Newcastle, NSW, band Whistle Dixie have a wonderful new album, Blast Off, that captures their old-time sound and wonderful harmonies. But while the band’s sound is firmly in the country music pantheon, they are now known to all sorts of audiences, having appeared as a support act for artists such as Diesel and The Whitlams. This year they’ve appeared at the Groundwater Music Festival and this weekend they’ll be at the Gympie Muster, and the Deni Ute Muster in October. I found out more about the band recently by talking ot multi-instrumentalist John.
How did the band form? I did my research but could not find that story.
We formed about five years ago. I met Sheldon first. We were friends through church and then both had a love to for this style and genre [of music]. We got together and played and it worked really, really well. We then started auditioning a few years later for a new singer and Sheldon had grown up with Kyla. Kyla was singing with Seven Sopranos. We contacted her to see if she’d be interested in auditioning. She was the last interview out of a whole bunch and she blew us away, and the rest is history. It just really blended beautifully.
So you said you and Sheldon had a love for this kind of music. Where did that start for you? What’s your musical background?
My dad used to listen to country music while I was growing up and had a brother who was spinning records and playing fifties rock and roll record. So I guess I never had a chance! As I got into my teenage years I got into rock, as you do, and country wasn’t even a thought. But then I heard a song called ‘I Found Jesus on the Jail House Floor’ by George Strait. I was with some friends and heard this song on the radio and I told them basically to be quiet. I remember listening to the guitar and the music. That moment changed my life, I guess. It was just one of the defining moments. I later found out the guitar player was Brent Mason, who is one of the most recorded guitar players in the country. So I kind of fell in love with it from that point onwards. It comes down to a single song and, and now it’s just how we are and how we live.
So once you had that moment of hearing that song, did you then start exploring? Almost like a research project, you thought, I have to find out as much about this music as possible?
Yes, definitely. That got me into the journey and the search. I had to find more things from that sound and then bit by bit that just became everything I was listening to. I got this deep appreciation and from there really got into the country scene. I was playing guitar for a little while with some country bands on the rock/country scene, but I was always drawn back to this style, and always had the vision to put something like this together and just blend it. So when Kyla came on board it felt like it was this beautiful mix. When something feels right, you know, and that was it. So the journey from hearing a song many, many years ago through to today … it all changed with a song.
And a very powerful song, obviously. You play piano, banjo, guitar and stomp. What instruments does Sheldon play?
Sheldon’s our percussionist, so she does upright drum. She also plays tambourine, and all those instruments are really important to our sound. She also plays guitar and piano, and she writes on those as well. We both do the writing and she also plays but she doesn’t tell anyone that [laughs].
What instrument do you like writing on?
I write in my head to start with. I have a song happening in my head and then I go to the guitar, usually. There is a song on our debut album, ‘Doghouse’, which was written on piano. But primarily I start the songs with ideas and then I roll those around in my head and then once I’ve got something down pat I’ll put the music to it on the guitar.
I’ve heard that banjo is a lot harder than guitar. Is that true for you?
To some degree it’s a bit of a cheat because I play a six-string banjo, so it’s more of a ganjo. I can play some chords on an actual banjo, but the one that I use when I’m playing with the band is a ganjo, so it’s very similar to what Keith Urban uses. But I guess I play it in a different style to try and make it sound a bit more like a banjo. But definitely it’s one of those instruments where I think it just takes a bit of time to get your finesse and try and work out what you’re doing. But it’s like anything, patience and persistence will get you there.
Given that there’s three of you, is it a democracy or do you tend to have power struggles about how songs go, how performances go?
It probably sounds a bit like a cliché, but we actually feel like more of a family than a band. We all, funnily enough, really like each other. Because we were all friends prior – Sheldon and Kyla were friends, I was friends with Sheldon, and now we’re all friends. We’ve been doing this for a while and it really just feels like a big family. All of our extended families are involved. So for us it’s not really an issue that’s raised its head. I think, like anything, good communication is the key. And we’ve all got our allocated roles in the band as well. So there have been no issues and I think if we did [have them] we’d just talk it out and we’d be fine.
