Exploding White Mice by Steve Gardner
this article originally appeared in Noise For Heroes #22 in the winter of 1993 under the title: RODENT TO RUIN, THE EXPLODING WHITE MICEThe year 1986 was the year I started becoming aware of all the great Australian bands. Smarter people knew what was happening earlier than that, but I was in the midst of a several years long funk that set in when I realized that all the promise of late 70s punk seemed to have been channelled into a hardcore deadend, and I wasn't really paying much attention because I didn't have much hope. So even though I was hearing good bands, it took me until late 1987 to realize that the Aussie scene was for real and there were some world class bands there. In their heydays Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, the Hard-Ons, the Stems, the Lime Spiders, the New Christs, and the Happy Hate Me Nots were as great as bands come. Some of these bands have split up now, and some continue making good music but not approaching their earlier heights. The Hard-Ons are perhaps better than they were to begin with but the rest have all lost punch to me.
The one exception of the great bands from those days is the Exploding White Mice. Working out of the obscurity of Adelaide, and unable to get recognition even in other cities in their country, the Mice may have benefited from never having cause to raise their expectations; they've always been the underdog's underdog. Thus the new Mice lp Collateral Damage has every bit of the power of their early records, showing the band take a step forward when their contemporaries are treading water or falling back.
The impressive thing is that they've done this despite frequent guitar player shuffles; Giles Barrow left after Brute Force and Ignorance, and was replaced by former Primeval Dave Mason for one single. Mason was replaced by Jack Jacomos for the second lp, but Jacomos didn't last long either and the band went to one guitar for a while. Now comes the big blow, as singer Paul Gilchrist has left. Losing a lead singer usually does most bands in, but not the Mice. Jeff Stephens, who in the past did heavy work on backing vocals and handled a couple of leads as well, has added the full time singing job and carries it pretty much flawlessly. The change may have actually recharged things; where many bands start to sound stale after several years, the new Mice album has a very fresh feel to it, and a lot of it is due to the new vocal sound. The music is similar to before; ultra tight, fast and melodic with a half Ramones, half MC5 sort of sound, but the vocals are a little lighter and more pop feeling. It works great.
Jeff explained the change to me:
"I think Paul's departure can be attributed to three factors. He'd been singing with the Exploding White Mice for seven years and was sick of it (fair enough!). Second, he never really like touring, unlike the rest of us, who love it. Finally, he'd started a course in Asian studies at university, and basically he had to come to a decision - band or university? The rest is history, I guess. I should say that his departure was completely amicable, and since his last gig with us in July of 91 he still comes to see the band play. At the time of Paul's exit the band had booked studio time to record Collateral Damage (with Paul singing), so his announcement left us with a problem - should we delay recording (which had already been put off several times), record the album with Paul (he was quite willing), find a new singer and then record (this would have meant further long delays to an already much put off record), or simply record the thing with yours truly singing and worry about finding a singer afterwards. Well obviously we chose the latter option, mainly because we were desperate to record the songs we'd been practicing so much for six months. We chose not to use Paul 'cos it didn't seem like a good idea to have a new album to promote and play live with a different vocalist, plus although I'm sure he would have done a good job, the fact that he was leaving would have cast a bit of a cloud over our performance in the studio."
"After the record was finished we decided to look for a new singer and held some "auditions". In all we tried about six singers, some well known around Adelaide and some totally inexperienced. Even though they were all good, somehow it didn't feel "right" - the band has been together for so long now that I think there was a subconcious feeling that we couldn't handle a "stranger" singing songs that we'd lived with for seven years. Eventually we decided that we'd get another guitarist and that since I'd sung on the new record, I'd do the singing live as well."The new guitarist is Andrew Bunney, who is the brother of Mice drummer David ("the Bunneys breed like rabbits", laughs Jeff...). He used to play in the Coneheads and as you might have guessed if you've heard that band shares his brother's fanaticism for the Ramones. As of this interview they'd only played five or six gigs with this line up, but things seemed to be working out fine. According to Jeff,
"It IS more difficult singing and playing at the same time (hair gets in your eyes!), but it's getting easier. Although Paul wrote some good words for a few songs (like "Sleepwalk", "Fear", "Ain't It Sad", and "In Your Eyes" from the new album), he was certainly not prolific in the songwriting area so I'd have to say that his absence won't affect our output very much, although it will affect the sound and style of our songs."Jack Jacomos left the band mainly because he had problems getting time off from work to tour, and he was reluctant to throw away a pretty well paying career on what Jeff calls a "scrungy rock and roll band". Jeff continued:
"I think he was also a bit frustrated just being a guitarist, 'cos he's a bit of a show off and loves fronting a band, which may have had something to do with it. Although we recorded "Let's Do The Crunch", which is a great song, Jack was writing lots of stuff that didn't really suit us, and consequently I think he was a bit frustrated because of us not playing everything he'd write."Since leaving the Mice Jack played for a while in Adelaide thrash band Where's The Pope, but they've recently split up and Jack hasn't been active on the music front since then.
