Jamie Wdziekonski*

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Amyl and The Sniffers: Get on Their Level (Or Get out Of Their Way)

Amyl and The Sniffers soared to global success on the back of a booze-soaked brand of breakneck pub rock. But with the arrival of second album 'Comfort to Me', Australia’s favourite punk protagonists are growing up. Sort of.

It’s a grey, wintry morning in Melbourne. Amy Taylor is sitting in her bedroom in Northcote, beaming into a video link on a laptop screen, on the other end of which sits me, not far away on the other side of town. Amy only just woke up, she tells me. There are some plants in the background, and her wardrobe door is slightly ajar. “Sorry about the mess,” she says.

Amy looks a little tired but not as tired as she should. We were both supposed to be at a gig last night: the first of a three-night Amyl and The Sniffers residency at Melbourne’s Croxton Bandroom in Thornbury. The gig was supposed to be a line in the sand: a goodbye to the pandemic-plagued year that was, the opportunity to road-test some new songs, and the beginning of more shows and more touring for Amy and her band. But then COVID came back, and well, we all know how that went. 

The Croxton gigs were put on ice, and our first in-person interview for this story was rescheduled to Zoom, which feels like an altogether strange place for a woman best known as the chief instigator of one of the most exciting live performances on the planet to find herself. “Like everybody else, I feel like a big chunk of our purpose got ripped away from us,” she reflects on the last year. “That’s the main thing. I’m a worker. I like being really busy and I like having lots to do.”

Heading into 2020, Amy and her band were nothing if not busy. Following the release of two home-grown EPs in 2016 (Giddy Up) and 2017 (Big Attraction), their rollicking, riff-heavy 2019 self-titled debut album (which saw them nab the 2019 ARIA for Best Rock Album) and maniacal live shows saw them become one of the most sought-after live acts on the touring circuit.

In between all this, they’d also signed with Flightless Records in Australia, ATO in the US, and the iconic Rough Trade Records in the UK: an impressive trio of backers for a band of any vintage, let alone for one as fresh and as raw as the Sniffers (who, by their own admission, “couldn’t play their fucking instruments”.)

The momentum continued with support slots for Foo Fighters, a US tour with King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, endorsements from Gucci, an SXSW showcase, a stretch on the European festival circuit and the 2019 ARIA for Best Rock Album. Amyl and The Sniffers were rolling on the global stage in a way that Australian bands—certainly Australian punk bands—are rarely, if ever, afforded. Then along came the pandemic, with its blind indifference to all of it.   

The pandemic, and the havoc it wreaked on both the world at large and the music industry—upon which their livelihoods depend—meant that Amy, guitarist Declan Martens, bassist Gus Fromer, and drummer Bryce Wilson were forced to return home to Melbourne’s strict lockdown and a new, acutely indoors reality.

Luckily, the band had a new album to write. They rented a house together in Northcote with “sick green walls” (though Amy lived in the shed), and made regular use of their makeshift rehearsal space: a storage locker at a nearby National Storage facility. Here, during the course of 2020, the group fine-tuned the 17 songs they had written and culled them to the 13 tracks that would become Comfort to Me: a darker, more refined, and more thoughtful expression of the Sniffers’ raucous and beloved sound.

On their 2019 debut, the group had very little time to lean into the creative process: it was mostly written and recorded during whatever downtime they had from their hectic touring schedule. But while the pandemic laid waste to their plans for continued global domination, it did provide them with a little more breathing room to craft Comfort to Me—the fruits of which can currently be heard on “Guided by Angels”, “Security”, and “Hertz”, the album’s three main singles. 

For Amy, time away from the road meant ample opportunity to enjoy “leisure activities” and explore new-to-her things, some of which played a major role in her approach to Comfort to Me. Like books. “Fucking heaps of them,” she replies, when asked what kind of books. “I read that Sapiens book… I read a book of Dolly Parton interviews. I’ve been reading some Malcolm Gladwell.” 

“Life is like a big wrinkly T-shirt that you’re always trying to iron out, but you forget that it’s always just wrinkly. You’ve just got to represent the fuckery, I feel.”

Amy’s newfound hobby (she also took up painting, and she’s good) helped expose her to new ideas and themes for her lyrics. She’s also a huge rap fan, and has often cited rap music as an inspiration for her writing. “Lyrics are really important to me,” she says.

“That’s the thing that I bring. That’s the thing I want to be good at, and get better at, and it’s fun for me to practice with words […] On the first album, we weren’t really thinking that much, we were just saying exactly what we thought. I actually think I preferred it like this: I enjoyed working on [Comfort to Me], and thinking about what I wanted to say.”

And while Melbourne’s months-long 2020 lockdown(s) forced Amy into a kind of introspection she didn’t typically have time for before the pandemic, she hasn’t shied away from grappling with the uncertainty of it all. “I can fluctuate between negativity and positivity,” she says. “[…] Life is like a big wrinkly T-shirt that you’re always trying to iron out, but you forget that it’s always just wrinkly. You’ve just got to represent the fuckery, I feel.”

