There are key moments in time where something just clicks and everything falls into place. For Slowly Slowly‘s frontman Ben Stewart, it was the moment he wrote “Race Car Blues”. Describing the experience over the phone to me with a somewhat croaky and sleepy voice, due to not having slept very well the night before, he said “I walked out and I had some people over, and I was just like ‘I just finished a song that I think is the best song I’ve ever written, and it’s the title track to the album and the album’s going to be called Race Car Blues’.”
“Race Car Blues” is a great song that doesn’t give a lot away; where if you took a magnifying glass to the lyrics, it may not make immediate sense. Listeners aren’t alone in finding it cryptic. “It still feels cryptic to me,” Ben admitted, adding “That whole thing just sounds like my life. It’s a lot of things, in a melting pot.” The song would inspire tears from Ben when he’d listen to it on drives after adding new layers to it in the studio. He especially resonates with the “vignette eyes” line, which captures his extreme tunnel vision, and both the challenges and wins that come with being wired like that. He says “I’m a super driven person and there’s obviously a lot of cons to that and a lot of prices that you pay. It just kind of centres around that and growing up and changing and things like that.”
Talking more about writing songs, and whether it’s a stream of thoughts and moments, Ben describes how he recognises moments of creative flow. To him, it’s when the “juju” is flowing, “and it’s all coming from a really honest place inside and you’re trusting every sentence as it falls out.” Writing “Race Car Blues” was creatively “a weird one” for Ben though. He says “I just felt like someone else wrote it about me and I was just this vessel for it. I don’t want to sound too much like a hectic creative who’s thinking God’s speaking to them or something but that one felt super special, and I knew, as soon as I wrote it; it was perfect.”
Ben seemed to want to make it crystal clear that there’s a lot of songs he writes that don’t see the light of day (affectionately described as “shit songs”), making the “Race Car Blues” moment even more special for him. “People might think that I just write these songs all the time and life’s easy and peachy but it’s still a struggle to up the bar every time, you know?”
Slowly Slowly would be feeling the pressure of upping the bar indeed, given that their St. Leonards album had sparked a burst of recognition and appreciation which seemed to be only growing as time has gone on. Ben noticed this most clearly after the release of the band’s single “Jellyfish”, when every show seemed to be selling out, and his inner calls for validation seemed to be soothed. He says “I got a lot of signs along the way: ‘Okay, you’re actually okay at this. You don’t need to look for outside validation as much anymore. You can trust yourself and I can probably do this’.”
Referring to the band as going from “strength to strength”, the growth of Slowly Slowly also gave permission for greater creative confidence. Ben shared the behind the scenes shifts this inspired for him, saying “I’ve really divorced any old idea of myself where I was feeling insecure about being an artist anymore for this record. So it was a bit of a confidence step up, and I made a bunch of parameters for myself in the last 18 months that I was going to do this properly. It’s the only thing that ever makes me feel like me, so I was going to run at it. That probably comes through in a lot of the writing. It was a big jump emotionally, financially, everything, just to say ‘I’m going to write songs every day’.”
Greater confidence meant that Ben was determined for Slowly Slowly to define their own individual sound, which the Race Car Blues album is part of. “I think we were kind of trying to figure out where the hell we sat and whether we were this emo band or an Australiana singer-songwriter band. And with this record I feel like we kind of stand on our own feet. I have a lot of respect for other bands in our genre and our contemporaries and things like that, but I think this one sort of sets us apart a little bit. I’d love one day for people to be like ‘Oh that band kind of sounds like Slowly Slowly’, you know what I mean? Not ‘Oh that band sounds like Kisschasy‘ or ‘That band sounds like Taking Back Sunday‘. I’d like us to have our own sound. I think it’s just stepping more into that. That was a huge catalyst. I knew I had to pull out all the stops if that was going to happen.”
“We’re going to go do our own thing and then one day you will understand.” – Ben Stewart
The pulling out of all the stops led to Ben opting to go more insular and shutting out new music for awhile. Instead he went back to the core of music for him and “listened to who I was when I was 16, and the reason I fell in love with music in the first place”. This clarity also involved releasing the idea of restrictions by way of sound/genre, and Ben’s side project of Congrats further encouraged a stepping out of comfort zones for him. With it all combined, when Ben’s attention again turned toward creating for Slowly Slowly, he found himself to be less rigid in terms of the kind of music the band were free to create.
