The first indication that Luke Boerdam lives in this converted worker’s cottage in the West End pocket of Brisbane is the sign at the top of the stairs: “Kristie and Luke”. Violent Soho‘s frontman and his wife have lived in this charming if slightly ramshackle two bedroom house since moving from Fortitude Valley in February 2015. Walk through the front door and you’re immediately in the living room, a cosy space with worn wooden floorboards, a couch, a book shelf, a coffee table and a flat-screen TV, on which Boerdam was, until a few minutes ago, watching a documentary about World War II (“I don’t think there’s anything more fascinating than World War II in history”). Given some of his stilted interviews on YouTube, it’s something of a surprise to discover just how verbose and well spoken the admittedly shy singer/guitarist is in person – in the space of a few minutes, and without prompting, the self-confessed IT geek veers between topics such as the mathematics behind the Dark Net, the documentary techniques of American filmmaker Ken Burns, and the power of social media in facilitating revolutions such as those in Egypt and the Ukraine, whilst acknowledging that those tools are equally adept at aiding terrorists in their recruitment drives. Later, and without any hint of pretension, he references artists such as Degas and Picasso in making a point about art and creativity.
Offering a guided tour of his house, he stops at the small bedroom next to the living area, where he wrote much of Violent Soho’s new album, WACO. On this Tuesday morning in late November it is stiflingly hot in there, which is fitting given that Boerdam admits to feeling the heat when it came to writing the follow-up to their breakthrough LP, 2013’s Hungry Ghost. There is no musical equipment on display – it’s all at the studio where the band are recording – but there is a Gold Record plaque congratulating Boerdam on the “outstanding achievement” of selling 35,000 copies of Hungry Ghost. A framed Dinosaur Jr. poster signed by the band’s bassist Lou Barlow hangs nearby (it reads: “To Kristie, From Lou: re: signatures”). A computer and printer sit on a desk alongside a stack of books that no longer fit in Boerdam’s overflowing book shelf. A casual glance reveals titles that go beyond the average rock musician’s reading material: God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens; Kitchen Table Economics and Investing by Damian Lillicrap; Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work) by Michael Goodwin. (The bookshelf in the living room is slightly more on point, containing works such as Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl In a Band and Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.) Boerdam laughs when you point out the Steve Jobs biography, though not because of the subject matter – one year he asked his parents for an iTunes voucher and they instead bought him a book on the Apple founder. “They never get it quite right,” he chuckles.
Boerdam laughs a lot, be it to emphasise something that is funny, ridiculous, outrageous or just plain stupid. It surfaces as he recalls an interview early in the band’s career where he said, “If you took our music and made a painting you’d call it Violent Soho.” It’s there when he relates how upon leaving high school he studied architecture, only to be warned off the profession by several different architects. “They said to me, ‘Are you into it? Or can you do other things?’ ‘Well, yeah, I’m 18, the world is my oyster right now.’ And they went, ‘Well do that.'” It punctuates his story about how guitarist James Tidswell would, upon joining the band, tell his skater friends that Boerdam was the frontman, and they’d always go, “The computer guy?” (“I was obviously known as being into computers, even if I didn’t realise it.”) And his laugh becomes a guffaw when he talks about the night his parents, Christine and Martin, saw Violent Soho play for the first time, at their gig at the Mansfield Tavern in November, 2014. “This is what my dad texted to me the day after: ‘Hi Luke. We stayed until about 11.50’ – specifics, good – ‘enjoyed watching, very talented perf’ – which is performance – ‘had a good view. Mum says are you drinking enough water?'”