The material for the new lp was written in the first half of 1991 and recorded in August and September at Soundtrack Studios in Kent Towne, the same place where Brute Force and Ignorance was recorded. They produced themselves with Nick Burton engineering (he also did the last lp). Jeff credits the poppier sound to a greater emphasis on backing vocals and harmonies, "an area I think we've neglected to a certain extent in the past." I felt that several of the songs seemed to show a surf influence as well, to which Jeff responded;
"It's fairly blatant, as it was intended to be, on "Human Garbage", but if it crops up anywhere else I guess it just happened naturally, although I'm a big Beach Boys fan so it's bound to come out in our songs sometimes. The Mice have always played a few surf songs, like "Pipeline", "California Sun", "King Of The Surf" and "Surf City", so it's nothing new for us. I think that with Paul no longer in the band we will tend to drift to a more melodic sound. We've always had two sides to the band, one being that Detroit type sound (MC5, Birdman, Stooges) and the other being a more melodic punk style (Ramones, Descendents, etc). My singing tends to suit a more "poppy" style, whereas Paul was well suited to the more full on screaming stuff. We've also been influenced by some of the great bands from the USA of the past 7 or 8 years - Descendents, Screeching Weasel, Green Day and especially Bad Religion, who are brilliant and my favorite band at the moment. In short, I think the band's current direction lies in a more harmony-reliant vocal sound over a full on guitar attack."At this point I feel obligated to point out that anyone listening to Collateral Damage will find that Jeff's description of what seems to be a de-emphasis of guitars is completely blown away by powerful gut-busting songs that it just happens you can sing along to as well. On the other hand though, he turns around in a bit and acknowledges that, well, yeah, there IS a pretty awesome guitar sound in there:
"I think Collateral Damage is easily the best album we've made (yeah, I know all bands say that, but I DO mean it!!). Seeing as it's our first full studio album since 1988 it'd be disappointing if it WASN'T better! It's definitely got a MUCH bigger guitar sound than Exploding White Mice (1990), and out of the 14 new songs there's only 2 or 3 that I'm sick to death of hearing, which is unusual 'cos I usually hate listening to our records and I've heard this one a LOT! I think it might appeal to someone who hasn't liked EWM in the past, 'cos it's got much more variety than before and I guess it does sound a bit more poppy, but die hard EWM listeners shouldn't worry - this album is still loud, fast, and suitably HUGE, noise-level wise!"A complicating factor in the preparation of Collateral Damage was the demise of Greasy Pop, the Adelaide record company fixture run by Doug Thomas for over ten years and responsible for exposing so many great Adelaide bands that never would've had a chance otherwise. Doug just ran out of gas after years of being in debt, overworked, and underappreciated, sold the whole outfit to one of the guys in the Coneheads, and packed off to Perth where he originally came from. This left the Mice in a big hole, since Doug would usually pay for their recording and then recoup his money via royalties. Without Greasy Pop the band had to scramble for financing, borrowing money from various sources. They were unable to find other record company interest (which is mind boggling considering how much crap indie labels have been putting out in Australia lately!). Jeff says that the recession has made the record companies more conservative than ever. The result is that all the copies of Collateral Damage released in Australia will be pressed by Normal in Germany and imported in via Shock Distribution. Despite all this they can actually sell the CD for $8 less than if it was made in Australia and make just as much money for themselves. Fortunately the deal with Normal seems to be working really well and the band are getting good distribution in Europe through them.
The Mice toured Europe for the first time in the spring of 1990. They went with some trepidation, since all they knew was that their Australian pressings of the first few records had sold some copies there, and they'd got a few letters from some French fanzines, but other than that, they had no idea what to expect. But it turned out great.
"We got great enthusiastic crowds everywhere except Sweden (which seems to be a bit of a graveyard for a lot of touring bands), but everywhere else...Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Italy (totally full-on!) and Austria was fantastic. We played with some great bands - the Lazy Cowgirls, Lemonheads, Richies (Germany's amazing Ramones-clones), Maniacs (Switzerland - brilliant, in fact the gig you mentioned with the Cowgirls and Maniacs was in a club in Berlin and yeah it was great fun! Say hi to the Cowgirls for us, they're great guys!). It's hard to pick highlights from the tour because I was just happy and thrilled to be overseas for the first time, but a recurring highlight was playing in some out-of-the-way town in the countryside and having people in the crowd SINGING ALONG to songs like "Burning Red", "Dangerous" and others!! It's fantastic when you think "They've never heard of us" or "They're gonna hate us!" and they actually know your songs enough to sing along. For me the best place to play was Italy - just total lunatics who were slamming from the very first chord - in Sicily we had to change venues 'cos the Mafia wanted to use the place we had booked into to have a birthday party! (We didn't argue.)"
