With their first recorded output since their eponymous album in 2014, Axe Girl are back. And this time it’s personal. Around The Sound caught up with four fifths of Axe Girl in the lead up to their launch for new single, 1981, at the Aardvark on 7 September. Present were:
Addison Axe (vocals, guitar)
Vanessa Thornton (bass)
Elle Walsh (keyboard, guitar)
Brendan Biddis (guitar)
We’re tucked away, but in the window of Northbridge venue, The Bird. The location is kind of symbolic, because Axe Girl have been hiding in plain sight for a few years now. They’ve been around, they’ve been gigging, in Perth and interstate, but it feels like they’ve been in stasis. At the crossroads, maybe?
“Fraser (Cringle, Drums) couldn’t make it today, he’s busy,” Addison Axe, Axe Girl’s namesake and front woman, quips at the start of our chat, making it sound for all the world like he’s AWOL. That’s how it rolls with Axe Girl, they’re tight, a gang, so they’ll hang shit on each other any chance they get.
BB: “We’re a motley crew of sorts.”
VT: “I can’t imagine playing in a band that wasn’t a gang.”
BB: “We don’t necessarily get to hang out all the time, but when we play together, it’s like a family. And tour, even better, because you’re actually then on holiday with your family.”
AA: “The first time we went away together, we were away for quite a long time and, when I’d look up sometimes, I’d realise we were never more than a few centimetres apart. We’d be in a venue and there’d be thousands of people and we’d always be standing right next to each other.”
There’s something about being in a band that, if you’re going to be really good at what you do, really successful, demands this kind of closeness. The sort of telepathy Axe Girl have on stage comes from their sense of family. There’s also just a little bit of that ‘us against the world’ thing going on that all gangs have, although Axe Girl are just about the nicest rock stars you could ever want to meet.
The current Axe Girl five-piece line up has been together for 18 months now. After the original line up dissolved when their drummer left to find love in Melbourne, Axe and Thornton didn’t quite know how to continue on with the band.
AA: “There was a time when we thought we might not continue with Axe Girl. We didn’t know how to carry on. Then Ness and I just said to each other who would we really like to play with, who are the best people we know in Perth?”
VT: “So we called Brendan (Biddis) and Fraser (Cringle) and asked them. We hardly even knew them, but we knew how good they each were, and we really wanted to play with them.”
AA: “And they said, ‘Yes!’ So we were able to carry on. And then Elle (Walsh) joined about 18 months after that.”
VT: “It was that show we played with The Love Junkies, that’s when Elle joined.
AA: “The other four of us had been playing together for about eighteen months before that and we’d all be talking about wanting to get a keyboard player. We’d been talking about the ideal thing being if we could get a keyboard player who could also play guitar and we were, like, ‘Where are we going to find one of those?’
EW: “I know a drummer!” (Walsh also is drummer with The Love Junkies.)
VT: “So we found a drummer.”
EW: “And I only learned to play keyboard when I joined the band. I think I spent the first six months at every rehearsal and every gig just saying, ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ It made me practice a lot!”
It’s likely that Walsh is being just a smidge self-deprecating there, but there’s also a hint of truth in her statement. But as a drummer, Walsh makes a pretty good keyboard player and guitarist. And it leaves Axe free to roam the stage without the encumbrance of a guitar most of the time. What a difference that makes to Axe Girl’s live performance. Live on stage, their songs are taken to another place entirely. The band hits it hard, while keeping it raw and funky and giving Axe ample room to express the songs. It’s dangerous and it’s really fucking good.
So, what sort of music are Axe Girl playing right now?
AA: “For me the genre of music that I’ve always liked and listened to, it’s not about a particular style of music, it’s about the attitude the artist is putting out and how that teams up with a song. That’s always been the thing that’s resonated with me. So, for us, the attitude of what we do is that we’re a punk band, but at the heart of it we want to write good songs. I guess that’s why pop-punk as a genre sums it up...”
VT: “...because, essentially they’re pop songs...”
AA: “...but the way we put them across has got a lot more attitude and feeling. The way we play, it feels like all we’re doing is feeling it...
VT: “...in the live sense, it’s kind of raucous, but when you record the songs, you don’t have the volume or energy that you get from a band coming off the stage, so when you’re recording it you can focus more on the elements of the song...”
AA: “...and make each individual part really clear and sound as good as it can possibly be. For some bands, it’s really important for them to represent the sound of the record really clearly (on stage), but as long as the song is coming through, I feel like the live thing is like a completely different expression. If you can get a good vibe and a good feel, that’s almost more important than...”
VT: “...it’s kind of a shame that Fraser’s (Cringle) not here, because our approach to music between the five of us ... we’re all kind of slightly different. I think that the recorded version and the live version are completely separate. Whereas Fraser’s a real studiohead and he’s coming from that side of things and constructing the songs that way. I think between the five of us...there’s a lot of compromise, but everyone is happy with what we’re producing, the recorded songs and live.”
What do we learn from this interchange? Here’s a pair of bandmates who finish each other’s sentences. Talk about close! And, listening to them, you can't help but be swept up in their pure joy in what they do. Sitting this close to the source, it’s something you just need to be a part of.
VT: “I don’t think we’ve ever, as a group, decided we should be doing this or that. Everyone brings their thing and throws it in there...
