Billy Fleming is hurting. The 21-year-old drummer for rock band Hockey Dad is trying to lower himself onto a couch nestled in an attic above Wollongong’s Rad Bar, an iconic venue owned by his band’s manager, Daniel Radburn. But his legs aren’t co-operating, and he winces, his brow furrowing underneath his customary baseball cap.
“We played a cricket match the other day,” he hisses, his voice uncharacteristically low and hurried. “I’m still paying for it.”
Next to him, his co-conspirator and Hockey Dad’s vocalist and guitarist, Zach Stephenson, runs a hand through his hair. It’s hot up here – the air con and fans have had to be turned off for the sake of the dictaphone that sits on a table in front of the pair. And there’s this faint, irritating buzzing sound, persistent and low, that Stephenson eventually decides must be emanating from four pinball machines packed into the tiny room.
We don’t really have much time at home anymore.
But despite all the heat, and the pain, and the noise, Stephenson and Fleming seem singularly unfussed. In fact, by the conclusion of the interview it becomes clear that even if one of those pinball machines in the corner blew a fuse – maybe the antique-looking KISS one that occasionally interrupts the interview with the riff from ‘Detroit Rock City’ – setting the whole room on fire, Stephenson and Fleming would look on the ensuing chaos with a smirk at most.
“We don’t really have much time at home anymore,” Fleming says. “So Zach just writes all our stuff at home in a room by himself like a sadboy.”
“I’ll just sit in my room and write things on Garageband and see what works,” Stephenson says, nodding. “Then I’ll send it to Billy and go, ‘What do you think?’”
“I’ll usually say, ‘Needs a bit of work, that,” Fleming ribs.
“And then before we actually record anything, we jam it out – we see what works. We used to write together, just jamming in the shed. But we don’t really have time for that anymore. And if it doesn’t click within that first half hour of writing it, we just leave it. We’ve gotta be enjoying it.”
It kinda sounds terrifying, that way of working – simply surrendering yourself to your own nebulous artistic impulses. But for Stephenson and Fleming, it works out just fine. It’s how they penned their debut album, a collection of springy riffs that owes a debt to a whole litany of rock and roll touchstones – The Ramones, Nirvana, Tumbleweed – but also sounds distinctly, invigoratingly unique. And it’s how they put together Blend Inn, out now, a gorgeous riposte to the second album curse that has a charm and colour all of its own.
And anyway, the duo have their own novel way of fighting off writer’s block.
“When we had a dry streak, we started a joke punk band to just get it out of our system,” Fleming says. “We wrote some pretty great songs though. We were just meant to be writing songs that were jokes.”
“They ended up turning out good,” Stephenson chirps.
“They turned out great,” says Fleming.
“I’ve never been able to strenuously write a song for days,” Stephenson continues. “It’s always been if I can’t write it that day, it’ll just sit in Garageband. The feeling’s gotta be there from the start. You’ve gotta be stoked to be playing it. If you’re writing it and it just feels like pushing shit up hill, you’re never gonna get it anywhere.
“There’s not much you can really do when you’re having a dry streak. Even if you try and push yourself to do it, you’re never gonna write anything good during that time. You might as well just enjoy the time off while your brain does its thing and then come back when you feel like it.”
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“If you push yourself, it just feels like a job,” Fleming says, shrugging.
“Great!” says the KISS pinball machine over in the corner. Someone’s bumped it, so now it’s chattering away to itself absent-mindedly, lighting up in complex patterns. Stephenson and Fleming look at each other, their eyebrows shoot up, and then they burst into raucous peals of laughter, the discomforting heat and Fleming’s pains long forgotten.
When the pair started out, they were teenagers. They were in a band before Hockey Dad, a four-piece made up of them and two mates, spending their time entering “shitty” band competitions, and trying to sneak into Rad Bar before it was Rad Bar, back when it was Yours And Owls.
“When we were grommits starting off in a band, that was the most you could do – play at the band comps,” Fleming says. “There wasn’t really much ticking over. But then we hit at just the right time – there was suddenly something blossoming.”
“This place kicked it off,” Stephenson agrees, gesturing around at Rad Bar.
“It’s definitely helped,” says Fleming. “Now there’s so many bands in Wollongong. They’re still popping up – all these grommits, they’re just coming up out of nowhere.”
When we were grommits starting off in a band, that was the most you could do – play at the band comps.
Those early days feel like a lifetime to them ago now – all that time they spent playing sets in RSLs and bowlos on a Thursday arvo, trying to scoop up listeners out of crowds more interested in watching telly and sinking piss. It’s what they call the “Shannon Noll run”, playing a bunch of those venues.
“We’re done playing three 45 minute sets,” Fleming says.
“Although the positive is, you start off playing three 45 minute sets in bowlos, then your career goes like this.” Stephenson holds his arm out straight, pointing up, mimicking a peak. “Then, before you know it, it’s doing this,” and the arm shoots out again, this time point straight down: the decline. “But that’s alright, because then you’re back playing pubs and you’ve already got your catalogue sorted.”
Fleming laughs. “It can be fun though, playing those gigs,” he adds.
