They Are a Rock Band. They're On an Island. An Interview with Kevin Mitchell of
by Jason Feifer
While the American airwaves are peculiarly reluctant to acknowledge it, the innate sensibility of rock n' roll is not a native or exclusive trait of these fifty states. In fact, if you look hard enough, there are bands in all corners of the globe that could, with the greatest of ease, rock the sweaty pants off America's tired parade of commodity rock and cookie-cutter trios. These bands come from everywhere, and play with gusto. They play with passion. They play in places we've never heard of and, sometimes, in places we can't pronounce. Take, for instance, Jebediah.
Halfway across the world and situated at the far end of an unforgiving and obnoxiously blistering Australian outback, Jebediah are quickly becoming more than hometown favorites – they're becoming internationally recognized. In only six years, the band has managed to gain national attention through winning a 1995 competition, release two full-length albums and an EP, tour America and Canada, and re-release their albums in New Zealand, America, and Japan. Needless to say, it's been a roller coaster for the four twenty-somethings that make up the band, and it's just getting started.
Now, with steady jobs making music for screaming fans, the only current downside seems to be a slight loss of hearing. "I think it's rehearsing in a little rehearsal room, not wearing earplugs, and we play as loud as we do on stage, but we're in this little room. So, I think that's what does it," says Kevin Mitchell, the band's lead-singer, guitarist, and recognizable frontman. It's Kevin's voice that makes Jebediah the distinguishable force they are, as he sings with the nasal boyishness of a small-time punk rocker but with enough composure and confidence to smooth his words out into something buoyant and professional. Behind him are two friends – Vanessa Thornton on bass and Chris Daymond on guitar – and his brother Brett on drums, the three of which produce a music that is both rock and punk without being punk rock. Instead, the distorted guitars of Jebediah form more of a poised ferocity of catchy pop, which has earned this little band from Perth, Australia an audience that's happy, lively, and – if their sold-out shows and invitations to large festivals are any indication – increasingly loyal.
Currently, the band is in the midst of a well-deserved break from touring the states of both Australia and America. The past year has been an exhausting one for them, with the American release of their sophomore disc, Of Someday Shambles, on Big Wheel Recreation, and then the ensuing tour. Sure, it may not be much commotion compared to the year when a few members of the band ended up in the hospital for isolated and untimely ailments, but 2000 was a huge step for their careers. Now, with some time to collect themselves and write new material, the spotlight is patiently awaiting their arrival. In between it all and across the International Dateline, Kevin sat down to talk.
So, you all met in theater class?
In high school, yeah. Well, three of us. Me and Chris were in the same year, Vanessa was in two years above us and Brett was in three years above us. Brett didn't do any drama at all, but the other three of us were in the same kind of theater company, but in different years. But we didn't actually form the band until we all finished school and were at uni, because we all ended up going to the same uni – well, you call it college. University, college, same thing. And by that time, Brett had already left and had a full time job at some kind of hardware timber kind of store, and we actually had our first rehearsal with another drummer, but he never showed up. Brett hadn't touched his drums for two years, and I just came to him just begging him, saying, "Please, start playing drums again and join this band because we need a drummer, this guy hasn't shown up and we need a drummer." And Brett was really nervous about it and wasn't sure about doing it because he hadn't touched his drums in a couple years. But I mean, Vanessa had never played a bass before, so she was in even more of a difficult position than Brett. So yeah, we eventually encouraged him to do it, and I think he made the right decision.
Have you since seen the missing drummer?
Actually, no, I haven't seen him in years. But, I'm told that he came to an early gig. He used to play in another band, but they kind of folded as well, probably because he never turned up to their rehearsals, either. But no, I haven't seen him or heard of him for years and years.
Did having a background in stage acting help ease you into rock n' roll?
I think the fact that we were doing theater together probably didn't have as much impact as it might seem. But I mean, it was probably good in the fact that it gave the three of us experience of being on stage. So, individually it probably had an impact, but as far as us playing together, I think, you know, just the fact that we're all friends and we hung out and got into the same music. I think those kind of factors had more impact as to us playing live together than doing theater.
Isn't your hometown of Perth geographically rather separated from the rest of Australia?
Yeah, that's right. I mean, I had someone say that it's the most isolated city in the world, but I don't know if that's true or not. It's about as far away from Sydney and Melbourne as New Zealand is, with basically a lot of desert in between.
Had you not won the National Campus Band Competition in 1995, how hard would it have been to break out of Perth and become as nationally exposed as you currently are?
