Words: James Frostick
James Tidswell of Violent Soho talks about international success playing the BIGSOUND Conference and coming home.
‘Making it’ is a loaded term. Making it big usually means success in the musician vernacular, but success is so subjective to everyone it is hard to define what ‘making it’ signifies on a general scale. Many bands are happy with being able to play music to a small but enthusiastic crowd on a Friday night; others aren’t satisfied until they are touring nationally on the back of regular J-play. I suppose most musicians would love to be widely recognised for their efforts, particularly overseas. Recognition, even without monetary compensation is satisfactory to most bands, but the pursuit of international success and recognition is probably the one thing that certifiably constitutes ‘making it’. For a few though, it’s not quite that simple.
Violent Soho are a band many people would point to as an example of a band that ‘made it’. They are one of the lucky few that managed to break out of Brisbane and pursue what most would call serious success. They are internationally recognised, they were contacted by Thurston Moore and signed to a contract in US, they have toured extensively and have put out a few well received albums. They’ve made it; by most standards.
They make a return to their old stomping ground to play at the BIGSOUND conference, a rapidly growing showcase of Australian talent where industry members and musicians mingle and connect. Many bands pursue a spot on the BIGSOUND roster to further enhance their chances of making it; meeting people who can help them make connections, playing shows in front of the assembled press and listening to the advice given by panellists. As a resource, BIGSOUND has established itself as the preeminent forum for Australian talent. Whether musicians, industry members and music fans agree or disagree with the validity of this assessment isn’t really that important. For Australia, this is where shit happens on a large scale – so people attend to try and make said shit happen.
Violent Soho probably aren’t returning to secure a booking agent or management or a record deal though – that stuff is sorted. It is interesting that they have snagged a spot on the live roster – based on their pedigree they are certified headliners compared to some other bands. I was lucky enough to chat to James Tidswell about their homecoming and what they are actually hoping to get out of their attendance at BIGSOUND. Violent Soho have played SXSW and The Great Escape, music festival/conference hybrids that are a lot larger than BIGSOUND – so, what’s the scoop?
The boys have spent the past year working on new material, their latest 7”, containing new single ‘Tinderbox’, was recently released by I OH YOU – a partnership that was also recently made. Looking towards the horizon, one can see glimpses of a new album also in the works. So, I guess promotion is one benefit of coming back for BIGSOUND.
“We’ve been writing songs and getting together and jamming as much as possible and we have built up a bank of stuff,” says James. “We just wanted to wait for the right people to work with here in Australia specifically. We’ve been working on it for a fair while but it hasn’t been up to us per se, we just wanted to make sure we had the right label in Australia before we bothered releasing it all.”
The new material apparently follows previous trends of outsider rock coupled with anti-authoritarian messages. Extravagant is a word that has never been used to describe their music, but their form of rock and roll is compelling enough to justifiably warrant their level of success. Their messages (which stem from post-religious schooling angst) connect with listeners in a lot of places around the world and their brand of song craft is listenable. Essentially, they have the qualities for success and the dedication to pursue it.
“The single and stuff is sort of what we refer to as power-pop or we call it stoner-pop because we also like getting stoned,” says James cheekily. “It’s pretty simple stuff, you know, it’s as catchy as possible in the chorus and it’s good for kids to slam the door and crank it up. That’s really our thing, we release music because as kids growing up we listened to a lot of music that made you feel like you could slam the door and escape at times, rather than other kinds of indie music that is around at the moment.”
“I guess the music is still very anti-Pentecostal, religion-wise. We grew up in a Pentecostal Christian environment and we still draw on that a lot I guess. It’s all pretty natural, it’s just whatever feels right; I guess we have a lot of angst to draw upon after spending 12 years in a Jesus camp. You come out with a fair few stories and we got plenty to talk about, especially at this time.”
James is surprisingly candid and refreshingly honest about the music of Violent Soho and their background. Outspoken about the dominance of Hillsong in Australian communities and even in the iTunes charts, James has a solid opinion on the state of religion and what it means for his music. Safe to say that the band feels very strongly about the subject and it may play an integral part of their next release.
Throughout our chat, James opened up about the significance of international success and what it meant to himself and his band-mates (Luke Boerdam, Luke Henery and Michael Richards). Their ascent into the ranks of internationally touring Brisbane bands occurred before my personal immersion into the Brisbane scene. Their success has always been recognised, but their days of local gigging were short compared to many acts now, thus, I missed out on hearing their early development.
