While arranging an interview with exponentially-rising horror-country outfit Graveyard Train, I start to envision a leisurely dusk stroll through the fitting surrounds of Melbourne General Cemetery - an effort to complement the band's often macabre body of work, all the while discussing their imminent Halloween spectacular. As it turned out, today was hot - so hot that I'd probably start to envy the cemetery's occupants after ten minutes of frying in the sun. We eventually agree on meeting at Fitzroy's Old Bar - which makes just as much sense, considering the venue stands as Graveyard Train's spiritual home. Plus, it has beer. Delicious, cold beer.
A little sun-dazed and tipsy, I rest my pint and recording gear on the only occupied table in the Old Bar's back garden. Turns out the lone figure who I assumed to be Graveyard Train frontman Nick Finch was in fact Dan Sultan - it seems late-arvo at Old Bar is a hotbed for Melbourne's rock darlings. "You after Nick?" Dan offers. "Think he's upstairs." Thanks, Dan Sultan.
I don't know what I expected from upstairs at Old Bar, but as the sun swept through the curtains I could imagine the gallery space could easily be somebody's idea of heaven. The peak hour bustle of Johnston St felt like a world away, as if I was back at my grandparents' country homestead. I think I've had too much beer and too much sun. "You been up here before?" Nick asks. "I meant to come see that 'Australia's Worst Artist' exhibition, but I never got around to it. I take it this isn't it?" I say, gesturing to the tasteful works hanging on the wall. Nick laughs.
We head back downstairs to the beer garden, grabbing banjoist/dobroist Josh Crawley from the front bar along the way.
With the ragtag bunch of gadabouts set to take over The Forum this coming Halloween, we start off by examining just how the American holiday rests within the Australian psyche, and how it fits in with western society's philosophical standpoint on death itself.
"Yeah, I dunno. We're pretty Americanised through what we see through TV. It's just an excuse to dress up for this event," Nick ponders. "Definitely the last generation were probably a little more English, like your mum and dad probably were, so maybe they tried to keep away from the whole Americanised Halloween thing. It should be an Australian thing anyway, because it's just another opportunity for a big fuckin' piss-up," adds Josh.
"It seems like Day Of The Dead is becoming a big deal, especially in terms of the local music scene," Nick raises. The embracement of other cultures' perception of death may signify a sociological shift in Australia, but Nick doesn't feel as though Graveyard Train is going as far as to challenge the way we view our inevitable end. "I wouldn't think that I was being that highbrow," he chuckles. But there was a distinctly uplifting, and in some ways affecting, undertone to his raucous monologue during the climax of Graveyard Train's Sunday morning slot at this year's Golden Plains, in which he made it abundantly clear every single person there was going to die. "It's a lot of fun, that run of festivals - we did Port Fairy [Folk Festival] the night before, yelling at a bunch of slightly older people that they're all going to die. I don't know if it's really challenging them, but it's a lot of fun to do," Nick laughs. "Just telling a whole fucking bunch of people that they're going to die. But everybody is going to die." The rousing speech doesn't always go down with a hearty cheer, as Josh explains. "Up in Sydney there was a chick who had an epileptic fit during that song, and we didn't know what was going on. So no-one was cheering that one," he laughs. "It was awkward. Everyone was like, 'Make him stop, make him stop! There's a serious fuckin' situation in the audience!'" Nick recalls. "That was a rough one."
Anyone who's witnessed the band in action can attest that every Graveyard Train show stands as a spectacle to some extent. But as for adapting to the grand space of The Forum, it seems that there just might be something a little bit ridiculous in store. "We've certainly got a theme, with all this scarecrow nonsense going on. We've definitely got some sort of backdrop," Josh reveals. "We've gone a bit Spinal Tap," Nick laughs. "This show's a really big deal for us, so we figured we'd blow what little money and time we have building props." After viewing the six-piece in all their hearty chain-clanking glory, it's hard to imagine them hunched over a Janome in a band-wide arts and crafts session, but apparently that's what the lead-up to the Halloween spectacular demands. "We've had proper sessions, all of us in this little room making certain props - I'm talking four or five hundred of these... things," Josh hints, without delving too far into spoiler alert territory.
