They strode into a dusty, mountainous town in Northern California with the unsure steps people take when they’re miles from home, strangers in a strange land. But they left quite differently, having taken care of their business at hand, and eager to meet the challenges ahead.
Spiderbait, Australia’s marquee rock trio, journeyed from their own small town of Finley (via Melbourne) to a town out West called Weed, where producer Sylvia Massy Shivy (Tool, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Prince) awaited. The plan was to record their new album, Tonight Alright, their domestic debut and their first attempt to capture the incredible reception they regularly receive at home.
“At first, we were stressed out about going to America to record,” admits drummer/frontman Mark “Kram” Maher. “You hear about bands punching each other out, spending all their money, and going home broke.” Fortunately, the band didn’t succumb to that situation. Rather, they simply set up on stage in Shivy’s studio, a converted movie theater, and did what they do best: let it rip.
“The whole process for us came down to making an album that was as close to live as we could,” says Maher. “Because it was an old theater, we could pretend to play live to an audience from the stage, even if it was to an audience that wasn’t there.”
Had an audience been in the theater for the sessions, they would have witnessed one of Australia’s best bands in top form. For a few years now, Spiderbait has been touring with—and holding its own against—their homeland’s biggest and brightest: Powderfinger, You Am I, Silverchair, and many others. Tonight Alright, their best work yet, will surely elevate their lofty status at home and complete the process of winning over another audience, this time an American one. Tonight Alright is a twelve-pack of tunes charged with hi-octane riffs, rumbling rhythm tracks, and classic, Oz-inspired rock ’n’ roll. The blistering lead track, “Take Me Back,” sounds like Aussie faves the Scientists clashing with Mudhoney at a local pub; “Alright” lurches with sleazy, Stooges-like intensity and stinging leads. “Fucken Awesome” and “Cows,” indie pop tunes led by bass player Janet English on vox, along with the lighter-waving “Tonite,” display the band’s breadth, depth, and sonic variety.
Of course, none of these rockers will prepare the listener for Spiderbait’s re-imagining of “Black Betty,” the old Leadbelly tune previously covered by a wide swath of artists, including Ram Jam and Nick Cave. Their first single off the disc and the song that will surely introduce the band to adoring throngs of stateside rock fans, it’s nothing short of throttling, pivoting on a Deliverance-inspired steel guitar and arena-sized spasms of power chords. Maher’s gap-toothed, backwoods vocal delivery complements the blues-folk tune perfectly, making Spiderbait’s rendition newly definitive. The song will also be featured in the upcoming Paramount release Without a Paddle, due out this summer.
"It's just one of my favorite songs of all time,” says Maher. “But everyone wasn't really 100 percent behind me until they heard it. Then they understood why I was into it.”
It’s not hard to understand why so many folks are jumping on the Spiderbait bandwagon. Coming from small-town Australia, the three have a communal vibe together, with virtually no rock-star pretense. “It’s all very personal,” says English, “and when you see us play live it’s like that. It’s not a generic, here are the songs, go buy the CD approach. We love being onstage together and we’re best friends. We’re very much like a family, this band.”
By their own account, they don’t take themselves very seriously, at least when it comes to playing live. One of their biggest gigs involved playing Big Day Out in 2002. Recent touring partners, this time back in 1999, were none other than the Beastie Boys, ace company for Spiderbait’s feel-good brand of casually heavy rock. Looseness is one of their trademarks and a huge reason the band has related so well to so many fans.
But then, when it comes to writing and recording, the band takes things quite seriously. "We want to be able to do this as long as we can and you only get to do that by doing quality stuff,” the drummer notes.
Maher’s writing on Tonight Alright is marked by simplicity, each one a hurtling, Point A-to-Point B projectile carrying with it electrifying sparks and shards of noise. "The sort of songs I try to write, I wanted to keep them straight down the line and make sure they were easy to sing and play,” says Maher, who grew up listening to the rather direct sounds of AC/DC. “So then we couldn't really mess with the arrangements and the whole vibe too much