Violent Soho — I’m sure you know the story. Four friends from Mansfield, Brisbane gain momentum with the grunge-leaning Pigs & T.V. EP and their debut album We Don’t Belong Here. Hungry for success they sign to Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label in 2009. Heading overseas, the quartet tours the US supporting their musical heroes. Briefly jumping the pond to the UK, they cut an album with legendary Pixies recordist Gil Norton.
Soho are getting some breaks but never quite making it. Things turn sour. They fail to make inroads in the US and their self-titled record is met with some less than favourable reviews. Spiritually drained and without a penny to show for their trouble, they return home to the Sunshine State and lick their wounds.
As part of a last-ditch effort and with modest expectation, they record with local tree-lopper Bryce Moorhead. The end result is the album Hungry Ghost. Capturing an entire generation of new fans, Ghost explodes into one of the most celebrated and exciting albums of 2013. Jumping from a respected local act to a marquee draw on the live and festival circuits, they work with Moorhead again for acclaimed follow-up WACO in 2016. By 2017 Violent Soho are in everyone’s periphery. While they’ve become part of the very fabric of Australian music, the biggest question posed is where they’re going next.
Catching up with guitarist James Tidswell ahead of the group’s appearance at all-ages festival The Last Frost provides some hints. Friendly and casual, he looks back on Hungry Ghost with pride in his voice, shares his view on the natural progression which led to WACO, and gives us a glimpse at the band’s future.
Music Feeds: I was recently at a lecture where [Soho frontman] Luke Boerdam and Bryce Moorhead were talking about the making of Hungry Ghost. I was surprised how generous Luke was not only talking about the creative process but also the ups and downs the group went through before they got to recording the album. How do you look back on that Hungry Ghost period now that nearly four years have passed?
James Tidswell: Aw dude! I don’t know how to answer this. I don’t know if it’s okay to say, but probably the best, one of the better parts, of my life. It was a lot of ups and downs and stuff before that, but I think that we all knew what we were making. We didn’t expect it to be received well, nothing we ever did was well received!
No matter who was into our band, it just didn’t ever go down with the general public. And to some degree that was totally sweet. We were still playing maybe 500 people at [Brisbane venue] The Zoo and stuff like that — we didn’t think it could get any bigger than that. But yeah, it was a really really good time. We all knew what we were doing and it sort of felt like the last time we really made ourselves record.
MF: Luke also talked about how, to him, Hungry Ghost embodied this sound that he flet the group had always wanted but never quite captured on record. He then talked about WACO as very much being a continuation of that sound. Would you agree or do you see WACO as pushing towards something else?
JT: Awrgh! I could never use the word ‘pushing’ because we stay away from pushing anything in our band. Everything has to just happen and to be honest, I think WACO doesn’t sound like Hungry Ghost. Certainly not the recording. How we play is so much slicker.
I think that just happens, though. I mean, you can push in a band, push your sound and everything like that, but we try and protect the natural growth of what the band is without any outsider influence. It can be quite tricky obviously when you’ve got a whole bunch of people suddenly getting into your band, but at the same time, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. We just really try and protect who we are, where we’re going and how we’re growing. It may not be fast enough that other people can see the differences.
That may be an incredibly long answer, to be honest with you. But at the end of the day, I think there is a huge difference between WACO and Hungry Ghost. But it could just be that I was there. But then there’s a song called ‘No Shade’ on WACO which is actually my favourite part. It sounds like certainly nothing off of Hungry Ghost. It sounds like — we have an album called We Don’t Belong Here — it actually sounds a little bit like ‘Dumb Machine’ off that.
MF: Where would you place your first EP Pigs & T.V.? I like that it had a bit more of a raw and DIY edge relative to everything else that follows.
JT: Have you heard that?!
MF: Honestly, I don’t think I’d heard it before Hungry Ghost, but I like getting into a band and listening to everything they’ve done.
JT: Same! I’m the exactly same. That’s so rad dude. Well with Pigs & T.V., We Don’t Belong Here and [the] self-titled there’s a lot of similar songs on all those albums. There were all these different versions of them. Self-Titled itself has seven songs that aren’t on We Don’t Belong Here but there were people saying it was a remake of the same album. Bands make albums these days that have eight songs on them! We were one short of that so we included a song [‘Jesus Stole My Girlfriend’] from an earlier album.
But I am exactly the same as you. I don’t think the recording matters as much as what the song does and that the people playing it believe in it. To me, I love the kind of more garagey approach that we used to do, but I think Hungry Ghost is still pretty raw! I mean it’s big, but it’s still raw. You can still tell that it’s not recorded in LA with like a slick producer, compressors and all that sort of stuff. Luke loves it, he gets into all that stuff! I don’t know where Pigs & T.V. sits in relation to the rest, we always try and make our stuff ‘good’. (Laughs) I know that all bands say that.
MF: Jumping back to this lecture. I also wasn’t aware of the whole story with Bryce. He’s a Brisbane local who had pretty much given up on music and was lopping trees in Ipswich before you brought him in to produce Hungry Ghost and then WACO. He seems like a really talented guy, what are his strengths from the perspective of working with him as a guitarist?