Akin to the success of fellow Brisbaneites DZ Deathrays, Violent Soho have possibly achieved the double-edged label of being more successful overseas than in Australia. While is this mostly a good thing for the band, it has led to an under-appreciation of sorts back home.
“It was surprising for us, because we were sort of in between the Velociraptor and DZ era of Brisbane and the Regurgitator era,” says James. “When we started playing there wasn’t a lot of Brisbane bands doing much, I guess there was The Grates – they got picked up pretty quickly – for us it took us two years to get a show at Ric’s. That was our main focus; it didn’t really go past that. When I was working in a warehouse out at Murarrie folding t-shirts I got a call from Thurston Moore. I didn’t even believe it was him. Going from that to overseas, it was definitely surreal, that would be the best word for it.”
After their acclaimed debut EP, Pigs & TV and their first full length, We Don’t Belong Here, Violent Soho were signed to Ecstatic Peace! Records, headed by Thurston Moore. After that, James and Co. spent several years touring extensively overseas and releasing new material. This extended time outside of Australia may have caused the band to possibly lose touch with their roots, though not intentionally. A combination of an outsider mentality, recognition from a personal hero and a lack of support for Brisbane musicians at the time probably contributed to their move overseas. Personally, I would have made the same choice, but a after a few years, Violent Soho are re-evaluating their priorities and are focusing more on reconnecting with Australian audiences and supporting their local scene, starting with BIGSOUND.
“I suppose we’ve, not on purpose just out of being ignorant when we were younger and not focusing on those sorts of things, we haven’t been involved very much with the Australian music industry,” says James. “I mean that’s pretty much the reason why we flew back to Australia to start concentrating on being the Australian band we want to be.”
“For us we never thought about people overseas hearing us, and then all of a sudden we are over there spending so much time overseas. Whilst we were starting to get lots of people to shows in places we hadn’t ever been and getting a lot of radio play on commercial rock stations, we just realised that wasn’t what we were ever chasing. We made the decision to move back to Brisbane, to write the next album at home and represent everything we wanted to be. We are focusing on taking control of it all whereas before it was taken out of our hands. When your biggest aspiration is to play at Ric’s and then you are signed to your idol’s label, it gets very surreal.”
It is well and truly a good thing that Violent Soho are choosing to spend more time in Australia. They have achieved a level of success that many local bands dream of, but are grounded enough to know that there is more to the music game than playing overseas. They are an interesting case when discussing success – while they were touring extensively for a few years before relocating their rise to prominence was very rapid. It is a nice change to see a band take a step back and reconnect with their local scene; it is a refreshing turn of events. For a band of their stature though, I was curious to see what they wanted out of their BIGSOUND experience anyway.
“I don’t really know,” admits James. “I’m stoked that BIGSOUND exists and that it is there, as a far as what we are trying to get out of it, I haven’t given it too much thought. We are really stoked to be able to play it though, especially as we are from Brisbane.”
For any bands looking to follow a similar path to success, Violent Soho are a good example to follow. According to James, dedicated touring and playing music the way you want to play it seems like the best way to get noticed.
“We’re not really industry focused per se, we certainly don’t have the key ingredient, but all we can say is what we did,” says James. “Put your head down and tour! Don’t worry about how many likes you get on Facebook, just put on a show. If no one is going to let you put on a show, throw it at a mates house. Contact bands from out of state and go and play with them at a house, the main thing is that you are constantly doing shows and growing the idea of local live music. If you are approaching it that way, people are going to take notice because a lot of bands aren’t approaching it that way anymore. They want to get noticed really quickly and think there is a secret way to get that happening. There isn’t really.”
James is likewise honest about the concept of ‘making it’. As a musician that has seen the different sides of the industry, his modest opinion of his own music and the importance of following your gut should be taken seriously, as seriously as any industry rep that is present at BIGSOUND this year.
“I don’t think you are approaching music honestly if you are trying to be noticed by the industry only,” says James. “If you just do what you do, the right people will get involved; they will hear that you are being honest with what you are doing. Playing 90’s sounding music was pretty out dated when we were starting six years ago; we simply played it because it was all we could do naturally. Touring for us was hard work but we loved it.”
“We well and truly made it when we played at Ric’s, everything else is just a bonus.”