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The Amity Affliction: The End of Heartache

Joel Birch hit rock bottom while making the Amity Affliction’s new album. In his only Australian interview, the frontman explains how he’s fighting his way back.

On a sunny afternoon in early July, Joel Birch is standing near the entrance of Village Bicycle. A cosy bar/restaurant with the breezy vibe of a beachside diner, it’s situated on a road big enough that it should be bustling, but then in winter, nothing in Noosa really bustles. Not long ago the Amity Affliction screamer – for it is surely a more accurate description than singer – regarded this place as his “home away from home”. The side of the building is adorned with his street art (“What’s it called? I don’t know, ‘Painting'”), and the 15-year-old with the long, sandy blond hair and the black Afends T-shirt working in the kitchen is his step-son, Jairah. Birch used to come here when he was drinking, which up until four months ago – 120 days yesterday, to be precise – was a lot. Today, though, as he leans on the bar dressed in black jeans, a brown-checked shirt and a blue denim jacket with a Defeater patch on the back, his face framed by a black cap and his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, the 34-year-old orders a non-alcoholic ginger beer. Having returned from a six-week tour of Europe two days ago he’s still battling the effects of jet lag, and until an hour or so ago was at home asleep next to his wife, Bel, and their four-month-old boy, Boey (pronounced Bowie but, Birch clarifies, “It’s nothing to do with David”).

Earlier this year, as the Amity Affliction wrapped up recording their fifth album, This Could Be Heartbreak, Birch was no longer welcome in the three-bedroom house he shares with his wife, newborn and two step-children, Jairah and Esha, 12. For a man who’d hit rock bottom before – such as in 2009 when he tried to kill himself; or in 2013 when he had an alcohol related seizure while on tour in Pittsburgh that was so severe he stopped breathing and turned blue – his drinking had seen him plummet to a new low.

He’d quit booze for seven months in the wake of the Pittsburgh incident – “For someone who nearly died from drinking, that’s pathetic,” he spits – but a mixture of “complacency and overstating my strength” saw him lapse, and his drinking got heavier and faster. He recalls friends attempting to come up with activities that didn’t involve alcohol, but he’d always find an excuse not to do them, or to lure his mates back into bars and pubs. “Everything became about drinking,” he says. “Like, everything. Even touring became more about drinking than the music. I lost a lot of care for myself, and for anyone around me as well. [It was a] very destructive couple of years.”

Eventually, he says, his wife’s hand was forced.

“Bel had spent her whole pregnancy dealing with me drinking and smoking and breaking promise after promise to do with it, and she’d just had enough,” explains Birch with the calm, measured tone he maintains throughout the interview. “Then Boey came along and nothing changed. It was like, ‘What am I doing with this guy who’s inevitably going to kill himself from drinking?’ It’s like, either cop the heartbreak then, or do what [she] can now. She’s gotta protect herself and the kids.”

The weeks leading up to this “life melt”, as Birch calls it, coincided with the band recording their album in Melbourne with producer Will Putney (who helmed 2014’s chart-topping Let the Ocean Take Me). Birch’s daily routine was thus: wake up hungover around 1pm, and get ready to go to the studio at 2 or 3pm. After sitting around “being miserable” he’d order an Uber and stop by the bottle shop to pick up a case of beer, the contents of which he’d consume while recording.

Go to sleep, wake up, repeat.

“I’d be FaceTiming Bel, trying not to be drunk, just lying, and she could tell,” he says. “A bunch of lies, about everything: ‘Nah, I’m not drunk.’ ‘Nah, I’m not drinking much.’ ‘Nah, nah, nah.’

“It all culminated at the end of recording. I nearly lost my family from drinking too much. That was a definite ‘choose this life or choose drinking’ kind of thing.”

Four months ago yesterday, Birch faced up to the fact he was an alcoholic – “I had to admit everything to myself when I got home from recording. It’s not easy to look in the mirror and be like, ‘You are a piece of shit. Sort it out'” – and chose his family. And now, when he screams “I can’t believe how my past always comes back to haunt me” in the title-track of This Could Be Heartbreak, he does so determined to break that cycle forever.