The band sounds like it’s tight. So do you rehearse regularly even if you don’t have gigs coming up?
Kyla and myself are in Newcastle – Sheldon is in Queensland. So before we do a big festival Sheldon will fly down, we’ll do rehearsals and then we’ll go from there. It’s about everyone being committed to really having their heads around the songs, which we do, and we’ve been playing together long enough now that we feel like we have a couple of practices and we’re back again. So it sounds like it would be a challenge being out of state, but it really hasn’t been a problem at all.
Given that you play so many instruments, do you play in other bands as well?
I played for a little while – I think I did 12 months – with the Viper Creek Band, a country band. I’ve played a bit of stuff with the Will Day Band. That is something that because of what I’m doing now has just gotten really busy. It’s my passion, that’s my main focus at the moment. On occasion I will fill in for some bands, but much primarily now my main focus is Whistle Dixie.
And has Newcastle been a supportive musical environment for you?
This is something that we’re asked a lot, where we’re going to play in Newcastle. The main venue in Newcastle that we play is called Lizotte’s and we feel very blessed to play there. It’s an amazing venue and we’ve had the opportunity to open up for some pretty incredible artists there. So pretty much Newcastle is Lizotte’s for us, but the majority of our other shows are all around the state. This year we’ve played in Queensland and Victoria and those types of things, but we don’t play a lot of shows in our hometown.
I was thinking even when you were developing as a young artist, was it a town where you thought music was part of the culture?
Definitely. There is a strong singer-songwriter culture in Newcastle so growing up I’d play guitar for different singer-songwriters and you would learn process through that. Certainly there is a strong musical kind of vein running through Newcastle – and you just have to look at who is coming out of Newcastle. You have Silverchair, more recently Morgan Evans. Troy Kemp, the Viper Creek Band, and all those bands that have come through. It’s certainly a really good breeding ground for some very talented bands. It’s just for us, most of our shows are out of Newcastle. We’ve had the opportunity to open up for a lot of non-country artists. We’ve done support for The Whitlams. We’ve done multiple shows with Diesel, the Black Sorrows, and it’s one of those things where we absolutely love it because the non-country crowd digs what we do. So we love playing for country and non-country crowds, and it’s something that we’ve been very fortunate to do.
I think your sound’s really developed, so you obviously have a very clear sense of who you are as a band and who you are as artists within that band. That denotes professionalism, and audiences respond to professionalism when they see it.
We always want to constantly tighten screws and get it as good as possible. Part of it is that we are so passionate about this style and this music. It’s not something that we do, it’s something that we live through all of our lives, we’re so involved in this style of music, from how we normally dress and all that kind of stuff. So for us it’s an extension of who we are. That probably sounds clichéd, but it really is true. It’s something we’re so passionate about, and I think that also comes through in what we do. And that makes it easier than to put the hard yards in and to make sure that it is right before it goes to stage. We absolutely love what we do. We love that we’re given the opportunity to do that. And we’re so stoked this year that we’ve got some incredible festivals there, that we get to kind of share that with the water audience.
You have three big festivals coming up, so it sounds as though you like a big crowd.
We do. Wherever we play we love it. We’ve done plenty of smaller venues. But for festivals, it’s such a great experience and you get to meet a lot of people who know you from throughout the state, so it’s good to touch base with the band’s fans.
A different sort of live performance is busking and you were finalists in the 2017 busking championship. So I’m wondering what you think the key to successful busking is?
We had some shows booked in Tamworth and we decided one Saturday night to just go and set up in the mall [on Peel Street] because we hadn’t busked before. We decided to do it because it is something that is very grassroots. So I think we were two songs in and these guys came up and said, ‘Hey, you’re in the finals.’ It wasn’t in our heads [to do that]. But the key in all of this is authenticity and I think no matter where you’re playing to be able to engage an audience, and to really do what you love, I think is important. But I think the authenticity, there’s not enough of that. There needs to be more authenticity, and I think that really shows [in our music].
It goes back to what you were saying about how this is not just what you do, it’s who you are. That cliché of walking the talk is true. And that has to necessarily shape how you create your music because if it’s always in your blood, so to speak, then when you perform that is going to come out.