It would have been a lot harder. There's lots of bands in Perth that either make the move over to Melbourne or they don't ever get out of Perth because the cost of touring other states is so much. Also, flights and stuff cost heaps from here as well. Pretty much, a drive from Perth to the east takes three or four days or something, so yeah, lots of bands from Perth either relocate to Melbourne, which is kind of like the cool city, or they just never get out of Perth and just struggle for many years. So I guess getting over in that competition was pretty helpful.
You've played with American bands such as Everclear and the Presidents of the United States of America, and even mention Archers of Loaf in one of your songs. It seems that American bands are far more prevalent in Australia than Australian bands are even noticed in America. Because of this, do Australian bands face a disadvantage in becoming recognized in their own country?
Australia, like probably many other cultures around the world, pretty much swallows up what they're given from America. All the big bands that are big in America are pretty much big bands over here as well. There are probably a couple of exceptions, but not many. So yeah, there's always American bands on tour over here. I mean, Australia I guess isn't too bad. Like, we're got a radio station called Triple J over here, which plays lots of Australian music. But, apart from that and community radio stations and college radio stations and stuff, all the big radio stations play what's on the charts and what's on the charts is imported stuff from America or England. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it's still a little bit of a disadvantage. And then touring out of Australia, again, it's like touring out of Perth except even bigger. The cost of getting out of Australia and going to America or Europe or whatever is just extremely expensive. I mean, you pay thousands of dollars in flights and in freight for your gear before you even play your first show.
Is there any kind of movement that works towards recognizing Australian bands?
I think there's a bit of a movement. I guess you could still call it an alternative kind of a group that really supports Australian music and gets into all these Australian bands and goes to stuff like Homebake, which is an all-Australian festival and attracts like, thousands of people. And there are always Australian bands put on the Big Day Out touring bill and stuff. So there is this kind of alternative kind of scene that knows about all these Australian bands and goes out to see gigs and stuff. Pretty much, it's the people that go out to gigs are the people that are into Australian music and know what's going on. If you don't go out to see live music, then you're probably just listening to the radio and, in that case, you probably wouldn't know too much about Australian bands.
Do Australian bands resent that?
Well, I think it's better than it used to be. We've got radio stations like Triple J, who have done a lot to make things a lot better for Australian music because they support Australian music full till, and they've done quite well at doing that. But, I don't know if Australian bands resent it, probably because it's better now than it used to be and so they're a little bit more satisfied. At the same time, I think Australian bands are aware of the fact that coming from Australia can be quite a disadvantage as far as getting out of Australia.
I've been told that you'll get chased down the street in Australia or, at the very least, that you're incredibly recognized.
Oh, that's quite an exaggeration. We've never been chased down the street. Never once. As far as being recognized, if you go out to the city or something in a really crowded place and you're there for a few hours, you might have one or two people come up to you and say hi. But, nothing like you've described.
Was it more discouraging or refreshing to come to America and be completely unknown?
The thing I loved the most about going to another country, apart from seeing something new and the novelty factor of the tourist thing, is I loved that every night you're getting up on stage and playing for – in the case of playing with Jimmy Eat World and the Get Up Kids – a roomful of people that don't know anything about you. And so, by the time your half-hour or forty-five minute set is finished, you can look at the faces of the people and you can see what kind of impression you've made, and it's really a kind of pure thing. It's awesome to play to fresh ears and it takes heaps of pressure off as well, because there's no expectations of anything. So, you can just go out there and have a sense of freedom and do your thing in front of fresh faces, and see what the result is.
What was the result?
I think we came out feeling like it was generally pretty good. Going out with a band and being the first on the bill, we didn't have any expectations of going out there with the crowd going wild and stuff, jumping up and down from the first night. We knew that that was an unrealistic thing to predict. So, we thought we did pretty well by the end of the gigs. We sold a few T-shirts, that was a good indicator, I think, and people coming up afterwards and saying, "oh, you know, what are you guys called? Do you have records out?" You know, just asking questions about us. Since we've been back, we've got lots of hits on the Web site from America. I think 40% of the hits on our Web site have been from overseas. So, we think we made a small kind of impression. We got our foot in the door. Actually, I'm getting quite eager to go back. I don't know when we'll get back, but hopefully it won't be too far down the track. I don't know. You kind of get itchy feet after a while, and want to get back out there again.
Would that be after the new album? I was told you're working on one now.
We've been writing and getting songs together. Hopefully, we'll get into the studio before the middle of the year, because we kind of want to get it out in Australia this year. But, time is slowly crippling away, so I don't know how we're going to fit in going overseas. Hopefully it'll work out so we can record and get overseas at a good time. We'll just have to wait and see.
