The Chats: “We’re self-aware. We know we’re not cool”

The Sunshine Coast trio talk getting banned from pubs, their affinity for UK hip-hop and their upcoming debut album, ‘High Risk Behaviour’

The Chats say they aren’t trying to go viral again. But standing on the set of their forthcoming music video, more ‘Smoko’-level notoriety seems likely, if not inevitable. We’re in a velvet-upholstered restaurant in Brisbane’s CBD, surrounded by people who resemble extras in a Baz Luhrmann film. Colonial paintings of banksias and old white men adorn the wood-panelled walls. What looks like a collection of rare leather books is mostly Tom Clancy novels sandwiched between encyclopedias. The self-proclaimed ‘shed rock’ trio are dressed in tuxedo t-shirts; their management stand by with spare stock of their signature speed dealer sunglasses.

“I thought we were gonna do this at some Chinese restaurant in the valley,” drummer Matt Boggis mumbles.

“The food tastes a bit weird, I’m not used to eating stuff this nice,” bassist and vocalist Eamon Sandwith adds.

The Chats are, of course, the last band you’d expect to see at a ritzy resto. One of their most beloved songs is an ode to the humble, hearty pub meal; just four years ago they were teenage nobodies from a small town on the Sunshine Coast. But now, they’re one of Australia’s most exciting punk rock bands, with their first full-length album ‘High Risk Behaviour’ and high-profile festival slots imminent.

the chats nme australia
CREDIT: Matt Walter for NME

The Chats’ rapid ascent has come with plenty of helicopter journalism, which tends to tar them all with the same bogan brush. But the three members are quite distinct personalities. Boggis is the least boisterous of the trio – he’s vegan (which doesn’t exactly gel with the band’s constant lyrical references to red meat) and enjoys long hikes.

“His day off would look a lot different from ours – it’d be a lot healthier,” Sandwith says.

Boggis often sits silently while Sandwith and lead guitarist Josh Price lead the mischief-making. Price, known to most around him as Pricey, is the class clown in a class of clowns; during the video shoot, he requires little direction. He deflects questions with jokes when he’s not giving the bluntest of answers.

“I don’t think too much,” Pricey laughs.

That seems to be the band’s brief for this video, one they have no trouble following. The restaurant’s waitstaff grit their teeth as The Chats smash glasses, pour beer and throw pork chops onto an expensive-looking rug. The trio can hardly hide their glee at the carnage.

Matt Weston is responsible for the video, as he has been for all of them save ‘Smoko’. He describes himself as a music video director that babysits The Chats. But officially, he and Al O’Neil manage the band, as well as The Chats’ single biggest influence, the Cosmic Psychos. Weston is wary of putting the band through a long interview; The Chats dislike doing press, and it’s hard to fault them after a litany of cringeworthy encounters with mainstream media, most recently with the enfant terrible of Australian morning TV, Karl Stefanovic.

“You can tell when someone’s just been commissioned to do something and they skim a fucking Wikipedia page and just go ‘Right, so let’s talk about ‘Smoko’,” Sandwith says.

“My mum’s a journalist so I kinda know a lot of their tricks. I don’t hate it but it’s like explaining a joke sometimes – it just doesn’t work, because you’ve explained it. Not that we’re a joke!”

the chats nme australia
The Chats on the cover of NME Australia #03

As a fledgling band, The Chats’ musicianship was amateurish; the bass parts on their first two EPs, ‘The Chats’ and ‘Get This In Ya’, were played through a keyboard amplifier.

“At the start we just plugged in, no tuner, just fucking go for it. Now you kind of get to a point where there’s only so far that that can take ya,” Sandwith says.

‘High Risk Behaviour’ is evidence of The Chats’ progress. The album’s no polished left-turn, though: None of the songs clear three minutes, the playing is meaner, and Sandwith’s vocals are angrier. There’s even a synthesiser on one song, albeit made to sound like a fuzzed-out guitar.

“We’ve gotten better. When we started, we were pretty rubbish, which totally warranted some criticism,” Sandwith says.

‘High Risk Behaviour’’s two-punch opener of ‘Stinker’ and ‘Drunk And Disorderly’ might even win over punk fans who had written The Chats off as a joke. The former barrels straight into Sandwith’s mouth-full-of-nails voice, revelling in Queensland’s “heat you can taste”. The latter is a mixological laundry list, an Australian version of ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’. Its brief, chanted refrain of “relaxation, mood alteration, boredom leads to intoxication” sounds like Gang of Four.

