Melbourne group Amyl and the Sniffers on Growing Together, Experimenting and Sacrificing
WORDS by CAT WILLIAMS
PHOTOGRAPHY by JAMIE WDZIEKONSKI
Amyl and the Sniffers’ vocalist Amy Taylor was watching The Perfect Storm (2000’s George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg movie) recently. The plot centers around six men aboard a swordfish boat who head out for the season’s final catch and are instead sabotaged by tumultuous 50-foot swells.
Taylor can relate. Not to the fishing but to the unpredictable nature of living between solid ground and constant touring, performance and the pressure of it all on relationships. “These fishermen were saying to their partners [that] it’s hard having to constantly read- just, you’re out at sea and you want to come home, then you get home and you’re not adjusted to normal society…but by the time you adjust, you’re off again. It’s a constant cycle.”
Navigating the band’s rapid ascension to national and then international fame was tough enough but when Covid struck it required a harsh readjustment to domestic life and some deep-seated self-interrogation: why do I do what I do, who am I without the adulation of the audience, what am I sacrificing for my art and is it worthwhile?
“In a lot of ways, I’m still figuring it all out,” she admits. “Things like the band getting bigger and tours getting more hectic, to Covid happening and constantly having to readjust to certain lifestyles and environments. I try not to think about stuff too much, try my best to be positive and find the reasons why things are good.”
When the world closed in early 2020, it was at the peak of Amyl and the Sniffers mounting world domination. The Melbourne band were on fire. International tours, media hype and editorials everywhere from Vogue to Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. However, the enforced time at home resulted in Comfort To Me, an album even more confessional, vulnerable and poetically searing than they’d produced in the past. Sharing a house throughout most of 2020, they were able to write and jam, resulting in 17 songs that— together with producer Dan Luscombe—they whittled down to the 13 songs that formed the album. It felt like both a punk prayer and a howl from the heart, traversing the sneering, self-defensive lyrics of “Knifey” (Out comes the night, out comes my knifey/This is how I get home nicely) through the almost desperate, manic plea for heavenly guidance on “Guided by Angels” (Energy, good energy and bad energy/I’ve got plenty of energy/ It’s my currency).
Even though last year’s lockdown and positive Covid tests for Taylor and Romer played havoc with their touring plans, the band are now staring into the barrel of their biggest international schedule to date. They’ll be at Coachella in April, followed by a national US tour. Their UK tour kicks off in Leeds on May 29th, with Albert Hall in Manchester, Brixton Academy in London, and on to Bristol and Oxford. Afterward, it’s Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, France, Netherlands before heading back to Australia.
When we catch up on Zoom in late February, Taylor and guitarist Dec Martens have only just returned from performances in Queensland. “So far, we’ve only played five or six shows but we are going into a pretty turbulent year,” says Taylor. “From April, we’re going away for three months…honestly, one of the shows in Brisbane was the first time I’ve stage-dived in two years and that was really exciting. People were jumping off the stage and it was so nice seeing everybody celebrating and having a good time up there.”
As for readjusting to the stage after a prolonged hiatus, she seems unperturbed. Amyl and the Sniffers are made up of Taylor, Martens, bassist Fergus Romer, drummer Bryce Wilson and beneath their rock flamboyance, they are all seasoned musicians. “We have the benefit of being in the genre of punk, so it’s all about the spirit. Even though we take pride in getting the songs right, it doesn’t always necessarily rely on that. There’s heaps of room to make mistakes and for the mistakes to be just as fun. We’ve managed to squeeze in practices here and there, so we didn’t feel we were coming out completely dry.”
Theirs is a beginning so humble it has become leg- end. Taylor, Wilson, Martens and former bassist Calum Newton were sharing a house in Balaclava, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner south. Having entertained friends with their frenetic, livewire house party performances, they brazenly set out to craft an EP. Written, recorded and released in 12 hours, 2016’s Giddy Up was a full throwback to The Stooges, AC/DC and Bad Brains. They followed suit with second EP, Big Attraction the following year before entering the studio to record their widely lauded, unashamedly abrasive self-titled debut album. Upon release in May 2019, it seduced radio listeners in Australia and began seeping onto the airwaves of British and US radio, emerging excitedly on music blogs and sites. Taylor, with her peroxide mullet, Bambi eyes, take-no-prisoners attitude, bikini-with-heels outfits and heartbreakingly candid lyrical confessions proved to be the punk rock savior of our souls. In a world of cosmetic surgery and filters, publicist-controlled pop starlets and sad-eyed folk singers wailing about rivers, she strutted straight through the bullshit uninvited and took the crowd with her.
Their first album won them an Australian Record Industry Association Award (ARIA) for “Best Rock Album” in 2019, followed by “Best Band” at the Music Victoria Awards in 2020 and “Best Live Act” in both 2020 and 2021. The acclaim forced the frontwoman into the spotlight, which sometimes meant having to explain and justify her every aesthetic choice and lyrical statement. Still in her 20s, she’s kept an impressively level head despite expectations of her as the new international feminist icon; a spokesperson for those oppressed by misogyny. But what she truly is, is inherently human. I don’t need a cunt like you to love me! she screams in hot pants with high heels and red lipstick.
“Sometimes it bothers me [to be asked about style] because it can ‘discount’ my mind. At the same time, I do enjoy vanity to a degree. I like dressing up. I like costumes. I like makeup and wearing my little outfits, fucking around with my hair and all that stuff. I think it reduces [women] to a novelty but at the same time, I can see the merit in novelty because all that shit is fun.”
Fashion and feminism: Taylor is articulate when it comes to analyzing her choices.
There’s so many layers to it. On the surface level, it’s fun. It makes me feel good. But to dig below the surface, I feel for a lot of females, your whole life is reduced to your body and what you look like. I’m leaning far into that and going, ‘I’m not gonna feel uncomfortable. I’m gonna make you feel uncomfortable.’ Often, what I wear does make people feel uncomfortable. My little shorts make people flinch. But, I’m not gonna hide for you and you’ll be the one having a hard time, not me.
There’s no doubting her toughness, nor her and Martens’ commitment to their art. But it comes at a cost. “We’ve all made lots of sacrifices. Personal friendships,
relationships, stability, houses…” concedes Taylor. “We’ve given up everything over and over again for
touring, and probably will continue to do that until we can no longer take it anymore. You don’t own anything. There’s no point because you’re gone over half the year.”
While Taylor is with someone, “it’s a tough, tough lifestyle to have a relationship” she admits. Martens has also just begun seeing someone. “I relate to the Per- fect Storm guys a lot,” says Martens. “I enjoy the idea of being married to my job. I have a romantic relationship with music. It’s a nice way to live your 20s, playing live music, doing whatever and being free, not having to go to a desk every day.”
But with that freedom does come a proviso. There is constant variation and evolution. “I really enjoy change,” insists Taylor.
I like trying new things, I like pushing myself and us. I like failing and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I wanna experience, grow, evolve and change constantly. Being stagnant bores me and makes me depressed, in any capacity. In 10 years from now, I don’t want to be pretending I’m the same person I am at the age I am now because I’m successful right now and I’ve found a formula that works. That doesn’t excite me.
Martens also plans to take his talent beyond performing. “My original idea was to become a producer. I never wanted to become a musician so I sort of messed up there,” he laughs. “I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground for bands I’d like to produce.”
For now, though, the focus is on their impend- ing world tour. One that everyone is invited to, Taylor explains. “I hope that everyone who comes to our gigs wants to make everyone feel comfortable, because it should be for everybody. It shouldn’t be exclusive. I’d hate it if our shows were just trendy people, just rich people or just dudes.”