Chats with Clowns

On a sunny afternoon in the lovely neighbourhood of Fitzroy, I caught up with Stevie and Joe from Melbourne hardcore punk outfit, Clowns. Since their inception 4 years ago, Clowns have established themselves as one of Melbourne’s go-to bands for harsh and abrasive tunes, melting brains around the country with their chaotic live shows and in-your-face attitude.

Over pizza and beer we talked new music, odd sources of fans and how 2014 has treated them. Insert numerous clown puns here.

How you going dudes, introduce yourselves.

Joe (J): My name’s Joe and I play guitar in Clowns.

Stevie (S): And my names Stevie, I play the… singing in Clowns.

art felicis (af): The ‘vokills’?

S: [laughter] yes.

You guys have had a massive year off the back of ‘I’m Not Right’ in late 2013; you’ve toured with Frenzal Rhomb, The Meanies, how has it been?

J: Playing with Frenzal, it was a huge honour, they were a massive influence for all of us growing up, and I mean they still are one of our favourite bands. Great dudes.

S: The Meanies were the same deal, another band that influenced us a lot over the years. Anyone that’s seen us in the last year or two would know that we cover ‘Scum’, so when we actually got asked to play with them that was a bit funny. I guess it was just a pretty cool experience to have been had, I mean we’ve been a band for a few years now and until recently we never got those sorts of opportunities thrown at us. We’ve always sort of played our own gigs, played with lots of local bands. So it was pretty cool to do the album and have that be taken so well so much to the point where we started getting those offers. When you start a band you think ‘How sick would it be to play with Frenzal Rhomb!’

J: Same with the Bodyjar as well, they asked us to do that tour with them and Samiam, and again, they were a big band for me growing up. Just straight up ‘You want to do a tour with us?’ and we’re like ‘Yep!’

af: What was the response like for that from the crowds?

J: Yeah all the shows were great. Especially Adelaide, which was weird ‘cos we’ve never really done well there to be honest. Going in the guys from Samiam asked me ‘What’s Adelaide like?’ and I said ‘Oh you know, to be honest it’s a bit quiet here’ but then the show went off and it was nearly sold out. Best show of the tour, surprisingly.

You guys are especially noted for your hectic live shows. Is that something you talk about or does it sort of more stem from impulse on stage?

J: It’s mostly just feeding off the energy from the crowd and obviously the songs themselves, you’ve just got to put yourself into how you’re performing them. I guess we want to do a bit of a spectacle as well, but we don’t really plan any moves or choreography [laughter].

S: Sometimes the shows just end up crazily wild; sometimes they’re just not. We often get asked if we plan it, but not really at all. I think a good example would be that John Curtin show last week where there was a good crowd and everything and the room was full, but it didn’t really get that wild. But then on the other hand, a few weeks ago we played up in Cairns to like 30 people in a room that could have fit 300 and it was absolutely insane.

af: I’d say for some reason people tend to go crazier at smaller shows like at that pop-up bar in St Kilda, would you say you prefer smaller shows and venues over bigger ones?

J: Yeah fuck, that was a really good show. I’d say our music probably does work better in smaller rooms packed out, but we’re happy to play anywhere really. We try our best to make any room work.

Tell me about some bands you listened to growing up and some you’re listening to at the moment.

J: One of the first bands I loved would have been AC/DC, and then off into bands like The Offspring, loved all their early stuff. That put me onto bands like Descendents, NOFX, you know. Now I listen to a lot of Fugazi, probably one of my favourite bands. Punch is a big one right now, White Lung too.  

af: How would you say those bands have influenced your style of guitar playing now?

J: In terms of actual playing, nothing specific, I guess I’m more influenced by ideas. Sort of more how the band conduct themselves, the creative process.

af: What about you Stevie, what shaped your vocal style?

S: The first band I ever saw was The Offspring when I was 8 with my Dad, so I think I was doomed from the beginning to be into punk rock after that experience at such a fragile age. It’s pretty funny how we’ve ended up in this band cos when I was growing up, I listened to everything that was on Channel V and Rage. So in my early teens I was listening to heaps of Radiohead and Tool. But when we started the band, we both were into Frenzal Rhomb so we wanted to do something like them. When we decided we wanted to be a punk band, that’s when we started backtracking into punk pretty much; stuff that I’d never really listened to. Black Flag were our biggest influence for a long time but now I think we’re moving into new ground.

The new record ‘Bad Blood’ is out 20th February through Poison City Records. You recorded it a Hot House Studios in St Kilda, tell me about that experience. It’s going to be released on 12”, right?