“Yeah, in the beginning I was shitting myself,” Stephenson says. “But I was better at guitar then than I am now.” He thinks for a minute. “If anything, we’ve decreased as a band.”
It’s a little while later, and Stephenson and Fleming are poking around an army surplus store. Stephenson wants a boiler suit he can wear onstage; he feels like it’ll complement their live aesthetic perfectly. He’s standing there amidst rows of camo uniforms, and arrows, and bows, and firestarters, leaning up against a pole, sunglasses in his hand. And it’s like, maybe for another band this would seem weird, kicking around a store like this one early on a Tuesday morning. But Stephenson doesn’t appear to care.
Not that the pair are totally unruffleable. Those first couple of tours they did of the States freaked them out – Stephenson in particular.
“There were a coupla rooms in the States where we were like, ‘Shit, we should probably turn it up,’” Stephenson says. “I mean, I was really scared when I first went to the States. I was just freaked out by the place. But now –” He interrupts himself; thinks for a moment. “Actually, I’m still scared.”
“At least we’re old enough that beers help,” Fleming chimes in. “When we were starting out, you couldn’t even have that. You’d have to drink a Coke and hope for the best.”
“And it’s fun not being from the States,” Stephenson says, perhaps trying to make himself appear as though he feels better about the whole thing than he actually does. “People are really curious about you, and how you talk. You can really mess with people.”
“We just never really had any expectations,” Fleming says. “We just got thrown into the deep end. We were never going to the States and thinking, ‘Oh, we have to do this; we have to nail that show.’ We just took it all as it came.”
There are no boiler suits in the store. Stephenson stops to look at a pair of rubber waders, but you can tell his heart isn’t really into them. “It didn’t matter what the shows were like in America,” he says, absent-mindedly. “We were just having a lot of fun.”
“Every show is so much fun,” Fleming says. “Regardless of the show itself, it’s still fun. We’re still doing it somehow. It was a trip then. It still is.”
The pair wrote and recorded Blend Inn a while ago. They’ve been sitting on it, waiting for the prime time to drop the thing. And even now, they look back fondly on the recording process. It’s the moment when everything simplifies itself for them – when they can finally start to see the forest for the trees.
“The work is really fun,” Stephenson says. “You have the songs. All the hard stuff is done.”
“You’re not trying to run a wheelbarrow uphill,” says Fleming. “It’s just not creatively strenuous. You know what you want, and now you get to find it out and sort it out. I could do that shit for a long time.”
“Happily,” Stephenson adds.
They’re not really sure how the record is going to be received. Of course, they hope that the fans who have supported them so far will continue to do so – that the scores of young people who made Boronia a hit will flock back to them again. But even if that doesn’t happen – even if every single Hockey Dad fan in the country suddenly and irreversibly soured on the group – well, Stephenson and Fleming have come to terms with that too.
It takes a really long time to decide how you feel about the album.
“It’s kinda a blessing in disguise when you write the album a year ahead of releasing it,” Fleming says. “Then you just have a whole year to sit with it. The fear’s there – you’re hoping it isn’t crap.”
“But there’s nothing you can do anyway,” Stephenson says.
“No,” Fleming nods. “You’re not gonna pull all the vinyl copies out of existence.”
“It costs too much money,” Stephenson says. “You just let it go.”
Anyway, they’ll only really get a sense of what fans think when it comes time to play the new songs live. This time around, they won’t have long to wait, either.
“Once we put out the album, we’re gonna play a festival the week after or something,” Fleming says. “It’ll be interesting to see the whole new set – it’s gonna be the whole new album. So if people aren’t listening to the album, it’s gonna be a bum show.”
“It takes a really long time to decide how you feel about the album anyway,” Stephenson adds. “It took a whole year before we were like, ‘Oh people really like the first album.’ If the people don’t like it they’re not gonna come up and tell you they don’t like it anyway.”
Fleming smiles, contentedly. “We’ve never been in a position where we’ve regretted putting out a song. Everything we’ve put out has had a pretty good response.”
It’s noon, hot, and the boys wanna go for a surf. They’re getting ready on the grass in a carpark, rubbing down their boards with wax. Stephenson’s has Moe from The Simpsons on it, along with a quote from the show, printed in shaky black handwriting: “I’m a stupid moron with an ugly face and a big butt and my but smells and… I like to kiss my own butt.” Fleming’s has “HD” on his – Hockey Dad. It’s on the back of his arm too, near his elbow, a little black tattoo about the size of a thumb.
The air’s very still. There’s an ice cream van just up the hill, in which sits a bored teenager, staring at his phone. And over in the distance there’s a smoke stack, pumping a thin line of black fog into the air.
Photographer and friend of the band Tom Healy takes a few snaps of the pair – them leaning against their ute, posing with the boards, eating an icecream. They haven’t gone unnoticed – a pack of grommits nearby spots them, and starts hopping about excitedly.
“It’s the Hockey Dad boys,” one bellows to the other. “Hockey Dad!”
It’s time to say goodbye. Stephenson and Fleming have walked out to the rocks, close to the surf. Healy’s already in the water, snapping away with his rubber-cased camera, and he’s still snapping as the pair jump in, laughing as though they could do this for the rest of their lives. Which, come to think of it, they probably will.
Header photo by Tom Healy.