Besides the Cosmic Psychos, Sandwith says The Chats also aspire to the heights of The Ramones and The Saints, and to emulate the rhythm section of the recently reunited Eddy Current Suppression Ring. No matter how much they discuss their influences, though, Sandwith expects some will still dismiss The Chats as a sloppy gag band.

“I think people don’t really realise we’re not trying to be virtuoso musicians. Sometimes simplicity is better. I don’t wanna hear a fucking eight-minute song with guitar solos and drum solos – I’d rather have it short and to the point,” he says.

The robust playing on ‘High Risk Behaviour’ doesn’t mean the record lacks the hilarity that earned them fame. The album’s lead single is ‘The Clap’, an ode to one unnamed band member’s experience with chlamydia. The fact that it wasn’t Sandwith who had the infection has already created a minor misunderstanding. Two nights before our chat, the singer walked into an interview at triple j to promote the song, oblivious to the fact he was appearing on The Hook Up, the station’s sexual health program.

“I get in the chair – thank god it wasn’t live – [and then] they were like, ‘Tell us about your personal experience with chlamydia’, and I was like, ‘Oh no, I’ve never had it’. You could hear ’em go, ‘Oh fuck, oh shit’,” Sandwith laughs.

the chats nme australia
CREDIT: Matt Walter for NME

The Chats’ origin story has been condensed by mainstream media as such: The three started the band in music class at Noosa’s St. Theresa’s Catholic College in 2016, and released ‘Smoko’ on YouTube to viral success in 2017 (at the time of writing, it’s sitting close to 10 million views). The video won them famous fans in none other than Dave Grohl, Iggy Pop and Queens Of The Stone Age, which you’ll already know if you’ve read the Australian music press in the last three years.

All three members grew up in the Sunshine Coast town of Coolum (Sandwith no longer lives there, though Boggis and Price have remained). Price describes it as “a small little town where you can’t drop a beer without everyone knowing about it”.

“Very, very big pub culture, big surfing culture. Bit of a jock culture I reckon,” Sandwith adds.

“There’s the pub, the surf club, the bowls club and that’s everywhere you can go to drink. We usually go to the bowls club ’cause it’s cheaper and it’s a more chill environment. Whereas at the pub, everyone knows each other there and everyone’s banned,” Sandwith says.

Until recently, that included Price – who’d shoved the bar staff after they refused to return his guitar, which he had stashed behind the counter before having a few tins.

Price isn’t too sore about the ban, but the pub remains a source of ire for the band because they won’t let The Chats play a gig there, even now.

“They’d rather secure a cover band they know people are going to see rather than have a local band,” Sandwith says.

the chats laneway sydney
CREDIT: Liting Ng for NME

Sandwith started to learn guitar in grade 5 “doing the whole lesson thing and playing fuckin’ ‘Ode To Joy’ or whatever”, but his interest didn’t take off until he discovered tabs online. Price grew up in a house with no less than 35 of his father’s “proper good” acoustic guitars. And Boggis picked up drums in grade 5 from a cousin, yet it wasn’t until Sandwith suggested starting a band that he decided to play again.

“Shit – we were just bored,” Boggis says.

Boggis was mostly into ’90s hip-hop when the band started, while Price loved the noodling blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the country music he grew up on. It was Sandwith who drove The Chats to be punk. He’d lived out an obsession over a generation old, hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time when he was 12 and listening to ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ three times a day.

“[Punk] was easy to play – four chords,” Price says.

“Nah, even two chords is too many,” Sandwith quips.

The Chats were a four-piece when they formed, with fellow classmate Tremayne McCarthy switching between bass and guitar. McCarthy even played bass on ‘Smoko’, though he didn’t appear in the video. Sandwith pauses when asked why McCarthy left.

“I think you’re the first person to ask that,” he says. “It was just a bad time for him and I don’t think he really wanted to be in the band. And he just wasn’t really committed. We still love Tremayne, he’s still a really good mate of ours. It was just a hard thing that had to happen for us to kind of progress.”

“It did suck,” Price adds.

“It sucked, yeah,” Sandwith agrees. “But he understood. He’s a legend and we’re lucky he took it so well. Because we could be in some sort of legal battle at the moment if he was a dick about it.”

When ‘Smoko’ became a hit, the band were determined to resist the encroaching authority of publicists or managers. At their first gig after the song went viral, The Chats were in the bottom support slot of a five-band show on the Gold Coast. An Australian YouTube prankster (who shall remain nameless) approached them with some emphatic advice.

“He started shouting, ‘You guys, don’t fuck this up, this what you have to do – you have to keep doing content’ and just drilling us. Like fuck man, you’re making me not want do anything,” Sandwith exclaims.