"The only sour note (actually make that a sour SYMPHONY) came at the end of the tour when the touring company we went through (who shall remain nameless although I can think of a few good ones) claimed that the tour had made a huge loss and had a court bailiff impound our tickets home, and our instruments, until we came up with roughly $20,000!! What happened, which was totally through their own incompetence (which they admitted), was that the paperwork that was supposed to have been done to allow us entry into France was NOT done, with the result that we were turned back into Germany at the French border, with no gigs for about 2 weeks and nothing to do but stay in a hotel (which is why the tour lost money - for two weeks there was no incoming money but lots of outgoing). Anyhow, after much name calling and frantic phone calls to Australia, threats of serious violence, all of which proved to be fruitless, we took the bastards to court and kicked their arses soundly! The judge ordered the return of our gear and tickets, and we did the quickest bolt out of a country since Ronnie Biggs. All of this to-and-fro-ing took about a week, meaning that we were stuck in a hotel again, very homesick and all the time running up a huge legal bill, but we can't wait to get back there!!"I wondered if there was some level of frustration with the fact that they've been playing at such a high quality level for such a long time, yet they still hadn't made much of a breakthrough. Jeff appears totally undaunted:
"A lot of people seem to think that we should be a lot bigger than we are, but how "big" we get has never really been a consideration in what we do. We have NEVER sat down and planned some sort of "strategy" to get more popular, which I know we could be if we compromised ourselves, but that's not the point, is it? We're doing exactly what we want to do musically, and are very happy (amazed, actually) that we are as "successful" as we are. If anyone had said to us when the band started that in seven years time we'd have done what we have, we would've just laughed. We certainly don't take anything for granted - I mean my only ambition when I started to play was to play in a garage with a few friends, so to have actually put out the records we have and to have played in Europe is something I still sometimes can't believe. It'd be great to make enough money to go off the dole, and we still are damn poor, but we're doing what we love and I think people (even in Australia) have realized that we're committed to what we do, and it's not some bullshit act that we're going to change just because it's not popular. Getting our stuff released in the US has always been a pain for us (until now, of course!). First of all, when Big Time went under we kissed goodbye what we were told was royalties from 7 or 8 thousand copies sold of Nest Of Vipers. Then Doug tried to get Capitol to release Brute Force and they seemed a bit interested, but bailed out everntually. I think that by the time EWM came out Greasy Pop was starting to get the shakes and there was never much chance of a licensing deal for that. I really don't know why it's been such a hassle; we were told that Sympathy For The Record Industry didn't want to put out anything other than singles, then the next record I bought was the Creamers LP on Sympathy!! We're just relieved and happy that the new lp is coming out through your good self and hopefully itll be the beginning of a mutually fruitful enterprise!"Meanwhile, Dave Bunney and Jeff are having fun on the side playing in a band called the Born Losers, which includes a bass player ("of no fixed hairstyle", says Jeff) named Greg Wood and a singer named Bad Baby Bart. Bart played in the Crazies, who had a single on Sympathy a while ago. According to Jeff he invariably finishes gigs nearly naked, soaked in beer, and "engaging in unnatural acts with the foldback wedges" (monitors for us Yanks). Bart's heroes are Iggy and GG Allin; nothing more need be said. The band is a cross between these two and the Dead Boys.
But when the album finally comes out, which it should be as you read this, the Mice will be heading off for Europe.
"I'm still coming to grips with singing and playing and not being able to see properly to do either. It's a fairly horrifying thought, but the word "haircut" is one that is crossing my mind a fair bit lately. Actually it might not be such a bad idea, 'cos every posey wanker's got long hair these days. We would KILL to play San Diego or even Anchorage, Alaska and hopefully now that we are under your all-enveloping enterprenurial corporate wing..." (who, me? You must be kidding, Jeff!) "...a HUGE US tour is forthcoming!"Well, I'm afraid the bit about the US tour may sadly be a bit of wishful thinking on Jeff's part. Last I talked to Dave, he was still hoping to figure out a way to tack a few dates around New York and LA on the tail end of their European tour, but they really don't have a way to make it happen and the US looks likely to be left sadly vermin-free again. But this doesn't have to keep you from enjoying their hugely incredible new lp, and keep looking for great things from these guys for years to come.
Postscript : No doubt there are some who read this who will discount what I've written because they know that I've released Collateral Damage on NKVD Records for the US and they think that this article is just marketing hype. My response to that is: don't be an idiot! Why on earth would I risk six grand of my own money to try to sell an lp to a US record audience that has been too cloth-eared to recognize practically anything good in the past if I didn't honestly think it was great? There are hundreds of good bands that are worthy of having someone fund their record release; I asked the Mice because I thought they were the very best band out there. The fact that Collateral Damage is on NKVD is the best proof I can give that the praise I have for the Mice is honestly felt. So don't even bother to write me about it!