It is with a heavy heart that I announce that November’s Monthly Nick was too busy ‘doing famous person shit’ to meet for a proper interview, so I have used this month to explore the musical adventures of a man with the same name as myself. Considering none of the Nicks I know are musicians, I felt like this was a great opportunity to look into the work of the band Safe Hands, under the understanding that if you leave something in safe hands, it will return to you… in good nick.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a music journalist describe a band’s live show as ‘chaotic’, I’d have enough coins to take them all to see the local noise band Safe Hands ¬– preferably at the Cambridge Hotel. Not only because it’s where I’ve seen them perform at their most outrageous, but because it is in walking distance from Market Town Officeworks, where they’d all need to purchase thesauruses to use in updating their previous writing. To my knowledge, no one does chaos quite like Safe Hands. Having been around since I first started regularly attending local shows, they are one of the only remaining Newcastle bands of which I still have fond youthhood memories, and their live shows have seen me through my awkward careers as both a hardcore musician and photographer. So, understandably, it was a very long time coming that I finally got to share eleven-or-so questions with their lead vocalist and lyricist, Benjamin ‘Diz’ Louttit (older brother of Jess Louttit, of Arthive fame), partly as a writer, but mostly as a fan.
Safe Hands, who have been my favourite Newcastle band for a long time, recently released their first full-length album ‘Montenegro’ on CD and vinyl, welcomed a new drummer and arrived home from a national tour with UK band Rolo Tomassi. The band have generally gotten into all kinds of trouble, so Ben and I had a lot to talk about – at 1AM, after a ridiculously long shelf-stacking gig.
1. TO BEGIN, COULD YOU PLEASE TELL THE READERS A BIT ABOUT YOU, AND YOUR BAND, AS IF THEY WERE TOURISTS?
Greetings. My name is Benjamin Louttit and I'm the vocalist and one-time bassist of Safe Hands. The band came to fruition in the last few months of 2006 as the brainchild of Anthony (Webster, guitar) and myself as our old band was breaking up. We recruited three mates and pottered around Newcastle for a few years before finally settling on a lineup that could do some solid touring in 2011. Around this time I switched from bass/backing vocals to lead vocals and we recorded an EP called Oh The Humanity which caught the interest of Adelaide-based independent label Pee Records. After getting a few interstate shows under our collective belts we got to writing and recording a full-length album entitled Montenegro which was released in March of this year, which coincided with a national tour and our first shows outside of Australia in South-East Asia.
1.5 ALSO, PLEASE TELL ME WHERE THE NAME 'SAFE HANDS' COMES FROM! I HAVE HEARD A FEW SCATTERED STORIES ABOUT THE 'SAFE HANDS' ORIGIN, BUT ITS TIME TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT!
The origin behind the name has been shrouded in secrecy for some reason, but it actually stems from when Anthony and some of our original members, Alex and James, spent time helping out at a school for autistic children. "Safe hands" is something the supervisors there would say to calm a child who was brandishing say a pair of scissors in a threatening way and it would put them into a lucid zen-like state. Anyway it was around the same time we needed a name and while it's not exactly memorable it just kind of stuck.
2. FOR THE MANY YEARS SAFE HANDS HAS BEEN TOGETHER, YOU'VE GONE THROUGH QUITE A FEW LINEUP CHANGES… YOU'VE EVEN RECENTLY GOT YOURSELF A NEW DRUMMER! DO YOU THINK YOURSELF AS THE SAME BAND AS YOU WERE WHEN YOU STARTED? WHO IS LEFT? WAS IT DAUNTING CHANGING FROM BASS/VOCALS TO LEAD VOCALS? HOW WAS IT ADAPTING TO A NEW WRITING PROCESS EACH TIME YOU CHANGED THE LINEUP?
Without any offence to the original incarnation of the band, we like to think the band proper began when Mick (Ayton, guitar) and Ben (Sanderson, drums) joined before we released Oh The Humanity. There was a stylistic jump there into more focused songwriting from everybody as a unit, rather than one person writing the whole song as it had been in the past. It was also around that time that we came to a collective realisation that we wanted to push this as far as we could. So while Anthony and myself are the only original members, the "v2.0" lineup really solidified the band as an entity. The change from bass to vocals wasn't a tough one as I was doing a fair amount of backing vocals before then anyway. The most daunting aspect was probably taking the bulk of lyric-writing duties as I'm way too hard on myself and it takes an eternity to get something down I'm 100% happy with. As far as the writing process goes, we had the same four core members for a good few years and we locked in pretty well in the practice studio and learned to compose as a unit. We've recently acquired a new drummer in Isaac (Gibson, also of Tired Minds) and I'm really excited to see where writing with him leads the band stylistically.
3. WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE, STAYING TOGETHER FOR SO LONG, WHEN SO MANY OTHER LOCAL BANDS HAVE BROKEN UP AROUND YOU? I IMAGINE YOU ALL GET ALONG VERY WELL AS FRIENDS AS WELL AS COLLABORATORS, BUT WHAT DO YOU THINK HAS KEPT THE BAND ALIVE FOR AS LONG AS IT HAS BEEN?
It's strange to be provided a kind of "elder statesmen" status purely because all the bands we used to share stages with are now defunct. The most interesting part was seeing a kind of new trend after our EP where the new bands in town were no longer all metalcore and breakdowns but ear-splitting feedback and instrument destruction instead, which was a pretty cool time. To be perfectly honest though, I can't really say what's kept us going other than we enjoy it and we haven't been beaten down enough to give it away yet.
3.5 THE FIRST TIME I EVER SAW YOU PLAY WOULD HAVE BEEN AROUND FOUR OR FIVE YEARS AGO AT HAMILTON STATION WITH THE AMITY AFFLICTION AND JAPANESE BAND PALM. YOU WERE STILL ON BASS/BACKING VOCALS AND JAMES OVEREND WAS ON GUITAR AND COWBOY BOOTS. JUST RECENTLY, PALM CAME BACK TO HAMILTON STATION AND IT WAS ALMOST THE SAME LINEUP AS THE LAST SHOW, APART FROM YOU BOTH BEING VERY DIFFERENT BANDS TO HOW YOU USED TO BE. WHAT WAS IT LIKE PLAYING WITH THEM AGAIN?
It was great being able to share a stage with Palm again. We opened their show in 2007 at the same venue, we can't have had more than half a dozen gigs to our name at the time. Interestingly enough, also on that bill was some band called The Amity Affliction (I wonder what happened to those guys?). It was cool to take stock of how far we'd come as a band from that show and Palm put on an incredible performance once again which had the whole of the Hamo enthralled from the get-go. So yeah it was wonderful to get that opportunity twice over.
4. AS A RESULT OF BEING TOGETHER FOR SO LONG, YOU'VE GOTTEN THE SUPPORTS FOR MANY TOURING BANDS STOPPING IN NEWCASTLE (PARKWAY DRIVE, LA DISPUTE, THE CHARIOT) AND MANAGED TO PLAY WITH MANY DIFFERENT ACTS ALL OVER THE COUNTRY - WHO HAVE BEEN YOUR FAVOURITE BANDS TO PLAY WITH, AND HANG OUT WITH?
As far as international acts go, we had a blast playing with Norma Jean and Vanna when they were here in May. Just being able to watch those guys every night was a real pleasure and very inspiring. Converge at the Manning Bar in February was basically a religious experience and hopefully we weren't too visibly nervous (despite Anthony nearly knocking himself out before playing a note). Pianos Become The Teeth also put on one of the most powerful sets I've ever seen at the Cambridge this past July too, very very tall order opening for them. Locally we've played with some amazing bands who've fast become our favourites not only as musicians but also as mates like Vanity from Perth, Bateman and Stockades from Melbourne, A Ghost Orchestra and Raccoon City Police Department from Adelaide, the list goes on.
5. YOU'VE TOURED ALL AROUND AUSTRALIA AND (MORE RECENTLY) ASIA - WHERE WAS YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE TO PLAY, AND HOW DO THE DIFFERENT SCENES STACK UP TO NEWCASTLE?
Personally I really love playing in Perth; the whole scene over there is very welcoming to bands from all facets of alternative music and is home to a slew of awesome bands. For a band that doesn't really adhere to many tropes of the hardcore genre it's always awesome to get such a warm reception. Recently we played a show in Cairns for the first time that will probably go down as one of my favourites too. Comparatively I find stacking up to Newcastle's always hard because we always have a blast sharing a room with all our mates who've supported us for years. Hopefully they'll keep coming back for a while.
6. I'M AWARE ANTHONY DID THE MAJORITY OF THE ARTWORK FOR THE FIRST FEW RELEASES AND EARLY MERCHANDISE - ARE THE BAND'S VISUALS STILL AN INSIDE JOB? WAS THE HILARIOUS 'DO YOU EVEN LIFT' T-SHIRT BY HIM AS WELL? ALSO, TELL ME ABOUT THE CONCEPT BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL DIGITAL PAINTING ON THE FRONT OF MONTENEGRO.
Up until Montenegro all artwork was put together by Anthony, who is guilty as charged regarding the Do You Even Lift tees as well, but for the album we wanted to try and outsource the design aspect as we were having a hard time coming up with anything and bickering too much really. The album cover was done by our friend David Whittaker who was gracious enough to work for door spots to all our future shows. He's done digital graphics work on Happy Feet 2, the upcoming Lego Movie, the video game L.A. Noire and more and we loved his landscapes. We went a little obvious as far as title-to-artwork goes (Montenegro literally translates to "black mountain") and just asked for a big evil looking mountain and he definitely delivered.
