Melodic country rock band Route 33 has two core members: Trent McArdle and Jock Barnes, who grew up in Ipswich, Queensland, and now live in Brisbane. In their first band, Golden Child, they played other people’s songs; now they play their own and they’ve released a debut album, The Switch. Recently I spoke to Trent McArdle and found out about the formation of his musical partnership with Jock. The conversation took place while Trent was driving to a gig on the Sunshine Coast and that was how we got on to the subject of him playing piano, as he takes a keyboard set-up with him to each show.

How long have you been playing piano?
Dad made me start it because all I did was play footy and stuff when I was ten or eleven. He said, ‘You’ve got to do music or debating or chess or something’, and it pulled my teeth but I started piano. That would have been twenty years ago now – because I’m bloody thirty, getting on. That’s how many years I’ve been playing.
Thirty is not ‘getting on’ – thirty is the new fifteen.
I hope that’s the case. I’m trying to get my head around it.
When you were a kid playing piano and I would imagine some of your mates were still playing footy and not playing piano, were you a bit sceptical about it?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The first few years I basically didn’t tell anyone I played and that was not because I was scared of ridicule or anything – and funnily enough I met Jock through his brother, Derek Barnes, who’s a Wallaby. He’s the biggest musical lover I know, so he’d always come over and we’d play piano and jam on different songs. He’d show me country music and all that stuff. But people in Grade Twelve at my school didn’t even know that I played and I jumped up one day with a barbershop quartet and played a crooner song, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing’, and people kind of sat there like they’d seen a dead person. A football scholarship holder getting up to play piano was a bit unorthodox. I didn’t mind, I didn’t care about the ridicule, it was more that it just didn’t come up.
I wouldn’t mind betting that your father thought you should be a well-rounded young man – but sport and music are really related because of that principle of drills. You have to drill piano – you have to do your scales, you have to do your Hanon – then you can play pieces, and sport is the same: drill, drill, drill and then you get to play.
Tennis is one of the most demanding sports – for me it was swimming and rugby, so waking up at 5 a.m. was just something you had to do. When you were ten you were getting up at 5 a.m. So doing piano practice was not an issue because it was something that was instilled in another side of life. I’ve got to do something I don’t like to do, which is scales and this and that if I want to play this type of song, be it classical, modern, jazz, whatever it is, until you had those drills and skills you had to do that.
You clearly have a really solid musical grounding, then, but that’s not necessarily a continuum into doing music even as a side gig. What prompted you to start playing – I know you two were in a covers band for a while?
Jock has driven us starting the cover band and then Jock has driven us starting the original music. I was living on the Coast trying to be a professional iron man and he kept bugging me: ‘Let’s do this band thing, let’s do this band thing.’ And his brother kept saying, ‘You guys should do it.’ I just basically ignored him for a while until he rang me one day and said, ‘I got us a gig, so you’d better be ready.’ And then we turned up to do this gig off the back of nothing. We had a singer at the time – neither of us sang. Then the natural progression happened: the band grew, and then one of our singers panicked one night and ran off stage. Jock and I looked at each other and I said, ‘You sing’, and he said, ‘No – you sing.’ And I lost the game of chicken and that’s how I started singing. From there we went to the CMA fest in 2015 in Nashville. We were doing writing as a hobby and that was where we said, ‘Let’s have a fair crack at this – let’s see if we can turn these originals into something.’ And then it’s been about an eighteen-month process to where we are now.
When you lost that game of chicken and started to sing, what did that feel like? Was it a natural thing or were you a bit scared?
No, no, I thought I was atrocious. I’ll always remember the first song – it was ‘Wonderwall’ – and Jock just stood there. He’d won the game of chicken; he didn’t start singing. It was a blessing in disguise – it was the best thing that could have happened. Because he felt bad that I was singing, he started doing harmonies. Before that we didn’t even have a microphone stuck in front of us. So it wasn’t natural at all. The first three or four months we were a bit worried about it but I suppose it progressed.
 Well, it certainly has progressed because now you’re singing on your own tracks. So that move into original music – that’s a fairly logical progression, but I’m interested in what working in a cover band taught you about audiences and how to get audiences to respond.
When we started doing this I said, ‘I’ll go around and see what other bands do well and not well.’ The biggest thing for me, as a cover band, was song selection and getting that right. And Jock said this in an interview the other day – and I hadn’t thought of it this way – by doing cover music I feel like you work out what punters like and don’t like, and sometimes that’s a surprising thing. When we write – because we’ve done so many cover gigs, I guess it’s a self-conscious thing where you go, ‘I’m not writing for me here.’ I mean, you do somewhat, but I’m writing thinking, What would someone at the Roma Cup who’s ten runs deep, whose just had a win on the horses – what would they want to hear? Would this be something you could see them singing along to? So just trying to relate it to those audiences. Because we’ve had gigs, especially when we’ve started, where they don’t even want to hear you. You’re in a bar and they don’t want to hear you. By the end, because we’ve got a reasonable name in south-east Queensland, we were getting gigs as a headline act even though we were a cover band, which was good. People were excited to see us. At the start it was trying to learn how to read an audience and I’ve always stated to my band now: it’s all about energy. If we’re enjoying ourselves, they’ll probably enjoy themselves too. If it looks like work, then they’re going to feel that and not vibe with you. 