For all of Violent Soho’s achievements – being signed to Ecstatic Peace!, the record label owned by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, in 2009; recording their second album with Foo Fighters producer Gil Norton in Wales; touring the U.S.; enjoying a remarkable career resurgence following the release of Hungry Ghost – this headline gig in Mansfield, a suburb in which they spent so much of their youth, seems to rank as something of a career high for each member. Later that afternoon when the band – completed by bassist Luke Henery (referred to by his bandmates simply as Henery) and drummer Michael Richards – gather at the Tavern for a lunch of burgers, schnitzels and, for vegetarian Tidswell, hot chips, they’re offered the opportunity to walk into the live music room and have a look at the venue they sold out. Today an imposing boxing ring sits in the middle in anticipation of a series of fights later in the week.
“From 1989, when I started going to school, until the year 2000 I came down this street every day, and on the blackboard they always had what bands were playing at the Rock Arena [the Tavern’s venue],” recalls Tidswell. “So I read that. No Doubt did the Tragic Kingdom tour there, Lagwagon played there, the first time I saw Dustin Dollin skateboard was in that car park. And as soon as we got a little bit of ticket sales happening we were like, ‘Fuck, let’s do a tour, “No Sleep Til Mansfield”, and we’ll start it at the Mansfield Tavern and go all the way around the country and come back to the Mansfield Tavern.’ And to us, that was pulling off the impossible.”
The thing you soon learn about Violent Soho is that they’ve made a career out of pulling off the impossible.
Rewind a day, and violent Soho are slowly but surely convening at The Shed, the studio in which they recorded Hungry Ghost and to which they’ve returned to make its follow-up with producer Bryce Moorhead. Tidswell once described the building as looking like it belongs in Wolf Creek, and he’s right – it’s literally a shed in the semi-industrial Brisbane suburb of Windsor, regularly buffeted by the displaced wind caused by passing semi-trailers. As you’d expect of such a building on a warm Queensland morning it feels about 40 degrees inside – until, that is, you leave the lounge/kitchen area and enter the air conditioned control room or one of the tracking rooms, at which point you could be in any world class recording studio. Richards, 31, appears first in white pants, blue shirt and white hat, looking like he’s just come from a game of social cricket, changing the skins on his drums in preparation for today’s tracking. To the left of the entrance is a stack of road cases, dumped there after Violent Soho spent the weekend recording the film clip for recent single “Like Soda”, in which they flexed their acting chops by dressing up as the most bad-arse geriatrics ever to step foot on a bowling green. In the middle of the lounge/kitchen is a wooden table littered with bottles and a bag of weed; a Gold plaque for Hungry Ghost sits atop a piano, which is flanked by speakers and a pot plant; to its right is a fish tank and a kitchenette, next to which is a toilet and shower. It’s a basic set-up, but comfortable enough.
Boerdam, 30, surfaces next – he’s been finalising some demos in one of the tracking rooms – followed by Henery, 31, who arrives at midday with a case of XXXX that stays unopened for approximately 30 seconds. More solid in person than you’d expect, he’s dressed in black jeans and a white shirt with “Listen To Volume Four” on the front. Last to arrive is Tidswell, 32, who’s just come from a sauna where, he says, he was trying to sweat out some of the alcohol consumed on the video shoot. Moorhead still has some tinkering to do before he’s ready to start recording, so the four trudge across the road and around a playing field to the Windsor Bowling Club which, on a quiet, suburban Monday afternoon, contains more poker machines than people. Schooners of XXXX are $5, but so frequently did Henery and Tidswell come here during the early stages of recording that they’re now treated to a one dollar discount in line with members’ rates.
Violent Soho’s shared history runs deep. Tidswell first met Boerdam at around six years of age when their families went to the same church in Carindale, called Gateway Family. Years later, Boerdam became engaged to Tidswell’s sister, Amelia, until she broke it off because he wasn’t a Christian. (Boerdam wrote early single “Jesus Stole My Girlfriend” about the incident.) Henery credits Tidswell with introducing him to punk rock on a family holiday, the guitarist encouraging Henery to listen to Dude Ranch by Blink-182. And though Henery, Boerdam and Richards were friends all through secondary school – where a bully gave the drummer the unfortunate nickname ‘Grogan’, meaning ‘shit’ (Henery recalls a band meeting where he said, “I don’t think we should call Michael ‘Grogan’ anymore. I actually like him!”) – Richards wasn’t as enamoured with Tidswell as the others. “I wasn’t friends with James at all before being in the band,” he says. “He was two grades above me. I hated all his friends and I didn’t really care for him. But he was the brother of one of my best friends, Amelia, Luke’s girlfriend, so that was how we were all connected in a way. And because I did drama at school with Amelia I’d go around to her house and practice scenes and stuff, and James always used to tease us. So I’d be like, you’re just Amelia’s jock brother.”
