For the past decade, Safe Hands have been slowly etching out their place in Australian rock music with a successful debut album and EP, as well as a number of support gigs alongside the likes of Norma Jean and La Dispute. In this interview with Jackie Smith, vocalist Benjamin Louttit discusses the highs and lows of his musical career, a new line-up, and what to expect from their latest album Tie Your Soul To Mine.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of your latest album, Tie Your Soul To Mine. As September 23rd draws nearer, are you nervous for how it will be received?
Can’t say there’s any real nerves this time around. It’s been what feels like an eternity since the first album and we’re just going at our pace now with no deadlines or pressure or anything like that. There’s more so an immense sense of relief that it’s finally going to be out there for people to listen to.
What’s the reaction been like to your single The Great Affair (especially it is a little different from your usual songs)?
It’s been really nice, generally very positive. We’re getting a lot of good feedback in relation to the video too which has been gratifying. The sound change might’ve taken people aback a little at first but there’s still elements of the old style in there for the small amount of long-time listeners. There’s just a different focus now. With the rest of the album and pushing forward we’re working within this style so it’s simultaneously a departure and an indication of where we’re heading.
Is there a particular concept or inspiration behind this album as a whole?
There’s a few different threads running through the album but the main focus is on the passage of time since the last album. I’m now a husband and a parent trying to work my way up in a long-term career and now the band takes a backseat to all of that.
A number of the songs explore the idea of whether it’s a good idea to push forward trying to fulfil yourself creatively in the face of common sense saying you should be knuckling down, working and providing for the life you have now and in the future.
Can you talk me through the recording process?
The whole thing took about nine months. We started mid-2015 with our friend Mat Taylor behind the boards. The drums were recorded in a day in a holiday house at Smiths Lake that we converted into a studio for a weekend. From there it was a laborious struggle getting everything else done, fitting around both the band and Mat’s work schedules. Recording sessions took place in our rehearsal space (aka a storage locker) and Mat’s house sporadically and we finally got it all done and dusted in March of this year. Mat’s partner was also having a baby so it was a race against time to finish a lot of the guitar parts before the birth.
Do you have any favourite tracks from the album?
I think the album is really strong across the board but my favourite songs to play live right now are The Great Affair and Born In The Last Shower. I think they’re both good examples of the band trying something completely left of centre for us and coming out the other side with something really cool and interesting.
How does Tie Your Soul To Mine differ from your previous releases, Montenegro (2013) and Oh The Humanity (2011)?
It’s chalk and cheese. On the old releases we were trying for the whole The Chariot-inspired chaotic hardcore thing and the songs as a result were very hard to penetrate. We were very into the idea of just tacking together section after section with no rhyme or reason to it. So there’s great sections but not so many great songs.
Tie Your Soul To Mine is very much a hard reset. We don’t want to play those old songs anymore because it’s not indicative of where we are right now. We’ve matured as people and musicians, the line-up’s different, I don’t want to scream like a maniac for a whole set because I’m getting older and it really takes it out of me honestly. What we’re exploring now is a lot more atmospheric with mostly clean singing and kind of letting the songs breathe a bit more.
How have you grown as musicians and as a band since your last album was released?
We went through a bit of turnover since Montenegro as we lost two long-term members who recorded and toured that album. So we have a new drummer in Isaac [Gibson] and a new guitarist in Josh [Gibson] who make their recorded debuts on this new one.
On the last album and the EP before, the bass parts were all written and performed by me as we didn’t have a permanent bassist, but on Tie Your Soul To Mine, Gareth [Owen] has really come into his own putting those parts together. I think we’ve all become a lot more proficient at what we do and breaking away from the style of the older releases has kind of rewired our brains as songwriters too.
You’ve got a show coming up in Newcastle in October. Do you plan on touring the album in full?
Yes, we certainly do. For the time being our launch is going to be Saturday October 1 at the Cambridge Hotel supporting an incredible band from Canada called PUP. Seriously check them out if you haven’t already. Mat’s band The Delta Lions are also on that bill so it’s cool to have them involved given how much work he put into our album as well. But we plan on touring the album more before the end of the year and into 2017 if we’re lucky, hopefully those dates will be announced soon.
What can fans expect from one of your live shows?
