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Though with a vastly different line-up to what we see now, the West Thebarton septet made their unforgiving debut with a sloshy and searing little surf-punk number called Chemotherapy.
It was just shy over four years ago, when petrol still cost under $1.50 per litre, Donald Trump wasn’t actively destroying the Western world, and the band formerly known as West Thebarton Brothel Party were little more than a van full of mates jamming out to kill some time.
Today, they’re a much different unit. Where their lineup would previously fluctuate and members would often swap roles (and, in some cases, they’d grow as stately as a nine-piece), they’ve found a happy constant in Ray Dalfsen on vocals and guitar, Nick Horvat on bass, Tom Gordon, Josh Battersby and Josh Healey on guitars, Caitlin Thomas on drums and and Brian Bolado on … Fuck, pretty much anything he can get his hands on. Seriously, the average show will see him on drums, keyboards, guitar, bass, tambourine, maracas and the mic—sometimes all in the same goddamn song!
They’ve also got some pretty high ambitions, with their focus having shifted from quick and quirky punk jams for the local dive to ovation-worthy stadium anthems. The album they’re hoping will kick it all off is Different Beings Being Different—11 slices of raw and ravaged honesty wrapped in tight guitars, ear-numbing drums and some of the most passionate vocals this side of VB’s headquarters.
Less than a week out from the release of Different Beings Being Different, and a month out from their enormous national headline tour with Sydney moshlords Pist Idiots, we caught up for a quick chat and some friendly banter with Dalfsen.
Different Beings Being Different is FINALLY almost here! How relieved are you now that we’re just a few days away from it hitting shelves?
[Laughs] I don’t know if ‘relief’ is the right word, man. It almost feels like the start of something—like everything up to this point was a bit of a prequel. We’re all so proud of this record, and I honestly just can’t wait for people to hear it. I know that a few people have already heard it here and there, but that’s mainly us getting drunk and showing it to our mates, or our managers showing it off and going, “Hey, check this out!” It’s really nice that the people we have shown it to are always like, “Jesus Christ, that’s good!” So I really can’t wait to show people. And even if everyone thinks it sucks, at least it’s out there, y’know? I just can’t wait for that.
Is there a particular song that you’re most proud of?
I think initially it was Reasons, because whenever we play that one live, it’s one of the songs that we know will always kill—I don’t think we’ve ever played that song poorly, and people at the shows are always like, “Oh, have you got a copy of that song? Is there a recording of that?” And I’m like, “Aw, well, wait ’til the album comes out!” But now I think Set It Straight is probably my favourite song on the record. It’s slower and it’s got, like, an early ‘80s Australiana vibe to it, and I think that’s the one that when this is all said and done, I’ll be like, “Y’know what? I’m really proud of that song.”
It’s got a bit of a Bon Jovi or INXS kind of vibe, where it just feels like an instant stadium rock classic. Did you have that huge sort of “anthemic-ness” in mind when you were writing it?
When we were working on this album—and even when we were recording each song individually—I guess my little mantra to myself was, “Y’know, how funny is this? This is a pub rock album that doesn’t sound like pub rock!” But you’re right, that’s the one song on the record that is, like, a big, anthemic song, and that’s always been the vibe we’ve had for it. It’s a huge song, and the guitar solo on it is just such a ripper—I can’t give Brian enough credit for playing that solo, ‘cause it’s just nuts! I think that’s probably why it’s my favourite. It stands out because it’s so different to all the other songs on the record—it’s an arena song on an album that is definitely not an arena album.
Do you think West Thebarton could write the next big Australian classic?
Y’know, we’re just so excited by everything that’s happening to us, and the day-to-day stuff is really exciting on its own. But I mean, seeing bands like Gang Of Youths blow up the way they have—they played in a bar that holds no more than 100 people two years ago, and now they’re huge. They sold out the Hordern Pavilion, for fuck’s sake! Stuff like that has really inspired me to be like, “Actually, y’know what? I’m going to think about the songs I write a bit more.” Because my older ideas… When I was growing up, I had trash ideas because I’d be like, “Nah, that’s not punk rock enough” or whatever, but now I’m like, “Nah, I can write whatever I want.” People will either like it or they won’t, but writing a song like Set It Straight has really given me the confidence to do whatever I want with my songwriting. And y’know what? I reckon that’s the next Australian anthem, Matt.
I couldn’t agree more! I guess there’s a bit of a milestone in this record too, with it being the first proper album out on Domestic La La. I know there was a bit of a mission in finding the right label to put this album out on; what made DLL the perfect fit?
