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THE ONLY BAND THAT MATTERS

Southern River Band
Southern River Band

Deep into our conversation, Callum Kramer, mercurial front man with Perth’s Southern River Band, looked up from his vodka, lime and soda and said, “I do feel a bit different.  I laugh at how ridiculous life is.  It’s this series of ridiculousnesses.  I’m not going to sit here and be like the world is the most amazing place and everything is fantastic, but don’t think for one moment that we’re not ramping up to be running at the highest speed we’ve ever been.”

“We’re the cockroaches of the music world.  You can drop a nuke on us and we’ll still be out there playing ‘Chimney’ or some shit two weeks later.”

Callum Kramer

Speaking to Kramer a week out from the launch of new single, ‘Busted Up’, we were at Lakers Tavern in Thornlie, Southern River Band heartland.  Prior to the interview he’d already vetoed some cute ideas about angles and content, saying he’d prefer to stick to talking about his band and the music.  It’s not like Kramer to knock back the opportunity for an excursion into the unknown, so I was beginning to get the idea something was up with the man people have come to love not only for his songs, his guitar playing and his stage presence but also for his capacity to run off at the mouth with all the speed and loquacity of a dragster on meth.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Sure, Kramer seemed a little world weary, but that could have had as much to do with him quitting sugar as anything else.  Last time we met, he was quitting cigarettes, but it seems that program didn’t stick.  No matter, sugar is a far more insidious and addictive drug and, looking at the shape he’s in, all ripped from working out and laying off the white lightning (not that one, sugar!), it looks like he made the right choice.

Just say no to sugar, kids.

But there is a certain sense of ennui about Kramer.  When I asked him about it, whether, like the rest of the world, 2020 had gotten him down, he said, “Everything in life gets you down some time or another, but it’s just about riding it out really.  My perspective is, everything I’ve worked my whole entire life up until this point, as it started to finally happen after near on 15 years of slogging at it … and I’m aware that, playing the kind of music we do, it’s quite easily dismissed, you have to keep knocking at the door.  What proper rock bands out there are getting mainstream attention?  We’re never going to be a Triple J band and shit like that, and that hinders your audience here in Australia.”

See that ellipsis up there (the three dots), that’s Kramer reliving Southern River Band’s brush with extreme fame earlier this year — before the world caught a nasty virus and we all had to board up our lives — without quite being able to articulate what it meant for him.  In March, Southern River Band were touring the east coast of Australia with The Darkness.  “They’ve always been one of my favourite bands,” said Kramer.  “Doing that was literally like living my exact dream, to the ‘T’.  I had Justin Hawkins come up to me and say, ‘Cal, you know my parts in ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’.  You’re going to play guitar with us tonight.’  One of their biggest hits!”

Southern River Band were blowing away audiences every night of the tour and accumulating new fans quicker than flies congregate on a fresh dog turd.  Until the tour got shut down and they had to come home to a music industry that no longer existed.  Kramer and his bandmates went from roosters to feather dusters overnight, or as the man himself put it, “It’s just like life just goes fucking whoompa!  Talk about the rug pulled out from under you.”

Knees up brother Dan.

After 15 years of hard work, Kramer and his band were on the cusp of becoming the sort of overnight sensations music biz PRs and record labels love to sell to wide-eyed punters.  ‘Oh, yah, they were plucked from obscurity, and after that tour with The Darkness, the world just fell in love with these four young lads from Gosnells.’  The reality could not be more different.  When Kramer said the tour with The Darkness was the culmination of 15 years of hard work, he wasn’t joking.  Starting out his career as a drummer, Kramer has been a professional musician since his teens, playing with the likes of Blue Shaddy and Red Engine Caves as well as a bunch of other bands.  The first iteration of Southern River Band cranked into life with a gig at Thornlie tavern in 2015 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Music is what Kramer was made for.  “I’ve needed to play to make money,” said Kramer, “I’ve done the little odd jobs and all that shit, but it’s not for me.  I respect everybody that does it, fully.  I know my role in this world.  In this 21st Century, I know where I fit in (chuckling), for the good of everybody.”

These days summary execution isn’t so much part of the set up…

There’s a lot of the medieval court jester in Kramer.  It’s not a role anyone would choose, because your whole life depends on wringing a response from your world-weary audience and, if you fail, it’s literally off with your head.  These days summary execution isn’t so much part of the set up, but have no doubt that the life of the music troubadour still rests on thin and very slippery ice.  If you don’t deliver the goods, audiences simply stop showing up.  When performing is your whole existence, that’s not a good outcome.