“I was definitely in circles in my early 20s where heroin was being used,” says Birch. “I was taking speed nearly every day.”

Joel birch’s past, however, is something he’s only now facing up to. He was born on December 24th, 1981, in Brisbane to parents Christine, a housewife, and Daintry. He can’t recall his father’s occupation because he split when Birch, the eldest of three kids, was two. “He chose drinking,” alleges the frontman.

His relationship with his mother and step-father, Des, a bank manager, was fraught. “I was just really aggressive to my mum. We didn’t get along, didn’t like each other. Growing up we didn’t have any money… I hated my step-dad.”

An intellectually gifted student – and an athletically capable one: in high school he represented Queensland in volleyball – he floated in and out of schools as his family moved from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast, before he won a part scholarship to Immanuel Lutheran College in Buderim in Year 7. Despite his intellect he was not a model student, and by the end of Year 8 his mother had pulled him out of the College after a teacher told her that her son was “never going to amount to anything”.

“I was a little shit,” he smiles. “A big mouth, a ratbag. Not a bad kid, I don’t think. Just a ratbag.”

At two points during his secondary education – once at Immanuel Lutheran and again at his next school, the uber-religious Christian Outreach College in Woombye – a teacher told him he was “demon possessed”.

“It hurt in Grade Seven. In Year 10 I was just like, ‘Sure, whatever.’ I got pulled aside and they had a prayer thing. And they were like, ‘Cough and it’ll come out!’ I was just like, what is happening?”

He didn’t believe in God prior to attending Christian Outreach College, but within four years “was a raving Christian lunatic”. (He has a tattoo of Jesus on his left forearm; years later, as he became an atheist, he tried to have it removed, but has undergone only one removal sitting: “It hurt so much and I’m such a pussy I haven’t been back!”)

Birch’s homelife, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate. “There was a lot of screaming… It was like living on a knife edge.”

His memories from the time are patchy.

“I was speaking to [my therapist] and she was asking about what I remember from high school and primary school. And I was like, ‘Oh, not much.’ And she was like, ‘That’s not normal.’ She’s like, ‘You’ve blocked it out.’ People usually forget stuff quite a bit up to about nine or 10, but high school is a very clear memory for most people. That’s where you come of age and forge friendships. And I can’t remember whole chunks of my high school. So that’s something I’ve still got to deal with at some point, while I’m at home, in between tours.”

Birch was 15 when he had his first drink. It was love at first taste. By 20 he was “drinking alcoholically”, and had moved to Brisbane after being kicked out of home.

“I could’ve gone a different route,” he says. “I was definitely in circles when I was in my early 20s where heroin was being used. I was taking a lot of speed. For a good year I was taking speed nearly every day. Then one of my good friends started injecting it and I was like, ‘I think I better cut and run or I’m in trouble here.’ So I did. But then alcohol immediately took the same position the drugs had.”

In Brisbane he pursued his love of graffiti by painting trains (“I nearly went to jail for that”), and spent a period of time on the streets, stealing food, alcohol and paint. (“I didn’t steal clothes, for some reason. I had friends who stole them, so I was like, ‘I’ll swap you this for that.'”) His preferred method of thievery was to hit Coles and stuff things down his pants. “Bottles of alcohol down the pants. Fuck it, I didn’t care.”

Prior to moving to Brisbane, the idea of playing in a band had never entered his mind – his passion for graffiti had turned him onto graphic design, and he was more focused on that vocation. Growing up, music was barely a consideration in the Birch household, with his step-father content to buy “cheap 10-CD megapacks” that were advertised on TV and listen to Frank Sinatra records. Birch became a fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes, but recalls trashing some of those Sinatra LPs by dragging the needle across them in an attempt to recreate the scratching he heard on Run DMC albums.

His love of heavy music was awoken as a kid when he walked into the bedroom of a family friend who was playing a Megadeth video, something that “just stuck with me so, so strongly”. Soon after Metallica entered his consciousness, and in Year 7 he was given a VHS of Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock. “I watched that and was like, ‘Whoa, music is sick!'”

