Children Collide: “We decided to exit right before we would have gotten big”

The post-grunge trio are back with their first album in nearly 10 years, returning to their rudimentary sound that defined Aussie rock of the 2010s – even if they don’t get much credit

Two-thirds of Children Collide forgot this interview. “Oh fuck!” singer Johnny Mackay texts our press liaison after a gentle reminder. Bassist Chelsea Wheatley has the same expletive epiphany, recalling her media obligation when her friend asks her if she’d been “jamming recently”, dashing to join the four-way Zoom.

Drummer Ryan Caesar is on time though, chewing the fat from his office at Alpha60 – a boutique clothing brand he “runs a bunch of stuff for”. An aggressively large and masculine photo of a horse looms in the background. By the time everyone has arrived, NME feels like a plus-one at a school reunion.

“Chelsea, have you been sticking your fingers where they don’t belong?” Mackay giggles, ogling her bandaged hand.

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“I had a skateboarding accident!” she protests.

“Can everyone see enough of this vine on my desk? I love it,” Caesar declares.

“Alright, is that all the questions you have?” Mackay asks.

It’s a far cry from how the Melbourne rock band ended their first era almost 10 years ago, when Caesar explained his departure with a pithy statement: “Touring as a unit is no longer pleasant. And that is that”.

“I just needed to take a break,” Mackay says now. “I felt like it was giving me cancer.”

The singer moved to Brooklyn, dyed his near-waist-length hair electric blond, signed to the Tame Impala imprint Spinning Top and, encouraged by former Avalanches DJ Darren Seltmann, made bizarro electro-psych as Fascinator. What changed to bring the grungy trio back together?

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“It became pleasant again,” Caesar sings out.

“I joined the band. Vagina entered the band!” Wheatley says, to the cringing laughter of her bandmates. The bassist is young enough to remember buying a Children Collide song on iTunes.

Crucially, while the dynamic has changed, Children Collide’s song remains the same. Their first album in a decade, ‘Time Itself’, is more rudimentary than they ever have been. It ditches the backing tracks of 2012’s ‘Monument’ to celebrate the possibilities of the rock three-piece: yawning guitar drops, fuzz so heavy the instruments sound like they were coated in dust, Mackay’s growls like Kurt Cobain if he had simply cleared his throat.

“It’s so fucking fun. I think I’d forgotten how fun [rock music] was. There were songs burning a hole in my hard drive and it didn’t feel finished,” Mackay muses.

The sessions began three years ago, sans Wheatley due to scheduling issues, with producer Loren Humphrey in upstate New York. A basement designated a jam zone, the sounds of which could be recorded upstairs. A historic reel-to-reel machine sat there with tapes of The Stooges and Black Sabbath, making the sessions feel period-accurate.

“All we had to do at night was drink wine, smoke a joint and listen to Sabbath. Then we’d go back down and work on the songs,” Mackay remembers.

“It was all full takes, with very little editing,” Caesar adds. “I think it was just guitar overdubs. Loren was really adamant we do it in full takes.”

Humphrey’s emphasis on live, full takes flew in the face of anything that sounded overly composed. Mackay constructed a lengthy guitar solo for the cooing sludge of ‘Mind Spider’, but found on the final mix, to his surprise, a scratch-track version poached from one of the band’s loose jams.

“It sounds like a fucking crazy person played it. I closed my eyes, thinking about a person while I played,” Mackay laughs. “But the rough cut did sound better.”

The trio formed in the mid-2000s with the same meat-and-potatoes rock’n’roll ethos (Caesar was recruited via a formal audition). They sounded like The Vines with a fantastical sense of humour; their first hit ‘We Are Amphibious’ had four lines of lyrics about the evolution of prehistoric fish. Not coincidentally, Mackay recently submitted a song about seahorses to a Spongebob Squarepants movie (“It was pretty literal. Just words about seahorse life, delivered prosaically.”)

The band’s fanbase inflated with triple j fanfare on their first two albums ‘The Long Now’ and ‘The Theory Of Everything’ – in the last gasp of ’00s rock – before ‘Monument’’s grander arrangements fizzled. Aside from a brief 2014 reunion, the band remained dormant without a last hurrah. On their last few tours, Children Collide took then-young post-grunge acolytes, Dune Rats and Violent Soho, under their wing.

“We decided to exit that [sound] right before we would have gotten big,” Mackay laughs. “We felt like I left and went to the States, and then all those bands we used to tour with a bunch got massive!”

Children Collide album Time Itself interview 2021
Credit: Jordan Drysdale

Children Collide have a purist’s approach to the well-trodden sound, however.

“There are a lot of bands around now that reference the ’90s, but I never like the way they sound,” Mackay says. He gives a brief technical explanation, claiming the reason for the pretenders’ deficient sound is they use ‘00s Trace Elliot bass amplifiers, while he prefers a’60s Klipp amplifier – the tones of which were actual reference points for Nirvana, Fugazi and Sonic Youth. But Mackay feels a little self conscious, and rubbishes his own point.

In New York, Mackay was “the guest list friend” for those younger bands on the ascendant, occasionally pitching in as a second guitarist for Dune Rats. His time making outsider art in the Big Apple as Fascinator overlapped with new personal lows; he told Happy he “went through a breakup, I was basically homeless, I was sleeping on couches, I had no money”. The mise-en-scene of collective rage in Trump’s America collided with the political apathy of Australians, giving rise to a frustration he unleashes on new album track ‘SPS’: “You never cared about women’s rights / You never cared about people of colour / You never cared about queer culture”.

The consequences of Mackay’s broader experience of desolation in New York might get closer to explaining the improved Children Collide dynamic.

“Those hard times were quite brutal, rock bottom… I think going through that brings a lot more humility than probably what I used to bring to this band,” he says.

“It’s so fucking fun. I think I’d forgotten how fun rock music was”

Children Collide’s return, as with many other band reunions, can still be seen cynically as noughties nostalgia. And for Mackay, that originally was part of the plan.

“If I’d been smart, I would have kept [Children Collide] going all those years ago,” he laughs. “I actually hit up a label, right at the start, and said, ‘this is the eulogy’. They were like, ‘well, why would we want to put this out if it’s your last one?’”

But that no longer seems to be the plan, anyway. In the buffer between Melbourne’s rolling lockdowns, this writer caught the band at Collingwood institution The Tote. Children Collide were animated by unholy purpose – Mackay strangling the neck of his guitar as he bellowed through 2008’s ‘Social Currency’, Wheatley bashing her head into the air, and all contending deftly with a beer-soaked heckler who couldn’t deal with a moment’s silence between songs. They’re already writing another album with Wheatley on bass.

“I think I’m trapped in this for a while now,” Mackay says. “It’s just strangely turned out to be quite fun.”

Children Collide’s ‘Time Itself’ is out now via Spinning Top

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