While talking to Josh Cunningham of the Waifs from his home on the south coast of NSW I imagined him overlooking a picturesque billabong with one of his favourite instruments by his side, and perhaps a cork bobbing on the surface at the end of a bamboo pole.
Cunningham has reason to be content given he and his band mates, sisters Donna Simpson and Vikki Thorn, are about to tour in support of their latest album Ironbark (Jarrah Records/MGM). The album contains 25 tracks, one for each year the band has been together and I asked Cunningham if the 25-song figure was intentional. ‘We didn’t really set out with that objective in mind, we didn’t know how many songs we’d have actually…we had 2 weeks to record something that would be a commemoration of our 25th anniversary…before we knew it we had 10 or a dozen songs and we still had a fair bit of time left…we actually ended up recording a little over 30 songs and ended up paring them back’.
From humble beginnings in a Toyota van, which incidentally has been donated to the custodian a of quasi-Waifs museum in Albany, the trio has been working together since 1992. Making an album in 2 weeks would be daunting to some groups but it came together quite naturally. ‘I think because of our shared history, our experiences together and the bonds we have it feels like we’re picking up where we left off and no time has elapsed in between…they [Simpson and Thorn] are two of the most significant people in my life, my favourite human beings, I love them dearly and am very inspired by them as well, people often ask who your musical inspirations are…I can honestly say that my major musical influences have been Donna and Vikki’.
Life on the road has never bothered Cunningham who prefers the simple life, something eluded to by the album cover which conjures feelings of late 19th century Australia. ‘Whatever age you’re at technology seems like it’s forging way ahead, in 1992 when we all met I don’t think there was even mobile phones…we always were that way, keep it simple, throw a few belongings in the camper van and drive from one town to another, just get out and play music…we’re all from rural regional kind of places so life is a bit more down to earth and simple anyway…living in a place where there’s fresh air, space around and you can grow a veggie garden, and drink rain water, it’s just a beautiful thing…that sort of stuff comes out in your music I think, which has been one of the appeals of the band over the years’.
The live shows on the national tour will be as a five piece including David MacDonald (drums) and Ben Franz (bass), but will be quite stripped back. ‘The album’s been out for a little while and people will be more familiar with it and have their favourite songs, we’ll have a reasonable amount of material from the new record, but given it is a 25 year celebration we’ll have songs from all the way through as well’.
Although the group no longer travels around in a camper van the Waifs will play 13 shows covering 5 states in the upcoming tour including the Gov in Adelaide on December 5. The band is no stranger to Adelaide, having recorded their second album Shelter Me (1998) at Mixmaster Studios in Hawthorndene. ‘We’d heard about Mixmaster Studios, they have a lot of great vintage gear, old school kind of gear which was attractive to us, and also the engineer [Chris Dickie] that worked with us was living in Adelaide at the time…and there was some accommodation component to it as well, it just seemed to be a good fit…we’ve always had great experiences in Adelaide…it’s a bit of a favourite place for me’.
by James Hickey