The Badlands Bar backroom harks back to old-school Perth gigs; small and dimly lit with no stage, it raises a diminutive middle finger to the gentrified pubs and ‘boutique’ venues of modern times.
Tonight, there’s a modest-sized crowd in attendance and four guys with amps, drums and microphones packed tightly into a corner, an assortment of fuzz pedals lined up neatly in front of them. They play like it’s 1992 at the Seattle Center; flailing arms, low-slung guitars, reckless energy, a potent fistful of youthful bravado and sweat. Lots of sweat. The kind of sweat that signifies real investment in the task at hand: meaningful sweat.
Their upbeat, melodic grunge-pop, full of wry observations and descriptions of Australian life, feels like it belongs to me, and to everyone else in the room. You get the feeling that Sly Withers like being face to face with their audience. We’re all mates. Let’s just play some fucking songs.
‘Writing shit songs with the wrestling on’, is frontman/songwriter Sam Blitvich’s modus operandi; at least that’s how he couches it in the band’s pop-punk single, Nike Shoe, released mid-2016. It’s a story about a shoe he found in his letterbox (which his old man put there to stop the door from banging in the night). Blitvich’s love of Australian storytellers like Paul Kelly is evident in these yarns about everyday life, as well as his plain turn of phrase and honest (but not saccharine) sentimentality.
Introducing… Sly Withers
Hailing from Perth’s northern fringes, he knows his way around the Aussie suburban landscape and lifestyle intimately and is adept at painting it lyrically in all of its endearing averageness. His ‘white brick house that’s rendered on the outside and used to be brown’, is like every other Perth bungalow that’s been ‘modernised’ in the last 20 years.
But it’s not that straightforward for Blitvich who has some, as he puts it, “conflict with the idea of Australian-ness”. While he personally appreciates the “freedoms and safeties” of his own suburban lifestyle, he is acutely aware that these liberties are not afforded to many. He’s a humanist at heart; fiercely pro-equality and suitably (for a musician) anti-authoritarian. “As soon as anyone tries to project themselves as being superior or anyone else as being inferior, I get very uncomfortable,” he says.
Humility and empathy are qualities which underpin Sly Withers’ debut self-titled album (2016) and elevate it from a lyrically-led pop-punk exploration of young love, mateship, and 21st century anxiety, to something much more resonant. It is the conscious decision to be “honest and vulnerable” which successfully makes this record as relatable as Blitvich wants it to be. In the song, Coming Down, he shares his worries about his girlfriend and her ‘little blue heart’ and his struggle with overcommitment is laid out plainly in Girls. He doesn’t want to be misunderstood either; “We’re not to blame for every little thing, we’re still learning”. Blitvich and his band shun the angst and cynicism of the grunge movement, preferring to drink from the more candid and self-effacing well of Modern Baseball or The Hard Aches.
Many of these values come through in Sly Withers’ live shows too. It’s emotionally charged music, to be sure, and young audiences often respond physically with enthusiastic jumping and occasional moshing, but it’s one of Blitvich’s personal campaigns to make sure that his band’s shows are “positive, respectful and safe” for audiences. He doesn’t shy away from calling dudebros out on behaviour that might make others uncomfortable.
Forming as a high school band some four years ago, Sly Withers have planted themselves firmly in the Perth scene in recent times, notching up some impressive supports and festival slots. Drummer Joel Neubecker’s relentlessly positive energy and hard-hitting style provides a solid foundation for the band to lean on. He plays a homemade drum kit too (he’s a chippy in real life) and is more than happy to talk to you about it over a beer.
Bassist Shea Moriarty’s laid-back presence on stage and pocket-playing offer contrast and interest against the high energy of other band members. He’s also a purveyor of homemade tattoos (and the owner of the iconic feet pictured on the cover of the band’s debut album). Jono Mata’s consummate pitch and considered guitar playing lend precision and depth to the Sly sound and he holds his own as a song writer and lead vocalist. True to his own emotional manifesto, Blitvich delivers with honest conviction each and every time he steps onto the stage.
Sure, their lyrical themes are firmly rooted (ahem) in the young adult landscape, but Sly Withers don’t play three-chord pop-punk by any stretch of the imagination. The ascending melodic guitar line in Barbs rivals any put forward by Blink-182 or Green Day in the mid-‘90s and its cheeky fuzzed-out guitarmonies give a nod to masterful contemporary arrangers such as The Strokes.
The heavy fuzzy riffage of tracks like Star Wars has its basis in the darker and less predictable chord progressions of grunge, and (yet more) fuzz guitars doubling vocal lines consolidate the already strong, melodic quotient. There’s a plethora of sing along choruses, replete with punchy harmonies (courtesy of Mata) and vocal hooks, which occasionally hit the lofty catchiness levels of Stacy’s Mom. Throw in some half-time breaks and pop guitar lines and you’ve got a mature, effortless, catchy and cohesive repertoire that belies the age and experience of its creators and the complexity of its parts. Impressive.
And there’s plenty of good news for Sly Withers fans moving forward. They’ve got a sophomore album in the works that’s due out in 2017 and they’re hoping to “get [their] shit together and start playing some shows interstate.” East-Coasters; hold on to your caps. Perth’s answer to the Smith Street Band is more upbeat, equally poetic and will make sure you have a good time.
Meaningful sweat, indeed.
Sly Withers play their last show for 2016 alongside Marmalade Mama, Marlinspike and Slippery Gypsies as part of THE DROOLS debut EP launch at Mojos, Fremantle, on Saturday, December 17.facebook.com/SlyWithers/