On Sunday evening in May 1990 before another week of work began, Spiderbait played their first gig at the Tote alongside the Throwaways and Effect. The next 100 gigs saw the band, made up of drummer/vocalist Mark “Kram” Maher, bass player and co-singer Janet English and guitarist Damien Whitty, play more than 20 gigs at The Tote and have their first gig with soon-to-be lifelong friends, the Meanies, in June of 1991.
“The Meanies were on our very first label, which was Au Go Go Records, and they were very instrumental in giving us a lot of shows – Wally Meanie the bass player gave us our very first gig at the Tote 25 years ago,” Kram says.
“Also the band’s energy, the humour and the power of the band and the ‘fuck-you-ness’ was very inspirational to us, so it was [and is] great to play with them.”
The trio soon crossed paths with fellow ‘90s legends Jebediah, You Am I and Something For Kate – all of which shared successful careers in a changing industry.
There was no national radio station when the bands started, and in the years to come digital downloads and triple j would have a massive influence on their career (Spiderbait were the first Australian band to get #1 on the Hottest 100 charts in 1996). These are just a few factors that caused Kram, along with many other musicians, to ponder the meaning of an artistic existence in Australia.
“Paul [Dempsey], Tim [Rogers] and I had this discussion last week. This journey you’re on ends up defining your character and your person,” he says.
“I’m not here to build an empire, I’m just here to express myself through work. So you end up becoming a lot more of an artist as you get older and you were probably much more of a rock star when you were younger.”
Labelled in the industry as one of the nicest guys in the biz, there can’t be too many rock star antics from the band. And with equal parts metal and pop, their unique sound put them in good stead for forging a pathway unlike any seen in the industry.
“Nobody has ever really known how to sell us – and that’s kind of our pride and contributed to our detriment in a way,” Kram says of the band’s experiences in Japan, America and the UK.
“Whenever we got signed people would be like, ‘What are you, a pop band? Or are you a heavy metal band? And we were like, ‘Kind of both’. And they’d say ‘you can’t be both’, but, well why not? This has always been the issue with us, but our fans love both sides.”
Despite the difficulties surrounding their genre, and watching fellow bands Killing Time, The Hummingbirds, Tumbleweed and Ratcat struggle with labels, they managed to find one that fit and enabled them to keep doing what they love: create music for their fans.
Penning the hits ‘Old Man Sam’, ‘Calypso’ and ‘Buy Me a Pony’, among many others, performing ‘Old Man Sam’ for the first time at Big Day Out stands as a memorable moment for Kram, Whitty and English.
For Kram, the early days of performing stand as some of the most nerve-wracking experiences for him and introductory gigs saw Kram barely look up from his kit. Now live shows stand as a chance for the band to see where they sit with their fans and the industry, and just like always, the plan is to not have a plan.
“It would always make us laugh when we’d play with the Living End. We’d played with them so many times and we love them, but they are so rehearsed and practise two hours before the show in the bandroom. We’re just like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing? Don’t you just want to have a drink?” he says with a laugh.
“And that works for them, but we’re a bit more loose, and we like to just see what happens when we get on stage. I have no idea what’s going to happen, I want to know, but I’m confident that whatever happens you can make into magic. And sometimes it’ll be crap but it doesn’t matter.”
What you can be assured of is that the upcoming A Day on the Green, featuring Spiderbait, The Meanies, Jebediah, You Am I and Something For Kate, will be nothing but a magical timewarp back to the ’90s.
“I think that was a big selling point for all the bands,” Kram says of sharing the headline spots with the other bands.
“Even though we do love A Day On the Green, for us this is the first time we’ve done it. I know talking to Tim it’s always a good time, but it’s just this really sentimental nature in this line up. Especially with a band like the meanies who are like the granddaddies to all of us.”
“I think the whole sentimental friendship and comradeship of bands will make for a really great festival atmosphere on stage and I think you’ll be able to feel it on stage, for sure.”
The renewed connection has even brought up the possibility of a collaborative album between Rogers, Dempsey and himself.
“We were immediately like, ‘Why haven’t we ever made a record together, the three of us? Let’s do it!’ The three of us would be really good, we can all sing a bit and I didn’t know but apparently Paul is a really amazing heavy metal guitar player. He is a super shredder – which nobody really knows and which is the weird thing about musos,” Kram says.
On that note, here’s to the potential of an album of from the greatest ’90s supergroup pairing we can think of.
Published in Forte Magazine and online.