It really came down to how passionate James [Tidswell, label head and Violent Soho shredder] is. I didn’t know him before we met up in Brisbane, but I’ve always loved Soho—y’know, Jesus Stole My Girlfriend was just such a banger when I was growing up. Meeting him and hearing someone that you kind of idolise—don’t tell him I said that [laughs]—hearing that they love your songs and they love your album, and they love all these niche little things about you, like the fact you rep a small town in South Australia—the 5031—it means a lot. And y’know, he’s so genuine. I think that’s why we went with Domestic La La in the end, because it seemed like the right choice. A previous release we did, we did on a label called Clarity Records here in Adelaide, and it was the same deal: the guy who runs that label is so genuine, so honest and such a hardworking person. But y’know, when someone offers you an opportunity like James’, you really can’t say no.
Do you remember what Tidsy’s response was when you first showed him the album?
I don’t know what his reaction was when he first heard the album, but I know that his first response when he heard Moving Out on the radio was to drive to the gym and run on the treadmill for half an hour while he had the song playing on repeat. He was like, “Man, I’m not even a runner. I’m not a gym person at all.” I can just imagine him sweating it up on the treadmill too [laughs]. I’ve got him on Instagram, and I remember seeing something along those lines on his story, and I was just sitting on my phone thinking, “Jeez, this guy’s a trooper!” And then when he told me the story in person, I was like, “Oh shit, so that’s real, hey?”
Where did you want to take West Thebarton in going from the self-titled EP and those few singles to a proper, full-length album? Did you set out to evolve your sound much as a band?
I don’t think we ever really ‘set out’ to evolve, but our tastes have just kind of changed. When we first started a couple of years ago, we were all listening pretty heavily to garage rock—all we ever wanted to do was be a Ty Segall cover band—and I guess that’s where the EP kind of stems from. And even the 7-inch we released with Red Or White and Dolewave, y’know, that was very garage rock-y. Our tastes have just evolved so much since then. You tend to reflect what you’re listening to in your songwriting, and so when we started listening to all of this bigger, more anthemic kind of stuff, that’s really where the album grew to. It grew to us going our separate ways and writing different kinds of parts. And because we write songs collaboratively, all of our different tastes meant we were exploring a bunch of newer, more uncharted types of sounds. They were no longer these small, riffy little garage rock tracks; they were big, thick songs.
West Thebarton in general is known for this vicious and just fucking insane energy in the live show, but you guys get a little more personal on this record, and branch out a bit as far as that style goes. Was there much of a process in finding the right balance of energy and personality?
I guess everything comes quite naturally to us, y’know, we didn’t really need to try too hard to do anything. I think the album just speaks to that real subtlety. A lot of the songs I’ve written on it were stories that I’ve heard or things I’ve felt along the way, so I guess that’s where the fragility in some of the songs comes from. I guess all of it comes from that newfound sense of confidence—not being scared to write about things that might previously have been considered a little bit soft. It was nice to write about what I wanted and tell some stories that actually run a bit deep and cut into some serious things. But having said that, apart from thinking about all the stories and that kind of stuff in my own songwriting, the only thing we really wanted to bring over was the fact that there are seven of us in the band. Even though we didn’t put too much of a conscious effort on that, with a lot of the guitar bits, we really wanted to make sure that everyone was happy with what they played, and that everyone was seen and heard. Because y’know, we’re a band with four guitar players, and we’re not the kind of band where all four of those guitar players are playing the same riff. We wanted to make the songs sound as huge as they do live, and we really transpose that live aspect to the record.
That’s another thing, because there’s obviously a lot going on in every song with there being seven members of West Thebarton, but this album never feels cluttered. Was there are a conscious focus to make sure every member of the band had a place in the mix for every song?
I think that’s kind of where Dylan shined through. Dylan Adams, who produced the record—he just has this way of guiding you down the right path and getting the best takes out of you, not just so that they sound good, but that you’re genuinely happy with them. I know that with a lot of the guitar takes, he was going in and out, and he gave everyone so much time to get the take they were most happy with. He has so much patience. A lot of the guys, when they were recording, were given such an opportunity to really figure out the best parts, so I kind of hung that down to him. He let everyone go into the studio and record the song, and if someone wasn’t happy with their part after everyone else had recorded theirs, y’know, they’d just come back in and noodle something away. It was that whole process of repeating things that I think made all the parts—especially the guitars—intertwine amongst each other. Everyone was just bouncing off each other, and we were all really happy with the energy that everyone brought.
How many songs did you end up writing in the end? Is there much on the cutting room floor?
