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Why I Make Music: Stevie Williams From Clowns

Clowns released their fifth studio album, ‘ENDLESS’, last week


Matt Oxlade

Melbourne punk rockers Clowns released their fifth studio album, ENDLESS, last week, the long-awaited follow-up to 2019’s ARIA-nominated Nature/Nurture.

Described as “a testament to resilience and creativity during challenging times,” the tracks on Clowns’ new record came together during the lockdown era and contain the band’s signature snarl, grit, and style.

Five albums in, Clowns sound as fired up as ever, but existential matters are firmly on their mind in an album they say is “an unrelenting journey of immortality and human exploration.”

“I’m so scared to die,” lead singer Stevie Williams bellows many times in album standout “SCARED TO DIE”, but he soon finds fervent escapism, adding, “when we fuck, I feel like I’m gonna live forever.” (The pandemic had most of us feeling suffocated by thoughts of our own mortality.)

Being five albums in is also a good point to stop and consider one’s career so far, and Williams was in a reflective mood when Rolling Stone AU/NZ asked him to tell us the reasons why he makes music. Read his thoughtful reflection on his and Clowns’ music below.

Clowns’ ENDLESS is out now via Damaged (AU/NZ)/Fat Wreck Chords (ROW) (pre-save/pre-order here).

I gotta admit, five albums is a lot, and the desire to write music doesn’t fuel me the way it used to. So when Rolling Stone asked me to write an article about what inspires me, it actually made me stop and reflect.

When we started this band, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on the world with our adolescence and ignorance, I was filled with creative inspiration. I was so inspired by the music I had been listening to my entire life. I had a lot to say, and I couldn’t wait to prove to the world (and myself) what I could do!

Flash forward 13 years: we’ve released three EPs, four full-length albums, and, as I write this, we’re on the edge of releasing our fifth album, ENDLESS, into the world. We’ve played over a thousand gigs, completed 15 international tours, and lost track of the number of Australian shows we’ve played. So much of my creative ground has been covered, and I can look back on our back catalogue and my iCloud photo memories and feel satisfied that I have done the best I could do in the sphere of punk rock.

The title of the proposed article made me think: “Why the hell am I still doing this after 13 years?” Well, I did some soul-searching and came up with these three main points.

This Band Feels Bigger Than Me

I often find myself forgetting that people out there listen and resonate with the music I’ve been a part of for the last decade. To me, the music of my band feels like I’ve made something as simple as, let’s say, a sandwich. When I’m making this metaphorical sandwich, I try to buy the best ingredients. I wake up early to go to the market, and I try to think of the most interesting combinations of flavours to make the highest quality sandwich I can. The sandwich is for myself to enjoy, but I get to share it with whoever else wants a bite too. At the end of the day, I think it’s a good sandwich, and I’m happy to share it.

One moment that has stuck with me over the years was at a show we played at the 4ZZZ carpark in Brisbane circa 2016. Somebody pulled me aside and thanked me for releasing our most recent record, telling me that he was considering suicide one day when the music of Clowns came on his laptop on shuffle. It evoked an emotive response in him so powerful that he decided to reconsider, and it served as a reason not to do it. Imagine if you gave a bite of your sandwich to someone, and they turned around and said, “Thanks! Damn, that sandwich was so good I might not kill myself now”… That’s essentially what it felt like to have somebody tell me that. My response is, “Shit, ok… guess I’ll make another sandwich.”

The Friends We’ve Made Along The Way

One thing that is a constant source of inspiration is all the personalities we’ve met through our journeys. At the time of writing, the last gig I played was supporting our friend’s band in Germany in front of 12,000 people at Wuhlheide (a huge natural amphitheater that has hosted bands like The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Radiohead, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) in Berlin. The set consisted of a mixture of new songs and songs that I had written as a teenager in my bedroom on my second guitar. I don’t mind the music I wrote back then. If I could go back in time and rewrite some riffs or lyrics, I definitely would. But also, the riffs and lyrics are the way they are because they were my bridging point to where I am now. Also, if we can see that people are still streaming it on Spotify and requesting represses of the records, then who am I to let my sense of self stand in the way of that?

It can get existential thinking about it for too long, but all I know is I’m just riding this thing to see how far it can go. We got that show because somewhere along the way, our back catalog caught the ears of Feine Sahne Fischfilet, who asked us to do a show with them back in 2019. That later turned into a tour, and tours are, of course, some of the most fertile breeding grounds for friendship possible. After the show, we drank and partied, got a cab into the city, and jumped the queue at a techno nightclub, and stayed there and danced until the sun came up. As I was jumping in an Uber home, brain-fried and completely drained, I thought to myself, “God damn, it’s fun playing in this band.”

The Travel

Somewhere along the way, we realised that the music our local Australian band was making was resonating with people overseas. Beats me if I know why or how that happened. When most of our friends were backpacking and staying in hostels in their early to mid-twenties, we were saving our pennies and doing the same thing, but bringing our instruments and playing wherever would let us. In 2012, we came across an email address online that claimed they could book us shows in South East Asia. Without ever jumping on the phone with the contact, we took their advice and flew to Singapore to meet a complete stranger who thankfully kept their word and booked us a tour. In 2013, we came across a guy who said he could book us on our first proper music festival in Shenzhen, China. We got ourselves there and were gobsmacked at the crowd, which was a few thousand strong, and to see that the show was being televised with those huge camera cranes you see at massive festivals.

We backpacked to Austin, Texas in 2015 and played at venues around SXSW, which later crystallised into an offer to play at Riot Fest in Chicago, making us the first-ever Australian band to play the festival. The rest of that US tour was honestly very brutal; we were all sent broke from it, and I lost heaps of weight by eating nothing but 99c bean and cheese burritos from Taco Bell for weeks. We even slept on the street one night in San Jose after no one came to our show, and the sound person wouldn’t let us stay at his place. In full Stand By Me style, the rest of us would sleep while one person stayed awake to make sure we didn’t get robbed. But we did come across one person in the US who wrangled us our first European record deal, which laid the groundwork to start getting festival offers over there, but also the label never paid us a royalty check, and it’s still unclear to us how many we have sold! Next minute, we were playing in Europe, which was spreading the music further and wider, and without us fully knowing it, it was planting more seeds into our music career.

I find that most people spend a chunk of their lives working jobs that they hate to save money and blast it on trips overseas. When we were doing the same thing, we didn’t fully realise that bringing our instruments along for the journey was turning the trip into more of an investment. We were laying the framework for more offers and opportunities to come our way. Now that we are all post-30, it seems like we have more offers to play and travel than we are able to commit too. The opportunities to travel and the places it takes me that I never could have known existed is not something I’m able to give up just yet.