“I don’t really respect many current musicians. I don’t even respect myself”: Amyl & The Sniffers on their love of old-school rock
Amyl & The Sniffers on making second album Come To Me during a pandemic, their approach to guitar, and why they always wanted to be mean to your ears.
Image: Jamie Wdziekonski
Back in 2016, party-loving Melbourne housemates Amy Taylor, Bryce Wilson, Dec Martens, and Fergus Romer decided to indulge in that classic Aussie boredom buster – they’d form a band. Five years on, and Amyl & The Sniffers have ridden a zeitgeisty wave that from sweaty, beer-soaked shows in sticky-floored pubs to an ARIA Award for their self-titled 2019 debut, and a growing profile outside of Australia that’s seen them grace the front of both NME and Kerrang. You get the sense that nobody is more surprised about this than the band themselves.
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And yet that DIY, take-no-prisoners attitude that propelled Amyl & The Sniffers to the top of the Australian rock pyramid is exactly the sort of thing that can easily be unseated by success, and even more so when a band that was renowned for their memorable and kinetic live shows ended up closed off from the stage as Victoria closed venues as part of the state’s response to the pandemic.
Instead, the band took the enforced boredom of 2020 and attempted to funnel it into something positive. Still, with the band all still living together under one roof (Taylor finally moved out around a year ago), writing was hard going, with Taylor focussing on “really, really trusting and believing that the future could be better,” to keep things moving. “Relying on dreaming about all the things I could do and achieve and improve on, thinking of all the things I can look forward to,” she explains. “Just looking forward to tomorrow’s cup of coffee.”
It was an attitude that eventually bore fruit, with the band heading into the studio late in 2020 with 17 songs ready to work on with producer Dan Luscombe. Of the 17, 13 were chosen to become the band’s sophomore statement: Comfort To Me. It’s an album that tempers some of the fire with a lighter and more introspective side – scoffing at the notion that A&TS are rowdy one-trick ponies.
That said, if you want some aggro, you won’t have to look far for it, as evidenced by the chunky, buzzing bassline that opens Guided By Angels, chased up by the half-snarled, half-shouted, anthemic insistence of Taylor’s nasally-vowelled, broad Australian accent. “Angels! Guidance! Heavenly! Fuck!” she chants – sounding something like a pub-rock, peroxide-mulleted version hybrid of Patti Smith and Debbie Harry.
In reality, her influences on the album were even more unpredictable: “I love Biggie Smalls, I think his lyrics were so cool,” she enthuses. “And I remember hearing Black Candy by Sonic Youth as one of the first heavy songs sung by a female and thought it was great.”
The album might have been a useful thing to focus on when they were stuck at home, but for guitarist Dec Martens, the lack of a live outlet was particularly tough. “I measure my validation, performing live and that instant of people clapping, people shaking your hand,” he reflects. “I don’t care much if people like the music, I just care about doing really good shows. It’s been a big bummer, two years of no touring.”
Instead, he turned to something very relatable for many a guitarist over the last 18 months – he started tinkering with his gear.
“I’ve started soldering my own guitar pedal kits,” he says. “I just took the tolex off a new guitar amp to change it to black and snakeskin because it was originally navy blue and that wasn’t rock ’n’ roll enough for me! So I’ve been trying to personalise my own gear. Every single part of my rig I’ve had my hands on, so that it’s a personal performance. It’s boring when you [just] buy a piece of gear and plug it in.”
Off the rails
When it came to recording the guitars on Comfort To Me, Martens leant on a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails-loaded 2000 Strat that had been the driving force behind the debut record. Originally owned by the band’s manager, he initially loaned it to Dec, but the guitarist was so smitten with the guitar he ended up keeping it, with the humbucker adding some much-needed guts to the Strat recipe, “it has a lot more power than your standard Stratocaster,” he explains.
Away from the guitar side, Dec plugged in to a Blackstar HT-Stage 100, with producer Luscombe throwing a few pedals into the mix in the studio, along with an amp with some interesting rock pedigree.
