“Comfort to me is punk music and angry music and sweaty shows,” Amy Taylor, Amyl and The Sniffers’ scene-stealing lead singer is saying, explaining the origins of the band’s new album title.
“Comfort to me is actually the stuff that isn’t comfortable: a shit house, a cup of instant coffee, comfortable can be anything.” If you’ve ever caught even a glimpse of an Amyl and The Sniffers live show, this answer makes complete sense. With a style that both harkened back to the glory days of Australian pub rock and revelled in gritty modern punk, the band’s concerts are famously ferocious affairs, with unrelenting mosh pits swaying to the sounds of the four combative punks onstage; around the time of their self-titled debut album in 2019, there were not many bands as renowned on the live circuit as Amyl.
It’s two years later, though, and the band are very much a caged animal. Melbourne, the Australian city where they first formed in a sharehouse back in 2016, is well into a sixth COVID-19 lockdown when they gather over Zoom to discuss Comfort To Me, their second album. Taylor is the last to arrive on the call, following - as she constantly refers to them throughout our interview - her “boys”: guitarist Dec Martens, drummer Bryce Wilson, and bassist Gus Romer. They’d be forgiven for being sick of each other by now: all four lived together during last year’s lockdown, “like one big ugly family, ay boys?” as Taylor puts it to me. Surely that must have been an intense time? “Not really,” she insists. “I think we’re so comfortable with each other now so it’s normal. We’d just toured together for so long and we’d also all lived with each other before. The only intense thing is that there was nothing to talk about!”
It was around this time that Comfort To Me was recorded in Northcote, a lively suburb in Inner Melbourne. “We started writing the songs around the end of 2019,” Taylor recalls. “A couple of them were written before lockdown and the rest of them in lockdown.” They eschewed listening to too much punk during lockdown (“I was sitting at home and I feel like if I listen to too much punk music I have nothing to do with the energy,” she says), instead focusing on rap music. When she mentions the US rapper Junglepussy, Romer interjects. “I fucking heard her songs a million times every fucking day,” he laughs. “Junglepussy, Cardi B, Eminem.” Away from rap, they all acknowledge legendary Australian pub rock group Cold Chisel, New York’s hardcore punk outfit Warthog, and thrashers Power Trip as influences on Comfort To Me.
Many good rock bands have struggled with the notorious ‘Difficult Second Album’ but it never proved to be a concern for Amyl. “I don’t think we felt any pressure at all really, other than pressure from ourselves to produce something that we were all proud of,” Wilson says. “We tried not to consider the pressures of the outside world that much.” Romer agrees, pointing to their hectic schedule as one reason for this. “After we recorded the last album, we toured solid for at least another year on top of that. With all that time being on the road, we became way more proficient musicians.” Considering that they were all self-taught musicians at the band’s beginning, they’ve come a long way technically on Comfort To Me. “We used to be pretty average,” Romer laughs. “I didn’t even know how to put a drum kit together.”
I enter the interview with slight trepidation after reading Taylor's own statement on the album: “Journalists will make it seem more pretentious and considerate than it really is,” she wrote. “But in the end this album is just us - raw self-expression, defiant energy, unapologetic vulnerability. It was written by four self-taught musicians who are all just trying to get by and have a good time.” I decide to bring it up to the band - a sort of waving of the white handkerchief - and ask if they value emotion and energy above everything else? “I think so,” Taylor answers. “I’m down for people to have their opinions about our music but everyone used to say we are intentionally ugly and intentionally stupid! So I take that statement back, I want someone to call us pretentious, I want to be smart!”
For a band at the forefront of this generation of Australian punk rock, there are welcome notes of their home country sprinkled within the album. The track “Security”, about someone trying to convince the security guard to let them in the pub, was inspired by one of Taylor's favourite Australian songs. “I really like “Rak off Normie” by Maureen Elkner,” she explains. “The song is about this chick and she’s in a parlour and some bikie comes out the front. This guy called Normie also comes out and says hello to her but she tells him to fuck off and she goes off with the bikie instead. At the end of the story she’s an old woman and she’s on the divorced wife’s pension and she’s like (Amy breaks into song for this part) “I wish I gave Normie a little attention.” I like songs with stories in them so I wanted to write a little story myself. It’s all make believe but I like the idea of someone being in love with the security guard but they’re also trying to get into the pub.”
Comical chaos ensues when I then ask them to explain what the word “daggy” means (“I am still a smart girl if I’m dressing daggy”, Taylor bellows in the track “Laughing”) for the British audience. “What’s daggy, boys?” Taylor asks. “Kind of tacky, a little uncool,” Romer proffers; “It’s like wearing a hat inside,” is Martens' response. “It’s like wearing really old tracksuit pants and sneakers, clothes that you’re just like ‘eh, whatever’,” Taylor adds. “Slobby and daggy.”
The album closes with “Snakes”, a look back at Taylor's childhood growing up in a small town on the East Coast of Australia. “I grew up on three acres and until I was nine I lived in a shed where me, my sister, my mum, and my dad all shared one bedroom,” she remembers. “We’d use the bath water to wash the clothes and then use that same water to water the plants. There were snakes everywhere and they’d kill our cats and eat our chickens. Dad would put snakes in a bag and then drive them down the road to get rid of them. I worked in the deli in IGA, a supermarket, for four years. I loved going to the beach in summer when it was really humid and then getting toys from the tip. The song is just a hats off to my childhood and it also gives context into who I am so people might understand me more.” I ask if only Taylor wrote the songs from the album and her bandmates are jokingly indignant: “We actually write all the lyrics,” Romer boasts. “We wrote “Security”,” Martens adds. “The original lyrics were, “I’m not looking for trouble / I’m looking for love / Will you let me in your hard heart, let me in your bum”, but Taylor changed the last word to “pub”. “That is not real!” Taylor hastily shouts.
