dream of opening a Mexican restaurant. Before that, he was helping other people follow their dreams of becoming rock stars through his work as general manager of Sydney label Engine Room Music, who signed The Vines. Two years ago Wagstaff drove Vines’ frontman Craig Nicholls to his first ever media interview. At that time, The Vines were based in LA, working on their debut album Highly Evolved, having been signed after one of their demos was played on a community radio station. The Vines had little to no profile internationally, but, of course, good press helps that. Nicholls’ first interviewee? James Oldham, then editor of UK taste-maker publication extraordinaire, NME. “From there Oldham’s obsession with the band started,” Wagstaff recalls. The band broke the UK, then the US, helped along by no less than five NME covers. By the time The Vines returned home, they had received such prestigious awards as Best Band at Reading, Coachella and Glastonbury – all high profile music festivals. Home turf success seemed a shoe-in as the band prepared to return down under. Right?
The Australian press turned on The Vines, their live shows panned, their rock star antics sniffed at. At best the overall reaction was lukewarm. At worst, downright vicious. They were, according to Wagstaff, “universally loathed”.
“That level of hype wasn’t trusted in this country,” he says. “It was common in London for a debut artist to be launched with that sort of enthusiasm. In Australia it was met with a lot of skepticism.
As we sit chatting in his Bondi home, the silent television delivers images of the athletes who left the country as unknowns, and after winning gold in the Greek Olympic Games, returned home national heroes. The irony is palatable. “We like to champion our actors, our chefs, our athletes,” Wagstaff muses. “And we like to champion our musicians, but Australians like to decide first whether they’re Our Kylie or Our Nicole or Our Vines.”
It became clear that for Australians to see something worth championing and supporting, it needed to come out of a system that is endorsed by Australians. For The Vines, the decision as to whether or not they were a good band was made overseas. As the band faced a slump in record sales for sophomore album Winning Days, no less than four contestants from 2003’s Australian Idol, a television concept that defined itself on choice and participation from the audience, moseyed up the charts.
So the future remains interesting for Wolfmother, not only for music industry trainspotters and the James Oldhams of the world, but for a cultural clime who are about to herald in three individuals who are remarkably articulate, mature and sophisticated in their relationship to their music. The impression they leave, and no doubt a key part of their appeal to those dealing with them, is the sense of the anti-rock star. A wild beast onstage gives way to intelligence and a strong adversity to the lack of “real music with real emotions” while off. Together they share a strong humanist approach to the power of art as a means of connection, liberation and inspiration, attitudes which sit well with their 70s music aesthetic. Whereas the majority of bands see their music as a personal project that they are unable to view the intent of critically, Stockdale speaks earnestly of Wolfmother as a concept larger than just three people – for him it is clearly a life philosophy.
“This morning my real estate agent knocked on my door, gave me an eviction notice, threatened to blacklist me so I could never rent a property again, because my rent was two weeks late,” he says, in speech careful and measured. “That’s what Wolfmother is against. Wolfmother is about people understanding each other, getting together, being real.”
“Music is about expanding on something that is spiritual and creative,” continues Chris. “I see all this sport stuff, and it’s like, fair enough, you go as fast as you can go, but that has to end somewhere. A creative medium like music is about exploring relationships and spirituality and furthering the human race. [Pause] I’ve been watching too much Olympics.”
“What the mainstream needs is Wolfmother,” asserts Stockdale. “If there’s more variety in the mainstream then it helps people discover more about themselves.”
Artistic integrity? Check. Good label connections? Check. Promising songs and great live shows? Check. The only thing unsure now is whether in 2005 when Wolfmother’s debut album drops, if the Australian press decide this is Our band, or Theirs.
Wolfmother’s self-titled EP is out now.