After kicking around in various bands across suburban Melbourne, Motor Ace‘s four members came together in the summer of 1998 and were on the rise within the year. Their melodic, driving take on alternative rock caught the ear of triple j listeners, and soon found them making a dent on the ARIA charts.
The band were a turn-of-the-century success story, with songs like ‘Carry On’ and ‘Keeping Secrets’ serving as among the most beloved rock tracks of the decade. The 2000s, however, were not a decade that the band itself would survive – following the release of their third album, Animal, the band quietly called stumps in 2005. Their disappearance lead them to feel less like a celebrated, chart-topping band and more like some sort of urban legend – the kind of band one could easily associate with the phrase: “If you know, you know.”
In 2018, on the eve of the band’s 20th anniversary, Motor Ace made the unexpected announcement that they would be reuniting after 13 years of inactivity. They announced shows for the following March and April across most major capital cities – and that time has finally rolled around, as the band kick off their ‘Five Star Reunion’ tour tonight Friday in Adelaide.
Ahead of the shows, Music Feeds spoke to the band’s leader – lead vocalist and guitarist Patch Robinson – about the secret life of Motor Ace.
Music Feeds: If you’ll allow a bit of a Memento timeline, let’s start at the end of Motor Ace in 2005. Can you talk us through the circumstances in which you made the decision to stop doing the band?
Patch Robertson: I think everyone was pretty aware when we were making Animal that it was going to be the last time. We’d taken a little hiatus after [second album, 2002’s] Shoot This, and I’d gone through a particularly tough time around that point. I think that period made us all realise that Motor Ace wasn’t something that we could rely on, and that we should start thinking about our lives outside of music.
By the time the album had been recorded and we were touring it, everything felt a lot more casual. We were still enjoying it, but there was a definite sense of things starting to wind down. We were all kind of understanding that this would be the end, and I think listening back to Animal you can get a sense of that when you read some of the lyrics. It was like slowly peeling the band-aid off instead of ripping it in one go.
MF: Did you ever see Motor Ace as something you would ever return to? Did it feel like a time in your life that was irretrievable?
PR: I don’t know. I don’t think I really thought about it seriously. The four of us would get together maybe once a year and catch up, and a couple of times we talked about maybe doing it. It never got beyond a laugh over a few drinks, though. I don’t think any of us saw any real reason to do it. That didn’t really change until I started playing music again – Damo [Costin, drums] and I started a new band called Nighthawk. After doing about five or six shows with those guys, it changed my perspective – it made me think that maybe there was a possibility I could do a Motor Ace gig again.
MF: What happened next?
PR: When the label got in touch about putting out [first album, 2000’s] Five Star Laundry on vinyl, the four of us got together again. We started talking seriously about it, and if we had the time to do it. Obviously, we didn’t want to tour the way that we used to – going off for six weeks, playing every other night. We all had our own schedules and our own lives to think about, but a run of the capital cities seemed like a reasonable thing to be able to organise. It really felt as though the stars had aligned, too – it was all coming together on the 20th anniversary of the band forming, and we were all really excited to get back in the room together.
We knew from the outset that it was going to be a lot of work in order to be able to play these songs again – even from a physical standpoint – but we also knew that there may not be another chance for all of us to get together and do this. I’m feeling really good about it now.
MF: Let’s jump cut again to the very beginning of the band, back in 1998. Generally speaking, a lot of bands in their early 20s are just happy to be playing around in their local scene and don’t tend to have much loftier ambitions than that. It’s seen as a very simple time in one’s life. Was that much true of you and the rest of the guys in Motor Ace?
PR: The more that I think about it and look back on it, I actually feel that I was quite the opposite to that whole mindset. I was extremely ambitious at the time – I was desperate to be in a successful band. I had been playing in bands since I was 15, even though I probably looked about 10 to most people. [laughs] I think part of it had to do with the fact that music was all I had – I never saw myself fitting into a 9-to-5 office lifestyle. The fear of having to do that was definitely a driving factor in wanting to be in a band that was going places. The negative side to that, of course, was the fact I don’t know if I ever really got to enjoy the band properly – just because I was so focused on whether people were coming to the shows or not, stuff like that. In retrospect, that’s one of the biggest regrets that I have. I put a lot of pressure on myself. At the same time, though, I do wonder if younger bands are honest about that sort of thing. If you ask them why they do it, they’ll say that it’s because they love making music. Yeah, we all love making music. At the same time, though, it’s fucking stressful.
MF: Do you feel you’ve been somewhat reverse engineered, in a way? Do you feel you learned how to have fun in a band by being in Nighthawk as opposed to the careerist motivation behind Motor Ace?
