In the age of social media, it’s become a meme. What was the first band you ever saw live? Then you get the long list of comments, some of them true, some of them complete fabrications, as everyone who thinks they’re anyone tries to be the coolest person on the Internet. For the record, mine was The Jam when I was 13 and, depending on who’s making the call, that probably makes me niche cool. More on The Jam later. But, right now, we need to answer the question, what does all this have to do with Electric State? Well, quite a lot, as it happens, because it’s my prediction that the newly crowned West Australian Music Industry Association Award winners for Most Popular Live Act and Most Popular New Act will end up on whatever the equivalent of social media is by around 2060 when someone asks that same question. A lot of people are going to say, Electric State.
There were sirens, smoke, excursions from the stage and the sort of songs a lot of bands would sell their souls at the Crossroads to be able to write.
That’s how good this band is.
How does one objectively measure the worth of a band? Obviously, you can’t but experience helps you separate the abysmal from the good from the great. It’s a combination of things. Mostly, a band has to make you feel something. When I first went to see The Jam back in 1979, I’d listened to their records, so I knew I liked them, but I’d never been to a concert before. Nothing prepared me for the moment they ripped onto stage and the crowd, which up until then had remained seated and barely interested in the support acts, stood in unison to engage in one massive sing along with their heroes. I was hooked, high on the unity and left wanting more. Since that time, I’ve been chasing that experience my whole life. It’s a rare thing, and the pursuit of the next high is all part of the life of the music junkie. Each time you find it, it’s an experience you cherish and lock away in the memory banks.
It’s also a feeling that, as a performer, Electric State front man, Rob Viney, knows well. “It’s amazing the feeling you can get when you can get a crowd of people in a room and get them to use their energy and you’re all one big band,” Viney said. “That, in itself, is truly addictive. There’s no better feeling. it also helps me deal with shit that I feel like I have to deal with all the time. The energy that the room can give, when people are joining in, helps me get my feelings out there.”
I see a lot of bands these days but very few of their performances remain in my memory, because they’re simply not memorable. Most of them are good, but they don’t give you that high. Electric State do. I remember the first time I saw them in some pokey little venue with a tiny stage and about 10 other people in the room. They played it like it was a stadium. There were sirens, smoke, excursions from the stage and the sort of songs a lot of bands would sell their souls at the Crossroads to be able to write. I went home feeling that high and with some of the best band photos I’ve ever taken, leaving my camera all smeared with grease from the zits on Viney’s face as he pushed his moosh right up against my lens.
OK, so Viney may or may not have zits, but you get what I mean, it was fucking exciting! They had it all going on that night.
Back to The Jam. So far, Paul Weller’s never written to me or sent me a message on Facebook. Fair enough, he is a big star and I’m just one of many fans. But Rob Viney has. He messaged me the morning after my first encounter with Electric State to apologise for mugging my camera the night before. Thought I might be a bit annoyed. I told him to stop apologising for the things he’s never done, and we moved on.
I’ve seen Electric State a few times since and they always give me that high. Most recently was at a Monsters Of Rock gig down in Pinjarra where they just about stole the show from their sunset spot on the line up. They almost blew up the PA as well and, by the time their set was finished there were pretty much as many people on the stage as there were in the audience. It was a performance for the ages.
So, when I eventually heard the news that they’d scooped the pool at the recent WAM Awards (thanks WAM, I’m sure my invitation is still in the mail), I decided it was time to sit down with these scallywags and have a chat about what they’re planning to do next now that they’re the biggest band in WA.
We met at Leederville’s Garden Bar, the band arriving complete with WAM Award in tow, but sans drummer.
“Yeah, Bill’s (Shaw) a bit sick,” said Viney, at which his two companions, Russ Christie (guitar) and Paul Leahy (bass) gave out the sort of conspiratorial guffaws that strongly suggested he might still be nursing an almighty hangover from last weekend’s WAM Fest(ivities). After all, it was only Wednesday when we spoke, so anything was possible. I chose not to inquire any further.