Also bonding the four together was a shared religious upbringing. Often referred to as the Bible Belt of Australia, ask them to explain what it was like growing up in and around Mansfield and they talk of an area that “was really good [and] safe”, where “Pentecostalism was booming, people were frothing on it”. Richards’ father was a pastor, and the drummer learned to play in a church band from when he was 12. Prior to having their son, Tidswell’s parents moved from New Zealand to Sydney “to start a church and go to Bible college with Brian and Bobbie [Houston], who now do Hillsong”. He recalls watching his father preach most weekends, and at one point was sent to Korea “on a prayer mission”. Boerdam remembers going to church with his mother and being shocked as adults “drunk on the Holy Spirit” convulsed as if they were having epileptic fits while speaking in tongues. He remembers his father burning his older brother’s Nirvana CDs, calling them “the devil’s work”; though Tidswell’s dad had a more liberal approach to his son’s taste in music (even helping him buy his first CD, Silverchair’s Frogstomp), there was one song he wouldn’t let Tidswell tape off Rage: Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”. “It had the words ‘I pray to the god of sex and drums and rock & roll’,” recalls the guitarist. “He was like, ‘It’s a good song, but we’re not gonna play it. We don’t worship that God.'”
Rather than fill each member with the spirit of the Lord, their experiences with religion and, more pertinently, the Christian schooling system seem to have scarred them. “People watch the documentary Jesus Camp as an example of psychological abuse on children, and that’s how we were raised,” says Richards. “And that’s why with a total serious face I’d say religion in that way taught to children is child abuse.”
Boerdam laughs at telling an early interviewer: “If you took our music and made a painting you’d call it Violent Soho.”
Around a table at the Windsor Bowling Club they swap myriad schoolyard stories – Tidswell speaks of not being allowed in certain classrooms “because there were demons in there”, and of having nightmares as a third grader after being shown a film about the Rapture, in which a teenager’s parents were taken to Heaven but he was left alone on Earth because he was a non-Christian. Boerdam recalls going to class as an eight year old and he and his friends pretending to be able to speak in tongues to appease his teacher. Two girls who didn’t know how, or rather didn’t know how to pretend, ended up in tears when they were pointed out and the entire class was told to pray for them. “Lo and behold, 20 minutes after going through this traumatic experience these poor girls, who were actually the only ones with enough courage to be honest, ended up on the floor, [mimics speaking in tongues], shaking.” Two or three years ago, Boerdam had an urge to look that teacher up and send him a letter about “how fucked up I feel this whole process was. You can’t do that to eight year olds, it’s disgusting.” Richards, meanwhile, still remembers being shown a documentary in Year 8 “about how dinosaurs were actually dragons from medieval stories, and when they found dinosaur bones they actually found the dragons from the medieval stories. Queensland education,” he sighs, “was not on top of that.”
While they’re keen to point out that their parents “aren’t idiots”, that they were “intending to do well” (Boerdam), that they “worked so hard to send us there” (Tidswell), that the “majority of teachers were lovely people” (Richards) and that those who weren’t simply thought they were “doing God’s work” (Tidswell), the effect this schooling had on each member is palpable. “The point of any education is to teach you to be an independent thinker, and to become autonomous and to reject any dogmatic thinking and rule,” says Boerdam, who was in Year 12 when he told his parents he didn’t believe in God. “And the more I look back on it it’s the opposite of how I ever want to educate my kids, because it’s not teaching them to think for themselves.”
