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Interview: The Grates

13th September 2008

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Bloody Australians! Not content with consistently beating the Mother Country at sporting events or taking all our bar jobs, now they’re after our music scene, too.

The Grates

Arriving on the crest of the wave created by the likes of Jet and Wolfmother (terrible surfing pun not intended), Brisbane trio The Grates had been enjoying success Down Under from the release of a number of early EPs recorded in guitarist John’s garage and tracks from first studio EP, ‘The Ouch. The Touch’ in high rotation on alternative Aussie radio station Triple J, but it was at March 2005’s SXSW festival that the antipodean threesome grabbed the ears of the rest of the world’s music industries and jammed them full of their own brand of sugar-fuelled, lo-fi, garage-pop fun-punk.

Since then they have been skipping over time zones like stepping stones as they travelled North America, the UK and of course their native land in non-stop tours supporting among others The Zutons around the UK, Arctic Monkeys around Oz, We Are Scientists in the US, as well as headline tours in their own right in support of this year’s debut album, Gravity Won’t Get You High.

The rollercoaster hasn’t stopped yet as I meet Patience Hodgson, John Patterson and Alana Skyring during this their seventh trip to the UK, taking a night out of supporting The Young Knives on their current sold-out national tour - a tour that had kicked off just two days after a fortnight of headline dates around Australia, with twenty-four hours of that spent in the air - for their own headline gig at KCLSU. As one would expect from a band able to cope with such a hectic tour diary and performing an album’s worth of tunes so happy and energetic it could raise your granny from her wheelchair and have her dancing with gay abandon, the band are in high spirits, despite their constant touring. The mood is infectious, and it turns out they’re quite difficult to steer back to the subject once they get joking amongst themselves, but a sympathetic segue was called for:

“Some bastards stole our stuff last night.”

Turns out the band had been taught a harsh lesson in Manchester hospitality the previous evening, ultimately learning to lock their dressing room door behind them before going on stage, but losing a couple of laptops, John’s tour “memoirs” and Alana‘s passport in the process. So how does that work with flying straight from this tour on to New York?

ALANA: “Bloody quickly, I hope! I dunno, I’ve got some kind of form or something anyway, I might just end up using that.”
PATIENCE: “ Yeah you should have no trouble getting into America with that. ‘Can I come into New York please? I’ve got a form?”

It always happens to the innocent, undeserving ones. John has a theory on it:

JOHN: “That’s why I know I’m going to Heaven - ‘cause I’m not a cunt. I don’t go to church or anything but I reckon when I die God’ll go ‘Yeah, he’s not a c**t, he can come in.’”

And it turns out this isn’t the first time The Grates have been victims of… less morally upright citizens.

P: “Someone stole my bike in Toronto. You know when you just get like a premonition where something’s going to get stolen? This guy just stole it right in front of me. And I knew because he said ‘Can I have a go?’ and I said no, then he just hopped on it and was gone before I could do anything."

But it’s Alana who’s had the worst luck:
A: “I had a beautiful little pink mini, and someone stole it and left it for dead. They ripped out all the lining and everything as well, like I was going to have thousands of dollars or drugs stashed in the upholstery of my tiny little car.”
P: “Skyring, you do realise the only reason they stole it was because it was a pink mini?”
J: “Yeah, I’ve left my crappy car unlocked in some dodgy as areas and no one touched it, ‘cause they could see it was a worthless piece of shit.”
A: “No but the same thing happened to my crappy little Datsun as well. It got stolen and it was parked in my boyfriend’s driveway.”

Despite such a run of events, the band manage to keep themselves upbeat through a mix of comfort eating, alcohol and The Power of Music:

A: “Last night after freaking out I just decided screw it and ran up to catch the last ten minutes of the Young Knives‘ set. I had my beer in one hand, a tube of Smarties in the other and just went for it at the side of the stage. Then this morning I was a bit hung over so I got myself a muffin. It’s good to treat yourself once in a while.”
J: “I treat myself every day! Having something like that M&M brownie today is how I stay at this level of… just above happiness.”

Happy is a word that does go hand-in-hand with The Grates’ music, though…

J: “Yeah, Zane Lowe came up to me after the gig the other night and kind of put his hand on my shoulder and said, like, ‘You guys’ music is really happy, really upbeat, but I can tell you’re not really happy inside, are you?’ I didn’t really know what to say so I just kind of agreed with him and said, ‘I’m miserable all the time.’”

Somehow that’s hard to believe. But how the hell do your body clocks cope with all this international jet-setting?

