They’re not rich, they’re not household-name famous and they’d laugh in your face if you called them rock stars. THE AMITY AFFLICTION talk with SOPHIE BENJAMIN about creative differences, censorship and what it takes to patch in to the club.
The Amity Affliction are the worst-known successful band in Australia.
It’s been two years since their breakthrough album Youngbloods debuted at #6 on the ARIA chart, but shows on the launch tour for their upcoming album Chasing Ghosts have already sold out.
Even Reece Mastin, the teenage winner of the last season of The X Factor, performs at Westfield shopping malls around the country clothed in Amity merch.
“I was getting Oporto the other day and the girl next to me was wearing an Amity shirt,” says guitarist Troy Brady, laughing.
“She had no idea who I was, but that’s what happens when you have a bass player as pretty as ours. I’m the merch guy. Story of my life!”
“I never thought we’d be the kind of band that sells out multiple nights at the Tivoli,” says vocalist Joel Birch.
“I still don’t! We spent years doing entire tours where the the best show of the tour would have 20 people show up.”
Bass player and vocalist Ahren Stringer agrees.
“We did tour like that for years, but we weren’t taking it as seriously as we should’ve for a lot of that time. We were pretty wasted and having fun, but I think we wasted a lot of time. Maybe we could’ve been where we are now a few years ago.”
The band spent the better part of 2011 touring Youngbloods internationally, making a few quick trips back down under to play Cairns, Perth and almost everywhere in between – including an Italian restaurant run by bikies in Rockhampton.
Earlier this year the band decamped to Orlando, Florida to record with Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette – a producer with a long history of making heavy music sound radio-friendly.
Birch was determined to get better performances down on this record.
“At the start of [recording] Youngbloods my voice gave out and I’m still not happy with how I sang on that record. This time around we’d come off tour a month earlier and my voice was still warm. That’s how I’ve always wanted to record, but I wasn’t really able to make it happen until now.”
Brady and Stringer emailed song fragments back and forth between tours before spending a few weeks putting the final ten demos together at Brady’s house.
“Troy and I have been writing together for so long now that we know what we want out of a song and don’t have to stress about it too much,” says Stringer.
“I want every song to work. I want breakdowns, I want sing-a-longs, I want heavier bits – just as much diversity in each song as we can manage.”
“I think this time around, we wanted to write something more aggressive and based around a live scenario. The heavier bits are always the most fun to play live, and we’ll be doing plenty of that over the next year or so.”
“When it comes to writing, I don’t think a lot has changed,” says Stringer.
“We have got better at doing it though, as well as figuring out what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are.”
One of those strengths is knowing when to speak up, and when it’s better to stay silent.
“We’re all really good friends, but there are certain things we don’t need to talk about and my weird depressed lyrics are one of them,” says Birch.
“I mean, it’s not like they don’t care about how I’m doing, but it’d be like if Troy started talking to me about guitars and effects pedals. I’m stoked when he and Ahren write stuff that sounds great, but I’m not really that interested in how they got to that point.”
Birch is responsible for nearly all the lyrical content, even though he and Stringer share lead vocals. Youngbloods’ lyrics saw Birch wrestling not just with dark thoughts and depression, but the consequences of turning those thoughts into actions.
The album’s opening couplet Seems like forever since I tore myself apart / left my friends in the wake just about sums it up. Birch says he’s kept a hold of those ideas and continued to explore them.
“It’s the same topic, but I’ve approached it from a completely different angle. I usually write lyrics completely for myself and don’t really explain them to anyone, but this time around I really wanted other people to connect with what I’m singing about – even more than they maybe did with the last album.”
The band’s found out the hard way that talking openly about suicide and mental health can provoke a very different reaction to singing about it. The new album’s artwork shows a man’s body next to a tree – it’s unclear weather he’s hanging or floating, as the neck and head are out of the shot.
Birch took to Twitter to voice his frustration – “Write an album about trying to kill myself and failing and that’s OK. Put someone floating in the air on a cover and it’s a problem.”
“There’s a cloud of secrecy that hangs over mental health in this country,” he explains.
“There’s a lot of pride, particularly with males, in that if you can’t see an injury then you’re not injured – and that’s nonsense. The stigma is still there and that’s what drives people towards killing themselves – it’s the lack of support around them. If we can help reduce that, then I think we’re doing a good thing.”
“I’m not talking about violence and killing people. That sort of shit happening in music really grates on me and I’m disgusted by it. I’m glads there are kids out there latching onto our music and maybe realising that bands can have substance and not just ‘breakdowns singing breakdowns singing kill your parents…’ “
“Everyone latches onto music in some way and if I can write lyrics that have a profound impact on someone’s life, then that’s amazing.”
Plenty of people do connect with Birch’s lyrics. They tattoo them onto their bodies, they sing along to them in their cars, they scream them out at shows. He gets emails and private messages from people all over the world who say they know exactly what he means.
