It’s hard to believe six years ago SAFIA was a new band on the Aussie scene. In that short amount of time, the trio has won a legion of fans across the world and played to some of the biggest festival crowds both here and overseas – including this year’s Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay and Concrete & Grass Festival in China.
Ahead of their homecoming national tour this November, which culminates with a headlining slot at Wollongong’s epic Corona SunSets Festival on December 1st, Music Feeds’ Jade Kennedy caught up with the band’s jetlagged singer, Ben Woolner, to talk festival essentials, pill testing, new music and learning to live in the moment.
Music Feeds: Hi Ben, what are you up to?
Ben Woolner: Oh we just flew in from China this morning so I’m kind of struggling at the moment, but I’m trying to stay awake… I’ll probably crash and burn this arvo.
MF: Yuck, off the plane and straight back to business.
BW: Yeah [laughs] well it could be worse, it could be like a 48-hour round trip or something.
MF: True, I mean you could have just flown in from London or something.
BW: Yeah, yeah, I mean they’re on the same time too so it’s just like I’ve had a big night or something [laughs].
MF: Exactly! So how was the Chinese festival you guys just played?
BW: Oh it was awesome. Yeah, I had no idea what to expect but it’s a massive festival, and it’s a pretty eclectic lineup from all around the world, so it was really cool to be a part of. Our show went really well, you know, the tent was full and we even had a lot of people singing along to some of the songs, which was a nice surprise.
MF: Oh wow, really?!
BW: Yeah! We were looked after really well by the festival too, and had like a local that looked after us and showed us around and see, with China, all the streaming stuff is different so it’s all by location and you can only access it in China. They showed me some of the things and some of the songs had heaps and heaps of listens and comments, I was like what? Okay! [laughs] That was a nice surprise.
MF: That’s fantastic.
BW: Yeah. So it was really good, it was a really fun show and a great experience.
MF: So when you were picked up as the Triple J Unearthed artist at Groovin The Moo five years ago, did you ever expect you’d be playing festivals in China, or headlining festivals like Corona Sunsets now?
BW: Ahh no. And definitely if I go back to my thought process when we were that age… I think it was that competition that really made us go, ‘Oh, okay, we must be doing something half-decent here… let’s do this a bit more.’ [Laughs]
Because we always came in with low expectations, and to see us then coming from Canberra — which had less of a scene than Sydney or Melbourne – you know, the likelihood of us making a career out of music was pretty low. So we were basically just doing it for the love of it and yeah, then that happened and now we’re here [laughs].
MF: Well what was the scene like in Canberra at the time?
BW: Oh great, I mean there’s a great local scene and it’s really supportive and there’s some great local bands. I mean I think because it is a little isolated from the industry you get some really interesting music coming out of there that maybe sometimes doesn’t sound like what’s coming out of the rest of the country. It’s always been a great little supportive community and it’s great when you do things outside of Canberra, because everyone really gets behind you as well so you get the extra support from your hometown and yeah, it’s really good.
MF: It’s good to see artists building each other up. You’ve become such an essential festival band in the last few years – what are your festival survival tactics?
BW: Festival survival tactics… Well it depends; if we’re playing like a summer festival – especially up in Queensland – the tent usually needs an air con or fans, because it gets pretty sweaty pretty quickly [laughs]. For me, I need some Manuka honey to get the voice all lubed up, and I know Michael needs — we’ve got the Vicks on the rider to get the airways flowing, and just an overall positive attitude to go on and put on the best show we can, I think. So yeah, the festivals are pulling out all the big stops in like 50 minutes, so it’s a fun all-out show.
MF: Yeah, well you must go pretty hard pretty quick. It’s zero to 60 at those things.
BW: Yeah, well it feels like it’s over pretty quick, which is always a shame because you always have that energy of a festival – there’s people there to see your show but then you’ve got people that have just kind of rocked up and are lapping up the atmosphere of the festival as a whole, so you’ve kind of got that whole new dynamic which makes it different to your own shows. That makes them two unique experiences to play at.
MF: Oh yeah for sure. Well you are playing some headline shows of your own soon – besides the obvious time difference, how do those differ from your festival shows?