J: “I don’t have one. I don’t even know what day it is.”
P: “I only know it’s a Wednesday because I looked at the tour diary today, but every day feels like a weekend anyway because we’re just playing shows and partying every night.”
J: “And we’ve been going pretty much non stop since last March (after SXSW).”

And it must have been hard enough getting that far, being tucked all the way down in Australia? I mean even for national tours you have to travel thousands of miles…

J: “I was just glad we got to fly everywhere on the last (Australian) tour. Before it was all on the road, driving like thirty hours sometimes to get to a gig, that was rough.”
A: “Yeah but we were just so glad to be playing we went anywhere.”
J: “And that was before we even had a tour manager, we were just doing it all ourselves, sleeping on floors. In fact even when we got a tour manager we were sleeping on floors for a while.”

And is there any pressure as an Australian band to break onto the world stage? Is that why you tour so much? Or are you just riding the rollercoaster at the minute?

P: “It’s bloody hard. It’s bloody expensive more than anything to travel anywhere. We’ve just been really lucky because we had to borrow money to get to SXSW and we got picked up from there. But I wouldn’t say there’s any real pressure. We’re just having fun making music and art and doing what we love doing.”

Ah yes, the art side of The Grates phenomenon: self-designed EP and album sleeves, t-shirts and their various web/Myspace/You Tube sites featuring amongst other things bizarre sea monsters, melancholy bowling pins and giraffes.

A: “I really like giraffes. We did a Rolling Stone photo shoot at a zoo once and I got to feed one, so I started drawing giraffes. I’m still really proud of all that artwork we did for the album and everything.”
J: “It’s great the way we just get to go wild with all our art and stuff, just like drawing robots and big monsters...”
P: “Monsters are so cool.”

Okay, so one of life’s Ultimate Questions then: What’s cooler - robots, ninjas or dinosaurs?

ALL (without hesitation): “DINOSAURS! Definitely dinosaurs, no question.” 

Yeah but a ninja could kill you six different ways before you die…

A: “No, a dinosaur could kill a ninja easy, he’d just eat him!”

Fair enough. So back to talk of touring; you guys are sharing a tour bus with The Young Knives at the minute, how’s that going?

A: “The Young Knives smell like cheese and piss! Well that‘s what John says but no the bus does smell really badly of sweat and cigarettes. There’s two rooms at the back - one where they hang up their stage clothes like straight off their backs, and the other one’s like the lounge that only has a tiny crack in the ceiling, so you go down there and you’re just hit by this smell that’s just like…. Gaaah!”

And what about that old England/Australia Ashes-type rivalry, does that manifest itself?

A: “No, there’s no real rivalry at all, especially not a sporting one.”
P: “Do The Young Knives really look like the kind of guys who like sports?”
A: “And we don’t even follow sports ourselves anyway.”
P: “Yeah plus everyone agrees Australia’s better.”

Well you have the chance to prove that at your headliner tonight. What can we expect from that? I hear Patience puts in a lively performance to say the least…

P: “Oh my god, I chip my teeth on the microphone all the time! I’ve had so much dental work, I’ve even got a false tooth, look…(She displays it proudly) I hate it but at least it‘s not like I have a glass eye or anything.”

True. But again, what do you think would be cooler - a false tooth, glass eye, or having a hook for a hand?

P: “I’ll just stick with the false tooth, I reckon. You know, since I’ve already got one.”
J: “Yeah but I reckon it’d be pretty cool to have a hook for a hand, though. You could slash people’s throats with it! Shwah!”
A: “But then you couldn’t play your guitar!”
J: “I wouldn’t care. I’d be able to use the pad on my computer really easy. Plus no one’s going to fuck with a guy with a hook for a hand! Some guy’d be giving me shit and I’d just be like, SHWAH!” (This sound effect is also accompanied by an over-exuberant slashing motion that borders on the frightening.)

Yeah, plus you could always fashion some kind of attachment for your guitar, create some kind of Swiss Army Hand?

J: “Yeah, how cool would that be? I could have a knife, bottle opener…”

… that thing for getting stones out of horses’ hooves…

P: “Yeah ‘cause John’s going to be doing so much horse riding with his new Swiss Army Hand!”
Things again descend into incoherent hilarity before all-too-soon the band are called away for sound check, and I’d not even covered half the questions I’d written down (The theft conversation had led into discussing their tour antics with setting off fireworks in public areas around Glasgow, making it a good ten to fifteen minutes before we even touched upon my prepared list of questions). Something tells me this won’t be the last time we see them on these shores, though. Providing they keep those passports safe…

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