The question, “Who was the first Australian artist to top the Hottest 100?” should be a pub trivia staple. The answer, for future reference, is Spiderbait. And the song in question was ‘Buy Me A Pony’, the lead single from the band’s 1996 opus, Ivy and the Big Apples.
Ivy was the album that cemented Spiderbait’s place in the ‘90s Australian alt-rock mythos. When people complain about triple j having lost its way, they’re typically pining for a time when Spiderbait and their Melbourne punk scene companions Magic Dirt and The Meanies were guaranteed hefty chunks of air time.
But Spiderbait didn’t start out in Melbourne. The trio of drummer and co-lead vocalist Mark “Kram” Maher, bass player and co-lead vocalist Janet English, and guitarist and sometime-vocalist Damian “Whitt” Whitty met as kids in the tiny NSW town of Finley. They moved to Melbourne not long after graduating high school and released their debut album, Shashavaglava, in 1993.
The album’s best-known track is ‘Old Man Sam’, a novelty punk-Americana song that hinted at the trio’s relaxed attitude towards genre. Spiderbait’s next album, The Unfinished Spanish Galleon of Finley Lake, came out in 1995 and featured production from Lindsay Gravina (The Living End, Cosmic Psychos). The single ‘Monty’ became Spiderbait’s first mini-hit, reaching #43 in the Hottest 100 of 1995 and warranting inclusion on the relevant CD compilation.
But these early flirtations with success were nothing compared to the impact made by Ivy and the Big Apples. Along with the Hottest 100 triumph, the record reached #3 in the ARIA charts and the single ‘Calypso’ reached the top 15. The album has since been certified double platinum and was voted the 48th best Australian album of all time by triple j listeners in a 2011 poll.
Ivy is now 25 years old and remains the archetypal Spiderbait record. Sure, they’d take their genre adventuring even further on 1999’s Grand Slam and reach loftier commercial heights with their cover of ‘Black Betty’ from 2004’s Tonight Alright, but no record better represents the trio’s effusive chemistry and devil-may-care garage punk and dream pop propensity than Ivy and the Big Apples.
Music Feeds spoke to Kram about the 25th anniversary and the plans for Spiderbait’s immediate future.
Music Feeds: Are you writing a new Spiderbait record?
MF: Do you have an idea of when it might come out?
Kram: We’re doing a bit of a trilogy. So the Ivy and the Big Apples reissue will be the first release and then next year we’re going to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, which is a retrospective record of all of Janet’s work. I put this record together and it’s a double album and it’s just amazing to hear all her stuff because she and I are always to-ing and fro-ing together.
And then the third thing, which we’re writing at the moment, will be the new record. It’s funny, all this talk of Ivy and over the past few months we’ve been Zooming because everyone’s locked down, and it’s really feeling similar to Ivy in the connection between the three of us.
I can’t help but feel this whole pandemic bullshit and all the fucking shit that’s going on has had some effect on us being able to start creating again. It gets harder to make records as often when you’re an older band because you go off and do your own shit in your life. But right now, we feel very productive and very committed.
MF: The circumstances are drastically different to when Ivy came out. You were 25 years younger and had just signed to a major label, Polydor. What did signing with a major mean to you at the time?
Kram: We were on Au Go Go and they were great, but we just needed a change. We love Bruce [Milne] and Greta [Moon] and there were a lot of other great bands on Au Go Go as well, but we couldn’t take that next step and they didn’t seem to be able to do it for us.
What was going on at the time, there was all these bidding wars going on for us and all these other bands and we just ended up signing the deal that would give us the most creative control and ownership of our ideas.
Obviously, at that time there was a lot of scepticism. I mean, that’s what ‘Buy Me A Pony’ is about. It’s like, “What the fuck is going to happen? If you give someone yourself, are they going to just completely fuck you over?” And we were in a good position to negotiate and we got a good deal and we’re still here today, but it was a bit of a plunge.
MF: Ivy made it to #3 in the ARIA charts and went 2x Platinum; ‘Buy Me A Pony’ became the first Australian song to top the Hottest 100; and ‘Calypso’ was a top 15 single. Were you anticipating that sort of reaction?
Kram: We certainly couldn’t have predicted that album becoming so huge and particularly winning the Hottest 100 was a real trip. We didn’t expect that at all. A good friend of mine is Ruby Fields and I think she came pretty close to winning with ‘Dinosaurs’, which is a great song. And she says to me, “I just can’t believe you actually won that thing,” and I can’t actually believe we won it either and were the first Australian band to do it.
But it’s something we’re really proud of and particularly because it’s that song—because our audience understood what we were thinking and worried about and there was a real connection back then. So I think it makes it a bit more historically significant than if it was just a love song.
MF: ‘Buy Me A Pony’ and ‘Calpyso’ are kind of the archetypal Spiderbait songs. ‘Buy Me A Pony’ shows off your punk roots, but ‘Calypso’ is essentially a pop song.
Kram: [‘Calypso’] was our first really big hit. It actually made the chart and you never really thought like that back then, because a lot of commercial radio was not playing those sorts of songs. A bit like what ‘Buy Me A Pony’ was for me, that song was for Janet as well, and it also gave us a lot of belief in ourselves because those two songs were very different from the stuff we’d done prior.
MF: The contrast between the two is a good introduction to the stylistic variety of Ivy in general. Did you pride yourself on touching on so many different styles on the album?
Kram: Oh yeah. One of my big influences is The Beatles and records like Revolver—nobody ever said that you couldn’t sound like heaps of different things. So they’re a big influence on us. The two biggest influences I had were on a tape that I got from my school counsellor in high school, which one side was Abbey Road and the other side was the Sex Pistols’ first record.