On the subject of mirth, our conversation clocked in at around the hour mark. Listening back to the tape, I’d have to say that almost 50 per cent of the run time was laughter. This is a band whose members obviously enjoy each other’s company, which never hurts the music-making cause.
We kicked off with the obvious question, what’s it like to win a WAM Award?
“We thought, we’ll have a party with it,” said Viney, “let’s go down there [to the awards] and catch up with some mates,” as he expressed the band’s shared surprise at their achievement. “When they said our name, to be honest someone yelled it out as a joke before they said it, and then all of a sudden there was a pause and then he said our name and I was stunned. I heard a few people around us going, ‘Who the fuck’s that?’.”
“Someone was sitting in front to our front right,” said Christie, “I think it was that Tame Impala…Kevin Parker. How dare he not know who we are?” he quipped, poking fun at a name that is usually spoken only the most hushed and reverential tones here in Perth.
Thank heavens for this band!
“We had no preparation at all,” continued Leahy, “We were up against some incredible bands and we thought, like, ‘Nah’.”
He’s right, they were up against some stiff competition including the likes of Ashes of Autumn, Carla Geneve, Dulcie, Paige Valentine, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, Southern River Band, Triple Engine and Yomi Ship — the very best WA has to offer.
“Then, hearing your track play as you’re walking down, that was strange,” Viney said as he continued their recount of the evening. “And then it was like brain fart moment of the century…”
“The man who has the golden tongue who can speak anything was actually speechless,” said Leahy with merciless laughter.
“I couldn’t say anything but, ‘What the fuck?’,” Viney continued, “I think I said that about five times in a row, just shocked. Thank God for Paul and for Bill who actually said something and articulated it clearly, whereas I was just like blown away.”
Hearing that back, all I can think is, they sound like a proper rock band, all brash and in your face, never taking anything seriously, including awards and their competition. And, yes, they are a proper rock band, but their comedic disdain for the very idea of being award winners was dispelled by the trophy Christie clutched to his chest throughout our conversation. Winning these awards means something to Electric State, and so it should. Apart from the offers that have rolled in since they were announced as winners — “Yeah, stuff interstate, national stuff,” said Viney, “but we can’t talk about it just yet.” — it’s a validation of everything Electric State’s members have put into the band since they formed a few short years ago.
Taking a run at the Electric State origin story, Viney said, “I was jamming with some other lads and it wasn’t really kind of working. There’s something about when you get in a room with people it will either work or it won’t work and that wasn’t working. Russ put up a post on some forums online and something that grabbed me straight away was that there were these strong riffs. We’d actually played on a bill together when I was in the other line up and my girlfriend at the time turned to me and said, ‘This band’s good, their riffs are strong,’ but then she didn’t like certain other elements of the band. I was listening to their tracks and there was something about those tracks that dragged me into it. They’re not like anything I’d heard before, they’re multilayered. They sound really simple, but they’re multilayered. That’s what these guys bring, having that musical element coming in, there’s already guitar hooks, bass hooks, drum hooks and then I just get to run around like an idiot on top of that. But the music itself, there’s something about it, and that dragged me in.”
Reflecting on that first meeting with Viney, Leahy talked about how Electric State began to find their sound, saying, “We said we can go to prog angle or we can go the rock angle. Russ and I had two agendas, two different sort of band setups that we had in the wings try to find our vocal unicorn so to speak, and we said to Rob, which way do you want to go?”
“I said rock and grunge,” continued Viney, “because there seemed to be a lot of progressive sort of bands out there and I’d kind of done that in a previous lineup, so I was gravitated more to those sorts of tunes.”
And so was born Electric State’s sound, which owes a lot to the 90s grunge of the band members’ childhoods, but without the dour joylessness; leans towards the showmanship of rock; and borrows more than a little attitude from punk through the ages. It’s a heady mix that sounds as good on record as it does on stage and, best of all, sounds like no one else but Electric State.