A school friend introduced him to the music her older brother was listening to, such as Violent Femmes, Nirvana and Sonic Youth, and then the mid-Nineties pop-punk explosion happened. “And I was like, ‘This is me!'”

In Brisbane, his girlfriend at the time played in bands, as did her circle of friends, and before long Birch had followed suit, joining “this horrible punk hardcore kind of band” called Love Like a Knife, and later Crimson Hellkite.

“I just yelled until I screamed,” he smiles now. “Then I screamed badly until I screamed OK.”

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Birch adding to Athens’ street art on June 15th this year. Credit: James Lehman.

While Joel Birch was finding his feet in Brisbane, 170 kilometres north, in the regional Queensland town of Gympie, a band called the Amity Affliction were flickering to life. Spearheaded by guitarist-vocalist Ahren Stringer and guitarist Troy Brady, Stringer had fallen under the spell of pop-punk as a teen – gateway album: Heavy Petting Zoo by NOFX – after picking up guitar at age 12. “My dad said to me and my sister that for our birthdays we could choose a motorbike or a guitar. I think we both chose a motorbike but we both got a guitar,” he chuckles.

Like Birch, Stringer was hardly a model student. Born in Brisbane on June 5th, 1986, to a boiler maker father, Mark, and a teacher mother, Mandy, he says a common theme of his Gympie High School reports was that he was “disruptive in class, not applying himself”. He wasn’t good at music or art, but liked English, which he was “really good at”. “Most of the time I’d get E’s [on assignments] to the point where I hated school so much that mum would do my assignments for me, just so I wouldn’t flunk Grade 12.

“I was a real bastard,” he smiles, reclining in a chair at a Brisbane photo studio dressed in a plain white shirt and black jeans, with a backwards baseball cap covering his peroxided hair. “‘If you want me to go, you do the assignments.'”

Despite failing music theory, Stringer put his guitar skills to use by forming an array of bands that would perform at lunchtime at school, such as his first, Strike Four. In 2002 he and Brady formed Left Lane Ends as a tribute to one of their best friends, Matt Searle, who died in a car crash on January 17th that year. As their music tastes started to get heavier and the members approached the end of their schooling, the band morphed into a fledgling version of the Amity Affliction. An early gig took them to infamous Brisbane venue Mary Street, where Stringer met Birch for the first time. Upon leaving school, Stringer upped and moved to Brisbane for good.

He’d hated living in Gympie – “[it had] a small-town mentality and [was] just too quiet; you were either a football jock or a nerd or a punk, which was us, and everyone hated us. We got into lots of fights” – but took some pushing from his parents to move to Brisbane and shack up with his sister, Lydia. (“I was probably a little bit scared of going to the big smoke.”) Upon landing there he worked at Subway for three months before getting sacked, after which he moved into telemarketing and, down the track, a scaffolding job. All the while his band continued to gig.

“How much money have I wasted on being drunk? Tens of thousands of dollars,” says Birch. “Over 100 thousand.”

They released a three-track demo in 2004, followed by a self-titled EP in 2005, the first recording to feature Birch, who’d joined the band the previous year, consigning Stringer just to the melodic vocal parts. (He’d switch from guitar to bass in 2007, following the departure of original bassist Garth Buchanan.) They hit the road, and all hell broke loose.

While Stringer attributes the band’s early drive to Buchanan and Brady, Birch recalls that he and Stringer didn’t take it seriously at all. “It was like, ‘This is sick. Let’s do this! Let’s drink!’ Then it was like, ‘Let’s go on tour so we can drink down there!’ There was one show where Ahren, Trad [Nathan, former keyboardist] and I swapped merch for drugs. And the rest of the band left and went to the next show, and we were like, ‘Well, how do we get there?’ And they were like, ‘Not our problem.’ We didn’t care. We were partying, we’d figure it out tomorrow. And we did. We always figured it out.”

