Sunday, November 6, 2016
A Sunday Conversation With Tim Steward from Screamfeeder
When I was a kid, growing up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkel, the first time I ever heard Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphany's since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears.
What have been your musical epiphany moments?
My house as a kid was fairly full of music, my Dad always had classical music on and my Mum listened to Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, James Taylor, that kind of thing. One of my first records ever was The Beatles Oldies But Goldies. My favourite song right away being Bad Boy, for Lennon’s screams and the slightly distorted guitar. My Mum was into helping me discover music, so she bought me a Buddy Holly cassette, which was pretty good, but I was after the harder stuff already. So I started getting pulled into the rock vortex, discovering tracks by Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy, who combined ballsy music with great melodies. Pretty soon I arrived at my destination, the Pistols first album, and – I had arrived. Life changed, forever. Big epiphanies since included Husker Du, The Pixies, and more recently The Hold Steady, whose debut Almost Killed Me kinda ruined all other music for me for about a year. The hard hitters always tend to be bands who have mastered pop melodies but play like their lives depended on it.
Talk to us about the song-writing process for you. What comes first, the idea? A riff? The lyrics? How does it all fall into place?
Sometimes a song title comes to me first and the song almost writes itself around the title. Sometimes some words or an idea start the ball rolling, other times a great chord progression happens and the words and melodies are just the enablers to help bring that into full realisation! Most times I just noodle, and see what comes out. Half the time I get something good, half the time I don’t - it’s not a bad hit rate. So many times I have heard an amazing song or band and then a couple months later I realised where my new favourite song came from.. but thankfully by the time they’re through the learning and rehearsing process within the band they have been given enough new personality to not sound exactly like their direct influence any more. Most times anyway.
Where do you look for continuing inspiration? New ideas, new motivation?
Pretty much wherever I can find it. I steal lines from people’s conversations, songs I accidentally hear, I’ll steal a chord change from. Themes or feelings evoked in books are always good. And sometimes I just stop and try to be quiet and zero in on the small details of a situation, the dust in the corner, the dirty window, the way someone’s clothes fit them, the cigarette smoke. Anything like that. It gets a little harder having written so many songs. Sometimes I let myself get away with treading old ground, if it’s done in a new way, sometimes I just have to focus on what my senses deliver to me now, as an older guy, and how they differ from those as a young man. I also like to invent new tunings and chords, this keeps the guitar fresh for me, which is pretty vital. If I didn’t have any alternative tunings and sets of chords I would have ditched the guitar years ago. Too boring.. there’s only so many times you can play E and A before every song sounds the same.
We're all a product of our environment. Tell us about the band's hometown and how that reflects in the music?
We don’t tend to write about Brisbane as such, but the moment we have a local landmark in a video clip for example everyone assumes it’s a song about Brisbane. We made a clip outside a now-non-existent 7-11 and it went crazy, everyone really latched onto the song as a “Brisbane thing”. More realistically I’d say that the social climate in Brisbane in the 90s allowed us to get the band off the ground and go touring. Even though it is a city, Brisbane was really a big hot lazy country town. Rent was really cheap, and there wasn’t a lot to do. So we could afford to not work, and spend all our time rehearsing, touring, skateboarding and partying. It was a pretty awesome time. I feel sad for kids today who want to leave home and they’re immediately faced with very expensive rent and adult decisions. We had it so good, we could pretty much be kids forever. Brisbane now is way more city-like and has lost a lot of its innocence, and a lot of its great naiveté along the way.
Where'd the band name come from?
So this question is one we have steadfastly refused to answer over the years, but – here you go: Back in 1991 we wanted to change our name (from The Madmen) and we tried everything we could think of, we went to the library and looked up old war slang, we went through tons of foreign words.. nothing seemed to gel. We knew we definitely wanted a one word name (it was the 90s). I grew up in England where I used to go fishing a lot, in lakes and rivers. For bait we used maggots. You could buy them by the pint in fishing shops! Anyway there’s this piece of tackle called a swimfeeder, basically a small plastic tube with little holes in it. You ram it full of maggots and it sits on the bottom of the lake, near your baited hook, and attracts fish towards it. From there it was a short leap to Screamfeeder.. Kellie and I did a lot of screaming back in those days too.
You have one chance, what movie are you going to write the soundtrack for?