“We’ve had to train ourselves to be almost cynical people instantly because we’ve all had to cope with that thing that happens when you become a rational adult and you realise all of the lies, and you become the owner of [your] own intellect,” adds Richards. “In a way that’s massively part of what our band’s about. We don’t even talk about it that way, but it is.”
Luke Boerdam was 15 years old when he started writing songs, learning guitar by playing along to Nirvana’s Unplugged and Radiohead’s The Bends. “There’s a certain youthful naivete to the world when you’re growing up, that there’s all these systems in place and if you just follow the rules you’ll do well, and that illusion’s smashed when you’re a teenager,” he explains. “From that point on that’s when I found solace in writing lyrics.”
Violent Soho’s sole songwriter, the first song he ever wrote was a rap-metal anthem called “Baby Boomers Go Boom”, which he played in his garage with Henery in Year 9. After going to the local music store and asking “How do you make a guitar sound like Grinspoon?”, he was introduced to distortion pedals, and a whole new world opened up. Along with Henery and Richards he recorded a demo, which Tidswell heard coming out of his sister Amelia’s stereo. “I was in shock,” he says today. “I thought, he not only sings, he can write songs! He is a true songwriter!” After calling Boerdam, Tidswell was invited for a jam at Henery’s house. So desperate was he to join the band that he smashed his guitar in frustration at not being able to play the song Boerdam was trying to teach him. “It was so funny,” recalls Boerdam, “’cause Henery’s parents were in the next room, and here’s James, 8 o’clock on a Monday night just going ‘SMASH’! Smashing his guitar to pieces he was so frustrated!”
Henery’s response was simple: “He’s in the band for sure.”
“From that point on,” says Boerdam, “once the line-up was solidified it was serious.”
The quartet messed around with some names – Boerdam blushes when he admits that early on they were called Show Room; they also considered calling themselves Ricki-Lee, delighting in the idea of disappointing anyone who turned up expecting to see the pop singer – and played their first ever gig at a friend’s birthday party in 2004. They rehearsed on Sunday mornings at Richards’ house, waiting for his parents to go to church before plugging in (“His neighbours were like, ‘Fuck you, 9am on a Sunday!'” laughs Tidswell), after which they’d get stoned and go to Hungry Jack’s. They made a demo CD which contained a manifesto of the band’s ideology on the back and an ‘X’ printed on the front (“to be minimal and cool,” smiles Boerdam), and then spent three fruitless years trying unsuccessfully to get gigs in the city – their idea of ‘making it’ was to play Fortitude Valley hot spot Ric’s and to be accepted by their favourite local bands, such as Dick Nasty, the Quickening and Dollar Bar. Instead they schlepped around suburban venues like the Four Mile Creek Hotel in Strathpine playing to no one. For a group that, says Richards, thought “we were going to be on the radio and then be famous”, and believed that the “instant crowd” provided by youth groups and the church scene would be easy to replicate outside those domains, the lack of progress came as something of a shock.
“No one thought we were any good,” shrugs the drummer, who admits they couldn’t actually play their instruments through this period. “We were from the south side suburbs. The scene at that time was only in the city, there was no suburban scene.” Getting played on Triple J, says Boerdam, “felt unachievable”.
It was during this time that the band’s identity started to solidify. While stylised acts such as the Strokes and Interpol were making waves internationally, and gigs at the cool inner-city venues were being snapped up by more fashionable local acts such as the Scare, Violent Soho came to a realisation: “We were suburban, we were from a Christian upbringing,” says Tidswell. “[We were] just coming to terms with not trying to be something we weren’t. And from then on we really pressed the entire band into always being OK with who we are, and not really having a bravado, or not trying to play characters.”