Coincidentally, just south of Brisbane in Byron Bay, the clean and sober Parkway Drive were rising to the top of the then nascent metalcore scene, a fact not lost on Amity. “We were just watching them skyrocket,” says Birch. “We were just plodding along. We laughed about it a couple of years ago. We were like, ‘Imagine if we weren’t drunk for the first six years, what could we have done?’ ‘Cause you know, they all have houses and stuff, we’re still renting. I’m 34 and thinking, how much money have I wasted on being drunk? Tens of thousands of dollars. I reckon well over 100 [thousand]. Just pissed.

“But we didn’t have any responsibility to ourselves or anyone else. And no expectations. I don’t know how we succeeded. I guess the songs. People liked the songs.”

That much became clear when the band’s debut album, 2008’s Severed Ties, debuted at Number 26 on the ARIA charts, and again two years later when its follow-up, Youngbloods, debuted at Number 6 – remarkable feats for a band that at the time didn’t enjoy mainstream airplay or press coverage, and sounded like the aural equivalent of a Rottweiler attacking a herd of cats.

That the first song on Youngbloods, “I Hate Hartley”, addressed Birch’s attempted suicide the previous year only made the chart position all the more incongruous. For Birch, it represented something of a shift in society’s attitudes towards mental health and depression, an illness he’s long battled. “Like the fact that I can be so openly miserable, and openly struggling with my own mental health, and yet it resonated with more and more and more people is, I feel, a real changing of the tide.”

The singer almost didn’t make it through the recording, as crippling self doubt in his own abilities brought him to the brink of quitting. Guitarist Clint Owen Ellis did leave the band after recording, when the opportunity to return to his reunited former group, the Getaway Plan, arose. “We were such a volatile band back then,” says Birch. “I think he was just like, ‘What’s going on? Is this band staying together?’ Ultimately he chose to go back to the Getaway Plan because he thought that would be the more stable, successful option, and he was wrong. But it would’ve looked to anyone like that. I never held that against him for quitting.”

Following the departure of Troy Brady in 2014, Stringer and Birch are the band’s longest serving members, with Birch referring to the bassist/vocalist as his “best mate”. Indeed, a cursory glance at the Amity Affliction’s history reveals a revolving door of members: over their 13-year career, no fewer than 12 people have at one time or another been considered part of the band. Their current line-up, featuring drummer Ryan Burt (who joined in 2008) and guitarist Dan Brown (who joined in 2013 and, with Stringer, writes all the music), is, they say, finally approaching stability.

“I think you’ve just got to deal, take the good with the bad,” says Stringer of his ability to stick with the group. “You’ve just got to grit your teeth and bear it. Figure out a way to get through it, because otherwise you pack it in and throw in the towel because you can’t hack it, like a lot of members of our band. I’m sure they regret it. But you’ve just got to find a way to fit in with the rest of the group and learn how to respect each other’s boundaries, not ruffle each other’s feathers.”
Did you have to learn that the hard way?

“Yeah. You definitely learn the hard way.”

Consecutive Number One albums in 2012 (Chasing Ghosts) and 2014 (Let the Ocean Take Me) cemented the band’s reputation as one of the country’s biggest acts, and saw them expand their fanbase overseas via their own headlining shows and package tours such as Vans Warped. When, in December last year, they embarked on the Big Ass Tour of Australia and New Zealand – sample venue: the 12,000-seat Qantas Credit Union Arena in Sydney – most of the venues were of a size that no other Australian heavy band had ever dared headline.

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Onstage at the Qantas Credit Union Arena in Sydney on December 12th last year as part of the Big Ass Tour. Credit: James Lehman.

Of the thousands of fans who attended the Big Ass Tour stop in Auckland on December 10th, one person had special significance to Joel Birch: his biological father, Daintry. Now sober for 12 years, he’d first tried to make contact with Birch six years ago, but his son spurned his advances. “I was too angry, and I threw it in his face, basically. The first time he reached out he did it through a friend. I think I mistook a lack of technical know-how as cowardice on his part, going through someone else to get in touch. And the guy who got in touch, I was like, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Tell him if he wants to write to me he can do it himself.'”

Birch’s near-death experience in Pittsburgh inspired him to give his father another chance, and the two have been in contact ever since. His dad is, he says, “an avid music listener, writes poetry… just me, but older”.

