The Willie Wagtails

Punk goes with just about everything – ska, country, Irish folk music and, in the case of The Willie Wagtails, bush/gypsy/jazz. It’s a corker of a combination – think Dropkick Murphys with a uniquely Aussie twang.

“Our trumpet player, Jeremiah Aaron Rose, tall, skinny, ugly fellow, actually disciplines people in the band, gives us smacks if we slip into a Nashville twang,” laughs Simon Burns, the band’s bassist. “There’s a lot of punk vibes in the band, we like the side of losing your shit and bouncing around on stage, but there are members of the band who enjoy a good ‘bush whack’ and have ideas about that being an authentic thing to do.”
The Willy Wagtails are a Melbourne-based five-piece who’ve been kicking about together since 2012, although Burns and Rose met about six years ago at a protest. “He had his trumpet and I had my guitar,” Burns recalls. “I play bass, but that’s not very practical at a protest. We just connected and ended up playing together for the whole day – eight hours in the rain, in front of police lines. Out of that came various things and one day we cooked up the idea to start the band.”
In terms of the band’s sound, there’s a direct lineage to some of Melbourne’s finest purveyors of jazz and punk. “If Frenzal Rhomb and the Band Who Knew Too Much had an ugly, ugly lovechild, we would want them to be in our band or at least come to our shows,” Burns chuckles. “For me, in terms of Melbourne, it all started with the Band Who Knew Too Much and Flap. That’s shared throughout the band. I deeply love those bands, that’s where I draw most of my musical inspiration and that’s what gets me dancing and makes life good in Melbourne.”
There’s a strong New Orleans’ style jazz thread in the band too and Burns has some pretty cogent observations about why jazz and punk sit together so comfortably. “There is a very distinct take on that type of jazz going on in Melbourne and there has been for a long time, going back to bands like the Red Onion Jazz Band in the ‘60s/‘70s,” Burns explains. “It’s just a music that carries so much melancholy and joy and at the same time so much unbelievable raw energy in a solo or in one of those long build up sections that can take you from the floor to the ceiling in a couple of minutes where the whole room ends up shouting and dancing – there’s incredible musicianship and it’s improvised. It combines all of the raw energy of punk, which is what I grew up on with the likes of Frenzal Rhomb, but it also has that ‘don’t give a fuck, music is an escape’ attitude. It combines that with hookiness – music that hooks into your heart and guts.”    
Burns is mindful of the fact that some of the musical traditions they’re tapping into can be pretty highbrow, which is something the band aims to avoid. “One of the original things around which the band cohered was Cold Chisel covers,” explains Burns. “We stole an idea directly from the Whodangers, who were covering Khe Sanh and we had a lot of fun doing that for a while. That encapsulates a lot of it – ‘Play some fucking Chisel,’ and you bring out this jazz cover.” It makes sense, especially because some of the band’s members have some pretty serious musical backgrounds and use The Willie Wagtails as a form of conservatorium recovery. “They’ve come from this highbrow, high pressure world and taken that and gone, ‘This is what the fuck I want to do with it, thank you very much’,” Burns observes.
As befitting the punk ethos, the band’s up for a bit of anarchy. Burns describes them as a street band fundamentally, who cut their teeth busking. “We recently played at the Guildford Banjo Jamboree, of all places, and that was fantastic, but after our gig we went out into the street and there were people around, so we had a jam,” recalls Burns. “There were people milling around with and without instruments, watching, dancing. Then we got pushed into the beer garden, where we played an impromptu set for another 45 minutes.”

THE WILLIE WAGTAILS will play the Coburg Night Market on Friday December 12.