Halfway through their first ever National headline tour, SAFIA have taken Australia by storm. Continuing their success from their 2013 Groovin’ the Moo competition win, the Canberra trio, consisting of Ben Woolner, Michael Bell and Harry Sayers, have nearly sold out all their shows. With only two released songs to their name, Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues and Paranoia, Ghosts and other Sounds the result is a pretty mean feat. An achievement not lost on lead singer, Ben. I had a chat with him about their recent success.
"It’s nuts. I don’t get it. We’ve only put out two songs and people are paying for an hour of music that they essentially don’t know."
Growing up and attending school together, Ben, Michael and Harry went through "a bunch of bands and phases." Ben came from a rock background and then the trio formed a "pop punk band and then got influenced by the Australian prog scene with Cog and The Butterfly Effect kinda stuff." They then moved onto heavier sounds, followed by a more indie route a la Kings of Leon. Ben states that once he "tried everything in the band scene", he found it was good but became "limiting." It was then that he explored electronic music which "had no limitations."
“Even back when Skrillex first put out that song Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites and it was so foreign. And then from there, because (that song) was so in your face, I started going into underground electronic stuff and started really liking it.”
The reception to SAFIA has been huge considering only two songs have been released, and it seems like their fans are gagging for more. “It’s crazy. It’s good. It feels like we’ve got a lot more we can do with releases. We can keep it going for a while even before an album.”
So is there an album in the works? It seems as if the boys are holding off for now, instead piling up songs "in hope of an album" and building their "profile to the stage where (they) can make a really, really good first album" without the danger of the tracks getting lost if they were to be released in an EP.
What can those people lucky enough to snag tickets to the sold-out shows expect to see?
"I think we pride ourself on having a really dynamic live show that goes up and down and has quiet moments mixed with really big, over the top moments. It kinda just goes everywhere. We try and go for the more theatrical, band show."
With only two songs currently known to the public, the majority of the shows will consist of new material. So how is the new material being received?
“Really good. A lot of the new stuff we’ve been playing for a while in sets and there is a lot of songs we know generally get received well by the crowd because of the general beats. A lot of the unreleased stuff is a tad more dancey than the two songs that are out. Instantly you can move to them and you don’t need to know the lyrics straight away.”
And can the crowd expect to hear any covers?
"We play one cover which we are hoping to release soon on live and then we do our remix of Tear it Down by The Ashton Shuffle."
"We also cover Cavalier by James Vincent McMorrow."
I enlighten Ben about my attendance to James Vincent’s concert in the Sydney Opera House during Vivid, to which he seemed to admit he was quite ready to drop everything and head to that instead.
“Ah so jealous! We were playing a show. I was like, 'let’s cancel this and go to James Vincent!' We do that song with our skin on it. I can’t wait to put it out because it gets super well-received at our live shows. He does go super high and we do it in the original key so I’ve gotta get up there as well.”
So can Ben hit dat falsetto James Vincent is so famous for?
“I can. I can. But I’ve gotta watch it with the partying. If I party too hard the night before it gets a bit grainier.”
I express that it’s really cool to see other artists doing covers of each other, giving the example of James Vincent McMorrow covering Higher Love and then SAFIA in turn covering James.
“It’s artist-inception. It’s a song within a song within a song.”
It’s been half a year since I saw SAFIA for the first time at the Electronic Music Conference Spotlight show. Things have changed a bit since then. For one, according to Ben, it’s noticeable in the live shows that they’ve been ‘spending a lot of time writing’ as opposed to their early material which mainly consisted of ‘half-finished demos’ with ad-libbed vocals.
“Now, most of the songs are fully written. They’ve got specific parts and vocal backing tracks. It’s a lot more polished. Instead of playing from song-to-song, it’s now kind of like a show.”
During their March/April tour with Elizabeth Rose, SAFIA were given the news that they would be supporting Lorde on her April/May Australian tour.With only three weeks to prepare, Ben states that they were pressed for time to ‘get it all ready quick’.
“We were like, ‘ah, God!’ and rushing to organise our live set to get it perfect. You can’t get away with bad setup like you can in a small club.”
It was then that Lorde had to postpone the shows to July instead due to illness. Although it was a "disappointment when she postponed", which Ben adds is completely understandable "because it gets exhausting doing all the touring", SAFIA were then able to have a "month off to write."
“It has been a blessing in disguise. We have a solid set that we are happy with now.”
Praise the Lorde.
The boys have come so far since being chosen as the Triple J Unearthed band for Canberra last year. In their short rise to prominency they've picked up a few tips.
“Just keep working super hard and writing. Write and continue to build the craft and don’t put all your money on one song. It’s a long process. We’ve still got a long way to go. It’s not an overnight thing. I remember Harley (Flume)’s first demo was sent into FBi in 2008 or something. So, get as much help as you can.”
Ben states that one thing that helped them in the beginning was to have someone to manage them and give them a "perspective of what to release."
“You can make the music but then a lot of musicians don’t know the next steps. It’s not as simple as just putting it online. Sometimes it is, if it’s an amazing tune but there’s a lot that goes into that. Doing your research and asking around, asking bands in your hometown. We’re more than happy to answer people on Facebook. It’s a big long process to get a song released and on radio.”
It seems that with there being more SAFIA demand than supply, there isn’t a shortage of remixes floating around to fill the gaps between releases. Ben seems to be quite impartial to a favourite.
“They’re all good in their own way. We select all our remixes because we’re independent so we organise with our management ourself what we want the package to be.The one I still love is the Indian Summer one of 'Listen To Soul'. It’s a cool take on it.”
“There’s also a Leaderboy one which is a cool down-tempo, techno thing.”
“I think one of the coolest ones was before we’d even organised a package for 'Listen To Soul' and this guy had sent through to our inbox like a bootleg. To see people sending bootlegs of our song was crazy. Now he’s supporting us. So from just sending it to us, saying ‘check out my bootleg’, it’s gone from there. He’s absolutely killing it on all the shows.”
Yet another way to break into the industry.
“It’s so easy to get in contact with anyone. Just ask around.”
SAFIA – “Paranoia, Ghosts & Other Sounds” Tour 2014
SAT 24/05 – Transit Bar – Canberra, ACT FRI 30/05 – The Beach Hotel – Byron Bay, NSW SAT 31/05 – Alhambra Lounge, Brisbane, QLD THU 05/06 – DK Pool Club @ CSU – Bathurst, NSW FRI 06/06 – Shebeen – Melbourne, VIC
SAT 14/06 – Spectrum – Sydney, NSW SOLD OUT
SUN 15/06 – RAD – Wollongong, NSW SOLD OUT
FRI 20/06 – Mojo’s Bar – Fremantle, WA SOLD OUT
SAT 21/06 – Pirie & Co Social Club – Adelaide, SA: Tickets
SAT 28/06 – River Sessions – Mackay, QLD: Tickets