When co-frontman of The Saboteurs, Brendan Benson, announced to a Melbourne crowd back in April that it felt good to finally play their first Australian show, it was a wink to one of the most amusing legal disputes in modern rock.
Back in 2005, the release of their debut record under the name The Raconteurs was delayed in Australia as a Queensland jazz group of the same name objected to its use. Instead of paying the exorbitant fee requested, notable other co-frontman Jack White decided to change their local name to The Saboteurs. According to bassist “Little” Jack Lawrence, the band bears no bitterness toward the Queenslanders.
“I think we all just found it amusing,” Lawrence tells us. “We were thinking later we should have asked The Raconteurs to open for us.”
Their triumphant Australian debut this year also marked the band’s first show in eight years. In that time, the idea of the band as a Jack White-powered supergroup has softened, even internally. Their comeback album Help Us Stranger, recorded at White’s Third Man Studios in Nashville, is the first to credit the entire band with production duties. The album title was changed from Help Me Stranger to Help Us Stranger to better illustrate its collective nature.
“We were always pretty democratic, but this time all of us were there for everything,” Lawrence explains. “Mixing, recording, arranging. We’ve just all grown, and I think we all have better opinions on how things should be.”
It’s hard to boast about a traditional rock’n’roll record in 2019 without people understandably wincing, but Help Us Stranger manages to be the exception to the rule. It has White’s thunderous guitar and Benson’s pop instinct, with an emphasis on simple fun.
The songwriting largely does away with the gothic parables of 2010’s Consolers of the Lonely and puts personality on a pedestal. The hi-fi production is the glue of the record, giving it a modern exterior. Ironically, the production can be at least partially credited to FM radio.
“I had read something about Motown using an FM transmitter when they were mixing and then they’d go out into the car to listen to it,” Lawrence explains. “If it sounded good in the car, then they knew they had something good going on. For Jack’s birthday, when he had first completed the [Third Man] studio, I bought him that FM transmitter. We used it at Vance [Powell’s] studio when we were mixing it.”
Analogue methods for digital ends is a common motif on the record; the beginning of ‘Help Me Stranger’ features Lawrence singing the chorus lyric behind dodgy mic levels, with an abrupt loop making it sound like a sample.
“The lyrics just seemed, as I’m looking at them, very traditional in that style. I just started singing like the old traditional way and they just hit record and I didn’t realise it,” Lawrence says.
The new LP asks less of music journalists too, with a more typical three pre-release singles and a tour as opposed to Consolers of the Lonely’s surprise release. It’s amusing to look back at the latter record’s decade-old press cycle to see how much discussion a surprise release could cause before the streaming age.
Whether this newfound comfort means The Saboteurs are back to the routine of being a “band” is hard to say.
“We’ve always done it when it felt right at the time, and right now it feels great,” Lawrence says. “We’re all getting on and the shows have been great and I think we’re all really enjoying playing together again. For right now, it seems like it’s very much going to happen. I don’t know if there will be another record after this. We recorded a lot more songs, so…”
The Saboteurs’ Help Us Stranger is available now via Third Man Records.