Definitely. It really is just who we are. And it’s funny that now I see that in my kids as well. One of my daughters records herself and they’re all into country and they know everyone. They know Little Jimmy Dickens and Hank Williams. And I think that experience of growing up with it is so important. That’s what I had growing up. Even when I wasn’t into country music I still had this appreciation for it because I grew up with it. It’s something that’s bred into your soul a little bit.
Well, it sounds like you’re training up your next band.
[Laughs] We are. I’ve got musical daughters and one of my daughters is very passionate about singing and has an incredible voice. It’s great to see that next generation coming through.
And it must be so satisfying for you as well because she has to have been influenced by what you’re doing.
You can hear that through her voice. She’s got a real country twang to her voice. She’s grown up listening to bluegrass, country, Americana, all that kind of stuff, which a lot of kids don’t. So we’re very stoked with that.
You’ve talked about entertaining an audience and your album also sounds like part of it, at least, has been created to entertain. It seems to me like you consider yourself to be entertainers as much as musicians, but I’m wondering what sort of craft goes into being entertainers, because it’s not something that necessarily comes naturally to people.
Oh, definitely not. I think you really have to learn from the best. I think it’s important to go and see shows, go and watch how people do this and you can learn a lot from that. I’m a massive fan of Bruce Springsteen and he is someone who if you go and see him live, he doesn’t have lights, he doesn’t have anything, but he’ll walk out and you are just captivated from the moment that you’re there to the moment that he leaves the stage. People like Elvis Presley – the one thing that comes through there is this authenticity and love for the style. And it takes time to develop that on stage and to get comfortable, but being in a band that is very supportive of each other and, as I said before, like a family when you’re onstage, it does feel so supportive because it feels like you’re there with your family. So it’s a really special band.
Talking about your album, Blast Off, which is newly released and has 12 fantastic songs on it, I’m wondering how long it took you to write and record.
Good question. Some of those tracks I guess we’ve been working on, and playing live for maybe 12 months. Some of the newer ones – ‘Wildfire’, which was written by Sheldon, is a relatively new song. ‘Doghouse’ is one that I wrote fairly recently for the album. We thought, We’re doing an album, we want to write some material. And ‘You Ain’t Getting It Tonight’ is another one that I wrote for the album specifically. So it’s a good mix of new and some other ones that have been around for a bit longer. But the recording process – we do things a little bit differently. We try to do the majority of the recording live, and a lot of the album is recorded live, in the same way that you would have recorded, say, at Sun Studio in Memphis back in the 50s. We did an EP many moons ago and we pieced it together, and got to the end of that EP and said, ‘It sounds good, but it doesn’t sound like us.’ So subsequently we tried recording all together live and that’s what you hear on the record. We went back and said, ‘That’s our sound, that’s what we want.’ So the majority of stuff that we do is done live. There are very few overdubs on the album. It’s something we will always do as because you walk away with a sound that replicates you on stage and off.
Do you enjoy the recording process or do you prefer performing to an audience?
I enjoy aspects of recording. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of focus, especially when you are doing it live. So it’s a good mix of excitement and also anticipation, just to make sure that it’s right. I think overall the whole process is enjoyable, but there are aspects of it that can be scary at times. It’s certainly worth it once you get the finished product. And I think that the key for us is that we’re always wanting the album to represent what we sound like and who we are live, and I think that’s something that that just takes time to develop in the studio. And the whole process of recording live is massively important.
We’ve talked about festival appearances and I know that Tamworth is a few months away, but I also know the gigs start getting booked up early. So is Tamworth next year happening for you?
At this stage we haven’t booked in Tamworth but definitely I will be looking into that one in the coming months. Tamworth’s always been one that we love to get to.
Would you you busk again even if you do have dates booked?
If we happen to be there and there happens to be a chance for us to do that, we would definitely do that again. That’s such a big part of that festival and it’s just great to do that. I remember seeing a lot of bands that would go and play Tamworth and would go and do busking sets in the mall. I always loved that aspect of it.
Blast Off is out now.