“D’ya think we can smoke here?” asks Gus, before deciding he doesn’t care. We’re in the beer garden of Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club a few weeks after my first conversation with Amy. Now that lockdown restrictions have eased, Amy, Declan, Gus, and Bryce are gathered around a table nursing beers, smoking rolled cigarettes, inhaling food (fish and chips for Amy, chicken parma for Bryce, hot chips for Gus and Declan), and talking me through the making of Comfort to Me.

“In every regard, it’s progressed at such a high level,” says Gus about the group’s collective musicianship between sips of his Carlton Draught. “For all of us, it’s just kicked up a notch. Playing shows every day for fucking years, being on tour a crazy amount, it’s so much more… ‘intricate’ isn’t the right word…”

“Mature?” offers Declan, giggling to himself under his Brian Johnson-esque flat cap.

“Yeah, mature.”  

“You still can’t tune a bass but…”

“I can’t tune it, but I can play it,” Gus replies.

Amy reaches across the table to grab a napkin. “In saying all this, like ‘Oh, we’ve really matured our craft’: that’s as a punk crew,” she clarifies. “I think these guys are sick musicians, but it’s still in the punk realm. It’s not like, ‘Oh, put the C Major above the D Minor’, it’s just like, ‘Oh yeah, that double kick sounds dope… that doom-doom-cat is really hittin’ tonight’.”

“I wanted to simplify what I did,” Declan chimes in, the conversation flowing freely now. “For the first album, I feel like I was trying to prove something to people and go hectic with some of my solos. This time I was a lot more calculated, I tried to strip myself back a lot.”

“I feel like it was a natural progression,” adds Bryce. “But when you start playing a bigger platform there’s an expectation of being a tight band, or writing tighter songs, so I felt some pressure on myself to rise to that.”

“I think a lot of it is just from ourselves as musicians, blossoming,” says Declan, half-joking.

With a portion of Comfort to Me written during the brutal Australian bushfire season of 2019-20, and the rest written during a global pandemic (and the ensuing authoritarian government response), Amy couldn’t help but channel some of her frustration about the state of the world into her lyrics. 

Australia is burning, but I’m not learning how to be more conscious / And the farmers hope for rain, while the landscape torches,” she barks on “Capital”, a furious three-minute response to government ineptitude that touches on environmental calamity, existential crises (“I love feeling drunk on the illusion of meaning”), and the continued mistreatment of Australia’s Indigenous peoples (“First port of call should be changing the date, and changing the flag”).

Amy says she wrote “Capital” over a long period of time. She talks about wanting to get her “political brain” across, and that she struggled with the anxiety of putting her opinions out there, on record.

“I spent heaps of time on [“Capital”] because I don’t know heaps of shit, I just know how I feel,” Amy says. “And I know what’s right and wrong, but I don’t know how to get that across without sounding like a fucking idiot […] Like, you can know that it’s pretty fucked up that Australia is stolen land, you don’t have to study that at university.

“We should just know that, and have that conversation, and maybe it’s OK if we don’t nail it. With ‘Capital’ I wanted people to know that’s how I feel, and that we’re not just promoting white Australia. We’re like bogans against racism, bitch. But it was also super existential. Like, life is a scam, and it’s meaningless, and I don’t know what’s going on on this hell rock.”

Comfort to Me—which was recorded at Melbourne’s Soundpark Studios with producer Dan Luscombe, mixed by Nick Launay (IDLES, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and mastered remotely by Bernie Grundman (Michael Jackson, Prince)—isn’t all existential crises and political messages, mind you.

Far from it. “Security”, released as a single earlier this year, is a head-banger dedicated solely to the art of convincing a bouncer to let Amy into a pub (“Will you let me in your hard heart? Let me in your pub?”, she pleads). “Freaks to the Front” is a punk-rock anthem for the disenfranchised (“If they don’t like you, just ignore the cunt”), while “Hertz” is a romantic (and funny) ode to rental car road trips (“Take me to the beach, take me to the country / Climb in the backseat, if you love me”).

Elsewhere, the dark, menacing, and matter-of-fact “Knifey” holds a mirror to the maddening and enduring perils of getting home safe after dark: “All I ever wanted was to walk by the park / All I ever wanted was to walk by the river, see the stars / Please, stop fucking me up / Out comes the night, out comes my knifey / This is how I get home nicely.”

“I just don’t know a female who can walk around at night and not kind-of be on edge,” says Amy about the track. “So many women carry around weapons and stuff like that, I’m sure non-binary people do as well. I just think it’s necessary to talk about all that stuff.”

Since Amyl and The Sniffers’ inception, the world’s music press has referred to Amy, Declan, Gus, Bryce, and the music they make as everything from “pub rock”, “yob rock” and “yob-glam punk”. The Guardian’s Michael Hann even went as far as to refer to it as “Oz thug rock”.

“People want to limit me, and limit us, everywhere we go. They’ll pigeonhole us, and if you step to the left or right of that, they’ll crucify you. I just think it’s bullshit, because everyone can be everything.”

Whether the group did it consciously or not (if you ask them: they didn’t), Comfort to Me—with its much-improved musicianship (the result of “trial by fire”, says Amy), heightened introspection, and elevated lyricism is, in many ways, a response to these of types of categorisations. And “Don’t Fence Me In”—a feverish, three-minute lamentation of being put in a box—is the exclamation point.