J: Yeah, 12”, digital, CD all the usual formats. It was great, awesome studio with lots of history and a lot of cool gear we got to use. The mixing desk is allegedly the one AC/DC did ‘Dirty Deeds’ through; I don’t know if that’s bullshit but that’s what we were told [laughter]. Hopefully we get a bit of that flavour through there. The engineers Craig and Jez were great to work with.

af: Did you come into the studio with all the songs written or did you have to finish some off there?

J: Everything was written when we went in. There was a couple of little things vocally we played around with, but we were really well rehearsed.

S: I don’t think anything is ever 100% done, especially with us.

J: Yeah, there’s always going to be tiny little bits to fix up. You never notice playing it but recording it things clash for some reason, it always sounds a bit different.

S: And there were songs we thought were going to come out awesome but then we think ‘Aw maybe that’s more of a live song’ and then songs we thought were live songs actually turned out awesome on record. You never quite know how it’s going to end up, but I’m really pleased with whatever has.

J: Yeah, I’m stoked with everything. There were some songs where I didn’t really know how they were going to sound on the record, but I thought we nailed it.

You put out a preview track to the new album called ‘Figure It Out’, tell me about that.

J: We’ve been playing it live for a while, on and off. We’ve had a few songs we’ve been playing live for the last six months or so while writing the album. Some have made it on, some haven’t, and some have completely changed. ‘Figure It Out’ was one the first songs we wrote for the new album and we didn’t really change any of it. A lot of the songs we’ve been playing live from the record have been ones we haven’t really been sure of, so we thought we’d see how the crowds respond to them. ‘Figure It Out’ was one of them and yeah, we didn’t really change it. We sort of think it sums up a lot of the album.

af: Would you say the album is moving towards a heavier sound with your hardcore roots coming through?

J: The music is a bit more aggressive I think. But it’s pretty straight up hardcore punk, no real studio magic or special treatment. I mean, keep it raw, keep it simple.

What gear have you been using for the album and live, guitar and amp wise?

J: My live rig right now is an Orange Thunderbird head and below that is a 1968 Marshall quad box, and below that an Orange 2×12 box, just their standard one. They’re pretty much where 95% of my tone comes from. On the floor the only pedals I use are a tuner and a Boss delay. I only really use the delay for a couple of songs where I need crazy space noises, so it’s not really musical at all [laughter]. Sometimes I use a boost pedal to make myself louder during solos and stuff, but I like to keep it pretty simple tone wise, unfiltered and straight into the amp. Touring where we can’t drive is a little different ‘cos I can’t take the full set up, so I use my Orange Dual Terror head which is more or less the same things as the Thunderbird just a bit smaller. In the studio they had so much good gear there. I couldn’t tell you the model number but the amp we used was a Sound City from I think 1967? And then some of it though the Orange from 1967/1968, that’s kind of the Black Sabbath/Tony Iommi sound. Again we kept it a pretty raw sort of signal. In terms of guitars, live I use a Gibson SG, completely stock no modifications. Its light, you can throw it around. Most of the album was done on a Les Paul from the 80s, but they’re way too heavy to play on stage. They sound amazing but I think everyone that played one in the 70s has shoulder problems now.

You guys got Steve ‘Mongo’ Cohen from Melbourne on board to do the album artwork, tell me about that collaboration and about some of the imagery and symbolism in the work itself.

S: So we’ve tried to keep the album pretty close to home and not push out too far. I think a lot of people expected us to go with an international artist and do all this fancy sort of stuff, like pushing into this kind of uncharted territory. But Steve is a mate of ours and it just made sense to have him do our art. The artwork itself is pretty much influenced by where we wrote the entire record which is a factory out in Cheltenham around where we all grew up. Across the road there’s this graveyard which we went for a bit of a walk in once [sinister laughter] so yeah, that’s in there. In the background as well you can see a lift tower, something that anyone from that area knows; sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s also a fox in there too, there’s foxes all over the place.

J: At the same time we told Steve “We really like your artwork style so we’re not going to give you too much prodding”. More just like, we said a couple of elements we’d like him to include but everything else we just wanted him to do his own thing because we trust him as an artist.

S: And it turned out awesome!

J: He did like, one draft and we said “Yep, don’t change a thing”.

S: And it’s not like we were trying to impress anyone or anything by having him do it, it was just simply because he’s our mate and an amazing artist.

J: Yeah it’s not like it was affirmative action choosing to do the artwork and everything here, we just have all these great things here, why not use them.

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So Joe, after your appearance on Million Dollar Minute I noticed you guys got a heap of extra likes on Facebook. Was that weird?