And when you’re thinking about what that person at the Roma Cup wants to hear, when it comes to writing your own material you therefore have to be pretty ruthless with yourself, I guess, because you might want to go off on a certain path and indulge a certain emotion or story, but if you keep that focus on the audience, it does help you to be a lean writing machine.
It’s about simplicity, and I think no other band in the world has done it better in history than The Beatles. Their songs are so simplistic and when I hear great writers – the modern-day ones in Nashville that are performing are Chris Stapleton and Thomas Rhett. They just keep producing these songs that are so unbelievable simple that you can’t get them out of your head. If you go too in-depth you start losing people.
It’s very much a part of country music, to entertain an audience. Australian country music acts really feel that connection with the audience and a responsibility to the audience. You mentioned ‘Wonderwall’ but that’s obviously not a country song, so what informed your move into the country music genre?
Jock is huge into the Australian country side of things. He’s originally from Kingaroy [Queensland]. His family’s from Long Reach. So he grew up on Troy Cassar-Daley, John Williamson and Slim Dusty. And obviously you listen to what your parents listen to. My parents jammed a lot of Cold Chisel down my throat. The Eagles, the Beach Boys, AC/DC, Johnny Diesel, Hunters and Collectors, so I was into more that Australian rock stuff. And then I did a semester of college in America, on a swimming scholarship, in ’06 and that’s when I discovered country: Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks, and I thought, Wow, this is amazing. And that’s what Jock had been listening to for twenty years already. So that’s how it naturally went down that path. And also Golden Child, the cover band thing, because we were doing so many of those big country events – we played rock but also your ‘Wagon Wheels’ and your ‘Chicken Frieds’ and ‘Boys from the Bush’ and all of that stuff, it’s the influence of your audience and they’re all those country people or urban cowboys.
You mentioned Cold Chisel – I think ‘Khe Sanh’ is a country song, in the construction of it.
Yep – the way it’s constructed, the way it’s worded, the phrasing in it, absolutely. In Tamworth there’s the age-old argument: ‘Is this country or isn’t it?’ It’s such a blurred line but I’d absolutely agree. A lot of what Chisel write is veering on that kind of thing.
When it came to choosing your band name, how did that come about?
We wanted to keep Golden Child [the name of the cover band] originally because there was a bit of a funny story behind that, and basically our publicist said, ‘You can’t do that.’ We couldn’t think of anything. My girlfriend was driving home one night and she looked up at the sign on Coronation Drive all the way out to Ipswich and the road is actually 33. Obviously we don’t call them ‘routes’ in Australia but in America they do. Now we’re looking at the Australian market but long term we’d love to take one-tenth of how well Keith Urban did. So the influence of route 33: it’s the road Jock and I both grew up off; our very first gig was out at Ipswich and that’s the road that goes to Ipswich. And the ‘swich’ in ‘Ipswich’ ties in with the switch from covers to originals. We wanted to get something that wasn’t a random name – we wanted something that would half tell a story to it, so we came up with that.
You normally play in a six-piece band – who else is in your band and how did you come to meet them?
With the cover band it’s been a natural progression, and the more high demand you get in cover music the more you get paid. The more we get paid, the more we can pay people that are playing for us. Jock and I always had a thing that we’d pay everyone exactly the same, even though it’s our band we own the equipment. What we’re able to do is get some of the best session musicians in the country. Our drummer now has played with Wolfmother, Jamiroquai, Bernard Fanning. The guitarist has played with Delta Goodrem, Conrad Sewell, Midnight Sun – a couple of ARIA bands. The saxophonist has been with the Ten Tenors. We always wanted to make sure if the album did anything, we could build the band around us that was going to shape up against any band in the country so that’s why we got these guys in. The funny thing is, they’ve come from different backgrounds – they wouldn’t have known who Florida Georgia Line was a year ago – and now they’re getting right into it, which is a cool thing.
Do you have plans to tour the album?
Not yet. We’re being guided by Tom Inglis, who’s our publicist. He wants us to play those festival bills: Gympie Muster, Broadbeach, CMC next year. I’m in talk with Damian from Viper Creek about doing a tour and supporting those guys. But honestly we’re getting guided at the moment. We’re getting real good help from some of the people at ABC [Music] and some of the people at Sony who are interested, you might call it. It will be guided by stuff they put in front of us as well. What Jock and I are focusing on right now, we’ve got another album that we want to get into the studio as soon as possible. We just loved the experience the first time and we’re thinking and hoping that the next songs are even stronger. We want to get into that in the next month or two then just be guided on the tour stuff and go from there.
A producer is a big part of any album’s sound, and obviously yours understood what you were trying to do because the sound is clean and tight. And a producer who understands you can almost be like another member of the band. Except is seems like you and Jock have your collaboration pretty well sorted so you don’t necessarily need another member.
At the same time a good producer can put their extra eyes on it. Jock and I can’t for the life of us write a song together. Every song in the album is either written by him or written by me. At the end of it we might change it up – I might change a few things [in his songs] and vice versa. But we’ve sat down and tried to write together and we just end up watching football or talking about other things. So even though we’re tight on the business side of things, that cowriting is still a work in progress.
The Switch is out now.