“Bel would read the e-mails [my dad wrote] and she was just like, ‘Oh my God, everything he did, you did.’ All the things he did growing up, all the mistakes he made, I’ve made almost identical mistakes.”

While Birch’s relationship with his mother remains “very, very strained” – “That’s another personal issue I’ve got to get into. I’m still on guard I guess” – he theorises that it may have been easier to forgive his father because he left before Birch got a chance to know him. “It’s not like he did it to me after we forged some sort of relationship. It’s a fresh relationship in life for me.”

It’s not lost on Birch that the Big Ass Tour should have been a hugely positive time in his life. He’d reconnected with his biological father, his partner was pregnant with his first biological child, and the band were at the height of their popularity and on the verge of recording a new album, the songs for which he believed to be the best they’d ever written. “Internally though,” he sighs, “I was just constantly rocketing downwards. Just drinking. All the outward signs were up, and all the inward signs were down.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, This Could Be Heartbreak features some of Birch’s darkest lyrics to date, written from a place he describes as “totally lost. [I was] really a victim to my own self-medicating and self-pity, and just doing all the hallmark things that someone does who’s not dealing with their problems.”

First single “I Bring the Weather With Me” and its companion song “This Could Be Heartbreak” amount to Birch saying goodbye, with lyrics like “I sing songs for my funeral/That I will never see” and “Will I miss them when I’m underground?/Yeah it’s done, it’s OK, I’m on my way to a better place.”

Ask Birch, the band’s sole lyric writer, where that place is and he’s blunt: “Death.”

“Wishbone”, meanwhile, searches for hope in the birth of Boey, yet struggles to find it convincingly: “Counting on a wishbone/Oh I sink so low/Tell me, will I ever make it out of here?”; and “I’m meant to be a man/But I can’t carry everything.”

Effectively an open book when it comes to his lyrics, there’s one song he flat out refuses to discuss, declining even to explain what it means to him: closing track “Blood In My Mouth”. “I won’t ever talk about that,” he says. Arguably the most visceral song on the record, it’s also the darkest lyrically, with Birch howling: “I’m sinking now, and there’s that feeling/That crushing weight that leaves me reeling.”

It wasn’t until the album was finished that Birch realised the record’s lyrics were somewhat prophetic, foretelling his fall into the abyss.

“There’s a lot of dealing with imminent loss. There’s a feeling that something’s about to break, or something’s broken.
“I didn’t listen to it much for the first couple of months,” he reflects. “I only actually put it on for the last week I was home before we went on tour. That was the first time I started giving it an actual spin, because it was just too heavy for me. I listened to it twice when we got the rough mix back and I was like, ‘Man, I’m having a hard time listening to this, I’m fully crying.’ And Ahren was like, ‘I cried too.’ So there’s no real ray of light on it. It’s pretty dark from the get go. It certainly doesn’t end well. From that point on I can only go up, I guess.”

If there’s a concept to the album, he says it’s a simple one: “If hitting rock bottom is a concept, then that’s the concept. This is me, failing life. You’re welcome.”

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Birch (left) and Stringer in Brisbane last month. They are the longest serving members of Amity Affliction. Credit: Kane Hibberd.

There may not be a ray of light on This Could Be Heartbreak, but against the odds – and, no doubt, to the surprise of the author of its lyrics – Birch seems to have reached something approaching happiness in his personal life. As we leave Village Bicycle and jump into his blue Volkswagen wagon, he embarks on a short tour of his local haunts, including Little Cove, the beach where he used to take his kids when they were younger, and Noosa National Park, where he comes several times a week to “reset”. He’s lived in the Noosa area for the past three-and-a-half years, prior to which he was in Coolum for two-and-a-half. He decided to leave Brisbane and return to the Sunshine Coast after recording Youngbloods because he “wasn’t feeling right in the head” and thought getting home and, crucially, close to the ocean might help.

One of his biggest fears upon joining Alcoholics Anonymous earlier this year was the perceived religious aspect of the program, but those fears were allayed at his first meeting when a fellow attendee stood up and said, “I don’t believe in God, my higher power is the ocean.” He punches the air. “I was like, ‘Yes!'”

