Here’s why Spiderbait are so much more than a nostalgia act

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Here’s why Spiderbait are so much more than a nostalgia act

Words by Bridget McArthur

Almost 30 years since three mates from country NSW debuted at The Tote, Spiderbait was back reminding Melbourne why they’re our favourite adoptee band and making new marks in local music history, cutting the ribbon on the revamped Northcote Theatre Friday night.

There’s a certain kind of magic produced by bands who are friends first, musicians second – particularly when it comes to playing live. When Spiderbait formed, they were just a pair of second cousins (Damian ‘Whitt’ Whitty and Mark ‘Kram’ Maher), and a friend (Janet English) who’d never played a note.

Three decades later, English is now one of Australia’s song-writing greats, and Spiderbait is on the opening leg of a once-off national tour celebrating a 33-track album of exclusively her music – Sounds in the Key of J – including previously published songs and cutting room floor tapes rediscovered during lockdown infinity.

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It’s a project that was initiated by Kram who, for the majority of the band’s long history, has been arguably the most synonymous member of Spiderbait – or at least the one with the most close-ups in live show recordings, his signature mop of hair nodding frenetically to the beat. He’s now inviting fans around Australia to take a more intimate (figurative) front row seat and pay tribute to English’s quieter genius.

It wasn’t a hard directive to follow. Over the course of one and a half hours, the trio worked their way through (by my count) a whopping 20 of these, delighting fans with everything from 90s pop-punk classic ‘Calypso’ to the deceivingly fresh-faced ‘My Car Is A UFO’ (praised by many as a brand-new track off Sounds in the Key of J though it was actually one of many left off of The Flight of Wally Funk back in 2001). Often billed as a nostalgia or 90s/00s throwback band, it’s English’s every-woman lyricism and soundtrack-to-your-life melodies – as well as the surprisingly youthful crowd they’ve attracted in Melbourne’s trend-savvy inner north – that prove Spiderbait very much still belongs in the here and now.

With this in mind, the 110-year-old 1,500-person Northcote Theatre – the earliest surviving picture theatre in Victoria – was the perfect setting, reaffirming that what’s old can very much be new. Though freshly renovated, most of the façade and interior have remained intact. It also boasts direct stage sight lines no matter where you stand, meaning no one was denied the wholesome goodness of bearing witness to Spiderbait’s enduring, infectious mateship, with all three band members appearing touchingly invested in each track.

Kram, in particular, despite struggling to avoid stealing the show at times with his bulldog-like drumming and feverish stick-throwing, was the ultimate hype man, and looked to be genuinely filled with awe at English’s talent, gushing at one point about the beautifully dissonant Inner Ear Infection: “It sort of makes me happy and a little freaked out the way Janet sings it”.

We can only assume guitarist Damien “Whit” Whitty felt the same. Almost totally silent throughout the set bar literally I think one word, he looked a little like he’d stepped out of a Tim Winton novel about a surf shop owner who happens to play guitar and unironically wear AC/DC t-shirts. Either way, he’s clearly a hard-working professional who simply loves his trade. Unlike many, he doesn’t appear overly enthralled with superfluous guitar solos, preferring to flex his musical abilities around English’s diverse range of songs, with a prowess that allows him to switch seamlessly between dead-of-night riffage to early-morning high-neck plucking.

English herself was visibly blushing at several points throughout, but doing her best at an incredibly hard thing for most of us: accepting what is essentially a 90-minute-long (times 12 shows) public compliment. I’d imagine it’s a little like how it feels when all your friends and family gather round to sing you ‘Happy Birthday’, except if you, too, had to sing along. “I know this is supposed to be my night,” she explained to the room. “I find it a bit embarrassing but I wouldn’t be here without my beautiful boys.”

She’s definitely quieter in on-stage personality than her bandmates, more contained in her movements, seeming to savour the lyrics internally. But this is exactly how she draws your fascination. She is so far from trying to be anything she’s not – a rare find among musicians, particularly older ‘Hall-of-Fame’-ers, though in some ways the true embodiment of old-school straight-edge punk. This is epitomised in her short solo track ‘Goin’ Off’ (dedicated to ‘dickheads [who] don’t care what they do to others’), which she introduced live by saying “at some point, gigs went from being this intimate, safe space [to being] kinda agro and weird”, ending with “so let’s keep it respectful shall we.”