AA: “...and, also, because everything comes together with all of us in the room at the same time, if you’re hearing different layers, you’re hearing five different people. Everyone’s parts are very much their own contribution, and everyone’s got their own journey from beginning to end of the song.”
EW: “I actually found that confronting when I started playing with Axe Girl, because I had to contribute. I couldn’t ask, ‘Is that good, or should I change it?’ because everyone just says, ‘Well, if you think it’s good...’ And that’s not the answer I want!”
BB: “Fraser and I have had many chats and we’d be like, ‘What are we doing?’ We’ve got all these different styles, and the songs are all different, but somehow they work together. And we’re still working it out.”
EW: “And, also, because we’re all from very different backgrounds, different styles, we go about our thing in different ways, and I think it is a collaboration of sorts, but in the end we’ve played more together on stage than in a studio or writing songs, so there’s still a lot to work out. We’re not closing off any possibilities. We know when it sounds good, that’s for sure!”
AA: “We were all fans of each other when we started playing as a group, so no one is going to get in the way of anyone else’s creativity. If this person or that person comes out with the most awesome stuff, I’m just going to get out of the way of that and let them do their thing.”
BB: “There’s a lot of trust and respect.”
Seems that trust and respect will take you a long way in the music biz. That’s not a scoop you get very often in what is viewed as a fickle industry awash with chancers and ne’er do wells, but that’s not the Axe Girl way. Their music springs from their closeness as well as their willingness to clear space for each other when one of them is sonically on fire. It’s a rare thing and it produces music of a rare quality.
Onto the new album.
AA: “We’ve been working on the new set of songs that’s going to be the album for ages. But, like Brendan was saying about us still figuring things out, we’ve done that in the process of writing and recording these songs, while also trying to make an album. So, the reason it’s taken a long time is because we trying to figure out who we are as a band and what we sound like. A lot of bands will do all that and then say, ‘OK, let’s make a record.’ But because we had some songs that we wrote together really early...”
VT: ‘...a couple of the songs we brought to these guys from the last line up that we hadn’t really played, but we’d started working on. And, we actually first got Fraser and Brendan in the band to do a couple of one-off shows, so we were teaching them all the songs on the album we’d recorded (Axe Girl, 2014), and then we were creating all these new songs. And the minute we started the new songs we were like, ‘This is feeling pretty good, so let’s get the old songs out of the road.’ And the last lot of songs we’ve written with Elle...”
EW: “...but we haven’t recorded any of them yet...”
AA: “...because we started this journey when Brendan and Fraser started with us and now we’re writing songs with Elle in the line-up, there’s going to be a real journey through this album from the very beginning of this band, right up to where we are now. I think that’s quite exciting.”
Talking about the recording process and the new songs, Axe mentions the ‘beginning’ of the band. Depending on how you carbon date them, Axe Girl have either been around for a good while, for about three years, or for 18 months. It’s not that they’re being deliberately vague about their history, more that this is a whole new band now, with a whole new bunch of songs. They’re starting over. They’ve been to the crossroads and survived, even thrived, no selling of souls required.
AA: “We thought about changing the name of the band, but we couldn’t come up with a better name. All of the possibilities we came up with were really lame. So, we just stuck with Axe Girl. But, really, it’s a new band.”
Which brings us to the new single, 1981.
VT: “There was that guitar riff that started it (looking and Biddis).”
BB: “Yeah! Jazzy!”
VT: “What did we call it to begin with?”
BB: “Doom Joy (laughs). It was quite a sludgy distorted dissonant thing, and then Fraser started jamming along and I remember thinking, ‘I really like this!’ And then everyone jumped in and we were like, ‘This is our favourite.’ It was probably one of the first major shifts from what we’d been doing, and it was really fun.”
But, call a song, 1981, and you’re going to get asked what’s it all about. Why call it that?
This is where things take a bit more of a serious turn.
AA: “I don’t know, it just kind of fitted with the song, the words fitted in. We tried other dates, but none of them sounded very good, so it just stuck.”
Yes, but why 1981?
AA: “Well, that’s the year Ness started primary school. That's meaningful enough isn’t it?”
Yes, but what’s it about?
AA: “That’s up to people who listen to it. You have to make up your own mind. But for me, it’s pretty dark.”
Axe tails off, there’s more she might want to say, but the words aren’t coming out.
AA: “You’ll just have to make up your own mind.”
And, for a brief moment, the laughter and good times are frozen. Axe stops and then starts again.
AA: “People will have to make up their own minds. I can’t tell them what the song is about. But I know what it means to me.”
Axe smiles and I know she’s not going to tell us. Knowing how tight they are, the other members of Axe Girl probably know. As for the rest of the world, they’ll just have to have a listen and make up their own minds. And fair enough, too.
The best music takes on a life independent of its creators when it’s released into the world, and 1981 is definitely good enough to be in the best of breed category. As are the other songs Axe Girl are working on. Their current live set is made up entirely of new material and it’s quite something to witness. Can’t wait for the album. February 2019 can’t come soon enough. Maybe 2019? Nah, it just doesn’t sound right.
Axe Girl will launch 1981 at The Aardvark in Fremantle on Friday 7 September, with support from FUZZ TOADS and Priscilla. For more information check the event page here.