Keep praying, Cal, it might just save your life.

Kramer dilutes the seriousness of his vocation with a heavy dose of sanguine good humour.  There’s no point dwelling on the possibility of failure, success is his only motherfucking option (with thanks to Marshall Mathers III). 

Kramer and Southern River Band are up against it, though.  “Name me one other band that plays the sort of music that we do,” Kramer challenged me as he was warming to his thesis that his band is the most unfashionable in the land.  I paused to think and the only names I could come up with were old school rockers who’d been there done that.  “You mean new bands?” I asked, playing for time.  “Yep,” he replied, holding me with a steely gaze.  He was serious and I was pinned.  I told him I’d have to take the question on notice, and I still don’t have an answer.

Southern River Band swim against the tide, playing unfashionable old-school, blues-infused hard rock while everyone else is making music on their digital slide rulers.  Actually, that’s not quite true, there are a bunch of bands currently making old-school rock music of varying persuasions, you can see a different one every night of the week in venues right across the country.  Some of them are very good at what they do, but none of them come close to Southern River Band.  So, Kramer was partly wrong, but his band is still in a class of one.

Life gave Southern River Band a whack in March this year.  In the interim, we’ve barely heard from them.  The obvious question was, what’s been happening?

“Just trying to keep our head above water really,” Kramer said.  “In an industry that, even before this (COVID) happened, especially our spot in it was constantly teetering on a knife edge at best, I think that’s probably the best way to put it.  When COVID hit, I managed to get bunch of shit together and built a recording studio in my room.  Dan (Carroll), our guitarist, he runs Rada studios, so he was, ‘Right, this is what we’re going to do, this is what you need.’  Got all the shit, set it up and I’ve basically just been writing and recording, and I’ve got 30 songs or something right now.

“It was hard biding time.  For me it’s the process, you write and there’s initial highs from everything, so when you come up with first ideas, you go, ‘Oh, fuck!  That’s wicked!’  Then you refine it and you get it down and then you want to get it out, you want to play it, you want to see the response.  It’s all, how many phases is that?  Creation, refinement, recording … so four phases, right, and I was just constantly doing one at a time and that’s not my game at all.”

“I like playing live.  I like the transfer of energy.”

Callum Kramer

Warming to his task now, shaking off any semblance of the blues, Kramer said, “I like playing live.  I like the transfer of energy.  That’s why we didn’t do any of the livestreams or anything.  I completely understand people that were doing that, but when you see cunts on their fucking phones, that is just like … (uncharacteristically lost for words) … it actually takes away from the song itself.  It’s not even like a base level, it’s less than.  I understand, because people didn’t know what to do, it was uncharted waters, but it was like, ‘Hang on, we’re going to bide our time here, as long as it takes’.  That’s when we started looking at doing house parties.  When they had the restrictions, we were like, ‘What can we do?  All right, we’ll fucking go bang!’  We managed to get one (house party) out and now it’s phase five.”  Meaning live shows in venues big enough to house Southern River Band’s audience are back on the cards again.

Whose house is this again?

The impression Kramer gives is of a caged animal incessantly pacing.  There are two choices here, go mad or make the most of the opportunity.  Fortunately, Kramer chose the latter, but, possibly, not before he’d carved a pretty deep groove in the concrete floor of his COVID cage.

Taking some time to reflect, Kramer displayed the kind of insight about his band’s progress that suggests they’re now ready to navigate success — should opportunity come their way again — without getting consumed by it.  Speaking about the line-up changes over the years, he said, “I’ve been thinking about it with everything.  The first line up wasn’t ready for it and even the second line up [wasn’t].  We were slowly falling down the stairs and then getting back up, slowly falling down the stairs … all whilst doing it in the public eye.”

Kramer always speaks about his former bandmates with the greatest of respect, love even.  He knows that they’re an important part of his band’s story and he’d be that last to want to write them out of it.  Growing up in public, though, that can be a killer.  Early success can be as much a curse as a boon and Kramer is nothing if not pragmatic and driven.

Speaking of the band’s current iteration, which also includes Dan Carroll on guitar, Pat Smith on bass and Todd Pickett on drums, you can tell that Kramer has a confidence in this line-up’s ability to go the journey with him that, for whatever reasons, was lacking previously.  Of course, with Kramer, that’s partly measured by the feels.  “The amount of fun that we all have together,” said Kramer, “when we’re playing and, even in the down time, we just don’t stop laughing.” 

