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“We’re Not out There to Try and Make Gold Records” – Bodyjar on Their Long-Awaited New Album, ‘New Rituals’

Their first album in nine years, New Rituals sees Melbourne punk icons Bodyjar still at the top of their game after 30 years.

Image of Bodyjar

Nick Manuell*

For over 30 years now, Melbourne’s Bodyjar have been one of the most beloved and respected punk bands on the local scene. Having first formed in the early ’90s as Damnation, one album as Helium saw them take on their best-known moniker from 1994. Since then, they’ve practically been unstoppable.

While records arrived with relative frequency throughout the ’90s and ’00s (along with with constant radio presence on triple j, frequent appearances in the Hottest 100, and even a few singles making an impact overseas), it was in 2009 that Bodyjar announced their untimely split.

Thankfully, it was far from the end, and by 2012, the group had reformed, with new album Role Model appearing the following year. In 2017, the band released their Terra Firma EP, before founding bassist Grant Relf departed in 2019, being replaced by Nick Manuell. Needless to say, it seemed as though the stage was set for their long-awaited ninth album. Then, COVID happened.

Having released new single “Big Shot” in March of 2020, with promise of a new album to arrive later that year, Bodyjar were just another band forced to adapt to the new ways of living that we’d found ourselves in. Not wanting to fall victim to the pandemic’s effects, the group kept on working on the album where they could, with New Rituals finally arriving in early February.

With two years of delays behind it, it arrives as one of Bodyjar’s best and strongest works to date. To celebrate the release of the record, vocalist and guitarist Cam Baines spoke to Rolling Stone Australia from his Locality Store skateshop in Melbourne to discuss the road to album number nine.

I feel we should begin with the standard question, which is, ‘how have you been dealing with everything over the last two years? Have you been doing alright?

I’ve been doing alright. It’s been a lot of adjusting, week to week, I think. I mean, with the shop, it was weird because suddenly we weren’t allowed to have customers and then and then the web store was going mental. So we had to switch to being basically a skateboard skate shop webstore for probably most of that two year period. And now it’s back to being what it was before. And with the band, we started recording this new album right before the first lockdown, so we got locked out of the studio then. Then we were allowed back and then locked out and we were allowed back and it was a little bit annoying at the time.

I was just saying to someone before, in the end I think it worked probably in the album’s favour, because it made us take more time. We got some opportunities to write more songs and do more demos at home. And that’s what we got into, just doing demos at home on the bloody ProTools, trying to put together like a verse and of course, to show everyone else and see if it was good enough. and then it was good enough, we’d sort of pursue it a bit more. So we ended up kicking off a few of the first songs that we recorded before the first lockdown and adding new ones at the end, which I think made the album a bit stronger in the long run. It was sort of the equivalent of an A&R guy saying, “Not good enough, go and write more songs!”. 

We’ll look at the recording of the new album in a second, but I want to go back in time briefly to begin with. It was in 2013 that you guys released Role Model, which was an album that fans weren’t really expecting, given the previous split that preceded it. So what was the plan after that? What were you guys thinking going to be new albums all the time, or was it sort of going to be pretty sporadic, if at all? 

It’s a good question. I think at the time we were like, “Yeah, let’s do another one straight away”, and then things changed and I think all of us had a lot of personal issues after that. We released that album and then we went on tour. We went to Europe, I think, and Japan. Then when we got back, there was all sorts of personal things going on in other members’ lives, and it just seemed like the band had to be put on hold for a little while, even though it only just gotten back into it. So we just didn’t do much. And then after about six or seven months, when things started to settle down a bit, we started jamming instead of playing a few shows. But yeah, I guess we never got around to recording.

We did a little EP called Terra Firma, but that was probably like three years after that. So that was a little gap filler, and I wanted that to be a record, but I guess my best friend Caleb [Williams], who is also our manager, was like, “Just do this EP and keep working on the record”, which was probably good advice at the time. But I guess the older you get, the more that little things sort of get in the way of what you want to do with the band. So it seemed a bit more of a smarter thing to do, to get everyone on the same page, which eventually did happen.

When the EP came out, I recall wondered if it was a bit of a stopgap or an indication of what was to come, because around that time, a lot of artists were saying, “Oh, there’s no point in releasing albums in the age of streaming”. 

That’s exactly what everyone was saying to me: “You don’t have to put out an album any more, you just put out like a bunch of songs”. Yeah, but I think I kind of disagree with that a little bit. I think older bands like us that might have older followings, they expect a band to put out an album, Like, I’m waiting for the next Descendents album. You know, if I put out an EP, I might not be that excited about it. I’m going to listen, but if they put out an album, I’m definitely down. Bad Religion, too. You know, it’s an older band, and I kind of expect albums because those guys are good at making albums, you know?

