Bleeding Knees Club’s second album, Fade the Hammer, sees songwriter Alex Wall weave some far-flung influences into his bratty pop punk, from Lightnin’ Hopkins to doo-wop.By Dave Faulkner.
Bleeding Knees Club’s Fade the Hammer
Last month, Bleeding Knees Club released their second album of melodic punk gems, Fade the Hammer. The album comes six years after the band’s acclaimed debut, Nothing To Do – a veritable lifetime in pop years. But Fade the Hammer sounds like the work of fresh-faced teens. That’s partly because, as the band’s founder and songwriting genius Alex Wall told me, he deliberately writes Bleeding Knees Club songs from the imagined viewpoint of a 17-year-old. However, the exuberance of the music itself is the real reason this record sounds so youthful. Fade the Hammer is jumping out of its skin with excitement, and lovers of spiky pop will feel that rush as well.
In interviews, Wall has made no secret of his affection for Blink-182, a band that is almost as uncool as Nickelback these days. A couple of Fade the Hammer’s songs are cut from a similar pop-punk cloth. Opening track “Case” even employs the clichéd soft–loud dynamic to begin its final chorus – talk about chutzpah. Tongue in cheek or not, that cornball device still works a treat here.
Hard on the heels of “Case” comes “No Strings”, hurtling along with a devil-may-care swagger:
This morning I got out of bed with nothing on my plate
I could get burnt at the beach or drink some beer and skate
No one to tell me what to do
Nothing, no one, no attitude from you
No strings, no strings, no strings to tie me down
No strings, no strings, no strings to pull me round
The track cheekily baits hipsters with a reference to Limp Bizkit, another band few will admit to ever having liked. Wall doesn’t care if people cringe at the Blink-182 and Limp Bizkit references – if they do, his music probably isn’t meant for them either. Still in his 20s, for Wall these were simply bands he heard when he was growing up.
I interviewed Wall last week at the cafe overlooking the Bondi Icebergs pool. He grew up on the Gold Coast and learnt to skate and surf long before he thought about picking up a guitar. The surfer-skater punk ethos permeates everything Bleeding Knees Club do, and Wall is very serious about being not so serious. “Simple topics, simple songs, and it doesn’t need to be anything else,” he told me. “It’s meant to be, like, you know when you’re 17 and you feel like you rule the world? You think that everyone’s wrong but you. That’s what the band is.”
Wall doesn’t like to think of anyone sitting at home quietly pondering these songs – they’re meant to be the soundtrack for a bunch of friends letting off steam, or for singing along to while cruising in a car. The lyrics sound guileless, almost throwaway, but that belies the work that Wall puts into them. “It’s a challenge for me to write as if I was a 17-year-old and I like that … I don’t even party anymore,” he said with a laugh.
The next track, “Kitchen”, was most definitely written by someone who parties, and not so long ago from the sound of it. Wall admitted it was written about some wild nights he experienced two years ago while living in a punk share house in Los Angeles. “The whole ‘morning glory’ thing is about waking up and just being psyched on the time you had the night before,” he explained. “And then sometimes you wake up and you’re like, ‘Aw, I need to sort myself out.’ ”
Bleeding Knees Club songs always have strong pop sensibilities – Wall is a naturally gifted melodist – but the elegantly restrained “Kitchen” approaches dream pop in its wistfulness. It’s a duet with Sophie McComish, of Sydney band Body Type, and McComish’s gritty voice perfectly complements Wall’s trademark bratty vocals. His distinctive voice is undoubtedly one of Bleeding Knees Club’s strongest assets. Like punk trailblazer Joey Ramone before him, Wall’s singing has a timbre that is practically impossible to imitate – a punk rock voice par excellence.
The finale of “Kitchen” features a glockenspiel and that instrument appears again in “Behind”, the next song. “Glockenspiel is my favourite instrument,” Wall told me. “Everything feels good with it.” The lyrics of “Behind” continue the theme of “Kitchen” – dissipation in communal housing – as Wall sings, “I’m wasted, unwanted / A burden to my friends … Do you really want me – do you really want me here?” The song also features a short, minimalist guitar solo, which I believe is the first guitar lead on a Bleeding Knees Club song, though there is another, equally brief one on “Burning Crosses”, the standout track of Fade the Hammer. It will surely become a fan favourite in concert. It barrels along furiously, propelled by Wall’s indignant lyrics, which veer perilously close to social commentary, something he is usually scrupulous to avoid:
Heaven is a circle jerk
Jesus is begging on his knees
Burning crosses, burning skies
Someday, someday soon
Is anybody looking for something?