Though the Halloween show looks set to be a culmination of Graveyard Train's journey so far, the aforementioned Golden Plains will no doubt be embedded into both the festival's and the band's lore for eons to come. So much so, that the band have been offered a rare invitation of backing up the appearance with a slot at Meredith this year. The playing time in itself provides a yardstick in which to measure the outfit's rapid rise, Josh reveals. "We're playing a lot later at Meredith. They're looking after us - late Saturday afternoon apparently," he humbly states. "That Sunday morning slot was so fucking awesome. It's such a great festival, being on that stage. We didn't care if half the fucking festival was asleep, we just gave our all. It was really fun, and we're wrapt they asked us back," beams Nick. "Twice in one year, especially. It's Australia's best festival," Josh proclaims, pausing for a second. "Well I mean, all those other festivals we're playing are great too," he laughs.
The peaceful, sunlit Old Bar bandroom of today is a far cry from when Graveyard Train performed a triumphant run of three 'homecoming' shows a few months back, with those three intimately packed nights charting a contrast to the band's stunning rise through the echelons of music. "It was great," Nick recalls. "You don't want to lose the ability to play these types of stages. It kind of brings you back to reality. There are so many guys on our stage, so it is a nightmare to move around on a stage of that size. You've got a guy swinging a chain and a hammer. It keeps you in check," he muses. "Before those shows we were playing all the bigger stages, where it was a case of 'hey, how you guys going way over there?' Getting a bit big for our boots," says Josh. "The first of the three shows I did get a bit drunk, so it was like an old-fashioned Graveyard Train show in that sense," Nick laughs sheepishly.
You get the sense that Graveyard Train a leading the charge of a palpable movement in the local music scene, riding as the vanguard of a resurgent appreciation for the darker side of folk music. "I think that there's definitely some sort of movement in Melbourne. Not necessarily the horror thing, but the folk, alt-country side of things," Nick muses. "There are more country bands who are like us, in the sense that they can't be a 'proper' country band. So we've sort of bastardised it a bit I guess it just has these Australian, or even just Melbourne, traits to it," says Josh. "There are heaps of great Melbourne bands who we're happy to be alongside in that scene, bands we're really great friends with. I reckon there's definitely a movement, or a scene," Nick states. "Whether or not they're going to start singing about mummies remains to be seen," Josh raises in regard to Graveyard Train's penchant for B-grade horror monsters.
Now riding high at the forefront of this perceived scene, it wasn't all that long ago that Graveyard Train were just one of the Melbourne music scene's best kept secrets. "Well we certainly didn't try to be a secret. It was just one of those things," Josh ponders. "It's funny," Nick begins. "You just kind of keep reassessing goals and what you want to do and where you want to be. When you start off, you just aim to play a gig that is for someone that isn't just one of your friends. Then you get a lot of people coming to your gigs, then you want to have your own headline show. You just keep moving up and up," he continues.
"To do a headline show at The Tote, you just go, 'Fuck, that's amazing.' To do one at The Corner is like a lifelong dream. Then to do The Hi-Fi, and now The Forum. So I hope it does continue on the up," Josh states. So can we expect a Graveyard Train headline show at Rod Laver Arena this time next year? "Hopefully," Nick chuckles. "We're thinking maybe Grand Final pre-match entertainment." He's joking, but the notion isn't all that fanciful - especially after the shitstorm surrounding Meat Loaf's appearance this year. Somebody, get Demetriou on the phone.
Graveyard Train perform along with Brothers Grim and Highwater Ballroom Band for what is set to be their biggest headline show to date at The Forum this Monday October 31. Graveyard Train will also make their encore Supernatural Amphitheatre appearance at Meredith Music Festival, taking place Friday December 9 until Sunday December 11.Then they will cap off the year with a set at Pyramid Rock, kicking off Thursday December 29 at Phillip Island.