But you’re right. I mean, that’s the sort of thing we were thinking too. I mean, “Maybe we just need to do an EP and put it out?” So we did. We did that Terra Firma thing, and I think we did that tour with Less Than Jake in Australia. That was pretty cool, and we did a couple of other little things. And then we were having a few arguments and bits and pieces, and we needed to just have a few months away from it. 

In 2019, there was a bit of a line-up change with the addition of Nick. At what point after that did you all just say, “You know what, let’s do another album.” When did everything start kicking off for what would become the new album? 

I think it was nearly straight away. We were waiting around for a long time to sort out everything with Grant [Zelf, former bassist] and then eventually we sorted that out. We’re still on really good terms with him and everything, and he’s moved on to Ballarat to do his own thing. But getting Nick in the band – and it always does, we’ve had a new drummer before – it kicks you in the arse a little bit and gives you that extra bit of energy to do something.

I think the catalyst for doing a new album was shortly after Nick joined, I just remember jamming with him, and him having all these like really strong ideas on what he thought. Y’know, for a new member in a band, like, what he thought we should do and what he thought the new album should be. Yeah, he was just coming out with it. I knew the guy for ages because he was in Sinking Teeth and we toured with them. And I knew him, but he did have a lot of strong ideas. Like, “Nah, this is what we should do”, and “You can’t do that”, and “We’ve got to do this”. And I thought, “This is cool, at least he cares”, you know? He wants to do something amazing, and he had a lot to do with this album, even like how the artwork looks. He really put his five cents in it. 

So I guess it was pretty soon after that after he joined us. I remember going to see Gyroscope play at 170 Russell, and I think it was the last show that they were going to do with their drummer – It was probably like two years ago. But they just fucking blew me away, just how good that band was and that and I came back from that. I remember ringing Tom [Read], the guitarist of Bodyjar, and being like, “Gyroscope, are amazing, we’ve got to do another album.” It just energised me, and it just really inspired me to write some good songs. And they are this amazing, explosive live band. It’s just like, “Fuck, this shit can still be really good”, you know? 

Then the idea was to do an album and do maybe a split 7” with them and tour with them. But they’re over in WA and they’re probably never going to leave that state. So we had to change plans. 

But I was pretty certain after Nick joined. We thought, “Let’s start writing some songs”, and we started jamming. We had a few demos from the old days. Some of the demos go back to like 2014, some songs that could have been on Terra Firma. We saved two that I thought I didn’t want to waste on an EP, like, “We’ve got to save these for the album”. So we had a little bit of a head start, but we still had to write a lot of songs. 

Looking at things again from a chronological point of view, it was in March of 2020 that you released “Big Shot”. Now, that month is pretty infamous for a few reasons now, but that was when there was also the news that there was a new album coming later that year. So how far into recording were you guys at that point in time?

I think we’ve done two lots of four songs. We did everything in lots of four. I think the first time we did three, so we had “Big Shot” and maybe “Billy”, and maybe “Get Out of My Head”. And then I think we’ve done maybe the next four by the time we put out that press release.

Wow, that came out in March [of 2020]? So that was just after the bushfires and all that… I remember some of those lyrics because it was Tom who wrote that, and I thought it was about Scott Morrison and that sort of thing. I think it’s a bit more general than that. But yeah, so that was the timeline. March, that single comes out, and then we’ve probably got seven songs and we’re about to sort of start to try to get the next four. We ended up probably recording about 25, I reckon. Because we couldn’t jam properly, we would just do them at home and then go to the studio.

And we didn’t really ‘demo’, we just recorded them properly in the studio. We had demos with, like, fake drums and stuff. So it wasn’t really a matter of jamming, it was just a matter of, “When are we going to get to the studio and record these next four”, and just deciding on what the four we were going to record out of all the demos. 

That would have been a bit of a learning curve for you guys, wouldn’t it? Because I daresay that wasn’t something you’d really done before?

Definitely. Everyone had to learn how to be better at making demos because it’s like, if you want your song on the album, you’ve got to compete with everyone else who’s doing demos. So it was me and Tom, and Nick trying to get his stuff in there, too. And it’s cool, it’s a little bit competitive. But you had to be pretty good at recording. You had to sell it to everyone with a demo you made at home on your computer.

But that’s cool. I mean, we’ve all got Pro Tools and they’ve all got a bit of experience doing it. So it was kind of fun to do, but there was a certain quality control thing. You didn’t want to turn in anything that was shit, and we were all writing with other people and trying to sort of make things happen and make it a bit special. 

It would also become one of those situations where you would be wondering, “Well, what would the album have sounded like if we weren’t in this position?”, wouldn’t you?