BW: Well to begin with, especially with these headline shows, we have more time to flesh it out and make it a lot more dynamic. I think with a festival show, unless you’re headlining you’ve kind of got to go all the big stops one after another to keep people engaged, whereas with your own show it’s definitely more about making it more of a dynamic, almost theatre-esque piece… Which is what we do at the festivals too, but you can really bring it down in moments and bring the crowd in and make it feel very intimate. Especially for these shows, we’re going to be, like, we can road test a bunch of new music that’s not out yet, because a lot of the fans are there we assume they’d be keen to hear some new stuff, so I think in that sense it’s kind of good for road testing new stuff and being a bit more experimental and fleshing songs out in a different way. But yeah, they’re both equally good… but it’s been a while since we’ve done our own headline shows so I’m definitely keen to do that again.
MF: Well it’s been about, what, two years?
BW: Two years, yeah. It’s crazy how quickly that went. The album tour was September 2016 and yeah, we haven’t toured our own headline tour since. So, we’ll see how these ones go, but we’ve got a big show in store, and we feel like we’re a lot tighter as a band now. So we’re excited to take all our experiences and our new show on the road now.
MF: Fantastic. You’ve played just about every festival there is – what’s left on your bucket list?
BW: [Laughs] Yeah, it seems like that hey. We have ticked off quite a few, haven’t we? I think we’re going to try… Well, obviously we’re going to try to make our own shows the biggest and the best it can be. So we’re going to keep working on that and refining it, as we always do. Then we’ll probably start taking the show around overseas as well next year… it’s been a while since we’ve done that. China was probably the first of those. But yeah, it’ll be good to take it around and try to bring it to a whole new audience, and try to get as many people in front of it as we can.
MF: That sounds like a plan. Without getting too political – it’s probably something that if I was an artist in the electronic or festival scene would concern me – the whole deaths at festivals and pill testing scenario. What’s your take on that?
BW: Oh. Yeah, well it’s just hard when you’ve got a proven method working in Europe to simply deny that here. And obviously with the government in power now, their voter base isn’t the younger generation – they’re going for a quick, easy, points-scoring fix that appeases their voter base, which is the older generation. So unfortunately they’re playing brownie point games rather than looking at actual solutions, which is really sad because everyone wants the same thing in the end, which is to save lives and at the end of the day it’s just a shame that they’re putting their political interests in front of real people.
MF: Well yeah, in front of people’s lives, really… Well, back to the music – your new track ‘Starlight’ is out now – congratulations, by the way. So, tell me a little bit about that track.
BW: Thank you very much! This song is… well, we’ve written a whole bunch of music and this kind of came out of the back end of that. I think a lot of the music before it was a very strong pre-conception of what I wanted to say in the songs, and there was a lot of intent behind everything and I wanted to say these particular things, but I think in wanting to say something so much it might have taken a little bit of the magic out of them.
So this song kind of came together accidentally. I went down the coast to purely get away from music because I’d just been going to the studio day after day, and you know, that process gets a bit caustic in your mind. So yeah, I went down the coast and didn’t plan to do anything but I did this little 40-second demo of the beat and the melodies of this song, and didn’t really think anything of it, I just did what felt good and it came together really quickly and lo and behold the song is pretty much the same now.
MF: So the press release says that it represents an important shift in perspective, both creative and personally – is that what it means by that?
BW: Yeah, like I said before, there was a lot less intent and more being present and just doing it purely out of feeling and less pre-conception. But I think for myself as well, like I said before I had all these ideas about what I wanted to do – and again, working day in day out and not really being present or enjoying life, where you get your inspiration and ideas from. I think after this song there was a deliberate shift to be more present and not try to force everything, so in that sense it’s a song about letting go and just being in the moment. A lot of the lyrics came out on the first take and were kind of improv but on looking back I’m like, ‘wow, I can really relate to what I was thinking then,’ but this is a signpost to an important time in that writing process.
MF: I’ve noticed your artwork always stands out as well – how important is it to get the right art or artist?
BW: Oh, for us it’s very important. We see music very visually. I think the ideal aim for us with song is that it creates a world you can be immersed in, so what we want to do is try and create assets that enhance that world, and really make the listener get lost in it. So we found this artist named Sutu and saw all of his stuff and it just visually represented a lot of the music we thought, very well, so I asked him to do something and he did that and it was just perfect.
MF: Oh wow, well it has worked perfectly, it’s attention-grabbing as well! So what’s next after the ‘Starlight’ shows and Sunsets Fest?
BW: We’ve got a few festival sets over the end of the year and then we’ll probably go overseas – again – and in that time finish of a whole lot of new music and hopefully get prepared for a big 2019.
MF: So there is a new album on the horizon sometime soon?
BW: Yeah, it’s what we’re working towards but we’re still finishing it – there’s still a lot to do but we’re on the way!