Photo: Ian Laidlaw
Wil Wagner is okay. Actually, he's better than okay. In fact, on the day I speak to Wagner, frontman of Australian punk group The Smith Street Band, he's grand. He didn't used to be, but he is now. He's giggly and warm and excitable and giving and, as much as one can be via phone, a whole day's worth of time zones away, genuinely lovable. He's walking across a busy intersection en route to his rehearsal space when I call him, so he apologizes for the noise. "How are you?" he poses to me earnestly.
Wagner has just written the sort of record that, though colored by heartbreak and atrophy, somehow rings with joy and confidence, a person mended and a life restored. Yes, he's written a breakup record.
At various points on More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, the Melbourne punks' upcoming fourth record, he is excited, elated, nervous, self-conscious, demoralized, miserable, manic, overjoyed, blasé, rebounding, and just plain okay. The record is filled with the unfiltered musings of someone that's been shattered, picked up, and glued back together, told via innocuous moments and minutiae, non-events that, loaded with context, can tell the story of periods like this. It conveys an understanding that the most emotional bits of our lives stay "locked up whining in a word." Wagner's well-versed in the past, chewing on his shoes.
"Spent the morning cleaning my room, in the hope you'd ask to see it soon," he sings bashfully at the top of lead single, "Birthdays." A simple sentence, but brimming with affect. It's an admission of giving a shit about someone, a snowy, innocent giddiness. "I'm very proud of that line even though it does seem quite innocuous, saying almost unpoetic things," Wagner asserts. "You can put so much meaning into seemingly mundane things." It's a specific sentiment, but its utility is far reaching. Our dads might not have been from New Jersey, but damned if that was going to stop them from applying Bruce Springsteen's ultra-local ballads to their own lives. "I'm sure you've also been excited about someone coming over, and you have to pretend that you're not disgusting," he laughs. He backtracks that he wasn't insinuating I was disgusting, before guffawing some more and pressing on: "[It's] the idea of being excited, and wanting to appear exciting, and wanting to impress someone, and being enthusiastic about that, which is so universal."
By now it's become vividly apparent that Wagner is never short of things to say, or ways to say them. (He tells me he's already written the next Smith Street Band record: title, tracklisting and all.) Self-expression has always been an important tool for him. "I like talking about myself," he admits with a giggle. Writing came to him early and often, frequently in a therapeutic capacity. His parents are both authors, but Wagner didn't feel he had the attention span to write books, so he took to jotting shorter bits as a vehicle for things he couldn't always say out loud. "As a 14-year old boy, you can't sit around with your friends and talk about feelings of anxiety and depression," he reasons. That's about how old he was when he made his first recordings and started playing in bands; coupled with the anchor of writing, these were saving graces. "It's the one constant in my life that has always been there for me," he says simply. "No matter how bad things are, I can always get my laptop, or a piece of paper and a pen, and write something down. It's always made me feel less alone."
This suggests that writing More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me was a necessity. Wagner confirms as much. "I think I sort of had to write this album," he remarks. He's very proud of the album: "Recording and writing it has helped me immensely." Finishing vocal takes was an exorcism. Listen for his red-faced, shakily confident shout of, "But I'm reaching up!" on "It Kills Me To Have To Be Alive," for an idea of how impassioned these sessions were. You can hear Wagner convincing himself of the things he says, as if committing them to record might cement them as objective truth. "I'm generally nervous about most things," he confesses. But not with this record. Besides, it's not just for him; true to form, Wagner is anxious to help other people. (He's proven he isn't afraid to step in and offer help when it's needed.) Fans will frequently relay how much Smith Street Band's music has helped them. This is of paramount importance to Wagner. "If I'm helping myself, and I'm helping these other people, I'll write anything." Of course, this is the man who once wrote, "All I've ever wanted is to leave this world more beautiful."
"No matter how bad things are, I can always get my laptop, or a piece of paper and a pen, and write something down. It's always made me feel less alone."
Sometimes (most times, perhaps) that means writing things that aren't particularly sunny. "Song For You" is a sobering first incision; following the whirlwind of excitement and three-pint abandon that sparks the record, Wagner ends the honeymoon phase: "Rejection's a constant bitterness, comes with age," he spits bitterly. He doesn't use traditional reflexes to detail an unreciprocated affection. Instead, he explains the uneven ground in the context of dating another songwriter; while Wagner excitedly writes songs about his partner, they don't feel strongly enough to do the same. It's heartbreaking in its desperation for recognition. When Wagner prods, "All I think I'd need to cast off insecurities is for you to write something for me like I write for you," he gets the gutting shrug of a response: "One day there'll be a song about you." He explains that the song is not fictional. "There's something so amazing about someone coming to you like, 'Hey, here's this thing I made that you inspired.' That's so special and meaningful," he says quietly.
A desire for unhinged indulgence in romanticism, and reluctant tempering with realism, couch so much of Wagner's work on this record. Even as Wagner describes just how vicious his misery got, he nods that it's partly his fault, cursing his tendency for "stupid, jealous, weird feelings." "If it wasn't painfully obvious, I'm quite an emotional person," he chuckles. "In relationships I'm over-emotional and ludicrously romantic, and have such idealized ideas of what love should be." He points to his parents as the root of his aspirations. "My parents have the best relationship of two people I've ever met, so in my head, every person I date should treat me like that." He adds, laughing again, "Which is very unrealistic."
But he's more than willing to implicate himself on the record. He admits he is the villain, he confesses he has a lot to learn, he is lonely and angry and desperate. "I don't mind not painting myself in the perfect light," he explains. And why should anyone? It's through that imperfection that we learn. It's only by our mistakes that we're afforded a look at what needs improving. "I think it's really fucking important to get things wrong and to fuck things up," Wagner says earnestly. "That's how you learn, and that's how you grow as a human being."
At one point midway through the record, Wagner promises, "I'll try not to write another record about the pain in my chest." He maintains a fierce, intimate pride in the record, but interrogates it still. "It's weird that I've committed to singing about this breakup for, hopefully, the rest of my life," he remarks soberly. He pauses for a beat. "It would be nice to not drag this up every night. But at the same time, I don't know how I would've dealt with anything that I've been through if I wasn't able to write about it."
The critical moment of post-breakup misery, the real turning point, is learning to not care, to let go; submitting to reality. Once that's done, personal reconstruction can begin. "I'll let this all fall down around me," Wagner bellows late in the album. It's a significant statement. "That's the turning point where it's like, 'I'm not going to try to make you love me anymore. Fuck it! Let's let it all fall down, and I'll see what I have left to pick up after,'" he explains. "I'll probably be able to drag some good songs out of it." Wagner's enduring positivity and his quixotic lust for life and love win out in the end.
He's at his rehearsal space now and telling me how great it feels to play the new songs. "It feels great in a musical way, but, even more, it feels like vindication," he says. "I let it all fall down around me, and now I feel like there's more stuff built around me than I've ever felt before."
Luke Ottenhof is on Twitter.