AUGIE March have found their rising popularity has its drawbacks, writes Kathy McCabe
There is much about the business of music that Glenn Richards and his Augie March bandmates barely tolerate.
In their 12 years as a creative entity, the hugely respected quintet have stoically strolled awards red carpets. They rarely smile when they begrudgingly agree to pose for a photograph and tend to mumble their way through interviews.
It is not that they are without humour. Richards, Dave Williams, Adam Donovan, Kiernan Box and Ed Ammendola are funny blokes who possess the quintessential dry wit of your average Aussie bloke.
But it takes a while for them to warm up, particularly at the beginning of what is undoubtedly their least favourite thing to do - the album promotional tour.
Augie March are about to release their fourth record, Watch Me Disappear.
Problem is, they can't - disappear, that is - thanks to the success of their third opus with the vexing but kind of funny title, Moo, You Bloody Choir. One Crowded Hour, that album's first single, changed everything for Augie March. It made them popular.
None of that really mattered to them - chart positions and trophies weren't the reason they formed a band - until it came time to write and record their fourth album.
Nobody said it out loud but Augie March knew those creativity killers - expectations - were lurking.
"We've never really done a serious major label record before. The last one was sort of half-arsed and didn't know what it was supposed to be and probably caught everyone at this label by surprise," Richards says, with a wry chuckle.
"From that point of view there was an assertion, unspoken or not, that we would have to capitalise on what came from the last record. It didn't necessarily put a huge amount of pressure on me to write. But it's not a discussion. 'Richo, have you got a single?
Do you have singles? Please, do you have singles?' You know that's there."
Fitting in creative time in between seemingly endless jaunts around Australia, festival opportunities and a couple of visits to the US is tough.
Songwriter Richards stole a couple of weeks here and there to pen the songs for Watch Me Disappear.
"The cycle we enter into is anti-music in a sense because it pretty much destroys the opportunity to develop in the creative sense," Richards says. "You might become a tighter touring act but it works very much against the development of the creative entity. Which is why you have to be cleverer about it.
"We had to take our chances, and it would have been foolish not to go to America when so many people had put work into it and there's a possibility something might come of it. But it sure drains you and makes you dislike music."
Sounds like a monumental whinge but after hearing their tale about playing a sports bar in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after their bearded bass player had been treated to a spot of terrorist profiling by one of the local cowboy cops, you begin to understand.
The one-liners come thick and fast as Ammendola recalls the experience.
"He was standing in a terrorist sort of way," offers Donovan.
Richard chips in: "But were you facing Mecca?"
The band had been joking about how they literally couldn't get arrested when they toured the US a couple of times last year.
"I nearly did. I had one knee propped up on a little garden bed, admiring the blues player on stage, yet somehow thinking, 'Is this the best spot for a sniper shot, behind the grassy knoll?'," Ammendola explains with a requisite dash of sarcasm.
"Lest the beard grow long, you are asking for trouble down south. A strange time we live in. I mentioned (to the cop) I had my passport in my bag and would he like to see it and it was at that point he went for the gun.
"I was asked to move on and I did. Needless to say there were many bikies with huge beards just hanging around.
"I was the wrong combination of obscure rock bloke from some strange country. They thought we were from Boston."
It is not surprising that Augie March's literate, multi-instrumental alternative rock would be decidedly out of place in a town where cornholing - throwing corn through a hole in a board - is a preferred sport.
But back home in Australia, there are folks who like their tunes to tell a bit of a yarn.
And Richards is a storyteller who is spoken of in reverential terms by peers, while Augie March are lauded as potential heirs to the critical darlings' throne occupied by the likes of The Go-Betweens, The Triffids and even Split Enz.
Watch Me Disappear is their most focused effort to date. They refuse to agree but it is also their most eclectic, the band pushing to the very edges of the musical territory they have explored in previous records.
Good ol' Aussie self-deprecation stops them short of acknowledging the regard with which they are held both by critics and fans.
"If there's any reason for that, being put in that bracket, it's because I've never written specifically for a time. You know how the pop cycle works. If we tried to do that, to latch on to what's happening, which is still what the majority of bands do, then we'd be dead by now. We'd be a dead band," Richards says.
"The fact we have gone our own way and released records of reasonable quality means the longevity is there, where you can start talking about the possibility of this band being an influential act in the future. We'd probably have to be less popular."
What is not disputed is their relevance.
Richards may not write about a certain time but many of his songs check the pulse of the Australian psyche and its sense of place.
The Slant was inspired by tales of hard labour camps which worked the Huon pine forests in Tasmania, while Mugged By The Mob is his more personal tale of being rolled in a Melbourne street earlier this year.
Farmer's Son couldn't be more timely, as the songwriter examines the precarious fate of farms as a new generation struggles to honour the family tradition.
Like Moo, You Bloody Choir, it was inspired by Richards' experiences growing up in the Victorian dairy farming district.
"It's an amalgam of kids I knew growing up; young blokes in the country quite often commit suicide," he says.
"The last couple of years I was in high school, I played football way out on the other side of Shepparton and it was so obvious there were families imploding before your very eyes - just heaps of drinking and that resentment that the eldest sons would have to take over the reins of the failing institution, and what that bred.
"There's no escape; you have to look after the family because dad has lost his grip on things. You can see it happening but it's all unspoken at the same time."
There's a lot of that unspoken thing going around. But what is said out loud is the band are determined to make a star out of the instrument which gives its name to their first official single, Pennywhistle.
That song was inspired by a Celtic whistle sample Richards discovered, and along with the accordion, trumpet and handclaps, ably demonstrates that no instrument is safe from Augie March's clutches.
They hope the pennywhistle moment in their upcoming tour will become as big a signature as any hallowed guitar solo.
Says Ammendola: "God forbid we change the pennywhistle for a recorder or a bassoon; there will be outrage."
Watch Me Disappear is out on Saturday.
Augie March perform at The Metro on October 30
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