I mean, there’s obviously a lot of collateral damage with albums like this, but I think we salvaged a lot of the best bits from the songs that didn’t make it on the record. And that’s a part of just writing it out, man. To be a good musician, you need to be able to cut things that don’t work, and not try too hard to push things that aren’t coming about naturally. That’s always been the way we’ve operated—if things feel natural, keep going with it, but if they don’t, there’s no point spending a million hours on them just to make it sound decent.
So especially with seven of you in the band, what was the writing process itself like? Was it pretty easy to gel as a full unit in the studio, or were there a few sleepless nights?
I always say that we write songs in two ways: either one person comes up with a fully fledged idea where all the parts and the chord changes are worked out, and then that gets busted down by all seven of us and we kind of build it up from the ground again; or, someone comes in with the smallest, littlest riff that fits into half a verse or something, and then we work together and build a song up from that. I think songwriting comes pretty naturally to us. We’re pretty blessed in that way, and we all work pretty well together. But then again, I think that’s because we’re all so tight—we all hang out so much outside of gigs and the band band stuff anyway, so when it comes to writing new songs, it doesn’t really feel like we’re actually writing new songs; it just feels like we’re jamming away on something, and then after two or three sessions, we’ll be like, “Oh shit, we’ve actually got a song here! How sick is that!?”
I think the whole thing is that we want to build tension throughout the whole set. We want to make everyone feel the rawness and the energy that we bring, and we want to make everyone there feel the happiness that we feel onstage.
When you’ve got seven individual ideas bouncing around the room, how much of it is compromise and how much is just going with the flow and doing what you want to do?
It’s definitely tough with seven people, but the thing is, we’ll always try everyone’s idea at least once. There’s been so many times that I’ve been adamant that an idea won’t work, and it’s usually me who’s like, “Nope, that won’t work at all!” And then y’know what? It sounds amazing. Like with the guitar solo in Set It Straight—I’m the biggest believer in that now, I love it so much, but that actually wasn’t completely there up until the recording process. Brian just ripped out this huge guitar solo, because I think we might have played that bit for too long, and we were all just like, “Oh wow, this fits so well!” I was like, “Aw man, I said that guitar solo wouldn’t work at all the jam sessions beforehand, and now it sounds amazing! Fuck!”
You’ve also got this extremely juicy tour coming up in June, how pumped are you for that?
Man, I can’t wait! After we released Moving Out last year, it seemed like the east coast really wanted to come to our shows. It’s been so humbling to see so many people talk about our shows and buy tickets and all of that stuff, so I really can’t wait to get over there and unleash a full West Theb set. We haven’t really played a full West Theb set in an east coast city in a while.
I think it’s been at least a year since that Landsdowne show in Sydney.
Yeah, it’s been a good while. And when we were touring with Polish Club after that, we were playing shorter sets so we didn’t have much of a chance to show everyone the full experience. I can’t wait to go out and do our own thing!
I’ve found myself in more than my fair share of West Thebarton pits — a cyclone of elbows every time— and the feeling is always fucking unreal; it’s something I’ve never seen another band capture so well. But for those out there that’ve never experienced it, how would you describe the atmosphere at a West Thebarton show?
I think the whole thing is that we want to build tension throughout the whole set. We want to make everyone feel the rawness and the energy that we bring, and we want to make everyone there feel the happiness that we feel onstage. But we also want to build up some of that tension throughout the set so that when we release all of those heavy bangers at the end, everyone can kind of get loose and have a really good time.
When I spoke to you guys at Bigsound last year, you were talking about how the show never really gets figured out or planned until you know what you’re in for, and how there’s almost an element of improvisation there, where you can do whatever feels right for that kind of environment. Are you guys excited to be doing that for this tour as well, or can punters expect more of a planned-out, or I guess “rehearsed” kind of performance?
I mean, when you head out by yourself, things are always a little bit more rehearsed. But y’know, it’s kind of ingrained in our nature to just do our own thing and do what we want every night. So obviously we’re going to be playing full sets and all of that kind of stuff, but there’s different songs that we’ll be chucking in there, maybe a cover or two… We’re just going to be having fun every night, to be honest. We’ll be playing the album and all of that stuff, but as a whole, we just want to do our own thing. I think that’s going to make for a really good time.
Do you guys sketch out a setlist before the tour or do you guys approach it as a new set every night?
I think we’ve got a couple of songs we know that fit well into specific places. We like to start with Anatomy because that one is so much fun to walk out onstage to, but every song kind of fits in somewhere else. Even midway through the set, someone will be like, “Oh, how about we swap these two?” And everyone’s gotta look around for each other and get seven sets of eyes going, “Yeah yeah yeah, cool.”
