Posted September 30, 2004

Neil McCabe photo

The M16's: Motor City Rock Action
re-locates to Perth

If you have even a minimal knowledge of the explosion of Australian guitar music in the1980s, you'll know the reputation enjoyed by the country's most isolated state capital city, Perth. Thriving on its distance from the rest of the country and overcoming it at the same time, the city by the Swan River has spawned an impressive list of acts. The Victims, the Scientists, the Stems, DM3 and the Hoodoo Gurus all had their origins, or were exclusively based, in Perth. The place can hold its own with anywhere in the world in the Rock Action stakes

It was probably back in 2001 or so that noise started filtering out of Perth about a new band going about with the none-too-subtle tag of The M16's. Neal McCabe, a guy who's well into guitar music and pop via his own Pop on Top website, was singing their praises. The M16's had one strong link with the East Coast - key member Ken "Killer" Watt was a former guitarist with the second generation line-up of Sydney's venerable Asteroid B612, one of the purest, high-energy bands still treading the boards in Australia or anywhere else. These guys had to be good.

A listen to their first (and so far only) single "Losing Time" b/w "Sweet Luck" confirmed it. The spirit of rockers like the 'Roids, Melbourne's mighty Yes Men and even Detroit godheads the MC5 and Sonic's Rendezvous Band was alive and well and living with The M16's.

So far, the wider world is yet to catch on, but that seems poised to change with the release of a mini-album in June on Reverberation, the label run by two former Perth boys in Russell Hopkinson (You Am I, Bamboos) and Ian Underwood (Kryptonics, Challenger 7). We've wrapped our ears around that collection and here's the drum: It's killer. Tunes like "Get Ready" and "Shivers and Shakes" truly do reverberate with passion, an arresting backbeat and loud, commanding guitars. An East Coast tour under the wings of Asteroid B612 also looms.

THE BARMAN decided to throw some questions the way of The M16's singer/guitarist KEN "KILLER" WATT to tap the band's story and future plans.

Mat Guy photo

Q Ken, after your first major band, Valvolux, broke up in Perth, you found yourself in Sydney at the ripe old age of 22. How did that come about and how did you come to join Asteroid B612?

I became a big fan of the band and every time I was over east, I would go and see them play as often as I could. I would ring them up and get a lift up to Newcastle if they were playing there, or wherever. So Johnny new I had a real passion for what they were doing. I never danced to any band except that band. I'm sure there are other people that feel the same way. I felt different when that band plugged in.

Johnny sent me an Elvis postcard from Gracelands when Asteroid B612 was in the U.S.A. That was the first indication to me that something was up. Unknown to me it was at the time the band were going through all that turmoil over there.

So.... Johnny calls me up one day from Sydney. I'll never forget the sound of his voice. It sounded like he was about to ask me out on a first date or something. You know, a bit of nervous small talk like you do in those situations and then he asks me if I want to join the band.

What do you think my answer was going to be!

Q Tell us a little about your time with the Asteroids.

I noticed a real fundamental change within the band from before they toured the U.S.A. and when they came back. Gone was that brotherhood bond they had before they left. There was a real spirit within the band that they could take on the world.

When I joined the band after the U.S.A. tour that brotherhood feeling just wasn't there anymore. They were still brothers all right, but brothers that punch each other in the arm. They were so selfish and withdrawn from each other that I couldn't believe what was going down. I was shocked. They still loved each other like a family but it was if the band became like an addiction you wanted to kick but couldn't.

Then on top of that here comes this kid from Perth who is crashing on band members’ lounge room floors because he hasn't got the resources to rent a house of his own yet. So after a U.S. tour of sleeping in a van with seven to eight people, driving through snow with icicles forming on the roof and living out of each others’ pockets, self-sacrifice wasn't too high on the band members agenda any more.

I knew I had big boots to fill, and I knew that stepping in where Leadfinger stepped off was a controversial thing to do. I also knew I was nowhere near the guitarist Leadfinger was at the time. I just hoped that my passion and belief in the band would see me through. I learned a lot when I was in that band.

Q You were with them for about a year. What led you to go home to Perth rather than trying your hand with some other East Coast band?

I was going home to organise a few things for a few weeks. That's when Bullet called it quits. So I had my plane ticket home anyway.

Asteroid B612 was over, for a short time anyhow. Johnny told me he always wanted to play in a band with his brother Grahame and at last he had a chance to do it. At first it was going to be a totally new band. And then it was decided to continue with the name Asteroid B612. Scotty Nash called me up a couple of times when I was back in Perth, asking if I wanted to still be in the band. I felt at the time that Bullet brought a unique spirit and presence to the band and it didn't feel right for me to continue.

Brad Miller in action on bass. Mat Guy photo

The spirit of the band is totally different now. And that's a good thing but I couldn't see my place in there anywhere. And it seems right to hear Johnny playing guitar by himself now.