Before our interview, I see the band play at The Croxton Bandroom (just across the road from where they recorded their album) in late July. Just hours before, Melbourne is confirmed to be entering into that aforementioned Covid lockdown. The atmosphere is heavy with uncertainty and melancholy, people wanting to throw themselves cathartically into a heaving mosh pit but unable to do so. Amyl would have been forgiven for being similarly affected but onstage Taylor is unbridled, a generating force of compassion and passion. She even insists on dragging the band back out for an encore, mere minutes before the citywide lockdown begins.
You often wonder what such a ferocious front person is like offstage, at which point the persona becomes the person. What was Taylor like, say, a few hours after that Croxton gig, slipping into another suffocating lockdown like the rest of us? “I’m pretty on,” Taylor ponders. “I’ve got energy all day, all the time (“It’s your currency,” Wilson interjects, quoting a line from “Guided By Angels”). “I’m pretty high as a person. I’ve got to work all the time or I get angry. I just started reading books and comic books for the first time in my life and that’s something I can actually relax and do. Before that I’d just be on until I went to sleep but now I can sit down and do something.”
This year marks their five year anniversary as a band. Did they ever see themselves reaching this point? “No,” Martens and Taylor both say succinctly. “I think we’re all pretty flabbergasted by it to be honest,” Wilson agees. Another five years then? “Yeah, I want to do it until I’m at least 20,” Taylor deadpans to the delight of the boys. The band may have been based in Melbourne for these last five years but even one of the best music cities in the world might not be enough to convince them to remain. “We were actually just talking about this earlier,” Taylor says. “The Southern Hemisphere has gone to shit. We might have to come up to the Northern Hemisphere because you guys are doing stuff and we’re not doing anything. We don’t want to be stuck on an island and then turn into nothing so we might have to go up there.”
"People grope me, people say inappropriate stuff constantly, people sexualise me when I’m just existing... I don’t need them, they can fuck off and wilt and I’ll just continue driving.” - Amy Taylor
Indeed all four express their admiration for the current punk scene in the UK. “Chubby and the Gang, they’re a hardcore band from London,” Romer cites. “I like Sleaford Mods obviously, Jason (Williamson) is my hero.” They were due to return to the UK this November for a tour but are unsure if that will still be possible given current restrictions. It’s why Taylor expresses her happiness at the livestream they’ve planned for October. “That means everyone can watch everywhere. PHC Films (who shot the “Guided By Angels” video) are going to do it and they’re going to shoot one take with one camera of the whole album, front to back.”
Just as her boys are stronger technicians on Comfort To Me, Taylor's songwriting has also been refined, now more incisive and thoughtful. Several of the tracks on the album are concerned with casual sexism, speaking to her experiences as a female lead singer of a punk band. I ask if she thinks the situation has improved in the last five years. She pauses: “Let me think. I honestly feel like it’s always been there. Before I used to brush it off but now it really gets me going because I’m more aware of it. When I started the band I knew basically nothing about any kind of feminism whereas now I know more about it. I’m proud of myself that I’ve done everything with extra weights on my shoulders, I think that’s pretty dope. It doesn’t stop me and it never will. People grope me, people say inappropriate stuff constantly, people sexualise me when I’m just existing. It’s all super frustrating but it’s also out of my control to a certain extent. I don’t need them, they can fuck off and wilt and I’ll just continue driving.”
One of the darkest songs, “Knifey”, expresses the longing that Taylor has to simply walk home alone through a park without having to worry about being attacked. “I feel for a lot of females and non-binary people that it’s not really safe to walk around at night. It’s not that we’re being paranoid, we’re being realistic. If I was to wear what I wear onstage and walk home from the pub to my home at 1am, it just wouldn’t be safe for me. I’ve had multiple times where cars have stopped me and been like, “are you a prostitute?” or “get in the van.” The song notes Taylor having to use her knife in self-defence as “this is how I get home nicely.” “I react violently and I carry weapons and I try to protect myself,” she explains. “My violence comes from my fear. I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t want to be aggressive but I actually have to be just to survive. Females don’t want to carry knives at night or their keys between their hands but we want to live so we’d rather try and defend ourselves and end up in prison for it than have scary shit constantly happening.” After speaking so seriously for several minutes, Taylor stops suddenly and smiled brightly down the camera. Her boys had sat in respectful silence the whole time she had spoken.
It’s why the music video for the album’s opening track, “Guided By Angels”, feels so encapsulating of their dynamic: in it the band drive around Melbourne, stopping at various points, with Taylor thrashing and throwing herself around the boys energetically, all three standing stock-still, inscrutable looks on their faces. Was that an intentional decision for the video or were they all just tired that day, I ask. “We’re tired every day,” laughs Wilson. “Yeah, I got like four hours of sleep that day,” Martens adds. “I went to the footy the night before. I think I was still drunk when I first rocked up to that shoot so I’m glad we were able to just stand around and talk.” It was after Martens' answer that I realise I had, by over analyzing the video, committed the very journalistic sin Taylor had warned about. Amyl and the Sniffers are a great many things but, above all, they’re just four self-taught musicians trying to get by and have a good time, unapologetically themselves.