Tidswell recalls evenings getting stoned with a friend in his garage in Carindale, listening to the hip-hop show on community radio station 4ZZZ, during which he’d call up and pretend to be a gangster, demanding a “shout out to the 4122”, Mansfield’s postcode. Soon they were printing those digits on shirts and selling eight of them at a gig instead of one. When they finally got gigs at inner-city karaoke and pizza den Fat Louie’s they’d get the 30 or so people in attendance to shout “4122” in solidarity. Slowly, a connection between band and audience was starting to form. All of which made Boerdam’s decision to quit all the more jarring. He was finishing his uni degree, and tiring of watching his bandmates write themselves off. “The other dudes were so off their faces every weekend, and eight weekends in a row we played these gigs to the same people and it was like, ‘What, we’re going to do this for two years? We’ll become a joke. It’s stupid.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to move on ’cause I’m not interested in getting fucked up every weekend like this.'”
The singer’s exit was short-lived – soon after, Tidswell received a call offering the band a national tour with the Grates, and three months after Boerdam walked out, he was back and they hit the road. They’ve rarely stopped since.
If Violent Soho’s fortitude was tested by years of playing gigs to no one in suburban venues, it was nothing compared to what they faced when they moved to America in late 2009. By that point they’d released their debut EP, Pigs & TV, in 2006, and their debut full-length, We Don’t Belong Here, in 2008, and on the back of tours with the likes of Bit By Bats and Faker had started to enjoy what they once thought was impossible: Triple J airplay for the song “Love Is a Heavy Word”. Magic Dirt bassist Dean Turner had taken on management responsibilities (years earlier, future DZ Deathrays vocalist/guitarist Shane Parsons had also expressed an interest in guiding the band), and those previously unattainable city gigs were now taking places at venues such as the Troubadour, where sold out signs would be placed on the door whenever they’d play. International interest came in the shape of a showcase for famed producer Rick Rubin (he passed on signing them), and a deal with Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label, which afforded them the opportunity to make their second album, 2010’s Violent Soho, in Wales with famed producer Gil Norton. Suffice it to say, it was a long way from the band’s early demos, on which Henery played a tuned-down electric guitar because he didn’t have a bass.
In their contract with Ecstatic Peace! it stipulated that the band had to move to America for 10 months, so along with their partners they decamped to Brooklyn and crammed nine people into a “tiny apartment”. Finances were tight – prior to leaving for the States, Henery was in the throes of setting up a photography business and had bought a car and camera equipment. He sold it all. “We were up all night on crystal meth and ecstacy, and then went to a car boot sale,” says Tidswell. “Just a side note.”
At one point, Henery was living off three 60-cent burgers a day, and recalls leaving for one tour with $15 to his name. Three weeks later he returned with 70 cents in his pocket. Initial tours went well – shows with the band’s heroes such as Built To Spill and Dinosaur Jr. – but before long they were exposed to the harsh machine that is the record industry when the A&R rep who had a vision for their trajectory was promoted; his replacement had them playing radio-sponsored gigs alongside the likes of Papa Roach and doing instore performances at Best Buy department stores. “Literally where the fridges are,” tuts Boerdam. “They’d turn off all the music and go, ‘There’s an Australian band in the corner, and if you just go to the home appliance centre…’, and then all these people would waddle over.”
There were good times – tour antics such as when everyone agreed to pay Tidswell $20 each to drink a Powerade bottle full of his own urine (“It was the first piss in the morning too, it was disgusting,” he grimaces); gigs on the West Coast in Santa Rosa and Santa Clara where they’d draw crowds on par with what they’d pull in Sydney or Melbourne – but there were bad times as well. Such as the occasion when Henery got a call from debt collectors in Australia “saying I was fucked”, and that his wage of $150 a week (plus $20 on show days) was leaving him with nothing to send home to pay bills. He was sure that “it was the end of the road for me”, that he’d have to leave the band and fly home and that, upon his return to Australia, he’d be arrested. He reacted by trashing the Minneapolis venue they were playing in that night, First Avenue, which is owned by Prince – only to then clean up the mess when he realised they were booked to perform there again in three weeks’ time.