The whole band, in fact, isn’t driven by ego or ‘rock’n’roll’, so much as love, for each other and for music – a throughline that could be spotted in their choice of support acts, as well. Pinch Points, started by housemates Adam Smith and Jordan Oakley, shared a similarly watchable on-stage chemistry. It’s no surprise they’re fast becoming a Victorian/Aus music scene staple (soon-to-be Europe as they head off on their first tour of the continent next month), with tight, punchy tracks, basslines you wish you’d written (Acacia Coates we stan) and driving, heartbeat-altering drums, played by Issy Orsini, whose explosive energy behind the kit genuinely rivals Kram’s. Not to mention their ability to strike a balance between funny and dire in their socially conscious lyricism (see references to climate change, mental health, doom scrolling and ACAB).

Local three-piece Moody Beaches also emanated unity on stage, producing the kind of harmonies you can’t hack in the post-punk genre unless you’re somewhat spiritually in sync. They also brought us the first but definitely not last wholesome band hug of the night, and rolled with the theme of excellent lyricism and what’s-old-is-new, with a strong Pixies vibe and moments of Cindy Wilson-esque hypnotic contralto from lead singer Anna Lienhop.

In fact, the whole tour has just generally nailed the support act thing – often a weak point for the Aus music scene. The billing is chock-a-block with young and emerging artists, more than two-thirds of which are women (as in, two-thirds of all band members across all ten acts). On top of that, they’re all musically congruent with Spiderbait – all punk rock, post-punk, alt-something, genre-bending, lyrically-driven. The whole line-up just makes sense.

The concert was not a celebration of things old or new, nostalgic or cutting edge, but eternal: friendship and pure good song-writing that’s unburdened by trope or expectation. Spiderbait has long been viewed as a band that can’t be pinned to a specific time period or genre, which is perhaps what has allowed them to kick on for so long without the usual cynicism, laughability or weariness that can often fall on old rockers.


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They finished the (pre-encore) set in a style befitting the unique personality each band mate brings to the table; Kram on the audience to yell louder, planting a familial kiss on the top of English’s head; English looking bashful; Whit enjoying some sort of upper-limb-centric celebratory dance.

Similarly joyful fans clung to each other’s shirt backs, sing-yelling into each other’s faces. “Live music is back, brother,” one enthused. “I’ve seen them every time,” an older woman told a 20-something stranger glowingly. “This is my first!” he glowed back.

Here’s to many more.

Highlight: A celebration of friendship and great song-writing. Oh, and surprisingly few people calling for Black Betty.

Lowlight: There was one near punch on during Glockenpop of all songs. SHE SAID LET’S KEEP IT RESPECTFUL SHALL WE GODDAMN IT. Also figuring out English’s levels; her mic needed to be a little louder. But hey, it was the first ever live gig at the Northcote Theatre. Onwards and upwards.

Crowd favourite: For a set of 20-something songs, I flatly refuse to pick one. So here goes.

  • Calypso. Ok I was probably always going to say it. If Heath Ledger knew it to be one of their best tracks when he recommended it to the producers of 10 Things I Hate About You, who am I to argue.
  • Ballad of Whitby Farm. With Kram on acoustic guitar, English perfectly captured the idyllic melancholia of Aussie summer, with a kind of dissonant McCartney-ish melodicism. And as always, “Don’t mention the state of the economy.” What did I say about being ever-relevant?
  • Glockenpop. Performed stripped back as initially written (and brought down a key or two for the sake of changing vocal chords), with Kram on glockenspiel (and drums and acoustic guitar). How can anyone not smile when they hear that melodic opening line: “Singing is easy if you can remember the tune”?

Catch Spiderbait as they make their way around the country, with upcoming shows in Woollongabba, Fremantle, Adelaide, Gosford and Sandy Bay.