“You get so afraid to step out of the clique because you finally found a home as a band. It’s nice to have other bands in the family, you know what I mean? People listen to music in a tribal way sometimes. They associate with a particular culture. If you’re part of that, you’re lucky, but you also sometimes feel imprisoned by it. So I just kind of listened to my inner self more than any sort of topical path, or I didn’t fall in love with any new records that swayed the way I was writing. I hear people saying ‘You know, there’s elements of blink-182‘ and stuff like that. It wasn’t that I went through a big blink-182 phase, it was just one of the bands that made me fall in love with rock music, and I think it just kind of came out that way, because of the isolation.”
From my perspective, Slowly Slowly have a unique position with their sound. Depth Magazine’s heavy music lovers appreciate the band, but they’re also at home in more alternative- or indie-loving playlists and festivals. It seems like a rare position for a band to be in, and I feel like Trophy Eyes are in a similar territory. Ben feels lucky about this, saying “We’re able to build a picture of the band that’s under an umbrella where we can kind of do the intimate moments and then we can do the big punk rock. We can hit anthemic rock stuff as well and it all feels like none of it’s stepping too far out of what is Slowly Slowly and everyone just accepts it now.”
The band’s identity and where they fit was a thing of contention or at the very least confusion at the beginning for the people that needed to have it defined. Ben remembers industry meetings and being uncertain how to respond. “I remember people saying ‘But what is it? Is it an acoustic thing? Like a folk thing? Or is it a rock band? We’re not really sure.’ [laughs] I think they’d heard “New York, Paris”, and I was like ‘I just don’t think you understand it yet. We’re going to go do our own thing and then one day you will understand’. And then now when we do our shows, we can do all of those things and none of it seems too out of place. I think people get it! That would be my advice to anybody doing anything creative: If you find it really hard to put into words what you’re doing, just do it and people will understand after you’ve done it. That’s been a huge lesson through Slowly for me.”
It was inspiring to hear this, despite Ben saying that he felt like he was rambling. Many creatives who are determined to gain attention and interest can feel like they have to be a certain way or pigeonhole themselves. The idea of going whole-heartedly in the direction of your choice sure seems to me like a permission slip for creative freedom.
Ben spoke more about how Slowly Slowly is appreciated by lovers of heavy music, putting it down to each of the foursome having had an appreciation for heavy music, at least in their younger days, and the impact of that to the band now. “We all came from listening to heavy music. Pat [Murphy] our drummer still listens to brutal shit in the van and we all have to put our headphones on. We think because of that we all have that thing that all kids that grow up listening to heavy music have. We just have that chip on our shoulder that when we play live it’s like a bottleneck of energy, so the songs always come across a lot more energetic when we play live. I have to constantly remind myself not to just yell and scream the whole time. I think that is the energy that draws people to heavy music. So even though some of our songs recorded may air on the more rock or even indie side at times, I think when people see us live from that heavier world, they’re won over. We go as hard as hardcore bands sometimes.”
It had seemed like my interview time was up, but Ben didn’t have immediate plans, saying those magic words that curious interviewers love to hear: “Feel free to go as long as you like.” (!) We spoke more about the specifics of Race Car Blues then, which is an album full of very different feelings and sounds, while never seeming jarring. Ben asked for my impressions, and I shared that I loved it, and that the album inspired a few “little cries” along the way, with the first one happening at the second track, “19”, which is a song about a breakup.
“The more songs I write, the more mentally healthy I get.” – Ben Stewart
Describing it as “really fun to play live”, Ben sees “19” as putting past issues to bed. “You put something in a song and it’s like ‘Okay, I don’t have to think about that anymore’. It’s one of them. That’s one of my favourite aspects of songwriting. Like the more songs I write, the more mentally healthy I get, and I think that was just a last nail in the coffin to that little episode in my life. It’s nice to give it a home. I’ve been carrying that one around for awhile, trying to put it into words or whatever. But you know how the older you get, you look back on little microcosms of your life and as you get a bit older and a bit wiser, it changes the way that you view that thing. I think the first few years after that particular time in my life, I would have probably looked back and seen myself as the victim. But then you get a bit older and you start to realise the error of your ways and how everything was a little bit grey area and shit. It’s funny, looking back to my younger self feels like a different person.”