Oh God. How does that work when you’ve got so many people to work with in the heat of the moment? Does it get chaotic at all?
Yes and no. It’s almost telekinetic, I swear. Like, Brian will come over and whisper something in my ear, and every single time, I know what he’s going to say before he even says it. It just kind of feels like that when we play — we’re all on the same level, and obviously you can’t read everyone’s mind, but you just know what everyone’s thinking and you know what mood everyone is in. We’ve been playing together for so long now that we just know how to read each other in that way.
And of course, you’ve got your first ever international shows coming up with this UK tour. Is it daunting to have your international breakthrough around the corner?
I don’t think it’s daunting so much as it’s exciting. I remember when I got Broadband for the first time as a kid, one of the first videos I ever watched online was of Arctic Monkeys playing at the Reading Festival in 2007. I remember just being in awe, like “Woah, this is sick! This festival is awesome.” And then when we found out we’d be playing there, we couldn’t even believe it. It’s crazy! There’s so much excitement and hype around the fact that we’re actually going overseas to play shows. None of us have ever played overseas before, so it’s going to be really fun to play to new audiences. Hopefully they enjoy us!
Do you have much more planned for the year after that?
I think we’re just going to focus on coming back to Australia, hopefully playing a couple more regional places. We love touring Australia, and I love going to the kinds of places that we don’t usually get a chance to—especially New South Wales. The east coast is always fun to go to, so I think we’ll just keep jamming up there and having a good time.
Looking a bit more to the future, I know this record isn’t even out yet, but I also know you’d been sitting on it for a solid year or so before the plans to release it came into play. Have you written much in that time?
I think we’re the kind of people who never stop writing, really. I’ve always been of the belief that just because you’ve got a record coming out, doesn’t mean you need to stop writing. Especially since I get inspired by the day-to-day things that I experience, or the stories I hear from people, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been writing songs since the day we finished recording this album. There’s definitely something in the works.
Is it too early to to tell where you’re heading with that?
I think we’ll just continue to be a punk rock band that’s not really punk rock. We love that big, anthemic sound, and I think we’ll definitely keep going down that pathway. We’ve been listening to a lot of darker stuff recently as well, so who knows where it’s going to head?
Just to wrap everything up, what’s one interesting piece of trivia you can tell us about the making of Different Beings Being Different?
One of my fondest memories of the record was when we were recording the vocals for Reasons. It was pretty early on in the piece, and I remember wanting the album to be just raw as fuck and sound really brutal—especially the vocals for that song. There was a bottle of whiskey that I had, and I was like, “Yeah, cool, I’ll finish this over the week.” I kept recording this take, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get the vocal right and I was just so frustrated with myself. And Dylan—who I would trust with my life, but for some reason I didn’t trust him at the time—was telling me to pack it up, and I was like, “Nah man, it’s not good enough, let’s keep going.” And I just kept on going, and I finished this bottle of whisky in… I’d say probably, like, two hours, and I was just hammered by the end of it. We went home, frustrated as, came back the next morning and Dylan was like, “Here you go man, listen to this.” And I was like, “Oh wow, that sounds awesome! Did you chop it up?” And he was like, “Nah man, we didn’t record this song to click so I had to get a full take… This is the second take you did before you got wasted.” I was like, “Aw, you’re kidding me!” But it sounded awesome, which is all that really matters in the end [laughs]. I think Reasons is one of my favourite vocal recordings ever, so I’m stoked with how that turned out.
Do you still have the takes of you trying to record that song wasted?
I think Dylan might have them! I was just getting really angry because I wanted it to sound angry on the record, but y’know, when you actually are angry and you’re trying to sound angry, it doesn’t sound that attractive.
There’s some content for the deluxe edition reissue!
Oh, absolutely man!
West Thebarton are heading out on the Different Beings Being Different tour this June with Pist Idiots. Tickets are on sale now!
Thursday June 7th – Rad Bar, Wollongong (with White Blanks)
Friday June 8th – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney (with Sunscreen)
Saturday June 9th – Cambridge Warehouse, Newcastle (with Blue Velvet)
Sunday June 10th – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne (with Self Talk)
Friday June 22nd – Badlands Bar, Perth (with Last Lions)
Saturday June 23rd – Mojos, Fremantle (with Flowermouth)
Friday June 29th – The Zoo, Brisbane (with Deluso)
Saturday June 30th – The Gov, Adelaide (with Stork and Wing Defence)