How's the new material turning out?
It's going really well, actually. We've all kind of been enjoying writing songs probably more so for this new record than the last one. I don't know, everyone's in a really relaxed kind of mood, and the songs are coming real easily, because we pretty much write our songs just by all getting in a room and jamming together. And yeah, they've been coming really easily, and we've got like maybe a dozen songs so far, and hopefully we'll have 20-something songs to choose from when we go in to record.
Is that an American accent on "Big Beer Wall," the secret track on Of Someday Shambles?
It's uh, yeah. Yes, it probably is. Not a very good one, though. I can do a much better American accent than what's on that song. That song, all it is is a bit of an American accent kind of creeping in because of the nature of the song sounding very much like Johnny Cash. So, it just kind of crept in. But, if I really wanted to do a song in an American accent, I could do much better than that. Everyone in Australia is pretty good at doing American accents. They're on the TV all the time, in the media all the time. So, you kind of grow up hearing this accent. But when we were in America and we were teaching people how to talk Australian, man, like no one could talk Australian. Everyone ends up sounding like they're speaking with a British accent or a New Zealand accent, but they could never get the Australian one. We were giving lessons to all the bands that we were touring with. Some of them were really eager to learn, which made our job easier. I think it's pretty difficult. I think the Americans haven't had too much of the Australian accent apart from Crocodile Dundee.
People probably swarmed to you just because of the accent.
When we were over in America, I was kind of surprised about how curious everyone was over there about Australia. Everyone seemed to think Australia was a really nice place and a really good place, and Australians as being good people. So, I'm just wondering if that's how Americans feel. But, there are Australian bands over there, like Silverchair and Savage Garden. Not that they're really a band. They're just two guys and one of them writes stuff on his computer. The Living End started to do some things in America, but that's pretty much it, really.
A recent travel book called In a Sunburned Country spent a good amount of time insisting that Australians were incredibly nice people.
Yeah, kind of. Which is probably just a product of the country and the size of the country and the size of the cities that people live in. I mean, Perth is a city of about one million, so it's not tiny. But, I mean, yeah, like New York and places like that, that place is just one big blur. But, also New York is kind of cool because there are people from every corner of the globe there and it's a modern city and people are pretty open-minded and stuff. So, New York is kind of good in that respect.
And you guys got to play CBGB's.
Yeah, we plated CBGB's twice, which was pretty cool. I really dug New York. It's probably one of my favorite places out of all the places that we went to. New York rocked.
In an interview with Chris, he said Mark Trombino, the producer of Of Someday Shambles, had trouble adjusting to the "Australian work ethic" in the studio. What is he referring to?
[laughs] I know exactly what he's referencing. It's funny that you told me that, because I hadn't heard that. I think what he meant by that is that he probably had trouble adjusting to the Australian laziness of going in and hitting drums or playing guitar for half an hour and then wanting a five-hour break, or knocking off at seven in the evening so we could go down to the pub [laughs]. So, yeah, he did have trouble adjusting to that. But, our recording experience with Mark got pretty good results. Mark's the kind of guy that works pretty non-stop from the moment he gets in to the moment he leaves, and he likes to get things done in an efficient manner, so we probably didn't quite fit into his way of doing things. But he made us a good record. We're friends with Mark. We caught up with him when we were in LA playing with Jimmy Eat World. I think it was the last show that we did in America before coming back home. He was just about to record or he was in the middle of working with Jimmy Eat World's new record.
What kind of influence did Mark have on Of Someday Shambles that progressed the band from the first album?
I think after Slightly Odway, with the songs we were writing, we felt like we wanted to make a record that was a little more produced and the songs were more complex. Well, I don't want to sound like the songs are complex, because they're not complex at all, but by our standards, they were. The recording of Odway was pretty basic and the songs were pretty basic, and we kind of wanted to make a record that was a little more progressive. We got into Mark Trombino from listening to Knapsack records. And after we got in contact with him, we heard the Jimmy Eat World stuff and that kind of blew us away a bit, and we felt like he would be somebody who could make us the record that we wanted to make. Which he did. He kind of introduced us to a lot of new stuff in the studio, like working with Pro Tools and stuff. And it was good. Well, it was mostly good. Some people had trouble adjusting. The best thing about Pro Tools, man, is for vocals. You sing along and if you're just a little out, you just place it onto Pro Tools and it places it into pitch properly. It's fantastic. But, Brett didn't like Pro Tools too much because he had to drum to a click track and he hates drumming to a click track, because, you know, that would mean he would have to stay in time all the time. But yeah, I'm all for Pro Tools.