On another occasion, the band were ushered into a radio station call centre where staff were phoning listeners and playing them songs down the line, asking which ones they recognised. Violent Soho were tracking poorly, they were told, so they’d have to record an acoustic version of one of their songs, and a cover. They declined. Despite the apparent mismatch, a tour with 30 Seconds To Mars in September 2010 offered some hope, but that collapsed midway through when Jared Leto’s mob were nominated for a swag of VMAs, causing a week’s worth of shows to be cancelled. Violent Soho couldn’t afford to do nothing for a week, and so after 12 months’ of living hand to mouth and growing increasingly disillusioned with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the music industry, made the decision to return home, burned out and broke. “We literally had nothing,” says Tidswell. “We thought we were on top of the world selling out the Troubadour in Brisbane to 200 people, releasing our own CD,” he adds. “And then when it came to [America] it was like, no, this is the game, the machine, and I think we were happy to say we don’t have that in us. We’re certainly not like these super slick bands that have perfect acoustic covers and do versions of their songs [for radio]. We don’t have that in us. We’re from Australia, we were so far out of our element. So we came home.”
While Jared Leto was onstage at the VMAs accepting an award for Best Rock Video for 30 Seconds To Mars’ “Kings and Queens”, Richards was at a friend’s house in Bundaberg watching the ceremony on TV, smoking a bong.
No one was more surprised by the success of Hungry Ghost than Violent Soho. Having had “some time apart” after returning to Australia, the album was constructed with minimal expectations and, according to Tidswell, its release rolled out exactly as they’d anticipated, with three to three-and-a-half star reviews across the board and a sole tour booked before they planned to return to their jobs. Come the end of 2013, though, the record started turning up in Album of the Year lists, and offers were extended to play the Falls Festival and the 2014 Big Day Out. The song “Covered In Chrome” landed at 14 on the Hottest 100. Early in 2014 came an invitation to play that year’s Groovin the Moo, followed by Triple J’s One Night Stand. When they announced a national tour in July, they sold out multiple nights at venues such as Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar. After 10 years, Violent Soho were finally able to draw a wage from the band and play music full time. Henery welled up at the news. “[I was] working three jobs trying to support a kid and pursue [my] dreams. I did odd jobs on the weekend as well, mowed lawns. So to be told I didn’t have to do that anymore, and I could actually play my instrument… I couldn’t believe it.”
The only member of Violent Soho who still works a day job is Boerdam, who has a part time position with the National Reconstruction Authority. “I just appreciate following multiple things in life rather than one,” he reasons. “I’m not one of those people who has to dive in wholeheartedly to get stuff done and write songs. I think there’s more of a charm in living, like going to an office job now and again, and going to pubs with workers and picking up inspiration that’s somewhat real.”
If there was a dark cloud hanging over Violent Soho’s success, it came in the shape of a stroke suffered by Tidswell’s father Paul during the Groovin the Moo tour. It occured on the Friday before the final date of the festival, and Tidswell left his father’s bedside to fly west to Bunbury to play the show. He pulled out of the One Night Stand gig (Raúl Sánchez from Magic Dirt filled in) to spend time at the hospital meeting with palliative care people so that he and his mother could look after his father at home. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, a few days after his father fell ill, Tidswell’s daughter Poppy was born. Such was the stress of these events colliding that he suffered stomach pains so severe that he was in tears, unable to sit up. His initial thought was that he was suffering a bout of food poisoning, and so for the first three days of his daughter’s life didn’t touch her for risk of passing on his illness.