I think so. I mean, towards the end, I think the last four or five songs we wrote made it all made it onto the album, and they probably wouldn’t have been written. So “Surrender” and some of the good moments, “Pieces”, that didn’t come until the end. That’s the song with Nat Foster from Press Club. That was like extra time when we were like, “Fuck, we’ve got time to do more. Let’s just try and knock out a few more.” And then “Rain”, the Dragon cover, we didn’t do that to the very end. So those songs wouldn’t have been on it.

I reckon it would have been probably not quite as exciting for us, but hopefully still decent. I mean, “Get Out of My Head”, would have still been written. So, you know. And then there were issues with the artwork, like, there always is. It would have been it would’ve been way worse [laughs]. 

It is a great album in the end, and it’s one that not only sounds like Bodyjar, but feels like it too. Ultimately, it sounds strong and doesn’t feel as though it’s a product of recording in the COVID era.

That’s probably because we had the extra time. In the old days when we were signed to EMI, we just spent tons of money and just recorded the demos at Hothouse for a thousand dollars a day – we’d just spend all this money. This time it was like, “Nah, you got to do the demos at home for free and then work it out.” Because, you know, we were paying for the recording ourselves and everything. 

So I think in the end, that worked in our favour. Because it took so long, it ended up becoming a bit more of a… I was thinking the other day, accidentally, iit’s kind of like everything that we try to do. It’s got a cool ‘80s cover, like Dragon’s “Rain”, or “Hazy Shade of Winter”, we’ve had that. It’s got a cool medium-paced song, like “Get Out of My Head” is like “Not The Same”, and it kind of has that sort of medium pace.

It’s got a good fast banger at the start, and it’s got a few good guest appearances from other people helping us out on vocals. Like, Jon Toogood from Shihad and Nat Foster. Which is kind of like how we did “Too Drunk to Drive” with Adalita. So it’s kind of got those little pieces of what we did for the last five albums all in one album – just a little cohesive, cohesive thing of what we do. 

The album has got a lot of passionate songs on there which have a lot of visceral anger, like “Big Shot” and “Surrender”, which have themes of greed. And it also seems as though that passion sort of followed in during the making of the album, didn’t it?

I think so. I think it’s just during that time when it was just lockdown after lockdown. And I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m all about vaccination. And then like, I thought we were trying to do the right thing and save lives and stuff like that. But it was just a bit frustrating. And, you know, there was a bit of anger about how the federal government didn’t seem to be doing much to help states and all that sort of stuff. I just seemed like they were just doing nothing like that. And I think everyone was a little bit angry about the state of affairs and it definitely comes through in the lyrics a bit.

On most albums we’ve done… I mean, we love Descendants and ALL, and those sort of bands that write songs about girls and when you’re growing up, and I used to relate to that when I was little. But there’s not one song on this album, you know, there’s no love songs or whatever like they usually would be. So that’s kind of weird as well. That was just something that just happened, I guess, as we got just a little bit older, and I guess the whole album’s a bit more focussed on social politics and stuff like that. 

I’d assume that wouldn’t have been the intention either? That would have just been how the songs were coming out, having been informed by everything that inspired them.

Yeah. Well, I think there was probably demos that were like that, but probably no one liked him enough to get them on the album. There was probably songs like that – there definitely was; I’ve still got them now. But when they were presented to everyone, there was probably no comments about them or anything, so they just got passed on. So that would have been definitely like something that Nick would have been all about. Noisier, kind of more abrasive. All the music we were listening to that day. That band Brand New, I remember that was one band that we listened to and he was like, “It doesn’t have to be so produced and all that. It can be more abrasive and in-your-face.” So he helped with production and things like that.

You mentioned the cover of Dragon’s “Rain” before. What was it about that song that basically said it needed to be covered by Bodyjar?

At jams, we always used to muck around with it. I remember Grant, who used to play bass with us, he used to love it, and he thought the arrangement was cool. Because it has this verse, then this bridgey part before the chorus which is almost as good as the chorus which doesn’t even go into the chorus until after the second verse. And it’s a kind of cool little arrangement.

I remember I was at the time I was reading Chasing the Dragon, which is Marc Hunter’s biography, and I was just really into him. He was just such a charismatic dude, and I think they’ve got a good, really good story, that band. I mean, a lot of tragedy in there and everything. It’s a sad story, but fuck they were a really good band.

They started off as like a prog-rock band from New Zealand and moved to Sydney and did a whole bunch of shit. I watched a lot of YouTube shows and they’ve got hits coming out of their arse, haven’t they? You don’t realise how many songs that they had on the radio. And that song was like their comeback song, I guess. So we just thought, “Let’s chuck a cover on there”, you know?

Have the guys from Dragon responded? I’d assume they’d have been more positive than they were towards Scott Morrison’s cover of “April Sun in Cuba”?

