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"Roundaboutly Winging It": Amyl And the Sniffers On Their Breakthrough Year

Friday, 13 December 2019 Written by Laura Johnson

Photo: Gareth Jarvis

From her perch atop a flight case strategically placed in the middle of the stage, Amyl and the Sniffers vocalist Amy Taylor is surveying the rowdiness of the crowd at Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach in all its sweaty glory. “Fuck Boris, he’s a racist hooligan, you deserve better than that,” she spits into the mic. “Fuck Boris, fuck Trump and fuck Scott Morrison.”

Only a short while ago, Taylor wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told her she’d soon be chewing out the prime ministers of the UK and Australia, with a bit left over for the American president, 10,000 miles away from her home in Melbourne. But off the back of their critically acclaimed self-titled debut, 2019 has been the sort of breakthrough year for Amyl and the Sniffers that most bands can only dream about.

The pub-punk four-piece, completed by guitarist Declan Mehrtens, bassist Gus Romer and drummer Bryce Wilson, decided to finish up their giddy ascent with a UK tour, and we were on hand to capture our final wet plate portrait of the year. When chatting in the venue’s green room just a couple of hours before doors were due to open, Taylor confesses the Welsh capital is somewhere she never thought she’d visit. 

“We’re the same people and it’s the same shit, we still have the same attitude, but when we started we just thought we’d play a gig in someone’s backyard,” she says. “So our whole mindset is completely different, considering everything that’s happened in between now and then is so far from playing in someone’s backyard.”

Amyl and the Sniffers formed in early 2016 with a different bassist, Calum Newton, on board. All the members lived in a shared house and a spontaneous jam session one night resulted in the recording of their first release, ‘Giddy Up’. “It was organic,” recalls Wilson. All they really wanted to do, though, was play gigs and drink beer, so just over a week later they did just that. They were on stage for 10 minutes, during which they performed three covers and one of their own songs.

The years that followed brought some big developments. They released a second EP, played relentlessly, albeit locally, and Romer stepped in on bass following Newton’s exit early in 2017. Then, in 2018 one of their shows was attended by members of renowned Aussie psych-rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. They swiftly approached Amyl and the Sniffers to ask them to sign to their label, Flightless Records. Always sharp, Taylor made them a counter-offer: they would sign if they could go on an international tour. 

It was a deal. In what was their first overseas venture, they supported King Gizzard on more than 20 dates across the US, and ended up playing 100 gigs in total that year. Since then things have snowballed. Amyl and the Sniffers began 2019 by winning AU$30,000 from the Levi’s Music Prize, which awards financial support to four emerging artists each year, and went on to headline shows across the US, UK and Europe, gracing magazine covers, starring in a Gucci campaign and going to number one on the Australian Vinyl Chart along the way.  

Photo: Gareth Jarvis

Most recently their debut won Best Rock Album at the ARIA Awards, which Taylor refers to as the Aussie Grammys. “The magazine covers didn’t really mean much to me,” Mehrtens adds. “But winning the ARIA was pretty nice. Getting the recognition was the nicest thing, because we’re like the runts sometimes I feel. We’re not like other bands.”

On the subject of success, Taylor chimes in: “I think we’re always roundaboutly winging it. Some kind of opportunity will come up and we’ll be like, ‘Let’s give it a crack’, and then we’ll work to try and be up to that standard. The standard is thrust upon us and then we rise to the occasion, or don’t rise. But we try to rise.”

Both Mehrtens and Taylor are selling themselves short. Amyl and the Sniffers are a band who have left nothing but blood and sweat on the stages they’ve graced in the last three years, and they’ve done it on their own terms. Taylor summed it up best with a caption that accompanied one of the many live shots on the band’s Instagram account: “It’s too hard to do it anyone else’s way.” That’s a mantra to live by. 

“I think there’s no right or wrong way,” she explains. “There always seems to be these people who think it’s got to be a certain way to do it right, but if you just do it your way then that is right. Because if you tried to do it somebody else’s way then you’d end up fucked because it doesn’t work for you. Everyone’s so different and there’s so many different ways you can go about things.”

That being said, the vocalist admits that the more successful the band become the harder it is to retain the level of control they had in their early days. Back then they could closely manage how they were represented. “I don’t have it anymore,” she says. “It’s like a runaway train. A lot of times you just have a conversation with somebody and you can be in any kind of mood and then that is solidified in time as fact.

“You could say anything, think about all the random shit you say throughout the day, but then you say it to a stranger who then writes it down and it’s then read as fact, and then it goes through a million different people and comes out as something, as if it’s this crazy fact. And you’re like, ‘Well, that’s not me, and people don’t know my actual heart and if they did they wouldn’t think that.’ You know what I mean? People can be real unforgiving. So, it’s not in my control anyway, but it’s getting easier to adjust to that because it’s so frequent.”

Confidence in themselves is something that got Amyl and the Sniffers this far, and is most certainly what will keep the band thriving. It oozes out of them on stage, with Taylor power strutting through songs that keep it close to home by smashing together AC/DC’s Bon Scott-era bullishness with the snotty hooks of the Saints. 

As she busts out moves not seen in these parts since the salad days of ‘70s rock, Mehrtens, Romer and Wilson whip up a no-holds-barred frenzy. The crowd often follows suit, with bodies flying and colliding throughout the set. In Cardiff, things go into overdrive for the live favourite Gacked On Anger.

“I have confidence that if people don’t like me then I’ll still live,” Taylor says. “The worst that happens is that someone’ll go, ‘You fucking suck!’, and I’m like, ‘That hurts my feelings but that’s all it can do.’ And mistakes make things magic anyway, so if we’re shit I kind of think that’s nice in it’s own way.”

“I see what other bands are like on camera and I could not have that sort of bravado,” offers Mehrtens. He confirms that the band was instrumental in developing his confidence. “Personally, I really found who I was when I started playing in this band. When I had the mullet and I got this identity, I finally found who I was and that gave me the confidence that I needed. I didn’t have to put anything on for a camera. But before Amyl and the Sniffers I was not a confident person at all.”

The band live out of their comfort zones. Prior to Amyl and the Sniffers, Mehrtens had only previously played bass, Wilson was used to handling guitar and bass, while Taylor had never been in a band before. Lacking faith in his abilities, Mehrtens took it upon himself to improve his guitar skills and learnt how to solo. It’s an ongoing pursuit, and one that’s getting harder the more he develops.

“I was watching guitar tutorials this morning because I couldn’t get to sleep,” he explains. “I want to keep getting better, but it’s getting harder to get better now than what it used to be, I think. Because we started off really shit, so anything better than shit was good. I don’t know what we’re at now, so I don’t know how to improve. But improving is good, I always want to get better, at everything.”

One-upping themselves is something Amyl and the Sniffers have become accustomed to. Play 100 gigs in a year? Done. Headline shows overseas? Done. Win the highest musical accolade in their home country? Completed it, mate. So what’s next? The band are already demoing new songs and will spend next summer supporting Green Day, Weezer and Fall Out Boy on select dates of the European and UK leg of the Hella Mega Tour

“Bucket list was play with Cosmic Psychos and get free beer for a year, and then we accidentally signed heaps of contracts and now we’re fucked,” Mehrtens jokes.

“I don’t think we ever really had a goal, so everything has been a pretty big bonus,” Taylor smiles. “I remember when we got played on local radio and we were like, ‘We’re fucking famous as shit now.’ So it’s kind of just gonna always be like that now I guess.”

​Head here to see more from Gareth Jarvis.

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