“ It’s nice to read them, but it’s really hard because I do care and it can get a bit overwhelming. I do my best to write back if it needs a reply. I think the main thing I want people to know is that there are places where they can get help if they need it. I try with music and I hope that that’s enough. Maybe it’s not.”
Birch says maintaining his mental health is still a struggle, particularly with the weird hours and disjointed living situation that comes with being in a full-time touring band.
“I’m definitely in the clear in terms of suicide, but it’s a constant thing,” he says quietly.
“I still get bad anxiety sometimes, but I’ve got better at managing it. There are people with great lives who are depressed, but I try to think about the extremely positive things I have going on around me.”
He chuckles. “I really have a total cracker of a life, and I’m glad I’m able to appreciate it.”
Things are going so well for him, in fact, that Chasing Ghosts will contain Amity’s first-ever love song.
“Yeah, that was pretty wild – putting it out there,” he says, almost embarrassed.
“We’re not really that kind of band and I don’t think it will ever be played live, but it’s something I really wanted to write.”
The band tracked the album as a four-piece (more about that later) and finished ahead of schedule.
“I’m so proud of how we worked together,” says Brady.
“We’ve pushed ourselves to the best of our abilities and we love the album we’ve written, but…”
He sighs, then laughs nervously.
“Well, we finished tracking more than a month ago. It’s a little over a month out from the release date and we haven’t heard the final mixes.”
“It’s been a nightmare,” he groans.
“We heard [Baskette’s] early mixes and weren’t happy with them, so we decided to get them mixed elsewhere. He hasn’t exactly been co-operative and now the whole thing is around a month late.”
“You basically trust someone to be part of a really personal thing that you’ve worked really hard on and it’s really beyond business. Music is more than just business when you’re being creative and in that kind of environment.
“In the end it got stripped back down to business on his end and that was incredibly disappointing.”
Stringer says the sour ending was unexpected.
“We all felt pretty comfortable with Elvis and all the songs were already written before we went in. It was probably the easiest recording we’ve ever done.”
“I feel that we did our job and did it really well, and as soon as it was out of our hands things went wrong,” Brady continues.
“We weren’t reliant on a producer to write our songs or play our instruments for us.”
Was that part of the problem though?
“I don’t know. It’s a really touchy subject. I’ve kind of said all I can to him and I have to let the dust settle.
“The lesson that I’ve learned is that something this personal, you don’t let it get out of your hands.”
These latest dramas are the latest in a long line of beefs and blues over outside influences. Burt and Stringer have been in bands together since they were 12 years old and started Amity in their hometown of Gympie in 2003. Birch joined in 2004 and around half a dozen other musicians have played under the Amity name since then.
“See, it looks like there’s been a lot of people through the line-up,” Birch says testily, “but there hasn’t really.”
“There’s been the same 4 dudes for the last 6 years and a few guitarists and a keyboard player. That’s it.”
Brady is a little more blunt.
“It’s been a pain in my fucking arse! You have no idea how frustrating it is to be teaching people songs you’ve been playing for 7 or 8 years. That said, we got to spice things up with some new experiences and have some different personalities come through the band. Sometimes it was great, but often it didn’t really work.”
The latest departure is second guitarist Imran Siddiqi, who broke the news on Twitter – of course.
“We’re a weird band with weird chemistry and I honestly think it’s too late in the piece to recruit another band member,” Birch says wearily.
“It’d be like being married and deciding to bring in another wife!”
“I think we’re better off getting fill-in guitarists as we tour,” says Stringer.
“That way we’re not getting anyone’s hopes up about becoming a permanent member and then having to deal with another headache when it doesn’t work out.”
The group is a little territorial, and rightly so.
“It’s like, you’re in a band for 10 years – someone doesn’t just join and start throwing their weight around,” says Brady.
“As stupid as it sounds, it’s a bit like a bikie club. You do your time before you’re allowed to patch in. I feel like if someone came in and give me five years of their life I’d be like yeah, you deserve it… but it is about getting what you put in.”
“We’ve put our entire well-being into this band and built what we have now from absolutely nothing. So for someone to come in and claim part of this thing that all of us hold so dear, it’s an uncomfortable situation.”
Brady says they’ll bring a friend in to play second guitar on the Australian launch tour, but it’s unlikely they’ll take an extra person on their overseas dates.
“We still kind of do everything ourselves, because when we’re overseas it’s too expensive to have a team with us.”
“Touring Australia means we can bring our friends with us – people who’ve been around for 7 or 8 years. We’re still pretty self-reliant, but it’s always nice to have people around you care about what you do. It’s a real treat.”
There’s an excellent chance Chasing Ghosts will debut higher on the charts and bring in another round of award nominations for the band – not that Birch cares.
“What is that kind of stuff worth, really? It’s nothing. Seeing kids at the end of the show like, fucking crying and genuinely elated – they make it worth it. We are absolutely nothing at all without the people who come to the shows.”