‘Five broke ratbags excited for some free beer’: The Smith Street Band celebrates 15 years

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‘Five broke ratbags excited for some free beer’: The Smith Street Band celebrates 15 years

smith street band
Photo: Ian Laidlaw
words by staff writer

2009 was a big year.

The iPod Classic came onto the market. Mumford and Sons’ Little Lion Man topped the Triple j Hottest 100. And The Smith Street Band played their first-ever gig at The Tote.

Two years later, they’d go on to release their debut album No One Gets Lost Anymore, prompting their breakout success. Now, six studio albums and 15 years down the line, the band is heading on tour to celebrate the longevity of their career.

Stay up to date with what’s happening in and around Melbourne here.

Spanning 18 dates from February to April 2024, the Smith Street Band’s 15 Year Anniversary Tour will showcase tracks from across the band’s discography.

It’ll make three stops in their home state of Victoria: April 18 at Castlemaine’s Theatre Royal, April 19 at Melbourne’s Northcote Theatre and April 20 at Torquay’s Torquay Hotel.

To mark the momentous occasion, we caught up with frontman Wil Wagner to talk about the lessons he’s learned and the memories he’s made along the way.

Hello Wil! How’s your day been so far?

Good thanks! 

So, you’ve just announced a massive tour to celebrate 15 years of The Smith Street Band. Does it feel crazy that you’ve been a band now for 15 years?

Yeah it’s kind of hard to believe, I feel so incredibly lucky to have been doing this for so long. And hopefully for much longer! 

When you played that first show at the Tote,  did you ever think you’d end up where you are today?

Not in my wildest dreams. My top number one goal when we started was to one day play The Corner Hotel and to have been able to experience what we’ve experienced since that first show on the floor of The Tote is kind of hard to get my head around! 

What are some of the proudest moments of your career so far?

I think just the fact we’re still going is what I’m proudest of. That this band and this music has been able to pay our rent for so long and is now feeding our kids is a very big achievement. I don’t think most people understand how hard it is to make a living as a musician in Australia even after experiencing some level of success.

What lessons have you learned along the way? Are there any songwriting or touring tricks or tips you wished you knew in the early days?

As far as songwriting goes the first draft is always the best draft… except when it isn’t! But I’d always take immediacy and honesty over a perfect rhyme or rhythm.

And weirdly I wish I’d partied more during those very hectic touring years, I feel like I spent so much time worrying about losing my voice that I missed out on some really special nights with special people. And I wound up losing my voice eventually on those tours anyway! 

You’ve got an 18-date run of shows right around the corner. How have you been getting ready to go back on the road and what can punters expect from the upcoming shows?

I’ve got a 12-week-old daughter so I’m warming up by getting on a sleep-deprived touring schedule early! Because it’s our 15-year anniversary tour we’re playing songs off every one of our releases so we’ve been dusting off a few older tracks for the set! 

What was the weirdest show you’ve ever played over the years?

The first overseas tour we did was a six-date tour of China in 2011 (I think?). The whole tour was surreal and totally different from touring Australia.

One of the shows was in a university lecture hall which was packed with seated students – halfway through our set the power went out in the building and I grabbed an acoustic guitar and walked up and down the aisles of the auditorium playing our song Young Drunk.

After the show, we had a banquet with the heads of the faculty like we were some kind of distinguished guests and not five broke ratbags excited for some free beer. An amazing experience. 

What’s the coolest venue/regional town/overseas city you’ve ever played? 

There are so many. We’ve been lucky to play some very prestigious venues, none more so than The Greek Theatre in LA. But nothing beats the amphitheatre at Splendour in the Grass. The feeling of walking out onto that stage is so exhilarating. 

How do you feel the Australian music scene has changed from when you were starting out until now?

As much as social media was a thing when we started it feels 100 times more important now and that’s a world I don’t really understand! I worry that the new way for artists to get discovered is through something like TikTok instead of through playing live and that we’re going to see less and less great live acts because of that. But that also might just be me being an old man. 

Are there any up-and-coming local bands or artists you’re really excited about?

I really like both Well? and Turpentine Babycino out of Newcastle, both really cool young bands who will do big things in the future. I really like a rapper called Tasman Keith who’s getting a big name now, he’s got some dynamite lyrics.

The new Jess Locke album is wall-to-wall bangers. There’s a great band from Brisbane called Smallest Horse who I’ve played with a few times and really love their music and them as people. I’ve also been listening to a ton of Randy Newman lately, his album Sail Away is a masterpiece. 

If you hadn’t spent all these years doing music, what do you think you would have done instead?

I think I would have become a teacher who wished he was doing music. 

To keep up with the Smith Street Band, head here.

This article was made in partnership with The Smith Street Band.