Is anybody looking for something?
Is anybody looking out for me?
While we can safely assume the singer is no fan of organised religion, his intention here is less profane than it first appears. As Wall explained, the principal target of this song is the self-congratulatory culture prevalent on social media. “All these people … jacking each other off, posing for photos with each other and sharing each other’s music – fuck them!” Their masturbatory heaven sounds hellish to him and he pictures Jesus on his knees, begging to get away. “I feel like Jesus would be [saying], ‘Oh man, there’s all these losers up here. I wish I could just leave and go down and hang out with Satan.’ ”
Guitars figure prominently throughout Fade the Hammer, as you would expect on a punk rock album, but Michael Barker’s melodic playing has added an entirely new flavour to the band. His guitar lines shadow the lead vocals on “Burning Crosses” and “Fist”, and elsewhere answer them with a counter melody, on songs such as “Behind” and “Break the Seal”. Bleeding Knees Club have become much more musically sophisticated since their lo-fi beginnings on the Gold Coast in 2010. Although he is still a huge fan of lo-fi music, Wall recognises that for many listeners it is an acquired taste. “I wanted to make a record people could listen to,” he said. “Not everyone wants to listen to a really scratchy, abrasive record … Lo-fi catches energy in a sense but it also hides a lot of stuff, and I don’t think these songs needed stuff hidden.”
I mentioned commercial pop punk bands as being touchstones for Bleeding Knees Club but, in reality, the influences are much deeper and broader. Black Flag are probably the single most important punk group for Wall, but he also adores music as diverse as the Delta blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Modern Lovers and classic doo-wop. “You can’t be unhappy listening to doo-wop,” he said. “Like, driving around in your car and listening to doo-wop on a sunny day is the best thing that you can do.”
Wall discovered these and many other artists on MySpace, a platform he misses. “It was really good for finding really small local bands,” he told me. If he heard a band he liked he would look at their MySpace profile. “Their top eight would usually be, like, local shitty bands that they thought were cool, and then you could go to those guys’ top eight and so forth. I don’t know whether you can do that anymore.” Modern streaming platforms such as Spotify, with its algorithm-directed if-you-like-this-you’ll-also-like recommendations, are laughably out of touch sometimes. “I looked at our [Spotify page] recently,” Wall said, “and, I don’t know, no one who listens to those bands [Spotify recommends] would listen to us … I wish I could pick our suggested artists.”
Having such a diverse array of musical influences prevents Bleeding Knees Club from falling into punk-by-numbers self-parody. The band’s biggest saving grace is having a very gifted songwriter at the helm, though. Wall’s songs combine pure pop melodies with punk rock riffing and a snotty attitude, and even when the lyrics are at their most angst-ridden, the results are exhilarating. Whether it’s the beautiful, shoegaze-influenced “Cherry” or the tough-as-teak “Break the Seal” or “Fist”, all three of which surprisingly feature synthesiser – a punk rock no-no – this is music that always cuts to the chase: simple topics, simple songs and, just like the man said, it doesn’t need to be anything else.
Bleeding Knees Club could have played it safe – and played it cool – by making a lo-fi record that would only appeal to hard-bitten punk fans. You know – the kind who cry sellout if the music sounds too accessible or, the biggest sin of all, becomes popular. Given the unadventurous mindset of commercial Australian radio and the Logan’s Run carousel that is Triple J, that’s not likely to happen for Bleeding Knees Club anyway, but in a musically just world, it would. In any event, Wall isn’t losing sleep over any of this. As he told me: “I can make a lo-fi record in my bedroom and listen to it myself … I have, and I don’t need to do it again. I’ve made plenty of those.” This time, he said, “I don’t care. I wanna do stuff for me.” On Fade the Hammer, Bleeding Knees Club sound tougher and tighter, lusher and brighter, than ever before. To borrow a phrase from Nick Lowe, this is pure pop for now people. So, what are you waiting for now, people? Go and get some.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Hammer and songs". Subscribe here.