“It’s better to be doing what you want than what some cunt tells you to do.”

the chats nme australia
CREDIT: Matt Walter for NME

Their defiance in the face of authority, however, turned out to have realistic limits. The Chats completed two early tours with no management, but at great difficulty. On their first-ever tour, with fellow Australian DIY punks Dennis Commetti (“All of their songs are about footy… most of them are like, ‘Footy with the boys at the park!’”), the Chats relied on their tourmates for a backline, transport and a drum kit.

“We had no idea about packing up or anything. We just wouldn’t pack up on the night and like the next morning, we’d be like ‘Why is no one here? Where did all our shit go?’” Boggis laughs.

“We thought, ‘Oh yeah, music industry, easy’, then we realised, ‘Fuck, this is actually hard’. Particularly when you’re hungover on tour, trying to check your emails, like ugh,” Sandwith says.

Logistical prowess is not something fans expect of The Chats. What they have come to expect, though, is rowdy pub singalongs revolving around relatable motifs of Australian culture. And The Chats have happily obliged, penning whole tunes around references to pingers (ecstasy, for international readers), darts (cigarettes) and VB (Victoria Bitter beer).

But don’t call Sandwith a patriot.

“I’ve always liked living here. It’s a great country but there’s so much to be disappointed in recently… I won’t get into it but there’s not a lot to be proud of at the moment,” he says.

the chats laneway sydney
CREDIT: Liting Ng for NME

Unfortunately, the ocker language appeals to Australians who then misconstrue The Chats as patriots – something that became apparent last December when Sandwith released ‘I Hope Scott’s House Burns Down’ on social media, an acoustic song criticising Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s inaction during the bushfires.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Fucking love your tunes, love your shows, but just stay out of this shit, you don’t get it’. We’ve got every right to say what we want on our platform but I think yeah, ‘Smoko’ and stuff definitely attracted them,” Sandwith admits.

“I think most people can see we’re having a good time with it and we’re not trying to be like fucking Paul Hogan or something. We’re not trying to be an [Australian] ambassador or anything. It’s just what we see: everyday life.”

Sandwith is uninterested in writing fetishistic Australian fiction anyway, when the reality is probably funnier. Almost every Chats song has a backstory, no matter how mundane, that has riled the band up. ‘Keep The Grubs Out’ is the closest thing The Chats may get to an official diss track: Sandwith mockingly imitates the manager of Ric’s Bar in Brisbane, which once barred him from entry because of his mullet.

“They get the main security guard and they’re like ‘Spin around for us, mate’ and they’ll be like, ‘Well, it’s touching the collar, mate’ – like what the fuck? They’ll happily turn a blind eye to people selling pingers in their fucking club, but they won’t let me in because of my haircut,” Sandwith scoffs.

The song features a more spoken-word delivery from Sandwith, one that’s brought him to an unexpected musical epiphany.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of UK hip-hop lately, and I’ve kind of noticed their rhyming scheme is similar to what we use with lyrics. Like Sleaford Mods, Slowthai, that kind of shit. The drum beat and the bass – I could see us doing something like that,” he says.

Sandwith believes hip-hop artists have an inexplicable fascination with The Chats; Miguel and Post Malone have both posted ‘Smoko’ shoutouts in the past. The admiration, on Sandwith’s part, is mutual.

“Revival rock acts would traditionally be like, ‘Fuck hip-hop, that shit is so lame’, but it’s actually the punk movement right now. They’re doing their own labels and stuff, they’re doing it themselves. It’s a lot more punk than these punk bands that rip off a Green Day song and play those same chords to death – not that we’re not guilty of that. We’re self-aware. We know we’re not cool,” Sandwith says.

But 2020 is the year The Chats might very well become cool. First, though, they will have to provide incontrovertible proof they’re more than just a viral success story. With looming festival slots at Coachella and Splendour In The Grass, plus tours of the US and Europe coming up, are they still afraid it all might be a flash in the pan?

“No, ’cause we never had any expectations – we’d be like, ‘Oh well, we’d just keep slogging it out’ and we would have been having fun the whole time anyway,” Sandwith says. “Right now, if the band wasn’t doing anything I’d still be working at Coles.”

Sandwith would actually just be happy if the band finally got a gig at the unfriendly Coolum pub.

“That’d be a fuckin’ milestone. We’ll do a song about it. ‘Let Us Play Your Pub, You Cunts’!”

The Chats’ new album, ‘High Risk Behaviour’, is out March 27 on Bargain Bin Records and Cooking Vinyl Australia. Catch the band at Splendour In The Grass and on tour in North America in April-May and in the UK/Europe October. Find dates and tickets here.

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