At the moment it’s mostly people heckling us to play old stuff (laughs). We want to promote our shows as a safe space (if you’ll pardon the pun). We hate that there’s a preconceived notion that any music that involves yelling is automatically carte blanche for someone to start swinging their fists around and that’s one of the main catalysts for why we’ve changed things up. It’s interesting music played with passion and that’s as well as we can hope to come across.
You’ve toured in South East Asia in the past, as well as at home. How do the different audiences compare?
Yeah, we were fortunate enough to be asked to do a month across South East Asia in 2013 and we played in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The crowds there are just happy to go see a band they’ve never even heard of and go berserk so that was fun. In Newcastle, it’s like a hundred things have to go right for it to be a super successful show for both local and touring bands.
What inspires you to write new music?
For me it’s entirely a case of wanting to surpass the last thing you did. We could have easily broken up after our drummer and guitarist left but I wanted to keep it going because I didn’t think our body of work was good enough yet. Who knows, in six months I might hate the new album and want to blow it out of the water with our next stuff!
Generally speaking, is writing new material a solo or collaborative activity?
Nowadays it’s largely collaborative. It’ll start with one person putting forward a riff or an interesting part at practice and then we slowly build on that as a unit and then once the music’s hashed out I’ll start on vocals.
Very occasionally someone will have the skeleton of the entire song down before showing anyone. I did that for Wagtails on the new album but I’d envisioned it as a mostly solo acoustic piece so it made more sense for me to have it ready to go and the guys to flesh out the rock bits later.
For those who aren’t aware of your music, what makes you guys stand out from other bands on the music scene at the moment?
We like to think of ourselves as creating music that’s interesting to listen to. A lot of very emotional, cathartic, epic-sounding song-writing that gives us a sound that’s entirely our own and that shies away from a lot of the clichés of rock and heavy music.
How did you first get into music? Did you always want to be a musician?
A few of my mates decided to form a band back in Year 8 and I decided I needed to weasel my way in to that and started guitar lessons the next week. I’d always been more interested in theatre than music, but when I met Anthony [Webster, guitarist and other founding member] it was because he needed a bass player for a band project at TAFE and my mates dobbed me in for it.
That band ended up playing a few shows and I liked the performance enough to want to keep trying. You get extreme validation after a show but for an extremely small amount of time, and before you know it you’re strung out on applause.
You are about to play at This One’s for Mum in a few weeks. How did you become involved?
We’ve known the organiser Chris and his brother David for a long time and we were happy to hear This One’s For Mum was coming back this year and honoured to be asked to be a part of it.
It raises money and heightens awareness for awesome causes and we get to just hang out with mates and play a show with lots of good vibes. Can’t ask for any more than that! We’re playing the second night of the festival at Blackwire Records in Sydney on November 5.
What are some of the highlights and lowlights of your career thus far?
Highlights: Opening for some really good bands over the years, having music to thank for going overseas for the first time, being somewhat successful for a period of about three months back in 2013.
Lowlights: Realising we’ve been doing this with one line-up or another for almost ten years and still haven’t made it off the bottom of the totem pole. It takes it out of you (laughs).
You appeared on the Coffs Harbour leg of Australia’s Warped Tour in 2013. That must have been pretty exciting for you guys.
That was an interesting day. Someone from Soundwave Touring had asked us if we’d like to play and we said “Yes, absolutely.” They got back to us to say they’d put our name forward but no one had bitten, so bad luck there. We said that was fine, thanks anyway.
Suddenly, less than a week before the whole thing starts, we get asked again if we want to play at which point we frantically reorganise our weekends to accommodate this opportunity. Now because of all this last second reorganisation, we showed up to find that some people knew we were supposed to be playing, some people didn’t, we were the only band not on the timetable, we felt uneasy taking advantage of the free sausages and beers.
We were opening one of the stages and after we sound-checked, the sound guy says, “Well, you guys get to go away for half an hour.” I reply with, “Nope that’s the next band, we were actually supposed to start five minutes ago.”
So, yeah, it was a bit of a schmoz. Hands Like Houses ended up having to cut their set short the next stage over due to a power failure so their crowd drifted over to us and it turned out pretty good. There were a lot of good bands that day but oddly enough Reel Big Fish put on the best set in my opinion.