J: Every so often we do get a weird surge of likes that we can’t really explain. A couple of weeks ago, we had all these French people liking out page. Like a couple of hundred and we thought ‘Why are all these French people liking our page?’, so I did a bit of a google search and found out there was this thing in France going on where people were dressing up as clowns and like vandalising neighbourhoods. And every so often we get ‘Bozo the Clown’ likes your page.

[Laughter]

S: We reap the rewards for having such a dumb band name. There was this other time we got like 1500 likes because we were for some reason in the similar pages to Insane Clown Posse which has like a million likes or something.

J: Myself included.

af: They have the most rabid fan base.

S: Oh man, they were going ape-shit on our page; it was going up by like 100 a day, with people commenting ‘Juggalo for life’.

J: Bury me with Faygo.

So in support of the new album, you’re doing a massive tour with American Sharks across most of Australia, including 4 all ages shows. Tell me about that, have you done many all ages shows before?

J: We’ve done a couple, but just not nearly enough and it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a while. They only changed the laws a few months ago, before that if a pub wanted to put on an all ages show they had to pay some ridiculous permit to close the bar and get extra security. And so because it cost so much, not many venues would do it.

S: And if they do it’s just not that profitable either, if they close the bar that’s where the venue makes all their money. Especially if you have to hire a few extra security guards it’s just not that profitable.

J: They would have to sell a few lemonades.

S: We’ve tried to do a few AA shows though, like Dropout in Yarraville. And once we went down to Footscray park and our mate brought a generator, and we just set up there and played. That was pretty cool; there was a few people there, a few kids. But it’s really hard. Now the options there, we were like ‘fuck yeah!’

J: I think our profile’s a bit bigger now. Poison City’s getting a lot more attention from bands like Smith Street and The Bennies, so yeah. They did a pretty big AA show the other week actually.

af: Well I think a lot of support for heavier music is stemming from younger people.

J: Yeah, I think one of the reasons why bands like Amity Affliction and Parkway Drive are so big is because they did so many AA shows. And if a 14 or 15 year old kid has never seen a band before and they see a professional band onstage like that, they’re going to think it’s awesome.

S: It’s poisoning their minds while they’re young.

J: I went to the NOFX AA show in 2007 and I think that just ruined me.

af: And have you got your supports locked in?

J: Sydney’s a personal favourite, we’ve got I Exist.

S: And Chinese Burns Unit.

J: So that’s going to be a fucking huge lineup.

And you’ve got the China tour very soon, how’d you go about getting that together?

S: We got it all happening through This Town Touring and this guy Tom. He’d been in contact with us a few times, he helped out bands like Luca Brasi figure out their China tour. He’s a great guy he sort of just worked it all out for us. But yeah, it’s awesome. He’d asked us before if we wanted to do it and we didn’t have the cash, but he asked us at the right time now and we were just like ‘Yeah sure, let’s do it’. I’m really excited to do the Midi Festival over there just ‘cos we’ve seen photos of it before. But I mean we’re playing like 11 or 12 shows over there, and some of the places I’ve never heard of.

J: But I’ll look it up and it’ll have a population of 20 million.

[laughter]

S: So there’s a little ‘we don’t know what to expect’ but we know it’s going to be pretty awesome.

J: That’s sort of how we like to tour anyway, going to places bands don’t really go then just take it as it comes. Sort of part of the adventure.

S: That’s where the best stories come from anyway.

af: Is there an established scene over there waiting for you or are you sort of just jumping in the deep end?

J: I mean there are bands over there, but the scene is still sort of in its infancy as far as I know. I think in the last 20 years there’s been so much western influence in China that these sorts of things are growing. There’s this one band in Hong Kong I’ve heard about that’s like a street punk band made up of banking investors from Western Europe.

af: Have you got any interesting bands that are supporting you over there?

J: There’s one called Gala, a big Chinese band and we’re actually supporting them. I looked them up and they’re a bit different to us.

S: Kind of K-pop.

J: It’d be C-pop wouldn’t it?

Any final words?

J: Hail Satan, take drugs.

S: Don’t go to school. Don’t eat your vegetables. Just play rock ‘n’ roll.

The new album Bad Blood is out February 20th through Poison City Records. They’re Clowns, go and ruin your lives with them.

THE BREAKDOWN:

Hometown: Melbourne!
Upcoming release: Bad Blood, February 20th, 2015.
Sounds like: Black Flag, Sick of it All, The Bronx.
Say what? Just to illustrate what kind of experience you’re in for seeing Clowns live, when I saw them earlier this year, Stevie sung a song upside down… hanging from a support beam…. 10 feet off the ground. Also Joe once went on Million Dollar Minute and won a bunch of money.

https://soundcloud.com/poisoncityrecords/clowns-figure-it-out

Deaf, cold and drunk, Leo signing off.

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