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Vanilla Chainsaws by Steve Gardner

Many thanks to Steve Gardner who wrote and sent the article.

The Vanilla Chainsaws are a strange case for an Aussie band; they don't play gobs of Birdman/metal influenced rock and roll, but instead stick closer to a early 80's British guitar pop sound. Normally this might be construed as a kiss of death, but wait! the Chainsaws appear to be pulling it off.

The band was started by Simon Drew and Mark Alexander, both of whom played in many other bands with names like No Romance and Aged Photographs for years prior to the Chainsaws formation. Simon, a fellow who seems to have a good deal of confidence in what he's doing, had given up on being in bands and hosted a radio show on 2SER for a couple years. But then he and Mark got together again and jammed at home a few times, and they came up with some songs they wanted to try with a full band. So they got Peter Kelley from the Flies on drums and Cameron Lee on bass, and then: "Me and Mark weren't really thinking about starting a band at all, but the other two guys said, 'Look, if you're gonna start a band, we'd love to do it'."

From there they recorded a demo which included three tracks: "When Worlds Collide", "The Visitor", and "T.S. (Was It Really Me?)". "When Worlds Collide" has never been put on a record, but is a dynamic slab of stuff in the vein of the two singles, and got a lot of airplay which led to the band being voted "Best Local Unrecorded Act" in Rock Australia Magazine's reader's poll for 1986. Simon states with certainty that it "was fantastic. We sent it around to all the radio stations...got heaps of airplay. Because we were a brand new band and were getting so much airplay, there was this huge hype phenomenon that surrounded us, which unfortunately at the time we just couldn't live up to. We did play some good gigs, but when we didn't play good gigs they were lousy. When we finally released a record, it wasn't that song, and I think it's lucky we did that, because then the song wasn't considered as good as the one that got us all this radio exposure, so people thought we weren't living up to all this hype kind of stuff. But if we had released it at that stage in the game, I think people would have come along and seen that we weren't really tight or together (laughs), and they would have completely disowned us. We're doing well, now...that's years ago and it's a completely different ballgame now."

That first single, "T.S. (Was It Really Me)" was a solid starter with a thick, dense guitar sound and lyrics about turn-of-the-century industrialization..."cities of grey and all that sort of thing." The "T.S." in the title refers to T.S. Elliot, who gets quoted in the song.

As you can gather from this, the Chainsaws are a band that takes themselves seriously and views what they do as "their art". I often find this stance hard to take, and I was skeptical but intrigued by that first record. The second made me a believer: both "Like You" and "Onslaught" are powerhouse pieces of rock and roll. This winter the band have put out a mini-lp, Wine Dark Sea, that may renew this sense of contradiction between art and rock and roll for some, but I'll leave the review section to talk about that.

Simon's own interests started with punk music...Blackjacks, TSOL (still a favorite), Propaganda, and a lot of American underground stuff. Mark likes everything from the Smiths to New Order, as well as some REM, and Simon acknowledges liking these bands as well, though his all time favorite is the Church. This makes sense considering that the Vanilla Chainsaws sound leans closer to the U2, Echo, Alarm sort of sound of around 1982-83 than the more common Australian influences of Iggy, Radio Birdman and the Saints.

Their sound is a thick roar of layered guitar chords as opposed to a riff-based sound.

