The four determined Australian-born mates behind Violent Soho never had ambitions to end up where they are now—that is, signed to the record label of their lifelong hero Thurston Moore and able to quit their day jobs to move to New York and tour. And despite their name, they really had no idea before they moved to Brooklyn that “Soho” was the abbreviation for a high-profile Manhattan neighborhood. So don’t call them New York wannabes, whatever you do.
When I meet James Tidswell (guitars and vocals), Luke Boerdam (vocals and guitars), Luke Henery (bass) and Michael Richards (drums) at a bar in the Lower East Side, they talk about growing up in Brisbane, their ignorance of the music industry and how they simply spent five years, heads down, playing relentlessly, with no inkling of what lay ahead.
“We were basically as blank slate as you could possibly be,” Richards says. “We knew absolutely nothing about how bands worked…We didn’t play instruments.”
Tidswell, the most vocal of the four, adds, “Starting a band in the suburb of Mansfield is a ridiculous idea—that’s what people would think,” referencing the area of Brisbane where they met while going to Christian school and afterward started Violent Soho (named so because Tidswell liked the word “violent” and the Rancid song “Ruby Soho”). “There’s just no point…You wouldn’t even get to play shows.”
But the boys soon discovered Brisbane’s garage punk scene and were introduced to precursors of grunge from the Pacific Northwest including the sludgy metal of The Melvins and pop-punk of The Fastbacks, as well as Australian punk bands The Scientists and Cosmic Psychos. They also learned the principles of how they wanted to approach a band.
“Because there’s no bands that ever come from there,” Tidswell mentions Brisbane contemporaries The Grates and The Saints as two unusual exceptions, “there’s no ambition. So we learned that being ambitious isn’t what being in a band is about. Being in a band is about doing the best possible show you can, touring, putting your stuff out there.”
A casual observer might imagine that Violent Soho’s long hair and flannel shirts combined with wailing vocals, crunchy distortion and throbbing bass lines are an intentional homage to grunge. But Tidswell and his band mates maintain that they simply followed their instincts. And much like grunge was, in part, a reaction against the flashiness of 1980s hair metal, they say their sound and appearance were mostly shaped by a rejection of the massive trend over the past decade in Australia towards mainstream, appearance-obsessed emo bands.
“What we were about was representing when music wasn’t about looking beautiful and playing perfectly, when it was just about thrashing out what you’ve got,” Tidswell says.
But ultimately a trinity of American bands that transformed rock—The Pixies, Sonic Youth and Nirvana—became Violent Soho’s most enduring influences. Little did they realize that a member of one of these would also end up changing the course of their lives. They knew only that they needed to tour and record whenever they could get time off.
“We just kept doing it, all working our full-time jobs. [In 2008] we clocked up 90 shows,” Tidswell says. “I think we toured Australia 12 times. We toured the U.K., and then over to New York and L.A. We finished up [the year] doing three shows in 30 hours. One in Malibu, one in Hollywood and one in Sydney, Australia. And then we went back to work the next day.”
But the New York performance at Pianos, the band’s first in the United States, held special significance, since Moore, who had heard the self-released album We Don’t Belong Here, showed up, banging his head, clapping and yelling during the fierce live show. Later, he signed the four to his Ecstatic Peace label, and last fall they all moved to Prospect Heights after recording another record, which was released in March 2010. And as of now the group is in the midst of a two-month nationwide tour with stops at three New York-area venues. Not bad for a band that never expected to leave Australia.
“The impossible happened to us,” Tidswell says. “An incredibly small place on the planet of Earth, and we got found just by playing our music. We didn’t place any ads in local newspapers… we never did a publicity release or whatever they’re called. And someone like him heard us on the other side of the world.”
April 1, Maxwell’s, 1039 Washington St. (at 11th St.), Hoboken, 201-653-1703; 8, $15. Also, April 2 at Music Hall of Williamsburg and April 6 at Bowery Ballroom.