What a great question. My girlfriend and I were having the following discussion recently: “What’s with movies these days, do they all suck or is it just us?” “Movies were way better in the 90s” – that kind of thing. We decided we had to check and we downloaded a bunch of 90s classics. Reservoir Dogs, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Own Private Idaho, Buffalo 66, all those arthouse films. And guess what, they totally kicked fuckin arse! They were so beautifully crafted, without pandering to audience demographics, PC-ness, or any kind of social trends. They were simply stand-alone art pieces. Concerned with being great art, first and foremost, full stop. Beautifully written and directed and acted. It was so refreshing and affirming! With this in mind I would definitely go for My Own Private Idaho, this one has special resonance for me, it’s slow without being dull, it’s gentle yet kinda brutal, it’s fanciful and dreamlike and a bit unreal, and the story meanders a lot, but the characters are super compelling. For a film of its kind it’s pretty much perfect. Writing the soundtrack for this would be challenging but incredible.
You now write for a music publication (The Ripple Effect?). You're going to write a 1,000 word essay on one song. Which would it be and why?
Perhaps I’d choose The Drive-By Truckers “Let There Be Rock”. For me it’s just the most awesome fist-pump-in-traffic track. It’s about Patterson Hood’s experiences as a young teenager, with booze, drugs, drink driving, friends, discovering his favourite bands; Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thin Lizzy, ACDC, and his experiences seeing them play live, or even missing their gigs due to his drunken-ness, or their misfortune. It is really the most perfect depiction of the feeling of being a young male and seeing the world open up before you with a myriad of new experiences, ways to be naughty and to express the crazy energy welling up inside you. The song’s concluding message is that he doesn’t regret a single second of any of it, despite there having been multiple times where he could have been incarcerated, injured or killed. It’s the most perfect tribute to the young male human condition.
Come on, share with us a couple of your great, Spinal Tap, rock and roll moments?
We went through a big WHO craze for a couple of years. This included smashing gear at the end of the set. Always great fun. We got pretty caught up in it, to the extent that we’d completely trash the stage even if we were the support band. Quite a few times we’d spend 10 minutes knocking gear over and throwing drums around the stage, earning the wrath of the crew and headline band, oops. There were also a few times we’d set guitars on fire. Once at the Big Day Out (festival) we got to the end of the set and out came the lighter fuel and I got the guitar really flaming, then grabbed it by the neck and started smashing it up. Lumps of burning wood went flying off in all directions. We heard the following week that someone in the audience had been hit by one and they were considering suing the festival. The organisers were super kind and cool with us about it, and luckily we found video footage that proved none of the burning bits of debris had actually flown into the audience after all. That was lucky.
Tell us about playing live and the live experience for you and for your fans?
We like to rehearse, but only ever JUST enough. Fans have come to expect a little looseness from us, which is cool. Luckily we have three things going for us though: 1, Our drummer is a total machine and never misses a beat. This makes all of us in the band sound tight. 2, We are pretty good at funny banter and giving each other shit on stage and getting a few laughs out of the audience. 3, we’re long-timers, so the fans know our songs and like to sing along with them and if we fuck them up literally no-one even cares. Myself I get kinda bored watching a band who never screw up. I saw Lucinda Williams have to start a song again once, it was going so wrong. That was cool.
And for us, playing live is almost always great fun. We all have an unspoken language between us, we give each other looks and we know what they mean. We share small points in every song were we do something really small; it’s not on the record and we never even speak of it, but we all know it’s there. It’s a great thing about being comfortable with your band mates and trusting them, you can really play with the songs and get a bit loose and everyone can just run with it.
What makes a great song?
It could be many things. It might just have killer hooks like an Elliot Smith or Beatles song for eg. But it might have no hooks and no chorus but summon up such a feeling, that it’s super powerful, like something by Soundgarden or Codeine or Bitch Magnet. Or it might just totally fucking ROCK and make you want to jump out of your seat, like a song by The Hold Steady, or The Sex Pistols or The Who, where the energy is more than infectious, it’s addictive. It might even be something cruisy and understated by Liz Phair or Urge Overkill or The Velvet Underground where barely anything happens but the band succeed in making you feel like you’re in their world, or in a movie.. you get transported somewhere. So many things.
Tell us about the first song you ever wrote?