It’s difficult to overstate the role Paul Tidswell played in his son’s life. A salesman by trade, he introduced James to music and slaved to send he and his three siblings to school – at one point he was out of work for two years, and the family were so poor that Tidswell’s father painted his son’s toes black with boot polish to disguise the fact they poked out of his school shoes. Rather than encourage his son to get a part-time job as a teen, he instead paid him to read sales and motivational books and listen to motivational tapes. He implored James not to go to university, but advised him to get a job selling door-to-door because he’d gain communication skills he wouldn’t learn anywhere else. It paid off – by the time James was 18 he was Optus’s number one door-to-door salesman in the country, before his entrepreneurial skills took over and he quit to start his own car cleaning company, Amigos Car Detailing (“We’d wear sombreros and we’d always staple our cards and a thank-you note on a packet of Doritos,” he laughs). At one point he and his partner (who went on to start the Uppercut Deluxe men’s grooming empire) were clearing $1200 a week each, but called it quits when the business started to interfere with their skating. Next they started a T-shirt company called Six Bucks Max before splitting to pursue separate interests. It’s perhaps no coincidence that today, Tidswell says his job in the band is to be “a bit of a motivator in the way of keeping everyone on track”.
“No one thought we were any good,” says Richards. “We were from the south side suburbs. There was no suburban scene.”
Standing in the kitchen of his neat, two bedroom house, situated just around the corner from Boerdam’s, preparing a Tuesday morning breakfast of fruit salad and avocado on toast for he and his 18-month-old daughter Poppy, it’s clear Paul Tidswell’s stroke was something of a wake-up call for the guitarist. When Violent Soho lived in America, he says his breakfast consisted of Red Bull, cocaine and cigarettes. The Red Bull felt like an improvement over a fondness for crystal meth he had in his early 20s which, at one point, almost got him kicked out of the band. After vomiting blood down his arm in a cab in America (“I was peeling it off my arm like seaweed”), he decided to “tone it down a bit”. Seeing his father in hospital compounded the decision.
“You certainly don’t feel like McDonald’s or KFC after driving home seeing your dad as a quadriplegic and not being able to talk from a stroke, really from what he put into his body. My dad didn’t drink alcohol, and not only did I drink every single day, and a lot, I did everything else as well. So it was a shock to the system. My mindset completely changed, which led to me becoming vegetarian and taking care of myself.”
“James is one of my best friends, and you could tell he couldn’t enjoy [the success of the band] like we were, because of the tragedy that was happening,” reflects Boerdam. “Even things like the birth of his daughter, the timing of it was so fucked up.”
Tidswell’s father passed away in early November, 18 months after suffering his stroke and three weeks before this interview. The 32-year-old found out his father was going to die an hour before giving an interview to Triple J to premiere “Like Soda”, the first single from WACO. “I had to pull myself together and just stay in the mode of getting on radio,” he says.
One of the upsides of the band’s success is that it afforded Tidswell the opportunity to spend more time helping care for his father rather than working a day job, something for which he’s clearly thankful. “It was worth the 11, 12 years’ incredibly hard work, working two, three jobs, going on tour, sacrificing missing your girlfriend’s birthdays, so much that people take for granted. Those 12 years that I worked so I could be there for my dad in the last 18 months of his life… I couldn’t be more grateful. It’s the people who have listened to our music and supported us that gave me [that] opportunity.”
When Luke Boerdam sent his band demos of the first four songs he wrote for WACO, he made a point of apologising for “Like Soda”, adding that he hated it. He felt bad, he says, because every time he goes into the studio to cut demos it costs the group money, and he felt like he’d underdelivered. His bandmates disagreed (as did the listeners of Triple J, who voted it 15th in this year’s Hottest 100). A song that Boerdam calls “a critique on modern suburban life being some sort of soul-draining sinkhole with uncompromising attitudes and stale daydream days thrown in”, which “at the same time alludes to this ignorant speech declaring the quiet life is victory”, it’s clear that deeper currents of thought run through his lyrics than the “hell fuck yeah” refrain of “Covered In Chrome” might suggest.
Do you ever worry that the band’s message gets simplified to that one phrase?