“People want to limit me, and limit us, everywhere we go,” says Amy. “They’ll pigeonhole us, and if you step to the left or right of that, they’ll crucify you. I just think it’s bullshit, because everyone can be everything.”

Amy in real life is almost the antithesis of Amy on stage. While she carries the same energy and presence, she’s more thoughtful and sincere than she is flippant or nihilistic. And despite being a walking one-liner machine, everything that comes out of her mouth feels organic.

“I just want to be authentic to what I am at the time,” she says. “When we started, we’d be going to the pub six nights a week, and that’s all I did. But I’ve been in lockdown for a year, thinking about shit differently, and picking up different hobbies. If I didn’t represent that, I’d feel like an actor.”

Amy doesn’t drink or party all that much on tour, she says, because she needs to save her voice for the 45-minute thrashing it gets every single night. During the recording of Comfort to Me, Amy found out she had a vocal cyst, and had to sing through it to get the album done. “That was pretty gnarly,” she says. 

Amy takes what she does seriously, and it’s important to her to respect herself, her body and her health when she’s at work. “I like to keep my brain clear,” she says. “[…] it’s not like I’m sober the whole time, but I’m not sucked into getting fucked up every night. I run my own race.”

“I like all the gangster stuff, transferring money and shit. I want to be a gangster. I want to be like Goodfellas, but for music.”

She also “really likes the business shit”, and gets involved in as much of the business side of the Amyl and The Sniffers operation as she can. “I like all the gangster stuff, transferring money and shit,” she says. “I want to be a gangster. I want to be like Goodfellas, but for music. It’s my personality type—to be interested in that shit. I like problem-solving, thinking about things, and I like to organise shit.”

Amy’s inspired by Minor Threat and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, a punk icon who has utilised the power of business for the good of himself and his bandmates over the years, and now has a reported net worth of around $5 million. “I think there’s a stereotype for musicians to just get fucked up all the time, and then get ripped off by everybody,” says Amy. “But I want to hold my own. I want to be like a weapon. But I do know how to have a good time too… it’s just not the only thing I do.”

Much of Amy’s outlook can be traced back to her upbringing, which she recollects on “Snakes”, the final track on Comfort to Me. The autobiographical song recounts—in breakneck Sniffers fashion—her childhood growing up in the warm, sub-tropical hinterland town of Mullumbimby, New South Wales, just a few klicks inland from Byron Bay.

Amy’s dad bought three acres of land when it was “dirt cheap”—and before it was “trendy and shit”. She lived in a shed with her sister, mum and dad, and the family shared one bedroom until Amy was around nine years old. Amy and her sister spent a lot of time playing outside and, as the song title suggests, a lot of time dodging snakes.

“There were literally snakes in the bathroom, on the veranda, in the chook pen, at school,” she says. “I just think it’s interesting. I’ve got fond memories of it… and I wanted to explain where I’m from, and why I’m so feral and weird.”

Despite the snakes, Amy’s childhood was a happy one, she says. She made the most of the freedom that came with all of the space on offer at home, and learned some valuable life lessons from her mum and dad along the way—like the importance of financial independence. “Because we didn’t necessarily have much growing up,” she says. “It’s kind of drilled into my brain to get my own money and have independence. That’s probably where the gangster thing comes from.”

On “Snakes”, Amy also sings about working at the IGA in Mullumbimby, and how she always preferred work to school—she even used to wag classes so she could pick up extra shifts at work. (She remembers her mum telling her that she’d be proud of her if she worked at the IGA, and proud of her if she won an ARIA). 

Amy reckons if she’d never got into music—which she did via the The Angels, then the Byron Bay hardcore scene, through which she first fell in love with live music—she’d still be working at the IGA, and probably pretty happy about it too.

“I’m just a worker, I like working,” she says. “I worked in the deli of IGA Mullumbimby for like three or four years. I was really good at it. Somebody would be like ‘200 grams of tabouli, please’, and I’d get it straight, first go… I really liked everyone I worked with, and all the customers. I thought it was fun.”

“I just don’t want to be one of those cunts that’s pickled in fame. I want to be confident and have self-esteem and recognise all the shit I’ve done and recognise who I am, but I don’t want to be a fucking idiot.” 

With Comfort to Me dropping last week on B2B Records, the band’s own imprint, Amyl and The Sniffers will (COVID-19 pending) head off on a national tour before two London dates in November. They’ll then fly to the US to play Coachella, then embark on a US tour from April. But the biggest date on the calendar, by far, is a support slot for Foo Fighters and Liam Gallagher at Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in June 2022.

Still, after a tumultuous year and ample time for reflection, Amy’s feet are rooted firmly on planet earth, and she has no interest in letting her band’s ascension go to her head. “I just don’t want to be one of those cunts that’s pickled in fame,” she says. “I want to be confident and have self-esteem and recognise all the shit I’ve done and recognise who I am, but I don’t want to be a fucking idiot. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. I’m just shutting my eyes and running.”

Amyl and The Sniffers’ Comfort to Me is out now via B2B Records.