An interview with Wil Wagner of The Smith Street Band

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We bump into Wil Wagner in the doorway of The Fleece where some friends and I had been sneaking a peak at The Menzingers’ sound checking. He starts talking to us after spotting my Smith Street Band shirt and is surprised to find out we’re here to interview him (the rest of the band who we’d been in contact with previously were apparently very hungover and hadn’t told Wil yet), but immediately agrees to it. This is the first example of Wil just being a really fucking good bloke.

10788755565_a1988aa871_bWe wander around to their tour van and are offered some ‘skipped’ Quavers that the band had picked up in Manchester as Wil rolls a cigarette with one hand without looking. He tells us about the rest of the band going out last night and that despite returning to the hostel early, he still got next to no sleep thanks to a particularly amorous couple in the room next to him. This glimpse of the touring lifestyle and the difficulties of the job is central to The Smith Street Band’s upcoming third album, ‘Throw Me In The River’ (out 31st October). It’s a very reflective record that discusses the struggles of being on the road but has this fundamental pride running through it, encapsulated in lead single ‘Surrender’. It’s reminiscent of much of Wil’s song writing; it seems despairing but there is this underlying optimism that just makes you want to side with the guy and makes his lyrics so potent. When I ask him about it he responds with typical humility, “I think that’s just what I’m like, sometimes I’ll be quite sad but then I’ll play a show and feel really good for an hour. I think it’s just a reflection of my personality, and I guess the record [Throw Me In The River] is quite reflective of that as I’ve spent so much time over the past year sitting in the back of a van and thinking about every mistake I’ve ever made. It’s also less songs about going out and getting fucked up because I’m just too tired to do that now, I play too much and tour too much now”.

Before we go any further I just want to note that I’ve seen Wil and The Smith Street Band play live seven times in 2014, this isn’t going to be objective because I fucking adore these guys. The first time I saw them in a pub in Brixton they were the support act and there were only a few people being overly enthusiastic at the front. A few weeks later they sold out the Black Heart in London as headliners and I recognised half the crowd from gigs I’d been to in neighbouring towns and even a few from a festival in Belgium. Despite enjoying their two previous records I didn’t completely get the band until I saw them live, but once it clicks with them it really clicks. There are few bands who can match them for outright passion and honesty in their performance and there’s just something about them that makes seeing them three times in a week seem like a completely rational choice. Throw Me In The River is far more reminiscent of their live show with a heavier electric sound and real sense of urgency, which Wil explains was something they’ve been striving for; “That was something that was really important for us. I think we’re more a live band rather than a recording band if that makes sense? All the parts were recorded live and then the guitar parts were overdubbed, but if there are breaks in the songs there’s no metronome there and Chris has been keeping time which was then edited out, so it flows more like a live show. We also just had a lot more time to record this one, it took more than two months to record and the previous album was something like 8 days. So we had time to really fine tune things and really find that kind of live sound”.

Another notable change on the new record was ‘Bomb The Music Industry’s’ (BTMI) Jeff Rosenstock taking over producing duties. Songs such as ‘Get High See No One’ have this relentless driving rhythm and immediacy that characterises so much of BTMI’s work, and Wil had nothing but praise for Rosenstock’s contribution; “He brought so much to the album. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen or met Jeff but he’s just a bundle of excitement and ideas, we always wanted him around while we were recording because he’d just chime in and say ‘why don’t you try this?’ and it would just make the song. Even listening to the demos and the full recordings that we did before him, that sense of urgency is a lot more prevalent and the guitar solo on ‘Get High See No One’, the first one is Jeff. He’s amazing with instruments and compositions; all the strings on the album is me saying ‘I kinda want it to sound like ‘Tonight Tonight’ and make the noises, then he’d type it into his computer and it’d come out exactly as I imagined. We hope he does everything that we do from now on”.

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Given the maturity of a lot of his writing, I often have to remind myself of how young Wil is (24). He’s got numerous solo records and was still a teenager touring on his own when The Smith Street Band started. His solo records are more mellow affairs and whilst The Smith Street Band tends to punch you in the gut with their wall of sound and blunt storytelling, Wil the solo artist is more subtle. He lulls you into a false sense of security with delicate melodies and soft vocals and all of a sudden you realise you’re openly weeping because you’ve got far too many feelings about a Russian dog that died in 1957. During the recording of ‘Throw Me In The River’, Wil teased the idea of a solo record and for purely selfish reasons I asked him for clarification on the story; “I was just staying at Jeff’s house in Philadelphia and asked him if he’d record my new solo songs, so he just put me in his spare room, turned everything on and I asked him if he could go away for a bit [laughs]and then recorded a few takes of each song. It’s all done and sitting in my inbox, it’s ready to go it’s just because now the album is coming out in a few places around the world on a few different labels there’s a lot of people to check with before you can just go ‘hey, here’s 8 new songs for free on the internet!’ Hopefully in the next couple of months it’ll come out for free as it is, but after so many weeks just listening to my own voice it kind of put me off listening to it for a while [laughs]”.

After the interview we chatted with Wil for about fifteen minutes and he asked us some questions rather than the other way round. He talked about Australia with my friend who used to live there and about getting drunk with another friend and me at Belgium’s Groezrock festival (which unsurprisingly none of us could remember well). Just as a final point; The Smith Street Band also killed it later, but that was never in any doubt.

Throw Me In The River’ is out on October 31st and The Smith Street Band will be back in the UK next year.

Photo credits: Nicole C. Kilbert

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Thomas Gane is the former Online Editor (2014-15) and bite Editor (2012-13) at bathimpact. He writes about popular culture, music, the University of Bath and both local and national politics.

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