“19” is classic Slowly Slowly song majesty, where it comes across as reflective upon the past and acknowledges personal imperfections while also holding affection toward the other. Ben shared that the song was created around the same time as “Race Car Blues” was written and he’d found himself thinking about parts of his life, including relationships, which had fallen by the wayside due to his self-described obsessive relationship with music. Being an obsessive-creative and accepting that without compromise is an important part of the album, and “19” is one part of that: “As much as Race Car Blues as an album is a celebration of accepting that you don’t want to compromise in life and do what you love and be who you are at your core, it’s also acknowledging the price that you pay. There’s a few songs in there that highlight that aspect of it.”
With even more love for creatives, “You Are Bigger Than This Town” is described by Ben as a “gee-up”, both for him and anyone else that needs it. He says “I wanted an anthem for creatives on the cusp for people who need that little hip-knock over the edge. I think that song was speaking to myself as well as hoping that other people would hear it. I remember when I first wrote it, actually.. I was going for a lot of runs at that time. I would run and listen to it and feel really empowered by listening to it.”
“You Are Bigger Than This Town” came across to me as capturing a joyful pair of rebels who do things in their own unique way and keep each other going. It also reminded me a lot of “Aliens” and the distaste for a miserable life with “coffee to wake up and booze to drift off”. The alternative to that life seemed to be being shared in these songs as going ahead and taking the risk to live life wholeheartedly as a creative person.
Talking about that line from “Aliens” seemed to inspire Ben to share that he had stopped drinking 18 months ago. He said “I’ll still drink a whole bottle of wine on stage, but I’ll be generally so gee’d-up that I don’t even feel it. But in terms of just going out and getting destroyed for no reason on a Saturday, I don’t do that anymore. I’ll drink to celebrate milestones and stuff, but that was a huge difference. A lot of friendships are built on that culture, and as soon as I stopped doing that, everything got a bit easier. I don’t want to be a huge advocate for not drinking, but I think picking your moments is really important. We’re told to drink to celebrate, and then you drink your sorrows, and you drink, drink, drink.”
Ben described socialising without alcohol as being like a muscle that’s needing to be flexed to be able to strengthen and master it if it feels unnatural. The experience is also something that’s directly flowed into the feel of the album. “People think that you need to be a few drinks deep to express your true honest self, but yeah, that was a big deal for me, not feeling like I had to be under the influence to have fun. And so I can have fun and be myself now and that’s a big part of this record too. This record feels like a whole lot more fun than the other two. It definitely feels that way in the rehearsal room. There’s a lot more jumping around and stuff.”
Recognising greater lightness on the album in comparison to St. Leonards and appreciating how well they’ve nailed the fun factor, I wondered out loud if this is where Slowly Slowly’s sound was headed. Ben found that an intense touring schedule had him subconsciously writing music for the stage. He said “My ears would still be ringing from the weekend and I’d be in my music room writing, so you can’t help but envision it.” He feels that Race Car Blues translates to the stage well because of this.
I wanted to go back to the topic of being present in the moment that Ben had mentioned in terms of not drinking, because I’d spotted several lyrical references on Race Car Blues to the concept of presence. He admits that it’s something of an “old trope” or “cliché” to Ben to say, but he considers the “enjoy the journey” factor to be one of the most valuable skills in life. This is captured well in “Superpowers”, which he says represents the madness of touring. It was inspired by a conversation the band members had had, almost delirious with no sleep and after extreme noise exposure.
“We were in the van and someone said, I think it was Alex, ‘It would actually be a bit shit to fly’. It went around and we were talking about all the different superpowers and how they’d be a bit shit in real life and you’d probably never use them and just drive. And then I was thinking about it and I’d get kind of emotional and nostalgic thinking about it because that’s such a happy place for me when I’m with those three idiots having those conversations. It was a nice moment and it’s just what it is to be human and people can overlook it. People overlook it for something better. People think about tour and they think that your happiest, proudest moment was standing on stage in the last song while everybody’s screaming and yelling, but sometimes it can be some stupid conversation in the van that you can take away from it all.”
