It’s a long way to the top

15 September 2010

Written by: Meghan Lodwick

If you live in Melbourne, let’s face it, chances are you’re in a band. And if you’re serious about getting your synth-pop-indie-‘80s-ironic-hipster-funk-throwback-alternative-lo-fi-genre-spanning-we-do-unknown-new-wave-stuff-you-probably-wouldn’t-get-it outfit to the top, you’re probably going to have to do more than play your mate’s house party or throw that mustachioed record exec a sly wink and nicotine-stained smile.

I had a chat to Seàn Ainsworth, lead singer of rockin’ Melbourne band The Fearless Vampire Killers (TFVK), about how they went from Year 12 eejits to being poised on the edge of stardom.

‘I wouldn’t say we’ve “cracked the big time”’ Ainsworth laughs at my initial question. Fair enough too. TFVK have just got out of the studio after recording their first full-length so they ain’t exactly household names, however they did open for Kasabian at the start of this year so have built up some bona-fide rock cred. Their ‘60s-influenced blues has built up a solid fan base after three years playing the circuit. So how have they kept going after so many Melbourne bands crumple after those first few gigs?

‘Probably the main thing is, just keep going, and trying, and pushing through the hard times and not giving up,’ Ainsworth says thoughtfully. ‘Because there are times where you just want to throw it all in and say, I’m going to do something different.’ But the advice to new musos of ‘just keep at it’ is easy to say in all its intangible glory and less easy to picture in a concrete way – how did The Fearless Vampire Killers keep ‘going at it’? ‘It’s having motivation to do it and wanting to do it, to make it work,’ Ainsworth shoots back. ‘Being in a band is all about comprising yourself. When you’re going through the bad times, you’ve just got to suck it up and try and make it better and try and fix the things that are making it shit. I guess what got me through shit times was knowing that this band just has something and it’s worth making it work.’

And he’s right on the money – show him what he’s won, Marty. For although most people don’t believe that the million-dollar, three-record contract is going to magically present itself with the same ease as that ugly trollop who just hangs around and hangs around ALL FUCKING NIGHT in the hope you’re going to take her home, deep down most people hope for exactly that. (The contract. Not the slag. Although, win-win, in certain situations.)

So when constant gigs, industry recognition and representation don’t come a-runnin’, it’s easy for a band to dissolve through boredom, disillusionment and plain old apathy. Another hard fact is that when you do start getting gigs, it doesn’t automatically snowball into larger, better gigs. I tell Ainsworth that my naïve little mind just assumed it would be an organic process, and once you started gigging, the balls of The Big Time were just waiting there, lusciously, to be grabbed. ‘That’s kind of what I thought as well,’ muses Ainsworth. ‘When we did our first biggish support I thought, it’s all going to flow and the momentum is going to go along and we’re going to get more and more offers. It doesn’t happen like that, well it didn’t happen like that for us.’ So what’s the point then, old chum? ‘I think it’s more that people have respect for you, I guess… like people go oh, they’re actually good, and they’re actually serious. You gain a bit of respect in the music industry circle in Melbourne, and Australia.’

The build-up of goodwill is nothing to be sneezed at. Melbourne music circles are interwoven and tight-knit, so if you piss off one person, you piss off many. ‘No one wants to work with you if you’re “difficult”, or have the reputation of being difficult,’ agrees Ainsworth. Conversely, if you start building up a name for yourself then that reputation would also start permeating those circles. With TFVK, their reputation led to current manager John Adair quitting his job at Majorbox to represent them full-time. Like the Kasabian support, it’s not so much a ‘lucky break’ as a big reward after a lot of hard work. Similar to when you played Mario Brothers before you knew about the warps and it took you something like 17 hours but it was totally worth it to see Bowser fall down as himself.

Actually, not similar at all.

So although it seems sunny skies for TFVK, they’ve done the one thing that most bands don’t see as part of their five-year-plan: worked fucking hard. ‘Changing members is that hardest thing, because all your momentum goes,’ elaborates Ainsworth. ‘We’ve gone through three member changes, and they’re never easy. There’s always that uncertain time… you can’t play anymore, you have to wait until you find someone.’ Even if the new member knows all your songs, it’s a process that will still take months: there’s playing together, gelling as a band, getting on with the newbie on a personal level. Conversely, there are easy things too – the free booze at gigs is always a perk. And there are some awesome rewards. ‘Finishing a CD is pretty rewarding. Like, when you’re actually holding it in your hand – that’s pretty incredible,’ grins Ainsworth.

So what’s the secret to having staying power in Melbourne? Our conversation keeps coming round to the answer, which is unglamorous but unavoidable: hard work, dedication, perseverance. Like the theory that it actually takes 10,000 hours to become good at anything, it seems that nothing is a substitute for hard work (and if you tell either of my parents I actually said that, I WILL CUT YOU). Anything else we should know? ‘Other than sticking to it, I would say don’t get too drunk before you play, that’s not cool, I learnt the hard way,’ Ainsworth gives as a parting shot. Oh didn’t we all, Seàny. Didn’t we all.

Renee Tibbs is  enrolled in the graduate diploma of journalism program at La Trobe University. This was originally published at her blog duck down the alleyway.