You said in a press release that "Blame," a punky and somewhat angry song off Slightly Odway, was indicative of the band's early sound. Was Jebediah originally a punk rock band?
That's probably the oldest song we've got on an album. That and a song called "Jerks of Attention" are probably the two oldest ones on there. So yeah, that's rather indicative. All the stuff was pretty much sounding like that. This punk power pop, whatever you want to call it. Simple songs with any three chords, just repeated over and over again. But we were just starting out, and most of us were still learning how to play our instruments, so you have to keep things kind of simple, you know?
So was it a more organic progression from "Blame" to what the band sounds like now?
Yeah, probably just us kind of learning how to play our instruments, and the kind of music we listen to now is such a broad range of stuff. When we first started, we were kind of locked into one kind of guitar music, and that was pretty much all any of us listened to and that was all we wanted to reproduce. Now we listen to so much different stuff that the influences have all kind of come in. I think Shambles was an example of that, and I think the next record's gonna take it even further. Just a more extreme example of the influences that we've getting into now, which is kind of anything from country to dance music to rock to anything.
I read that Jebediah is known to play a number of environmental functions and has, according to the article, a "social justice edge."
That's kind of an exaggeration. We've done a benefit gig here and there for different causes. We're asked to do a lot. Sometimes it's not always viable because, you know, if it's a benefit gig then we have to be in the right place at the right time. Otherwise, it just costs too much money to do it, coming from Perth. But yeah, we've done the benefit gig here and there and we're all reasonably socially aware, but I think that's an exaggeration. I don't think we're really known as a band that plays lots of benefit gigs and stands up for lots of causes.
You don't inject much politics in your music, but are there any causes the band supports?
I guess any environmental cause, anything that we basically know something about. We can't do benefit gigs for any cause that we don't know anything about. But, environmental causes have got the most chance of getting us because it's something we know about, and any kind of gig to do with reclaiming land for the indigenous community over here is a good one as well.
The one political song you do have is "Run of the Company," which expresses a distrust of big business. It seems interesting that you'd write that when you're signed to Murmur, a division of Sony. Is there a hidden critique of major labels in there?
It was funny, actually, because we did that song that was so paranoid that I think they were really paranoid that it was about them. And it's not that it isn't about them, but it's about the corporate world, so it's pretty much about any big business. It certainly wasn't written about Sony. It's just about big business and living in the corporate world and the role of people becoming less and less important in the daily running of our lives.
Why does the American release of Of Someday Shambles have a different cover than the Australian version?
When we signed to Big Wheel, or when Big Wheel put out our record, they wanted to change the artwork and we were like, eh, ok. So, they got one of their guys that's taken lots of photos and done artwork for other bands of theirs, and they changed it. So I think the case was that they thought it was a bit naff, but we didn't really care. We were just like, if you put our record out, you can put a bloody pile of shit on the front cover.
The lyrics of Of Someday Shambles contain a dominant theme throughout most of the songs, that being one of a failed relationship that the speaker usually blames himself for. Are your lyrics derived from your personal experience, or are you telling stories?
Actually, they're getting more and more personal with every song we write, and that probably comes down to my comfort level, just being more and more comfortable with what I'm doing. With the first album, Slightly Odway, there were thirteen songs and I reckon about ten out of those thirteen songs were just bullshit. Just bullshit lyrics about nothing. That was one of the things that personally irked me about that record. I'd listen to it and think, "man, I'm singing about nothing. I'm just singing nonsense words." But, I mean, I got away with it because the songs were catchy and people weren't really listening to the songs for the lyrics, they were listening for the music and the melodies, which was cool. But, by the time we came around to recording Shambles, I kind of had stuff to write about, and now I feel like I've got more things to write about. So yeah, they are getting more and more personal. But, talking about that theme, me and Brett lost our father in between Odway and Shambles, so there's quite a few songs that are kind of influenced by that. And yeah, relationships, I guess romantic relationships always kind of creep their way into my lyric writing. I kind of can't seem to be able to help that.
How comfortable are you with broadcasting your personal life?
I'm not totally comfortable with it. I have mentioned it in plenty of interviews and stuff, and kind of talked to that as far as it's relevance to the record and stuff, but that's about it. That's as far as it goes. I don't really talk about it much in interviews, really. I just kind of mention it, because it did have an influence over the record. As far as the lyrics and me personally, it had a big influence. So, it is relevant, but, you know, you shouldn't dwell on it too much.