I can’t believe Scott Morrison did that. What a fucking knob. He’s playing a fucking ukulele, to God’s sake. Can he be any more irrelevant? But we emailed them and asked them permission, our manager. Not permission, but just said, “Look, we’re doing this. Are you guys cool with it?” And yeah, he was cool with it. 

Bodyjar are quite well known for their covers from over the years, but at the same time, the song would have to ‘fit’, wouldn’t it? You couldn’t just pick a random song and cover it, could you?

Yeah, it has to fit. I think the most important thing is the vocal range. It can’t be too low because my voice, I’ve got this weird sort of range. But that one seemed to be easy to sing, and it has to push the vocal a little bit, it can’t be too low. I remember we were trying a few Midnight Oil songs as well and they were just too low. They didn’t have the vibe. We tried a couple other covers as well – just things that we’ve been mucking around with. Because we couldn’t jam, we thought, “Let’s try and make demos of a few covers and see what happens?” And “Rain” just sort of stuck out.

The album has been out for a little bit now, but what’s the response from fans been like?

It’s been unbelievable. It’s been the best response we’ve had, probably. Everyone seems to be really into it and we’re stoked with it. I mean it came in at number 35 or something. So it’s a top 40, and which is pretty good for a totally independent release. And it was number three on the Australian charts out of all the other Australian releases.

The number one album on that was like Australian bird calls for endangered species [laughs]. If we had to be number two and that kept us number one, that would have been hilarious. But yeah, I think that’s pretty cool, man. We’re happy with that. Everyone, everyone seems to be into it. All the people that like Bodyjar, they sort of keep in contact with us on Instagram and stuff and buy T-shirts and come to gig, they all seem to really dig it. 

How do you guys view the album in terms of your discography? Or are you the types to say that your most recent one is always your best work?

[Laughs]. It’s always your best way to that. Yeah, totally. I definitely think it’s way better than Role Model. I think Role Model had a bit of filler on it. I mean, it was a long time ago, but I put it up there with How it Works and No Touch Red – I think those are our best work, and I put it up there with those, I reckon. It’s hard, you’ve got to ask someone else, I guess who’s not in the band, but I definitely think it’s strong. I think lyrically and everything gets really strong. I think there’s no song on it where I go, “Fuck, we could’ve done better than that.” I think we’re all really proud of it. 

I’ve listened to Bodyjar for over 20 years now, and a lot of bands who have been around for that long and longer, they definitely start to fade away at some point. But Bodyjar feel stronger than ever, and it’s so great to see. But from your point of view, how does it feel to be releasing such powerful records after more than 30 years in the band?

It’s weird. I don’t know. It’s just something we just kept on doing. As long as there’s someone else who’s willing to do it with me in the band – like, it’s been Tom, he’s kind of been driving it with me a little bit – then we’re happy to just keep doing it. It’s just fun. It’s a creative release, and I think we both really need it.

So we are working now to do another one – we’ve demoed about five or six songs. We want to get another one out pretty quick. But yeah, it feels good, man. We’ve been doing it for a long time and we can still put out a record without a record company and get it out there and get people listening to it. And it’s not that hard; it’s still fun. Any time anything gets too serious, we just stop doing it for a little while and come back to it, you know? I think that’s the secret. 

I guess that helps to keep things fresh and exciting, doesn’t it? But with that in mind, does the band feel particularly different to how it did, say, 10, 20 or 25 years ago? Or is it still as fun as ever?

Yeah, it’s still fun. I mean, we’ve had new members – new drummer and bass player over the years – and I think they freshen things up a little bit. You’ve just got to keep it pretty real. Also, our manager, Caleb, who I’ve known for a really, really long time, it’s good to have that personal relationship with the person who’s helping you do everything. I think for him, it’s a real personal thing as well. We’ve just got a really good situation at the moment  just with how things are.

It sounds really cliché, but our team is pretty good. Caleb and his assistant, are fucking awesome. I think we’re all on the same page. We’re old enough to know that we’re old [laughs] and we just want to do what we want to do. We’re not out there to try and make gold records and shit. We just want to put out cool records and play shows and you know, and say how we feel. 

Live shows are finally sort of happening again with a bit more regularity now. That must be something you guys are keen on – just get back out on the stage without all these postponements or cancellations. 

Yeah, we had tons of gigs and they all got canned. We’ve got a couple of festivals and stuff that look like they’re going to happen and we’re sort of trying to book a proper tour now. We did a last minute sort of show that got announced last Thursday and we played on Saturday at the Bendigo Hotel in Collingwood. And that was really cool. It was just a last-minute sort of thing, but that made me sort of realise I’m hanging out to get out there and play some gig, which is, you know what, we really want to do. 

Bodyjar’s New Rituals is out now.