“Dan introduced me to a Pro Co Rat to thicken up some of my chorus tones,” says Martens. “I didn’t use much else. I asked him to put a delay in on solos. Usually I go straight into the amp then I hit an overdrive, like a hot-rodded MXR Distortion Plus pedal that I use live. The amp is a 70s Marshall JMP. It used to belong to Dan Hawkins from The Darkness.”
It’s a no-frills approach, but that has always been the bedrock of the band, as well as Martens’ guitar ethos – fussing over multiple pedals, amps and myriad cables doesn’t exactly chime with a DIY mindset after all. It’s an attitude that echoes his formative influences.
“When I first picked up guitar when I was 18, I was really into Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers,” he explains. “Nirvana’s such a teenage angst band, and their music is so catchy, so all the music I learnt was Nirvana. That was a really good time, because I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. I didn’t know what a chord was, I just looked it up online and learned how to play it. I learned all of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It was one of my first CDs when I was six years old, my mum bought it for me.”
A little respect
Listeners will have to decide for themselves if they can hear any Frusciante magic on Comfort To Me, but Taylor’s lockdown listening gives clues to the melodic-garage-punk vibe of the album. Her musical diet comprised Bru-C’s smooth hip-hop over an old school drum ‘n’ bass beat, the fiery, snarling, trap-rap of Junglepussy, and the bare-chested frenzied punk of Minor Threat.
“I’m so obsessed with old music, I don’t really respect many current musicians. I don’t even respect myself, just because I’m a musician in the 21st century,” Martens insists. “The last band that blew me away was a California-based band Earthless. There’s a guy who plays in Rot T.V. and used to play in Annihilation, and he makes his own guitars. He’s a fucking insane guitarist. He’s got an insane technique, a weird up-picking technique. I really love watching him play guitar.”
Marten’s own style is more about a feeling than a singular technique.
“I use the word ‘sing’ a lot [to describe the sound I want],” he explains. “Which is to do with sustaining guitar solos. When I have a lead, I want the guitar to sing. I think singing, as well, I associate that with a certain EQ, a higher range. My original philosophy on playing guitar was that I wanted to hurt people’s ears, which, looking back is pretty mean. I remember saying to Amy, ‘You know when you go and see a band soundcheck and all of a sudden there’s just one note that hurts your ear? That’s what I want.’ She said that was evil and really mean, but I think because you’re so exposed playing live, it’s a lot about stamping your presence. Like a fighter going into a fight, you need to hype yourself up. If I can use that loud energy then I can have that confidence.”
With new songs like Security and Knifey getting plenty of radio airplay at home, and the band making waves in Europe and America, there’s no reason for Amyl & The Sniffers to lack confidence on stage or off. But rather than take credit for penning these two rapidly rising tracks, Martens is keen to big up the communal effort that went into them.
“On Knifey Gus came forth with the bass riff and I wrote the chorus part, so that’s pretty special. It’s the first time that he and I collaborated on a song,” he reflects. “Me and Amy wrote No More Tears, [which is] a bit power-poppy, the genre that I’m most into writing at the moment. Hopefully it’s the future of the sound.”
Whatever the future of their sound, the immediate future for the band is about pencilling tour dates in and maintaining the distractions they’ve been dedicating their lockdown hours to: Taylor has been working out and reading prolifically, while Martens has taken up jewellery making – his father is a professional jeweller, but in typical young punk style, Martens had no interest in following in his footsteps until now.
“I’ve made jewellery before with my dad, and I reckon I’m pretty good. I like doing things with my hands,” he explains. “The way I fiddle with my guitars and pedals is creative, it’s all customisation and envisioning sounds that aren’t out there already, that you can’t buy off the shelf. My dad has done everything over the years. He used to make rings for bikies back in the 80s. That’s the sort of stuff I’m into – big, mean, rock ’n ’ roll, Lemmy sort of stuff!”
Comfort To Me is Amyl and The Sniffers’ sophomore album, out now via B2B Records.