Reflecting on guitarist and producer, Dan Carroll, Kramer was very open about the influence his colleague has on him and his band.  “While we were locked down, Dan got us into the studio and got us working on the songs,” Kramer said.  “That was the best thing about it was having the time, after six years, to reset; to be able to take stock and not have the feeling of I’m supposed to be doing something.  It’s been just go, go, go since we started playing at the Thornlie Tavern.

“If it wasn’t for Dan, the band definitely wouldn’t be where it is now. The train wouldn’t have stayed on the rails.  I would have been all over the shop.  When you’re sitting there and it’s just you and him in the room and you’re talking about things, it feels like you’re having this event, you know what I mean?  Someone who understands things as well as Dan does, I value him as highly as I value anybody.”

I’ve been talking to Kramer for over an hour now and I think I’ve finally put my finger on what’s different.  We’ve done this interview thing a bunch of times before, and sure it’s only rock and roll, but you get a bit of feel for someone as they share their stories with you.  It’s all grist for the publicity mill, but people can’t help letting go some of themselves, particularly an artist like Kramer, because there is no separation whatsoever between the man and the musician.  He’s Callum Kramer or he’s dead, there is no in between.

He’s Callum Kramer or he’s dead, there is no in between.

I thought he was world weary, I thought he was feeling a bit beaten up by life and that worried me, because the value of the music icon is in their irrepressibility — nothing should be able to hold them down.  But it wasn’t that at all.  Somehow, during all this lock down nonsense, Kramer had matured, grown up, even.

Kramer at 24, always very sensibly dressed.

Then, he went and said, “Maybe I’m just getting older, mate (smiles).  I’m 24 now (laughs),” and that was a close as we got to the heart of that matter.  Which is as close as we should have got to it.  No one needs to have access all areas to the inner workings of the rock star.  If you doubt that, go see any of the versions of A Star Is Born.  They’ve made that film four times now and they still can’t give it a happy ending.

Fast forward a week and a day and I’m at Freo.Social with 400 other punters waiting for Southern River Band to come on stage.  Tonight they launch new single, ‘Busted Up, which, in Kramer’s own words, tells a very particular story about COVID lockdown:  “Once we were allowed to go out again, well you can’t go anywhere, so you go over to each other’s house and you just end up getting wasted,” said Kramer.  “It wrote itself.  We’ve played it a couple of times and people click into it pretty much straight away.”

With a chorus like Busted up again / Cos there’s fuck all else to do, how could they not?  This song is classic Southern River Band at their rabble-rousing best, however, Kramer did add, “It sounds like us as we continue to evolve, which is good,” and he’s bang on.  While it’s classic Southern River Band, there’s something deliciously poppy about ‘Busted Up’.  Thinking back to ‘Pandora’, the opening track to their debut album, Live At The Pleasuredome, which also was an excursion into pop, the new single fits right into the band’s canon, whereas ‘Pandora’, as good as it is, was different, not so much an evolution as a siding.

Listening to ‘Busted Up’, I’m very thirsty to hear the rest of the new songs Kramer has up his satin sleeve.  Guess I’ll just have to take a number and get in line, though, because Kramer’s not giving anything away about the future except the certainty that there is one.

I had my fingers firmly crossed for more new songs in Southern River Band’s set at Freo.Social and, as is most often the case, they didn’t disappoint.  Coming onto the stage, which for some reason, seemed too small for the band’s four members — an optical illusion that was far more about their presence than Cartesian geometry — they hit the button on the pyrotechnics in the opening bars of a song identified on their setlist as ‘Vice City II’.  A slow burn rocker that has plenty of room for the range of Kramer’s voice and builds to a mighty crescendo, if this new song is anything like representative of the 30 demoes that Southern River Band have been working on since March, the world is in for a real treat.  

If ‘Busted Up’ is Southern River Band continuing to evolve, ‘Vice City II’ is the band descending from the canopies and standing upright to survey the open plains and all that is rightfully theirs.

Back announcing the song, as well as confirming it to be a new addition to their set, Kramer also quipped that, “It’s probably even better than ‘Busted Up’, the one we’re here to launch tonight.”  This is a man who often sweetens the truth with a heavy dollop of humour, but this time he was just being straight up honest.  If ‘Busted Up’ is Southern River Band continuing to evolve, ‘Vice City II’ is the band descending from the canopies and standing upright to survey the open plains and all that is rightfully theirs.