The moment is brilliantly captured and “Superpowers” was another song that inspired tears from me because of its natural flow/structure. With no sign of any kind of chorus and not any kind of big singalong moment, the listener is effectively brought into the conversation in the van with Slowly Slowly. Ben shared that the band’s agent had had other ideas about it. “I remember I sent this to our agent Adam. I send him nearly everything. He’s just got a great ear because he gets what I’m going for. But I sent him that and he’s like ‘Man, this is really great, I love it, but it could be a really huge song if you had some really big singalong chorus.’ And I remember sitting with that idea for a bit and I was like ‘I don’t want that’. The point of the song is that it just bubbles, and it might plant a few seeds that you think about a few days later. It’s not a big moment, and I don’t want to lose that as a band. You start to get.. the more successful your band gets, the more people start to look for… they want you to do your trick, you know? They want you to smash your little cymbals together and do a backflip and make the moment for radio or whatever. I just think, as much as we definitely do service that part of who we’ve become, because I love singalongs and I love rock songs and pop songs, so there is that element, but a huge part of the reason people like our band, and I’m not blind to it, is the storytelling and the depth to it, and that’s something you don’t get from Fall Out Boy or blink-182. With that side of the album there, with “How It Feels”, “Superpowers”, “Suicidal Evangelist”, “Creature of Habit”, it’s definitely servicing that part of our band.”
On the topic of “Creature of Habit”, there’s two parts to the song, sharing some lyrics and melody but both feeling different; one quite tense, and the other celebratory, to my ears anyway. Ben confirmed this take, saying “You’ve hit the nail on the head. That for me is like two parts of my personality just split down the middle. Because I’m quite extroverted, but I think the older I’m getting, I realise how… I’m obviously super open in my music, and interviews and talking about my music now, but I’m really emotionally unavailable to nearly everyone in my life [laughs] as the other part of that. I’m really jovial and I’d rather just laugh a situation off and not talk about it, and I think that “Creature of Habit” is that really nostalgic, internal, neurotic, internal dialogue. These constant montages. You know how we have those? There’s probably 15 childhood memories that are constantly swimming around in the back of your head and things like that. That for me just encapsulated that. And part two is more the part of me that sweeps everything under the rug and goes ‘Fuck it, let’s go!’ [laughs]. It was a celebration… I don’t know, it’s hard to put into words, I guess. But that song feels to me like ‘Fuck yeah, let’s go’ and when we play it live it feels like that. It’s super fun.”
Talking about other songs on the album, I understood “Soil” to be a love song. Ben confirmed this, and spoke about the song forming naturally, in a different way than they’d originally planned. He says “It was actually going to be a piano and vocal song for a little bit, and then me and Alex had a session where we were recording backing vocals at the studio. There was an acoustic guitar and I was just playing around with this little chord progression and I started singing “Soil” over the top, in a bit more of a yelly kind of way. That song is only two chord progressions. Both sections just clicked and I was like ‘Oh!’ and he was like ‘Oh! Okay, well I guess we’ll cancel the piano tracking.’ and I was like ‘Yeah, I reckon’. We just tried that out and it just worked. I think it gave Pat [laughs] PTSD because the drums in that song were quite hard to record and whenever we talk about playing it now, you can see him… he doesn’t show emotion much on the outside, but you can just see his brow become a little bit redder.”
Another song, “Suicidal Evangelist” came across as a letter to himself. The title came from Ben’s visualisation of a negative voice. He says “I viewed it as a slimy late night TV host religious evangelist who was telling you that you’re awful all the time. And so that’s a bit of a chat and just referencing that.” The song is a bit of a tear-jerker for me, in its defiance and farewelling that part progressively. It’s beautifully and powerfully relatable.
Slowly Slowly’s lyrics are typically extremely dense in metaphors. On Race Car Blues though, I noticed less of this, and more real-world, open lyricism. Ben puts this down to being more honest, but still appreciates being able to write cryptically at times, “so that no one would know what I was writing about.”
Before I let him get back to his day, to maybe have a much-needed nap, I asked about the band name, because a Google search wasn’t helping me understand the inspiration behind it. Ben says “It was actually just a saying that my grandfather used to say all the time. I was a pretty impatient or rushy kind of person, so my Italian grandfather used to always say ‘Piano piano’ when I was doing stuff. I remember when I was first starting the band, I was planning on getting a tattoo that said it, said ‘Slowly slowly’. I remember weeks before it was booked in, I was like ‘Maybe I should call this musical project I’ve been working on Slowly Slowly.’ and I was like ‘Oh, I guess I can’t get the tattoo’. [laughs]”
Race Car Blues is out on 28th February and can be pre-ordered now: https://unfd.lnk.to/racecarblues[Slowly Slowly photo courtesy of Liam Davidson on the Smile Lines Tour]