Joining AA was, says Birch, part of a “mad scramble to do everything [I] could to fix the situation” after being kicked out of his marital home. He signed up to see a psychologist for the first time in his life, as well as a therapist. He told the latter he didn’t intend to contribute at the AA meetings.

“She was like, ‘Why would you go to a forum that’s a group-share for group healing if you’re not gonna open up?’ So I went and I spoke, and slowly it becomes easier to speak. And I’ve really reaped the benefits of opening up. Even this interview, for instance, is a lot more open than I ever would have been.”

For the moment, the cliche of taking things day by day rings true, but early indications as to Birch’s dedication to his sobriety are promising. He’s yet to begin the 12-step program, but has a sponsor in place. And when the band jetted off to Los Angeles in mid-April to film videos for “I Bring the Weather With Me” and “This Could Be Heartbreak”, the first thing he did when he stepped off the plane was find an AA meeting.

The biggest test, however, may well come when the Amity Affliction start touring again in earnest. “When we started having a rider we’d have two cartons of beer and two bottles of liquor and several bottles of wine and then we’d run out,” recalls Birch. “We’d have to get more from the bar and they’d be like, ‘A carton of beer is gonna cost you $100’ and we were like, ‘Big deal. Get it. We need it.'”

In the past, pre-gig warm-ups would see Birch neck around 10 drinks. “I remember scoffing at a Billie Joe Armstrong quote, I was reading the [Rolling Stone] article after he had that meltdown onstage. And he went to rehab for alcohol and he was talking about blacking out every night. And I was like, ‘I black out every night.’ He was like, ‘I’d have a six-pack before we went on.’ And I was like, ‘A six-pack? Bitch, please!’ So yeah, I was drinking a lot.”

Earlier, Birch described himself as a “quietly aggressive” drunk, which may, he says, have been a coping mechanism. “Like, I’ll attack you, I’ll get you where it hurts. Because then you can’t come at me about other things because you’ll be too scared to get cut down. Which is a pathetic way to live. Some alcoholics are detrimental 99 per cent to themselves and one per cent to others, but I think I was the 50/50 type, dishing it out as much as I was copping it.”

On the recent European tour, however, he didn’t have a drink or, he claims, even think about having one. Instead he did “lots of drawing”.

“I barely saw him,” says Stringer. “He was painting trains every day, which is good. He’s getting out and doing stuff that’s constructive while we’re sitting in the van fucking [drinking].

“I think he’s got [his sobriety] on lock now,” he adds. “I think he’s got very strong willpower, and I think we’re definitely not going to let him fall off that wagon.”

Will it change the way the band has to act around him, in terms of their habits?

“No,” says Birch. “[On the last tour] Ahren was drunk nearly every day. Kyle [Yocum, touring guitarist] was drunk nearly every day. It’s not their problem. My problem’s my problem. And not everyone’s an alcoholic. I’m just lucky, I guess.”

“Some alcoholics are detrimental 99 per cent to themselves and one per cent to others. I was the 50/50 type,” says Birch.

Birch pulls into the driveway of his three bedroom home, where he’s immediately greeted by a playful Border Collie named Dondy. By the front door his cat (“We call him Fat Cat”) has adopted Boey’s stroller and crawled up inside for a nap. Upon entering the house, two of the driving forces behind Birch’s sobriety meet him at the door: his wife, Bel, and step-daughter, Esha. On a mat by the kitchen Boey lies on his back staring up at a mobile, cooing contentedly.

The first thing you notice when you walk inside is a turntable, atop of which sits a large cow’s skull. Below it are shelves full of records, while Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die perches next to the player. A granny flat-cum-studio in the back yard contains the tools of Bel’s trade as a seamstress, while a large green tarpaulin by the back door covers Birch’s paints. It’s a cosy set-up, but Birch says they’re going to have to search for something bigger soon, given that half the living room has been given over to Boey’s toys and a rack of clothes. It is, however, clearly much more than just a house – it’s a home.