And how good is it that they didn’t choose the prog path? There are already more than enough bands in Perth playing showy instrumentals with complex time signatures just so they can endlessly demonstrate how clever they are. Where’s the fun in that? You see, on top of everything that’s culminated in Electric State becoming WAM Award winners, this band is fun!
Speaking about his band’s unique approach to entertainment, Viney said, “There are some times when I decide I’m going to leave the inner filter at home and when we jump up on stage I’m like, ‘All right!’ Half the battle is playing the music the other half is you have to entertain and then whatever happens happens, and it’s at that gig and it’s in that moment…”
Viney’s approach to fronting a band is to get up close and personal with the audience and win them over one person at a time. At their first gig they played to an audience of one, which resulted in Viney climbing right up on the chair where the punter was seated and serenading him, some might say mercilessly. It was the beginning of a performance style that is a big part of what’s seen Electric State crowned WA’s Best Live Act and continues unabated. When you go to see Electric State expect two things: mayhem and audience participation. There’s nowhere to hide when Electric State are in the house.
Being a reflective sort, Viney sometimes feels the kind of morning-after remorse that led him to message me after we’d first crossed paths.
“Then other times I get home,” continued Viney, “and I’m like what the hell was I thinking? Why was I jumping on that table? Why was I in front of that camera? And then it all comes back to me and I think, I probably need to say sorry for that.”
“He apologises to us every morning,” Christie interjected, much to the mirth of all present.
“The stupid thing is I’ll do exactly the same thing again at the next gig,” said Viney, sounding contrite, while looking anything but.
Even for his band members, each Electric State gig is an open book of possibilities. Sure, they have the music side of things nailed, but apart from that, literally anything could happen.
“I haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen,” Christie confirmed in relation to Viney’s on-stage antics.
“Sometimes we look at each other and think, fuck where’s he gone, we can’t see him, is he going to come back?” continued Leahy, “Is he in another bar or at a restaurant down the road?”
“I think with all four of us, when we get together, we just want to have fun,” said Christie. “Us having fun on stage, just doing whatever is fun, just happens. That first gig we did, when Bill’s seat fell apart…It was at the biggest open mic night in Perth and halfway through a song Bill’s drum stool just fell apart. So, at that point we were just like well we’ll make a chant happen, so we got everybody in the room to chant ‘just blood’ while Bill fixed his seat, so that got put in the song (‘We’re Just Blood’). and now we have that chant in the song all the time.
Christie’s recollection is just one of many anecdotes that epitomise what it’s like to experience Electric State live. Musically they’re highly polished, but everything else is left to chance. It’s an approach to rock and roll that’s rare in these modern times where the actuarial approach to playing live means that risk is usually calculated and managed to the nth degree to mitigate the possibility of anything spontaneous happening and, god forbid, people enjoying themselves too much.
Right now, Electric State are almost singlehandedly bringing the danger back to rock and roll. Make of that what you will. I can already hear some people tut tutting about how we all need to be made safer and kept out of harm’s way. Well, I can guarantee you that, if you’re able to check your 21st Century disapprobation at the door, Electric State will show you the sort of good time that will leave you with a grin on your face a mile wide and the desire to do it all again asap.
Who knows, you may even get to meet Janis.
Janis is one of Viney’s collection of megaphones that he regularly uses to terrorise sound engineers, black out venues and, best of all, induct audience members into the Electric State house of performance art.
Viney explained the rise of the megaphone in Electric State’s story, saying, “In a previous band I was in there was one song we were going to record and have the megaphone sound. It just never really sounded right with all the plugins that we had, so I bought a megaphone. I looked around for different megaphones because I know that they sound different. I know you can’t buy Janis anymore, because it’s discontinued and there’s actually something about her sound and the frequencies that she does. I’ve bought seven megaphones now. With the megaphone, this is the first band where I’ve had the opportunity where I can use it more as a device. I used it for one song in a previous band, but it wasn’t really like how I use it with Electric State.