PR: Definitely. There’s none of the same sort of ambition in that band. I mean, I’ve got a job now – all of us in the band have got jobs, so there’s no drive to push the band as our main source of income. Because of that, we all get to play and make music in a pure sense – and, to me, there’s nothing better than that.
MF: What do you remember about the first-ever Motor Ace show?
PR: Holy shit… [laughs] I don’t even know if I remember anything! It would have been in Melbourne, and the place probably no longer exists. It was with a slightly-different line-up to the one we ended up having, too. We were playing as a three-piece – it was me, Damo and Matt [Balfe, bass]. Dave [Ong, guitar] hadn’t joined yet. Now that I think of it, it was a place that shut down – it was The Punters Club, on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy.
MF: What about the first tour?
PR: Yeah, that was a tour called “Turn Up Your Radio.” It was a tour that triple j presented and put on, and I think the run that we did was the last one they ended up doing. I kind of get why, to be honest – it was pretty full on, and was definitely a bit of a debacle. [laughs] We really got thrown in the deep end. Not only was it our first-ever tour, but it was a tour where we were pretty much playing six nights a week for over a month. It was definitely an eye-opener. On top of all of that, on the last night of the tour, Damo and I had a punch-on. It was the first time we’d had one in the band.
MF: You never forget your first.
PR: [laughs] That’s right.
MF: Was hostility a common thing in Motor Ace?
PR: I’ll say this: Damo and I are best friends. We were back then; we still are today, more than ever. Having said that, we’re fire and ice. There was always this interesting tension between us. Damo’s very motivating, and got me to do a lot of things that I normally wouldn’t have done – and to my benefit, and the band’s benefit. He was a driving force behind the band. It would have been shit without him. I was at the other end of the spectrum – I was a miserable piece of shit a lot of the time I was in the band. We used to have conflict going, both on and off the stage. It was just who we were as people. We’ve accepted that, and we have a much better working relationship now.
MF: With Shoot This, you more or less achieved what you had set out to do when the band started. You had the number one album in the country, and two singles on high rotation across both mainstream and alternative radio. Was there a sense of accomplishment to that peak, or was it always in the back of your mind that no-one stays at the top forever?
PR: It was a bit of everything, I think. I was definitely very happy that we’d gotten to that point. It was very satisfying to have achieved this goal of mine. At the same time, it kind of blows my mind now thinking about how fleeting that satisfaction was. It probably lasted about as long as we were actually number one – which was two weeks. [laughs]
Without getting too deep about it, but it made me really re-evaluate my goals. It made me feel like maybe tying myself up into a knot about it wasn’t worth it. If anything, I feel like that comedown of disappointment was as important to me as it was to have that moment of accomplishment and success. It made me think that perhaps setting these massive goals wasn’t the best way to be living my life. I’m glad I had that experience. Had I not, I may have been frustrated for my entire life.
MF: It’s interesting to hear the other side of what being in the band was like – especially considering a lot of people’s memories of the band are so positive. When this tour got announced, so many fans were sharing stories across Facebook and Twitter where they reminisced on going to see you back in the day and listening to albums like Five Star Laundry and Shoot This.
PR: What I will say is that I really don’t want to come across as sounding negative about it. It’s just more a reflection of the individual personalities. When we were on stage, we were excited about the music and what we were doing. There was none of that negativity when we were playing, and there probably wasn’t a huge amount off it that wasn’t coming from me. [laughs] It was good fun, even when we were at the tail-end of tours and completely exhausted.
MF: Overall, what do you think was the biggest take-away – the biggest thing that you learned – as a part of Motor Ace?
PR: I would have to say that it’s to enjoy every moment and not to dwell on your regrets. It was a fascinating experience to be a part of this band. The bond between the four of us is familial – it’s unlike anything else you can experience. It’s a fascinating thing. After this tour, I have no idea when we’ll all physically be able to be together again. My main goal is to absolutely enjoy every show and every moment we’re still a band for the time being. That’s something I really could have done more of in the past, and my intent with this tour is to change that for the better.
Motor Ace’s national tour kicks off tonight in Adelaide. See remaining dates and details below.
Motor Ace ‘A Five Star Reunion’ 2019 Tour
Tickets on sale now
Friday, 29th March
The Gov, Adelaide (18+)
Saturday, 30th March
Capitol, Perth (18+)
Friday, 5th April
Factory Theatre, Sydney (18+)
Tickets: Official Website
Saturday, 6th April
The Triffid, Brisbane (18+)
Friday, 12th April
170 Russell, Melbourne (18+)