I can’t even remember what it was. I used to have a job in a hospital in London, where I got to sit around doing nothing a lot of the time, and I wrote lyrics. They were very Cure-inspired, kinda poetic and conceptual, but I never set any of them to music. When I formed my first band The Lethal Injections a year later (1986) I became the songwriter by default, and started pumping out short fast 3 chord punk songs. Really basic punk.101 type stuff. “Can’t get to sleep, lying in bed, headache banging in my head”. Hilarious. My singing was bloody terrible back then too. Also some more political songs, I’d been listening to Crass, Discharge and Dead Kennedys after all. It felt good writing songs though, the band couldn’t keep up with me. Lucky they were all super easy and they all had the same rhythm: boom-chk-boom-chk-boom-chk…
What piece of your music are particularly proud of?
I pretty much like most of it ok, there are very few songs I really dislike. But one that stands out is an EP by my band THE WHATS. We started out as a typical garage 2 piece (myself and Screamfeeder drummer Dean) and soon started getting into extended jams where we’d both play drums for eg. We released an EP called “A bit of everything with THE WHATS” and the songs on there are really different, mostly long, musically extremely simple – almost chord-less - and very repetitive, very beat-based, with electronic elements, and long sets of dense lyrics. It was fun and easy from beginning to end, writing the material, recording it and playing it live. It was a real sidestep from the style I’m more at home with and I feel proud of it because I reckon we nailed it. Every person who heard it loved it too; all three of them in fact.
Who today, writes great songs? Who just kicks your ass? Why?
I‘m so shit at keeping up with current music it’s a bit embarrassing. The big guys I can rely on - Patterson Hood is a fucking monster of a songwriter. I know Spiritualized will never fail me. I know the Smoke Ring for a Halo guy is pretty shit hot. J Mascis is running pretty hot at the moment too, some of the later day Dinosaur moments are close to his best. The Pixies newer material is actually really great, as were the last two Bowie albums. As for younger bands, Pity Sex are close to the top of the heap (yep, even better than Beach Slang) – their colossal fuzz attack combined with beautiful bittersweet pop tunes is staggering. I kinda wish The Hold Steady would get back on track, they’re really meandering in the shallows – they could return to being rock giants so easily. I’m gonna keep this answer short to try and not emphasize how little music I actually know.
Vinyl, CD, or digital? What's your format of choice?
I sold all my CDs, bulk lot, every single one. Thank god for that. Dead format! I love vinyl because it’s awesome and everyone knows why. I love digital because I’m lazy and it’s so easy and you can’t have a record player in your damn car. Also having thousands of songs playing on random is amazing, you hear songs (that you own) that you would never think to put on in a million years, and you’re reminded how great they are! The downsides of digital is there’s too much choice. I’m shit with choice: I can never decide. Don’t send me out to the Video Store, you won’t see me again all night. Spotify is like a nightmare to me. How can I decide what to listen to?! I need some help with that.
Whiskey or beer? And defend your choice
They both have their place, but for me it’s beer, hands down. I’m a quantity guy. I’m also a quick drinker. How can people just sip a drink? I don’t get it. Plus, beer is super delicious. I’m an out-and-proud craft beer fan, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I could cry sometimes, I tell ya. A pint or three of something special, a bowl of peanuts in their shells, someone with half a brain in charge of the stereo in the bar. Heaven.
We, at the Ripple Effect, are constantly looking for new music. What's your home town, and when we get there, what's the best record store to lose ourselves in?
Brisbane is well serviced with record shops! There’s a great new place called Sonic Sherpa. The guys are veterans/casualties of the scene for years and really know their stuff. Vinyl is their focus too, which is nice. They also don’t mind hosting small gigs and passing you a cold beer on a hot afternoon. There’s a sweet little hole-in-the-wall record shop called Jet Black Cat Records too, it’s really small, but excellently stocked! They also host acoustic performances. There’s also a large sprawling cave of a place called The Record Exchange. It’s been there since the dawn of time and they have thousands and thousands of second hand records. There are tons of rare gems, it’s well worth an afternoon getting lost trawling. They also sell super old Doc Marten boots, ancient leather jackets and various other punk / goth paraphernalia that your teenage self would have been drooling over.
What's next for the band?
Well, we’re “back” after a few years off, so we’ve gotten all ambitious and put the wheels in motion to record a new album. We hit the studio in December to record a whole new set of tunes we’re really excited by. It’s pretty crazy, but maybe we really are the band that will never die. After recording of course there’ll be touring, festivals all that fun stuff.