"Years ago when we were growing up with music, U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen were two of our favorite bands. Joy Division, a lot of the English stuff like 999, Buzzcocks, Sham 69, Generation X...the list could go on and on. But certainly U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen were big deals in our taste in music. I was never really into Iggy; a lot of people here are, though...all that kind of "Detroit" thing...I mean Iggy Pop's not really Detroit, but that sort of 60s punk kind of thing. Radio Birdman I certainly did like, but I had no real interest in emulating that sound. I had no real interest in emulating the English sound either, for that matter, but I guess that's what comes out when you listen to something for so long."
Another common point of comparison is Husker Du...the guitar style is particularly similar.
"We did a version of Husker Du's "Don't Wanna Know If You Are Lonely", and at that stage, that was the only Husker Du song I'd ever heard, and that was only because the bass player said, 'Hey, this is a great song, let's do it'. And it was; it's a fucking great song. But then we got so many Husker Du comparisons it was unbelievable. And we're still getting them. And you know I've listened to Husker Du stuff, and, well to put it bluntly, I don't like them, and neither does Mark. Sure, they've got a few good tunes, but on the whole, I wasn't crazy about them. I don't know whether we genuinely do sound like them, or if it's just the fact that we did that cover. I mean we do a TSOL cover, "Flowers By The Door", and we don't very often get TSOL comparisons."
In a way I think it may be that Simon is too close to his own music to see the comparison, because I didn't know that they covered "Lonely" until this interview, and I have always thought Husker Du would be a logical reference point, although it's primarily because of the guitar sound.

The new mini-lp Wine Dark Sea seems to try to go beyond the supercharged sound of the singles, with more moderate tempos and more subtlety.

"It wasn't a conscious effort to put a lot of extra work into subtlety. We have the philosophy that if we do a record or anything, the next one has to be better, and the next one has to be better again. We have a philosophy of progression. Consequently, we put a lot more time into this record. Basically, they're rock songs...we pulled all the guitar out and then we redid the guitar and layered it to give it a really sort of, ah, luscious...(laughs)...well, that's what we tried to do. Eighty percent of the subtlety and stuff can be attributed to (producer) John Bee, because he works with us and suggests slightly different guitar bits and stuff. In the end I was blown away; I didn't expect it to come out as good as it did. I mean, "Like You" and "T.S", they're good records, but production-wise, they don't come close to the production quality on the mini-lp. I mean, we are getting more subtle, too...we're not as thrashy as we used to be. But if you go two years without changing, you're really missing out on a lot."
The Vanilla Chainsaws are about to make the big step of leaving Australia for a tour of Europe and North America, a step complicated by the recent departure of their drummer and bass player, a change that Simon didn't volunteer a reason for. They expect to spend about a year at it, recruiting new band members and then starting with a holiday phase in the US in June, and kicking off a US tour in early July starting on the east coast. Simon has spent most of his recent time in what he describes as "six months of nine-to-five unpaid work", writing letters and organizing, and has gotten to the point where they have places to stay lined up for the entire US portion of the trip; they haven't started on the European leg yet. The cost is still phenomenal for them, and there is a feeling of stepping out into the blue without knowing what's below, especially here in the US, where there hasn't been much notice of the band. In Europe, they've achieved a level of popularity such that they've sold as many of their records on import as they have managed to sell in Australia, and there are upcoming licensing deals with Glitterhouse in Germany and with an Icelandic label. The Icelandic deal is for a track on a compilation lp, but the Glitterhouse thing will be a full lp comprised of all their existing stuff and one unreleased track. Plus the first 1500 will have a bonus 3 track ep of new material. Both of these deals were solicited by the labels, and Simon sounds pleasantly surprised at their interest.

Simon is keen to stay with independent labels:

"I mean, a major label can give you heaps of money, but you can be up so high one day and then down so low the next. I mean, it's all there, and then it's all gone, and it can happen in a year or two. I want to make a long time thing of this, so I don't mind if it takes a long time and I'm poor for ages and ages, as long as I get somewhere. If a major came along, we'd talk for sure and we'd see what they're offering, but basically that's the state of things"
. They've finished their contract with Phantom, but they seem to have an understanding that they can continue to do more with Phantom if they want, so they seem to have the record business end nailed down fairly well. As for their prospects on the long tour ahead, Simon says:
"At the end of the day, all that counts is the music. You can sit here and prattle on about this and that and the other thing, but at the end, the music is what stands by itself or falls by itself. On this tour I don't expect that cities will fall down around us, but I expect to stand or fall by our music. I feel it's good, so I feel that we're going to have some success overseas and that it will be a lasting success because we're not a fad band."
Well, now comes the test.
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