Melbourne Australia’s Smith Street Band, due tonight at the Summit Music Hall, is a passionate and earnest group, whose world travels and experiences have offered its members unique perspectives on politics, passion and self-evaluation. Their latest, Throw Me in the River, is an account of these experiences and emotions.
The band — Wil Wagner (vocals/guitar), Chris Cowburn (drums/vocals), Lee Hartney (guitar/vocals) and Fitzy Fitzgerald (bass) — made some waves politically as they publicly challenged Australian prime minister Tony Abbot’s shortsighted stance on asylum-seekers seeking refuge in Australia.
We caught up with Cowburn, currently on tour with Andrew Jackson Jihad, Jeff Rosenstock and Chumped, and asked him about his band’s changing view of the world.
Andy Thomas: The first time I saw you, you were opening for Frank Turner [at the Ogden Theatre] in 2013. Was that your first U.S. tour?
Chris Cowburn: We did one before that, at the end of 2012. We came over basically just to play Fest [in Gainesville, Florida], and I pretty much booked a tour just e-mailing the few people that I knew here at that time. We played basements to five people and tiny clubs, but it was still super-rewarding.
Florida is certainly a unique representation of the United States. What did you think of it?
It was pretty weird driving down the highway and seeing all the crazy anti-government and anti-abortion billboards (laughs). That’s definitely something pretty confronting that doesn't happen in Australia. In terms of Gainesville itself, I found it to be really lovely. It was an awesome introduction to the U.S., and parts of it, like the climate, were very similar to parts of Australia.
Speaking of your home country of Australia, let’s talk about your buddy Tony Abbot and the things you’ve done to rally against him.
[Laughs] The song “(Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your) Punchable Face” was something that Wil [Wagner] had written shortly after Tony Abbot came into power in Australia. It was recorded at the time we recorded our album, but we sort of felt like it didn’t fit with the rest of the songs on [Throw Me in the River], so we decided to put it on a separate 7”.
Smith Street Band
A guy in Melbourne, for the last five years, has run shows on Australia Day that are benefits for refugee camps of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Center. He got in touch and asked us to play, and we had this song, and we thought, 'What better time to use it and to spread the message we believe in but on Australia Day?' I’m super-proud of what we did with it. The shows we played raised over $32,000, and the 7” raised over $8,000, which all went directly to asylum-seeker support organizations. We wanted to to gain some awareness around something that, obviously, is an Australian issue, but Tony Abbot’s inhuman treatment of asylum-seekers [goes beyond that]. We just wanted to make people think about the issue a little more. A lot of people were pissed off, but we didn’t really care.
This specific circumstance may be an Australian problem, but it seems like you can put in any number of circumstances to make it universal. The U.S. has similar issues with people from Central America. What is it about country borders that people are so afraid of?
That’s a huge question, and I wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer it. People are afraid of change and things that are foreign, I’m not sure why. People who have traveled outside of Australia will very quickly realize that our country is very sparsely populated and we have so much space and so many resources compared to other parts of the world. Hopefully, organizations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Center makes people think about that question a little bit more.
You mentioned how much more knowledge you gain when you begin to travel. Being in a touring band seems to give you a much more open and broader perspective than some people.
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Yeah, dude, I couldn’t agree more. I’m the perfect example of that, because before this band existed, I had never left Australia. The first place we traveled overseas was China, for a week, which was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my entire life. Then we went on to our first U.S. tour right after that. I’ve been super, super lucky over the last couple of years. I’ve seen a whole slew of different countries, and it makes you start to think that maybe there are other ways that your government and your country can do things, and that maybe there's other options.
Most people aren't so lucky as to have something as simple as rock and roll change their perspective. It’s great that you’re taking advantage of it.
Yeah, thanks, man! We’re really lucky to have people care about our music. It’s sort of the least we can do: If you have a voice, you should do this.