Loud rock wizards of Oz on course for big lift-off
Aussie rebels Airbourne are blazing a global trail with their turbo-charged metal and quaint rock ‘n’ roll antics — including jumping behind a Belfast bar to help themselves to a pint!
Joel O’Keefe, lead singer and guitarist with hotly tipped Aussie outfit Airbourne, realised that rock ’n’ roll was worth defending at the tender age of nine.
While everyone else in his hometown of Warrnambool, Victoria, were indulging in the national pastimes (playing Australian-rules football and falling over drunk), Joel spent his youth hunting through his uncle’s record collection and soaking up AC/DC, Rose Tattoo and others like a sponge. He picked up his first guitar at 11 and started making a life-affirming racket every day after school.
“I can’t really explain it, I just always loved good, old-fashioned Aussie pub rock,” smiles the bleary-eyed, extremely hungover frontman as we chat in Katy Daly’s pub in Belfast. “It’s those four-on-the-floor rhythms and fist-in-the-air riffs that get me every time.
“When we first started out it wasn’t cool to be a rock ’n’ roll band. Everyone had backwards baseball caps and cookie monster vocals and we didn’t really fit in, but we knew that traditional rock was something that would never die and we wanted to help it into the new millennium.”
As you might expect, it wasn’t long before Joel’s younger brother Ryan wanted to get in on the rock action too and by the time the singer reached 15, his 11-year-old baby brother was bashing away on his first drum-kit, much to the chagrin of the neighbours.
“They were constantly ringing the cops on us,” he laughs. “I guess they weren’t fans of Rose Tattoo. It got to the point where the police refused to come over as they had more important things to do.”
Convinced their futures lay in rock ’n’ roll, it took the brothers a few years before they finally found like-minded musicians in their sleepy home town. After a few false starts they recruited guitarist David Roads and bassist Justin Street (Roads worked with the boys at a local hotel while Street was found stumbling home drunk from a party) and they eventually relocated to Victoria in 2003.
“We were ruthless in those early days,” says Joel. “We never made any money but we didn’t care because we knew we were paying our dues. We would walk into town (we didn’t have enough cash to buy a car) and cover the place with posters and make sure everyone knew we were playing.”
Their work ethic paid off in 2004 when they released their hard-to-find EP, Ready to Rock. As debuts go, it was a fiery, razor-sharp slice of old-school riffage that pulled off that neat trick of sounding both old and new all at the same time.
“That EP was a reaction to what was happening in the
music world at the time,” offers Joel. “Everyone kept telling us we should sound like Blink 182 and we just wanted to show how good rock music can be.”
It certainly seemed like someone was listening as, after the release of their self-funded EP, Airbourne signed a five-album deal with major label Capitol Records a year later in Australia and in 2006, the boys relocated to the States to make their debut album Runnin’ Wild.
Keen to ensure that the record would be their very best, Joel and co rehearsed 40 odd songs for the slab of wax and whittled it down to just 11. They enlisted knob twiddler Bob Marlette (whose previous credits included working with Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper) to help them capture their sound on CD and also roped in Andy Wallace (Nirvana, Guns ’N’ Roses) to mix it. According to Airbourne legend the record was mixed so loudly one of Joel’s ear-drums blew while he was listening back on his headphones and had to record the rest of the songs with only one ear.
“That’s true actually,” he grins. “I’m a firm believer in bleeding for my work, so destroying my hearing is an occupational hazard!”
Once Runnin’ Wild was released in Oz, the band began to get noticed across the world and have since signed a worldwide deal with Roadrunner Records. They’ve also supported the Rolling Stones, Motorhead and Motley Crue on tour but none of those gigs meant as much to Joel as his Download Festival slot earlier this year when he shared a stage with his idols Rose Tattoo.
“Download was one of the greatest days of my life. The sun was shining, there were a ton of Aussie flags in the crowd and we got to play after Rose Tattoo. That band means so much to me and I was proud to be an Australian that day.”
Joel was so proud that he decided to take one of the Australian flags and climb 40feet in the air and plant it in the rafters, marking their territory for the rest of the festival.
“I sometimes do some daft s**t when I’m playing gigs,” he says rather sheepishly. “I never think about hurting myself, I only think about living in the moment. I knew that if I fell I’d probably really hurt myself, but I’m a bit dumb sometimes.”
During the summer Joel continued his trend for doing “daft s**t” whenever Airbourne made their Ulster debut in the Limelight. At one point during the sold-out show, the singer climbed from the stage over to the bar mid-song and pulled himself a pint, much to the delight of the screaming fans. At least if his band splits up, he can always find himself bar work in Belfast.
“What can I say? I was thirsty and needed a drink! It seemed like it would be easy enough to jump behind the bar to get one so I did it.”
These days it seems everyone is falling under the spell of Airbourne. They’ve kicked ass and
taken names at festivals across the world, won Best Debut Album at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards, had their music featured on games such as Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground and NASCAR 09 and they now provide the entrance theme for muscle-bound grappler Mr Kennedy in the WWE.
“I’ve always been a wrestling fan, so when WWE asked us to do it we jumped at the chance,” grins Joel. “I used to love Hulk Hogan and Jake the Snake Roberts when I was growing up and to hear our song [Turn up the Trouble] play after Mr Kennedy scores a win is such a cool feeling.”
With fellow Aussies AC/DC on course to shift 10 million units of their latest album Black Ice before the end of the year, Airbourne blazing a trail across the globe with their own sound and Ulster’s own The Answer keeping the home fires burning — and supporting AC/DC on their American tour — it seems like rock is back for good. Does Joel agree?
“Rock never went away in the first place, mate,” concludes the singer.
“I’m so happy that people are finally waking up to this type of music again and in my opinion it’s a genre/lifestyle that will never die, no matter what the Press may tell you.”
Airbourne play the Mandela Hall in Belfast on Tuesday. Support comes from Stone Gods. Tickets, £12, from Ticketmaster outlets.