7. I FIND MONTENEGRO TO BE VERY DIFFERENT FROM YOUR LAST RELEASE, OH THE HUMANITY, AND FROM WHAT I CAN TELL, MONTENEGRO TAKES ON A LOT MORE PERSONAL SUBJECT MATTER THAN IN PREVIOUS RELEASES: PARTICULARLY ON THE TITLE TRACK, WHICH FEATURES AN APPEARANCE FROM LOCAL SONGWRITER AND SPECIAL FRIEND JEN BUXTON. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE MOTIVATION BEHIND THIS SONG, AND WHAT YOU THINK SETS THE TWO RECORDS IN QUESTION APART?
I'd say the biggest difference between the two releases is that while Oh The Humanity was kind of a compilation of songs written by different lineups of the band over a period of years, Montenegro was written entirely by the same group of people. I took a much larger workload as far as lyrics go as well and tried to tie the album together so it would be a cohesive journey for the listener. The title track is easily my favorite song and we hear from a lot of people that they feel the same way. The lyrics are about the period after I left home in Tamworth to go to University in Newcastle and my subsequent time attempting to adjust to life on your own. Obviously none of my grand plans ended up panning out, I've worked variations on the same job I've had since I was 16 and not really achieved anything that I wanted to. So the end section of that song that Jen helped out with is me trying to explain to my parents that I've found some kind of peace in playing music despite all of this, even though it's probably not what they may have wanted.
8. OUTSIDE OF THE BAND, WHAT SORT OF CAREERS DO YOU ALL HAVE? DO YOU EVER SEE SAFE HANDS BECOMING A FULL TIME GIG?
Most of us work nine to five. Anth works in a call centre, Mick works in mining, Gareth (Owen, bass) is a youth worker, Isaac teaches drums and I still stack shelves most nights when we don't have a show but am aiming for a career in library work. It keeps us all humble for sure. Obviously I'd love for Safe Hands to be a sustainable source of income but for the style of music it's not really feasible unfortunately. Someday.
9. THE PAST YEAR HAS SEEN YOU DO YOUR FIRST TWO VINYL RELEASES - FIRST THE SPLIT WITH VANITY AND YOU RELEASED THE ALBUM AS AN LP. HOW DID YOU FIND THIS PROCESS, AS OPPOSED TO CD/DIGITAL RELEASES? I'M INTERESTED IN YOUR MOTIVATION BEHIND RELEASING A FULL LP ON VINYL.
We're really stoked to have some releases on vinyl. There's been a real renaissance in the format in the last few years, working like a kind of antidote to digital music. People really seem to latch on to the collector element of it and I'll admit as a longtime CD collector even I've been swept up in it. It gives the listener a chance to experience the album on a grander scale, there's something very ritualistic in carefully handling a record, placing the needle, reading the insert sheet. We've easily sold more LPs of Montenegro than we have CDs and we're really stoked with how the tangible package turned out.
10. ALSO, I'D LIKE OUR READERS TO KNOW THE FULL STORY BEHIND THE DISASTERS THAT OCCURRED DURING YOUR TOUR WITH ROLO TOMASSI AND YOUR ESCAPE FROM RURAL QUEENSLAND.
Well it was quite the ordeal. We recently played some shows in far north Queensland for the first time and were (probably not sensibly) attempting a 26 hour drive from Cairns to Newcastle in order for some of us to make our jobs on time. We've started traveling on an inland highway early in the morning only to be treated to a veritable minefield of kangaroos, one of which eventually hit us dead on and busted our radiator. About four hours later we were towed back the way we came to a mining town called Charters Towers where we got damage assessments and did a lot of swearing. The eventual solution to getting home involved an overnight stay, the local bus, a hire car and lots of driving back and forth between CT and Townsville until us and our gear were in the one place, Townsville Airport. After appealing for people to buy some merch and help out we were very humbled by the amount of people asking how they could help. It definitely turned around a very bad situation.
11. FINALLY, BEFORE THANKING YOU FOR TAKING PART IN THIS INTERVIEW, I'D LIKE TO ASK WHAT'S NEXT FOR SAFE HANDS! I CERTAINLY CAN'T SEE YOU SLOWING DOWN ANY TIME SOON.
We're hoping to put together a benefit show to raise some more cash for our accident expenses which will hopefully occur before the end of the year. We've also got a new split release in the works with two songs we recorded in July at Sydney's The Brain Studios. That'll be available on 7" early 2014 at this point. Other than that we're going to try and play as much as we can around the country as we do and eventually hunker down to work on album #2. So yeah, very exciting times ahead.
Though Safe Hands currently don’t have any immediate tour plans, you will likely see them pop up on the bill of a local show sometime soon – so keep your eyes peeled! Their LP, Montenegro, is currently available to listen and purchase at their bandcamp page, along with the 2011 EP Oh The Humanity and their split with Vanity. You’ll probably want to get it on vinyl, because the blue splatter looks ridiculous!