“I remember Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots, he used a megaphone one time. Then there was also Mike Patton from Faith No More, he used one as well for a couple of things. There’s something about having a prop and there’s something about the different frequencies and even feedback. We play with noise, we manipulate noise, so let’s use noise and if there’s feedback, the PA guy’s got something to work with, and I know they hate me for it, I must be hated by so many, but she’s fun.”
Armed with a megaphone and a wireless mic, Viney makes frequent excursions into the audience at Electric State shows, exhorting punters to yell the band’s catch phrases into the mouthpiece of Janis and her brothers and sisters. He’ll also invite people up on stage and hand each of them a megaphone as they step onto the boards, scaring the shit out of sound engineers from Perth to Kununurra.
“Remember when we blacked out Amps (Amplifier Bar)? That was pretty amazing,” said Christie, reminiscing about one of the more extreme outcomes of one of Janis’s cameos.
“We blew up everything,” confirmed Viney, “there were just the exit signs showing above the doors and it was pitch black. Janis was the only thing that worked, and I was just trying to speak to people.”
Electric State is all about trying to speak to people and, sometimes, in the midst of all the chaos, it’s easy to lose sight of the band’s craft as song writers. They’d be nothing but a rowdy bunch of ne’er do wells if it wasn’t for their songs, so it’s no surprise that, of all the things we talked about this is the one that switched the conversation from comedy to a few moments of consequence.
When asked about their song writing, all eyes turned to Christie, who is the spark the band looks to when beginning their creative process. “We’re all 90s kids,” Christie said, “so we all like the 90s grunge kind of stuff. I play the guitar so I’m always like riffing around at home and I just bring it into the jam room and it basically just goes from there.”
Getting behind his facade for a moment, Christie then said, “I always thought that I wasn’t good enough to play the guitar and be in a band, there was always someone better, but over the years, probably only recent years, I’ve realised that there’s always going to be someone better, so I just put myself out there.”
Viney confirmed that Electric State’s songcraft can sometimes feel swept away in the maelstrom that is the band’s live persona, saying, “Sometimes I feel like they can be kind of lost. For me, there’s a story with each of the songs and there’s meaning behind each of the songs. We’re just blood is something that a mate of mine used to say all the time, who’s not around anymore, he was so passionate about saying it doesn’t matter who we are, it doesn’t matter what we are, it doesn’t matter what we do we’re all just blood anyway, we all get one go at this, we’ve just got to give it a crack.
“At that point, when I was working on those lyrics (for ‘We’re Just Blood’), which was actually one of the first songs that we wrote, I was thinking about what he said and I was like, you know what, we are all just blood, I shouldn’t be freaking out about trying to write lyrics for this new band. It doesn’t matter what people say to you, it doesn’t matter what people do to you, you’ve still got to give it a crack. If you give it the best shot you’ve got then you’ve got it.”
Right now, Electric State’s best shot is bringing them accolades and attention from all over the country. They have two video clips due for release at the end of May and in early June and a new single due out shortly as well. After that, we can expect their debut album and an interstate tour in October. Next year, who knows? If Electric State can translate what they do to bigger venues, and there’s no reason why they can’t, the whole world awaits their embrace. Janis and the band have a lot of miles left in them yet.
And, as they travel the distances required to achieve the wonderful thing of being someone, you get the feeling that they’ll never forget who they are right now, a bunch of slightly nervy 90s kids who are in it because they love it.
“I love music — I’m stoked to get to play it — I really do,” Leahy said, pinning down what it is that makes his band so special. “I see it in everything that’s around me. I try to make sure I live in the moment, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Electric State play the Milk Bar on 28 May with Art of Dysfunction, Maverick Firebird and Psychonaut. This one is likely to sell out, so get your tickets here right now.