Save for a Gold plaque for Chasing Ghosts in the studio, the only piece of Amity Affliction memorabilia on display is a photo in the living room of a gig at the Palace in Melbourne, in which photographer Kane Hibberd placed a camera on the ceiling, capturing the mayhem unfolding below. An empty package in the hallway housed a recently delivered Platinum Award for 70,000 sales of Let the Ocean Take Me, but Birch has removed the platinum album and plaque from the frame as he doesn’t like the way these things are presented. Ask him what he’ll do with the award, and he shrugs.

Birch takes a seat on the couch in the living room, but then stands up to leave, returning seconds later holding Boey. A beautiful baby with a shock of blond hair and a blue-and-white striped onesie, Birch says he badgered his wife for updates on his baby while away on the last European tour. “She’d wake up in the morning and as soon as she’s awake I was like, ‘Photos! Videos!’ She’s like, ‘Come on, man!'”

The mood in the living room is in stark contrast to the moment several months ago when Birch assembled his step-children and confessed his alcoholism. “I was crying and was like, ‘I’ve hurt your mother and I can’t be here right now’,” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘You know how I drink too much?’ And [Jairah] just snapped onto it straight away, he was like, ‘Yes!’ I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ That said it all for me. That was the ugly truth. Just seeing that reaction from him, so fast.”

Birch and Bel first met at school 21 years ago, and their connection was such that friends used to tease them that one day they’d get married. They did hook up when they were younger, but then grew apart and married, then divorced, other people. They reunited six years ago and have been together since, finally tieing the knot earlier this year. (They had, however, already had a “fake wedding” in Hawaii. “One of our friends was a celebrant, and he dressed up as a nun,” laughs Bel. “He wore an inverted cross. Taking ourselves very seriously.”)

If Birch’s sobriety marks a turning point in his life, then This Could Be Heartbreak represents something of a turning point for the Amity Affliction as well. After five albums dealing with recurring themes of depression, mental health and suicide, Birch says their new full-length will likely be the final record to address such issues. Its first two videos were conceived by Stringer and Birch prior to recording to tie in with the artwork for the album – a shot from above of a rain-sodden funeral, with Stringer placing his hand on the coffin, surrounded by mourners huddling under black umbrellas – and the lyrics of those songs were shaped to fit the look and themes of the videos accordingly. As such they stand alone from the rest of the album, though Birch’s goal is to take this storytelling element one step further and make their next record a concept album with a story that has a distinct beginning, middle and end. There’s talk of trying the idea out on a four-track EP first.

“It’s so strange that I hit rock bottom during recording, but we’d already talked about this being the last album where I talk about feeling [depressed] and taking steps to change my life for the positive. So I feel like my mental place when we do the next album will be completely different.

“We’re getting older and maturing as a band and I think this kind of stuff just starts to naturally creep in. And as well, the bigger we get, the more room you have to be creative.”

Outside the sun has almost gone, and Birch starts taking meal orders from his family before driving back into Noosa to pick up take-away. It’s not lost on him that his sobriety is as new as Boey. “I only started growing up about four months ago,” he says.

“Yeah, it’s about the same speed as your son,” smiles Bel.

“That’s what she said to me when I was allowed back in the house. She’s like, ‘Look Boey, that’s where you are. Same level.’
“I was 21, 22 when I joined Amity, and then we started getting successful when I was 27,” reasons Birch. “So just when I could have taken a step towards real adulthood, like my friends were – they were getting their shit together and getting careers – my career was just starting, and it was a career that did not require growing up. So life passes you by. For me to be only just sobering up and just becoming the father I should have been for the last six years…

I mean, it’s good to finally come. But it’s lucky it’s not too little too late.

“I’m enjoying it,” he adds, grabbing his keys and putting his jacket on. “The band’s enjoying it also. Someone was on the tour bus [in Europe] and they were like, ‘Do you miss drinking?’ And I was like, ‘I really enjoy being a better human.’ And the whole band were like, ‘Yeah!’ They’re really stoked with the new version.”

Bel smiles.

“Old Joel,” she says, “and new Joel.”

From issue #778, available now.

Top photo: The Amity Affliction (from left): Dan Brown, Ahren Stringer, Joel Birch, Ryan Burt. Credit: Kane Hibberd.