Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #135. Subscribe to our print edition here!
On the aptly titled Boneshaker, hard-rock hellions Airbourne kick the energy up a notch by stripping it all back.
Words by Sarah Comey.
Pizza toppings. Conservatives in parliament. Babies crying. There are many things in life to which the classic adage “less is more” applies. Rock ‘n’ roll, however, is typically not one of them. The lashings of distortion that make our speakers look like they’re having a seizure; the avalanche of drums you just can’t help but thrash your hair around to; the rush of adrenaline that pumps through your veins when a ripping solo kicks in. The spirit of rock is built on glorious, oftentimes garish excess – the likes of which your grandmother would faint if she saw you indulging in (but secretly got messy amongst in her own youth).
Warrnambool rockers Airbourne are the proof in the whiskey-enhanced pudding. Since the innocent days of ’03, the foursome have revelled in titanic walls of sound defined by sharp, walloping guitars that only let up in severe emergencies. But as the AC/DC tragics age, they’ve grown hungry for a challenge – to make new album Boneshaker as punchy and pummelling as ever, but do so without relying on the tried and true formula of just piling sounds onto each other until a track is sufficiently overloaded.
Catching up with us on a break from his day off tour exploring Middle Age relics in London, frontman Joel O’Keeffe explains that, under the guidance of legendary producer Dave Cobb, Airbourne adopted a strikingly minimalist psyche for album #5.
So how did old mate give you the kick you needed to explore some new avenues?
Well, he was always on our radar, because he had a band called Black Robot which we dug the sound of. We all knew what he was doing, but it was one of those things where if the idea of him producing for us ever came up, someone would go, “Isn’t he a country guy?” And he definitely is the king of country in Nashville right now – I don’t know how many Grammys he’s got on that wall, but they were rocking up in boxes when we were there. But we had a conversation with him, and he just turned out to be a full-on rock ’n’ roller at heart.
From day one, I was like, “I want to make a really raw, but not cheap-sounding record. It’s still gotta have the punch, and it’s gotta have everything the live show has.” We’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture the energy of the band live in the studio. But when we were talking with Cobb, he went, “A lot of what I do anyway is in the first or third take.” And we were like, “Well shit, we’ve never done that before!” We were keen to just throw the rulebook out the window and not even think about overthinking anything; there was no time to overthink anything.
What type of sound you were chasing in the studio with him?
We grew up listening to [Albert Music] records. Everyone else was listening to whatever modern bands were around [in the ‘80s], and we were going to school with AC/DC, Rose Tattoo and The Angels – particularly the albums they made at Alberts back in the day. I’ve been obsessed with that sound since I was a kid, but I’ve never really stepped back and gone, “F***, it would be great to make an Alberts-sounding record!” There was no way we could actually go to Alberts – the studio isn’t even there as it was anymore, and all of those producers were integral to that sound; George Young and Harry Vanda, those guys built up an iconic Australian sound back in the ‘70s, and you can’t go back in time.
But the thing about Cobb is that he’s so intelligent and knowledgeable, and he’s one of those guys that are just obsessed with learning – he wants to know everything about everything. As soon as I said, “I want to do the Alberts thing,” he was like, “Cool – let’s get cracking!” So we went in there and looked at every picture we could find from the glory days of Alberts, read everything we could online, watched Blood + Thunder about 100 times... Just to learn as much about what it was that made Australian rock what it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And it was always in the first two or three takes.
We’d play the best take after a couple, and Cobb would go, “Alright guys, that was great, but I really liked the vibe of the first take when you guys did the solo – it just took off!” I’d be like, “Ah, Dave, but I f***ed up those notes there,” and he’d go “Nah, nah, nah, they’re not f***ups. Yeah, there’s a bum note here and there, but in the context of the entire song, it’s only the energy that matters. You didn’t really know what you were doing but you weren’t overthinking it, and that’s what gives me the vibe.” And we were just like, “Well, you’re Captain Grammys, so...”
And then the way we did the vocals was just over the control desk with no headphones, just with the monitors blaring and a handheld mic in my face. That’s the thing about the record: there’s bleed everywhere, but it’s not sloppy or cheap-sounding at all. It’s been tracked in the most professional way by the most professional people in the world, to capture that rawness of the way that they used to do it at studios like Alberts in the ‘70s.
This is the first Airbourne record to feature Matt Harrison on the rhythm guitar; how did he settle into the process?
He’s been a mate of ours for so long anyway, and we’d already toured with him for a good while – we did the back half of the Breakin’ Outta Hell era, which was about a year in Europe and the UK, and then a good year and a bit playing constantly around Australia – so he was already settled in pretty nicely. He brings a real enthusiasm, and we work great together on the guitars. It definitely feels like he’s been there for a lot longer than he has.
And then in the studio, he took to everything pretty quickly. It wasn’t his first time in a studio with a band, but it was definitely his first time in a big f***in’ studio with someone like Cobb at the desk. So you could tell he was a bit nervous – as you’re going to be in that scenario – but y’know, he still showed up and brought the fire, and it was awesome. We’d stop and talk about guitars between takes, and it was just such a great atmosphere with him there. It felt like we’d already been doing it for years, y’know?
Saturday February 8th - RAC Arena, Perth WA*
Tuesday February 11th - Entertainment Centre, Adelaide SA*
Friday February 14th - Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne VIC*
Saturday February 15th - Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney NSW*
Tuesday February 18th - Entertainment Centre, Brisbane QLD*
* supporting Alice Cooper