“I don’t care, ’cause I’d rather there’s kids screaming ‘hell fuck yeah’ than going to a football game and screaming ‘kick the ball in the goal!'” he replies. “As the world around us becomes more soul draining and more digital and our experiences become less authentic, I think going to a fucking punk show and pushing the person next to you feels good. So I don’t care if you think the message is just ‘hell fuck yeah’, I don’t care if you think the message is, ‘Violent Soho, they’re just a bunch of stoners who want you to get angry’, [just] come to the show.
“It’s so important to experience culture,” he adds. “The one thing I get scared of is kids not going to shows, or not getting into bands at all. I see that in America a bit where culture has become very monotone. Everyone’s into the same thing, the same football team, the same sports, the same music, and nothing scares me more. Because that’s the death of humanity.”
“James is one of my best friends, and you could tell he couldn’t enjoy [the success] like we were”, says Boerdam.
Lunch with his band at the Mansfield Tavern beckons, so Boerdam hops in his black Suzuki Swift for the 20-minute drive from his house, during which he plays demos of two new songs at ear splitting volume – “How To Taste”, which has a huge groove, a naggingly addictive chorus and an abrasive, snotty vocal performance, and “So Sentimental”, a more mid-tempo moment with a beautiful chorus straight out of the mid-Nineties. Getting the songs to this point has not been easy. Boerdam admits to having a degree of overconfidence after the success of Hungry Ghost, telling his band at a meeting in January last year that they’d be recording by March and then, after realising that wouldn’t happen, June. They eventually started in the last week of July. For three months he went through a lot of “throwing out garbage that didn’t feel new to me anymore”, and rather than revel in the fact that going part-time at work afforded him more opportunity to concentrate on writing, that singular focus became stifling – he wrote Hungry Ghost while still employed full time, and found it easier to work on that album while having the distraction of a job, picking up the guitar only when inspiration struck. “The part of this last year or two where I have been cocooned in [my room at home writing],” he says, “I found it more difficult to come up with lyrics.
“I hit the wall at the beginning of the year going, what the fuck have I promised here? I can’t write this!”
Still, he was determined. “There are bands that do good records, but when they follow them up, that’s when they [prove if] they are sticking around or they’re pissing off, that’s all they had,” he says. “I had that at the back of my mind as motivation, fucking proving to people that we’re here to stay. There is more to this band than just Hungry Ghost.”
And have you done that?
“I think we have. Success for us isn’t did we sell this many records, it just isn’t. It’s did we make the music we wanted to make. And did we release it the way we wanted to? So I think we made the album we wanted to make outright. I’m more excited to get it done, ’cause there are some really kick arse songs I want people to hear. Simple as that.”
A quick guided tour takes in Tidswell’s old house, where Boerdam points out the room from which the guitarist would sneak out and smoke weed; the scene of Violent Soho’s first ever photo shoot at the Amynia Street shops; and their old school. (“It’s so funny ’cause we’re never mentioned in the alumni magazine,” chuckles Boerdam. “It’s just this black mark: ‘Here’s four graduates, they went on to pretty much advertise weed smoking and coined “hell fuck yeah” in the Australian cultural dictionary’.”) Once lunch is finished the group will return to The Shed to continue work on the album – Richards has three more songs to record before the others will set about laying down their parts. And then this band that started off thinking they’d be huge but couldn’t get a gig in the city, that heard America calling but returned broke and disillusioned, that watched their career truly catch fire 10 years after it began, will unveil their fourth album amid much more expectation and fanfare than anything they’ve ever released. Regardless of how it’s received, you sense that in their eyes they’ve already won.
“The one part I really get enjoyment of is when you open up Apple Music or go into JB Hi-Fi and there’s Taylor Swift and there’s Violent Soho, and it’s like, fuck yeah,” says Boerdam. “‘Cause if there’s any legacy we’re going to leave, it won’t have the production quality or the sales [of Swift’s] obviously, but fuck it, at least we offered something different. At least we got into kids’ ears and gave them something that wasn’t pitch-shifted, autotuned, played to backing tracks at the live show. It was real.”
From issue #773, available now. Main photo: Kane Hibberd.