If you could play your dream gig, where would it be?
Any gig where I have somewhere to go warm my voice up so I don’t look and feel like an idiot is basically a dream to me.
Who are your idols, both musically and personally?
My two biggest musical idols and influences are Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life) and Geoff Rickly (Thursday, United Nations, No Devotion) because they’re both incredible, thought-provoking lyricists who have produced a constant stream of high quality output over a number of different bands.
Personally, it’s a cliché but my parents are very much idols to me. They’ve worked hard their entire lives, raised two kids, and now I’m in a similar position it’s awesome to see how in love they still are and it makes me happy that they have the freedom to travel and enjoy themselves for the rest of their days, because they’ve definitely earned it.
Over the past ten years, you’ve supported some fairly high profile bands including La Dispute and Norma Jean. Do you have a favourite?
The whole run with Norma Jean was really special and in retrospect I wish I’d appreciated it more while it was happening. If I had to pick one particular favourite support show it’d be Converge/Old Man Gloom at the Manning Bar in 2013. It was the month before Montenegro came out and we were over the moon. Thankfully we played well because it’s easily the biggest crowd we’ve ever played to.
Fun facts: my wife taught OMG’s drummer Santos how cryptic crosswords worked at the merch desk and we all nearly got booted out because our drummer stage dived during Converge after being egged on by Steve Brodsky.
How difficult is it being more of an independent artist in today’s music industry?
Playing a heavier style of music, I’d describe it as Sisyphean. It’s honestly really hard to get yourself out there. If you’re as small time as we are you’re financing your own touring, going up against two to three other shows on any given night which splits the potential crowd, just hoping you make enough from merch and the door to not have to use your own personal money for fuel basically.
Additionally, today’s social media popularity algorithms make it infinitely harder for people to see the stuff you’re trying to promote as far as Facebook and Instagram go so it’s definitely an uphill battle. The main hope is for someone bigger to hear your stuff and ask you on tour with them as that gives you a chance to raise your profile exponentially. You still have to make the most of it and play well though. Hopefully the new album will afford us some of those opportunities.
You guys are from Newcastle. What’s your local music scene like?
It’s made up of a lot of good supportive people; I can’t fault it too much. Aside from the romanticising of hardcore music from 10 plus years ago as I never got into it (laughs). I’d like to see more dedicated and organised music spaces though.
What does music mean to you?
The most challenging form of self-expression.
What’s the biggest misconception people have in regards to making a career in the music business?
That you can have one.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
Well I’m far too self-aware to describe myself as a musician so I’d say I’m already doing it. I have a happy home life and a job I enjoy. Without the band I’d just have more coin to spend on fancy wine and such.
What are the top three songs you’re listening to at the moment?
Touché Amoré – Skyscraper, Hoodlum Shouts – Self-Medicating, Totally Unicorn – Welcome To Slugtown
What’s the epitome of success for you?
It’s as simple as playing to a respectful room full of people you’ve never met who know all the words to your songs.
What’s the best and worst piece of advice you’ve ever received in relation to your musical career?
Best: Talk to people. Make friends with everyone you can. You will definitely need them.
Worst: Stage dive while Converge are playing (DON’T, the venue people will be mad at you!)
If you could work with anyone in the music industry, who would it be and why?
We’d never scrape the money together but to work with a producer like Kurt Ballou or Matt Bayles on an album would be phenomenal. They seem like guys who just have so much knowledge under their collective belts, I’m sure I’d find the experience endlessly fascinating.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
I’m in no position to be dispensing advice (laughs). Just do things by your own beat and hopefully your stars align.
Where do you see yourselves in five years’ time?
Oh, I’ll be done by then for sure. Hopefully living on a property in the Hunter Valley somewhere chopping wood and rapidly losing the battle to grey hair with a couple of good records I’m proud to have helped create, popularity be damned.
What else have you got planned for 2016?
We’ll be touring Tie Your Soul To Mine all around the place, shows are already sorted in Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne with many more to come. We might make another video if the timing’s right but we just hope people enjoy the album and specifically people who might have preconceptions of what the band sounds like. This one’s been a love rather than a labour for sure and we’re really proud of it.
[This interview was originally conducted for AMNplify. View it in its original capacity here.]