Segueing into ‘Second Best’ and then new single, ‘Busted Up’, the night was off to a breakneck start.  Kramer was resplendent in a skimpy Southern River Band top (soon to be ripped asunder, of course) and gold lamé bell bottoms that left little to the imagination.  His luxurious barnet topped off the cheekiest look a front man has pulled off on stage since 1975 and, when the person behind me lit up a doobie during the opening of ‘Busted Up’ that’s exactly where I thought I was for a few moments as I luxuriated in the long forgotten sweetness, the music pulsing all around me, the histrionics on stage just about being matched by an audience rabid for a good time.

You see, Southern River Band live on stage is all about a good time.  In Kramer’s own words, what they do is, “Make music and put on a show that is essentially escapism for people.  We’re the modern-day jesters.  Then, when you see everyone from 18 to 60 (in the audience) that’s vindication and makes me want to do it even more.”

No more prunes on the bloody rider!

When I go to gigs to, I like to audience watch and eavesdrop on conversations, it helps me get a feel for what’s happening.  Having been a participant observer at Southern River Band’s live shows for a good few years now, Kramer’s comment about his band’s audience spanning “18 to 60” is bang on the mark and an observation that shows the astuteness of the performer who also is CEO of a burgeoning enterprise.  Time was when a typical Southern River Band audience would be mostly male in the 18-25 age bracket and very definitely blue collar.  These days, the gender split is around 50:50 and the band’s audience is as diverse as you’d see anywhere.  Southern River Band have transcended their roots to become entertainers for all comers.  If you want a good time, they’re the go to band, and the breadth and growing size of their audience is but one pointer to their imminent breakthrough from local heroes to national and international notoriety.

Ask Kramer what he thinks his band’s attraction is and he’ll tell you, “I think it’s that we’re just fucking full on, in everything we do.  I’m a full-on person, I make no apologies about that.  We live on the wild side of life in every possible way.  We’re not fucking meth addicts and we’re not going out fighting and all this shit, but we do live on the wild side of life.  That’s where things happen.  I feel that what we do is the realest fucking thing anyone can do.”

“I feel that what we do is the realest fucking thing anyone can do.”

Callum Kramer

Southern River Band’s set at Freo.Social backed up every single one of Kramer’s words.  They played full tilt boogie until curfew meant they had to stop.  Actually, no, that’s not true.  Mid-set saw Kramer on guitar and Pickett on vocals doing a stripped back rendition of Cold Chisel’s ‘Four Walls’.  One drummer in a band who can hold centre stage and sing like to charm woodland creatures from the thickets is pretty rare, but two?  That’s just unfair.  Pickett has a magnificent voice and a boyish — if slightly confrontational — charm that made this moment into something far more than a halfway rest stop for band and audience.  It was a moment of magic from a band that’s known mostly for its frenetic pace and, if this is another indication of future directions, a facet of Southern River Band’s live set that will help draw in bigger audiences and command bookings in loftier spaces.

Who pinched me bloody shoes?

Southern River Band’s night at Freo.Social was a sort of homecoming for them and their audience.  Having played the Naval Store in Fremantle in August, a much-needed release of post lockdown pressure, tonight felt more like the writing of a new chapter for the band.  Kramer said his band is, “ramping up to be running at the highest speed we’ve ever been,” and, based on the evidence of this show, the new songs, the monstering of the stage and the new directions they signalled, he’s dead right.  Even during what could have been a low spot, when a slight fracas broke out during the opening of ‘Chimney’, Kramer was more than up to the task, stopping the music and settling the audience before taking his band back into the song right where they’d left off, no count in, just a quick, “What are the words again?” and then BANG! they restarted exactly where they’d stopped some minutes earlier, like nothing had ever happened.  That’s telepathically tight!

By the time Southern River Band had finished, encoring with a cover of The Angels’, ‘Am I Ever Gonna Your Face Again?’, invoking the inevitable audience response, we were all friends again and revelling in what had been the best night out in absolutely ages — definitely in 2020 — and what will likely remain the best night out until Southern River Band come back to do it all over again.

If this night was any indication, expect some rapid evolution from Southern River Band in the near future.  They may not have enjoyed their time in lock down, but it’s turbocharged their passion and intent, given them a sack full of songs to work with and has done nothing to diminish their swagger and charm.

Having survived this long, Southern River Band are going to be around for a good while yet.  In Kramer’s own words, “We’re the cockroaches of the music world.  You can drop a nuke on us and we’ll still be out there playing ‘Chimney’ or some shit two weeks later.”

It’s good to know that, in these uncertain times, we can still rely on rock and roll and the only rock and roll band that matters right now is Southern River Band.

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