JT: He’s just super encouraging to me. I think his strength is not being as involved. I don’t want to degrade at all what he does because I think he’s an absolute genius. There’s a reason why we have done so much with him, including our first EP and half of We Don’t Belong Here. The only thing we haven’t really done with him is [the] self-titled.
The studio he was using when we first recorded with him was called ‘You Are Interfering’ and I think that sums him up perfectly. He just does not interfere. He won’t interfere, if that makes sense. You’ve got to beg for him to come in. He stands down unless he knows exactly what he’s talking about which is like the opposite of everyone else in society! I really appreciate him that’s for sure. If you saw him in person, you know how long he takes to collect his words and how calm he is about it.
MF: He’s very calm. Was it difficult selling that idea of working with this relatively unknown producer for Hungry Ghost to your label people at I OH YOU and Mushroom?
JT: I think it was until they saw how cheap it was! And then they were like, ‘Aw, fuck it. We’re not spendin’ that much!’ They had similar bands going and spending $100,000 on an album. We were doing that for around a quarter of what these other guys were asking.
MF: And recording it in Brisbane as well!
JT: Well exactly! The hardest thing was, and I’m sure Luke’s touched on it, was that to go to a label and say, ‘The producer we want to go with after recording with Gil Norton is Bryce Moorhead.’ They were like, ‘What has he done?’ And it’s like, ‘Aw, Well The Quickening, Big Nasty, The Iron Eye, and Scumbags & Superstars.’
They’d just signed us! [I OH YOU label head] Johann Ponniah, man he put his head on the chopping block for us! He’d just been picked up by Mushroom for signing all these popular new bands like Bleeding Knees Club and DZ Deathrays then the first band he signs is a band Mushroom dropped! Hard fucking sell for him! Then on top of that we go and put more pressure on him by going, ‘Look, we’re just going to record with an absolute no-name, our mate.’ They’re going, ‘Well what’s he doing, where’s his studio?!’ Then we say, ‘Well he doesn’t have a studio and we can’t get a hold of him. He works this job, he’s a tree lopper!’
He had to take his holidays to make Hungry Ghost. I mean I feel sorry for the dude! But we were all in the same situation. We just wanted to make the record happen. That’s another difference between Hungry Ghost and WACO — at this point we were all trying to make it happen. It has an urgency, we’re trying to make it. We felt it would be the biggest fluke if we could finish recording it. Whereas with WACO we knew it was happening. It sounds so much more relaxed. Even when it’s heavy we’re playing back into the beat and all that sort of stuff.
MF: I don’t want to try and extract information from you, but Luke was talking about getting stuck into songwriting again. If his track record’s anything to go by he’ll work pretty fast. Where are you at right now?
JT: Well we always wait and see where his head is at, what he’s writing and that sort of stuff before any sort of direction comes into it. He’s definitely writing quick! Quicker than ever.
MF: That’s pretty quick!
JT: Yeah! I think like the idea is, I don’t want to speak on behalf of everyone — I mean we certainly haven’t really had this conversation — but I think the idea is to come full circle to some degree. I think we sort of took a step back from [the] self-titled. We went and took our time a little bit more in terms of jumping in sound. I think that a lot of the backlash from the album was that we just went from completely underground and unknown to this huge, epic and polished record. It was bombastic. Absolutely ridiculous! But I think that’s where we’re still headed, the ultimate goal of being like that. I don’t know it’s really, really tricky man to jump on to answers without the rest of the dudes!
MF: So, there’s no calypso album on the horizon? That’s an old joke you guys had, right? Were you serious? Is that idea still banging around or is it a tired dog?
JT: (Laughs) Nah, nah, nah, not for me that’s for sure! That’s my genre man, that’s what I love! I think at the moment it’s going to be pretty similar, as much as I’d like to do a calypso album. Actually, [drummer] Mikey’s got an album. Next time we should throw you Mikey’s way and he can tell you about his album. It’s a bloody cracker!
MF: Is it in the pipes?
JT: (Jokingly) Well we wanted to demo the songs and send them to Johann as our next album. Because it’s Mikey’s turn! Boerdam’s written all these songs and sung on them. We’d just like give people turns. So now it’s Mikey’s turn.
MF: Are you a little bit scared putting him in control?
JT: It’s absolutely the most ridiculous thing you could have. So, one of the songs is like: “Woof Woof I’m a Dog / Dog’s a man’s best friend / Woof Woof I’m a dog.”
MF: I might have to wait until hearing the final mix for that one.
JT: We’ve moved on from calypso and it’s more this sort of garbage now. Mikey’s a good dude.
MF: We’ve got to talk about this upcoming all ages gig at The Last Frost. Are you guys excited to get on the stage again?
JT: Yeah, yeah! We’re always excited to get on the stage. I didn’t realise it was all ages, that’s awesome! I can’t wait for that festival.
There’s a band called Fazerdaze. She’s awesome and I’m so stoked to see that. I’ve been into the record and when I saw the post I couldn’t believe she was playing. I’m so hyped on chillin’ out and watching a bit of that.
Violent Soho perform at The Last Frost festival in Wollongong later this month.