For more than two decades The Waifs have been part of Australia’s musical landscape. However, the popular folk rock trio of Vikki, Donna and Josh haven’t been sighted much in these parts since their 2011 release Temptation. In fact, until they got together earlier this year to record their brand new album Beautiful You, they hadn’t seen much of each other either. Vikki Thorn is now based in Utah, Josh flits between California and NSW and Donna is back in Fremantle after an 8 year stint in Minneapolis. To make up for the time away, Waifs’ fans got a double dose of good news recently. Not only was the wonderful new Beautiful You album released in August but a huge national tour was also announced. The band is currently on the extensive Western Australian leg of the tour before heading east with dates running right through until November. The band’s Vikki Thorn took some time out to have a chat with us.
With each new recording and the things that you learn, does your sonic vision become clearer? Does it become easier to get the sounds in your heads down on tape?
Actually no. Playing music and singing is a very immediate, in the moment experience for me. I don’t have any Waifs’ sounds playing in my head that I need to get down on tape. We see ourselves primarily as a live band and the albums and the studio are a tool to document our songs. We rarely have any cohesive vision about what we’ll come out with. The only goal for us in a studio is to play it as live as possible and have some fun. I think Josh is the only member who really appreciates a studio environment.
What was it about the song Beautiful You that warranted it being the title track?
We wanted the album cover to be a mirror, but it was too expensive so we used a picture of us in the field. “Beautiful us” sounds conceited. The song is a plea to see humanity and compassion where there is anger, hurt and suffering. That’s a powerful sentiment. I don’t know ….the mirror was a good idea!
I believe you had a crack at the three of you writing together and that didn’t work. In the end, Donna wrote four, Josh three, and there were five from you. How complete were each other’s songs when you finally brought them to the band? Was there much collaboration to tweak them into shape?
The songs were 99% complete. We tend to record them as they were written. Having a producer for this record, we were open to the fact that he might tear things apart and re-assemble songs … that was my impression of a producer’s role. To our relief he didn’t. Nick Didia suggested a bridge in one of the tracks and a few lyric adjustments and worked through guitar hooks. But basically he said, “Lets play it how you do it”. The collaboration is all in the playing and is usually set in the first few times we play a song. If we start to talk or think about song components it goes downhill pretty fast. We’ve played together long enough (23 yrs) to trust each other’s intuition on what we’ll contribute to a song.
Do you record together as a band or record a lot of parts independently?
As live as possible is our ethos. I believe all the bed tracks are live. Guitar, bass and drums and about half the lead vocals. That’s what we look for in a studio space. Room enough to set up as a live band and play. Usually harmonies and guitar solos or 2nd guitar parts are tracked separately.
Was it difficult to let the album go and say it’s done?
No. We don’t have the luxury to linger. We got two weeks … git er dun. Get home to the kids.
Were there any songs left over which might see the light of day in the future?
I personally feel we left off some crackers. But they were contentious, so maybe they wont make it out.
How earnest is the set list discussion before you go out on tour?
I am being extremely earnest when I insist that only I know how to write a decent set list and the others very earnestly disagree.
Which of the new songs do you see developing into new favourites for the band to play?
‘Black Dirt Track’ puts a nice breathing space in the set. When we play it, I have a desire for it to last longer… double the solo, extend the outro. I love hearing Josh go crazy horse on ‘Rowena and Wallace’ and ‘Cracks of Dawn’. Josh has hang ups about long guitar solos, but he nails it beautifully when he just lets go.
You’ve toured Australia so much and in particular WA. Do you have a fave truck stop, cafe or hotels that you’ve become attached to?
Hmmmmm. Yeah, Barra Burgers at Wiluna Roadhouse.
What factors constitute a perfect Waifs gig?
When we are listening only to each other, when it becomes purely musical and lifts off the ground.
You must have experienced some interesting conditions at venues over the years. What were the worst conditions you ever had to play under?
I can’t say I will get into trouble. But I remember a gig in Utah at the end of a 10-month tour. We had to play to a dark theatre full of young school kids during their lunch break. . We were so tired and grumpy & not the wiggles. Certainly not the worst conditions but we were out of our depth on that one.
What are the main instruments that you all play?
Donna – plays an early 90s Maton that is beat up and beautiful. Deep, sweet and bright. In Australia, I tour with a vintage Maton, a solid workhorse. In the USA I tour with an early 60’s Texan Epiphone . Absolutely beat up, cracked, burnt and broken. I love it. Josh makes all of his own instruments. Right now he’s touring with two J45 style acoustics and 2 Joshua Telecasters and a uke. He also tours with a solid body archtop and strat that he made.
Any sentimental stories involved in the acquisition of any of the instruments?
When I first dated my husband-to-be we went to a vintage guitar shop in Salt Lake City. We played some instruments and I took a photo of a rack of acoustic guitars. Three years later we were betrothed, we visited again and I ended up buying my Epiphone Texan there. Recently I came across the photo of the rack of guitars. My Texan (easily identified by its many dings) is the first guitar on the rack in the photo I took on our first date. Awwwwww
Another one … our dad use to play guitar to us when we were little. We have a photo of him with a big Afro and all us three girls in our jammies in bed with dad playing this old acoustic guitar in the early 70s. I asked him a few years back about the guitar. He bought it from a friend who got it in England and he sold it to another mate some time later. I called up the mate who still had the guitar sitting in his shed and gave it back to me 35 years later. Don’t know what it is, a Japanese dreadnought with a pick clunky pick up in it and a leopard print pickguard.
Have you added any new gear for this tour?
Josh made himself a new Joshua Tele with a b string bender especially for this tour, cause the album’s got some country twang. He’s also taking a 1920’s tenor banjo that has tuning issues to use onstage.
What happens for The Waifs after this Australian tour?
We have lots of small tours lined up in the USA spring, summer and fall. There are some big outdoor shows in Australia in late summer. There are talks of doing something with a symphony orchestra.
What is the band most proud of?
We are most proud of still finding joy and meaning in playing and sharing music after 23 years.