Luke Boerdam of Violent Soho sounded confident. It was late 2014 and about 4am. We were drinking at the Public Bar in North Melbourne following two sold-out Violent Soho shows at the Hi-Fi Bar. The Brisbane four-piece was on yet another victory lap capitalising on the fan-led groundswell behind its third album, 2013’s Hungry Ghost. After a decade of slogging it out the record’s runaway success had given them an unexpected late-career boost. That night in the Public Bar the jovial songwriter had every reason to believe he was on the cusp of a creative epoch.
“Yeah that’s the attitude I had,” says Boerdam now. “I was saying, ‘The next record’s going to be fuckin’ awesome!’ Of course you’re going to be confident coming off a tour like Hungry Ghost. But after the tour was finished, it was like, ‘Man, these new songs are taking way longer than I thought.”
Boerdam told the band he’d have a new record written by April – then six months away. The band was finally bringing in enough cash to allow him to focus solely on writing. But when April came he had just two songs finished.
“The mistake I made was thinking, ‘Songwriting is my nine to five now’,” he says. “I’ll have more time to write and that will produce great results. But it didn’t. Hungry Ghost didn’t come out of nine to five, Hungry Ghost came out of weekends and fucking around on the couch watching documentaries. My confidence was completely smashed. It’s a hard thing to do – to write music and not force it. I had to relearn that lesson. ”
The fruit of that labour is the band’s fourth album, WACO. Named after the Texas town synonymous with a 1993 FBI siege on a religious sect that left more than 80 people dead, the album’s themes of coded language, wayward spirituality and anti-authority sentiment is a ripe match for Soho’s sneering grunge spikiness and carefree flashes of pop. It’s also the kind of conceptual leap a writer might have to wrestle with, rather than divine.
“We wanted to prove that Hungry Ghost wasn’t a one off, so the pressure was internal,” says Boerdam. “We write the songs we want to write and I guess that’s what fans pick up and relate to, so to ignore that would be to ignore what made Hungry Ghost successful. I wanted to outdo myself. Otherwise, what was the perseverance for?”
The pressure wasn’t just on the band’s songwriting. With success came new business responsibilities. “It was interesting,” says Boerdam of Soho’s sudden fortunes. “There was a lot of navigating with the band. Touring. Merch. Brands showing up, saying, ‘Wear our shit’. That was new. I didn’t expect that or the work involved with keeping Violent Soho going. It’s like, ‘Fuck there’s a lot of work gone into this, as well as keeping other people’s fingers off it.’ We were like the mum over the cake with a fly swat going, ‘Get away! ’ That’s what it felt like every second day.”
It helped that the band had faced something like it before. After forming in 2004 the four friends self-funded an EP recorded with Brisbane producer Bryce Moorhead. It caught the ear of one of their heroes, Dean Turner of Geelong band Magic Dirt. Turner mentored the group, shepherding them through a debut album and a sound that impressed Thurston Moore of iconic US noisemakers, Sonic Youth. In 2009 Moore signed Soho to his label, Ecstatic Peace, for a second album that would require the band to support it with an extensive US tour. Recorded with hot-shot producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Echo & the Bunnymen, Foo Fighters) in Wales, the self-titled album and subsequent tour was a bust.
“It’s not fun putting out a record, doing 200 shows in America, and it sells fuck all,” says Boerdam of the experience. “The label’s unhappy with you, management’s unhappy, people aren’t enthusiastic about the band anymore.”
Soho returned to Australia poor, but galvanised as friends. With a new batch of songs influenced by their time abroad, they backed themselves – they reconnected with Moorhead in his Brisbane recording studio, and recorded Hungry Ghost. It’s now sold more than 35,000 copies. “Having gone through that experience you get more courage to say, ‘No this is our band and we’re in control’,” says Boerdam. “Everyone else can fuck off. Because if a record fails those people aren’t going to be there anyway.”
Boerdam says WACO is the ragged external landscape to Hungry Ghost’s morally corrupt interior; the doomed sphere that allows the hollow creatures of Hungry Ghost to proliferate. “It’s a critique of the world, saying: the reality we live in has become darker than we might realise,” says Boerdam. “It’s an illusion in some ways and the illusion is evil. This world we’ve found ourselves in is evil and as humans we haven’t done ourselves any favours.”
It sounds a bit hocus-pocus. But Soho has a knack for delivering obliquely profound sentiments in its music, rather than telegraphing them in lyrics. Boerdam’s words are most often collections of oddball fragments (Killjoy, you’re like a rhinestone pick-up line goes the opening lyric on the album’s second single, Viceroy) and the urge to piece them together draws fans in. Despite the intense talk of phantom powers and existential ruminations it’s an everyday phrase that haunts the band most. On Hungry Ghost standout Covered In Chrome, during a pause before guitars crash in for the chorus, a distant voice screams “hell fuck yeah”. It’s become something of a millstone around the band’s neck.
“Oh man,” says Boerdam. “The amount of articles I’ve read that end with, “Hell fuck yeah”. We had no idea that was going to be a catchphrase, but now in my daily life it’s a constant “hell fuck yeah”. I’ll be buying groceries and someone will be like, ‘Hell fuck yeah, man’. And I’ll be like, … ‘Yeah dude’.”
Even in the supermarket, evil lurks.
Violent Soho tour dates:
May 10, 11 & 13 (all sold out)
May 14, 15 (both sold out) & 16
May 19 (sold out)
May 26 & May 27 (second show sold out)
WACO is out now.