In hindsight, maybe I should have stayed over east, seeing I wasted five years of my prime rock and roll years trying to get a good band together. But that was want I wanted to do, I wanted to get a new band together. I missed singing and writing songs. I wanted to take what I learned from the Johnny Casino's Guitar School of Hard Knocks back to Perth.

Q Tell me about the bands that you formed back home. Rocket Reducer was the first? No prizes for guessing where THAT name came from!

In rock n roll terms I was like a train wreck out of control when I got back to Perth. I had all this energy and passion for playing.

The Catch 22 situation of the whole thing was, if I was to form a band it needed to be as good as Asteroid B612....or just forget about it. It would have been a waste of time unless it matched the same soul and power Asteroid B612 had.

NO EASY TASK....I can assure anyone.

So a couple of days after I stepped off the plane back in Perth I phoned an old friend of mine, Ex-Hellmenn and SC5 (Surf City Five) guitar player David 'Spiffy' Hopkins. Spiffy and I were both freaks of the whole Detroit/Sydney style of rock and roll and formed a band in that vein called Rocket Reducer No.62. Totally pigeonholed I know, but we didn't give a shit. We had a passion for that style of music, and that’s all we cared about playing. Going back eight years, it was such an uncool thing to do. Rock and roll wasn't a fashionable sub-culture like it is at present. Only a very small circle of people knew who the fuck the Sonic's Rendezvous Band where.

We were wearing Rocco Boots and tight denim with leather patches on them, when everyone else wore cardigans and Chuck Taylor shoes. We were considered very uncool and our music was totally unmarketable. And that's what led to the demise of that band. On one side there was me and Spiffy doing dual layback lead breaks, both sporting matching white Crestwoods. And on the other side of the band there were two guys who wanted to be popular and market the music and not build the band into a corner.

So there was a Mexican stand-off, a clash of egos and the death of an embryo of what could have been a good band.

Q Brad Cleary, who now plays with you in the M16s, was in your next band, Atom Smasher, wasn’t he? What was that about and what’s Brad’s background?

We only stole Brad Cleary for our first recordings. The M-16's never played a gig with him. He was only on loan. Adam Scuillo is our permanent drummer. He too was on loan but is now a permanent member.

Atom Smasher was the band after the Rocket Reducer fiasco. Both bands ran a very similar existence. A year in the rehearsal room only to play two gigs and then it was all over. Brad Cleary left the band to join another band.

Q Just to backtrack a little, I read that you bailed out of Valvolux because no-one else would play "Black to Comm".. True story?

Ken with an attack of the bends. Mat Guy photo

Yeah......that's true. I used to burst into that song at the end of our set, in the hope that it would create some kind of improvised jam. But it never did, or when it did the drummer would play it half time or something. I was so into the whole MC5, Birdman, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band thing that the other guys were actually rebelling against it and digging their heels in. But I was channeling my skills and becoming more focused as a guitar player.

The more passionate I got about that style of rock and roll, the more I was driving a spike through the heart of the band. It was a road the other band members didn't want to take the band down.

So, Johnny calls me up from Sydney, what else could I do. I left that band to play with Asteroid B612.

Q How did the formation of the M16s come about and what’s the current line-up?

Well Brad Miller (bass) and I used to live together in a small house right on the beach in Trigg over here. Our lives consisted of buying records, buying amps and buying guitars. The only trouble was there were only two of us. Here we were with a wall of vintage Marshall, Orange, Hiwatt and Ampeg amplifiers without a sign of a drummer anywhere.

We used to hire a rehearsal room on Friday nights and go down there with all our amps and jam away. The loudest duo I've ever heard that’s for sure.

So that's how it all started, a two-piece. We borrowed Brad Cleary to record "Sweet Luck" and "Losing Time" and that was a stepping stone out of our situation. He helped us out at the time.

The current line up now is Brad Miller on bass, Adam Sciullo on drums and me on guitar and lead vocals. Spiffy now plays guitar for us every couple of shows. He will be playing on the tour over east with us, so punters will be able to see us as a four-piece.

Q List your biggest musical influences.

My first biggest influence was when I was 13, I saw the Hoodoo Gurus play at the Perth Entertainment Centre. The band was so incredibly loud live and the songs were really distorted. I remember thinking how radical it was that Dave Faulkner played all the acoustic guitar parts through his electric Telecaster. It was just a new experience to hear those songs played in that environment. It was Brad’s Shepherds axe grinding that really possessed me to ride my bike miles, with my guitar under my arm to my teacher’s house.

From that day on everything just took a natural arch. I'm jealous of Scott Morgan's green-eyed soul. Ron Asheton’s kerosene licks in the New Order are amazing. Wayne's jams and Fred's slang. I really owe a personal debt to Johnny Spittles and David 'Spiffy' Hopkins though. Both of those guys have inspired me in a lot of ways.

Q I don’t want to be unkind to Perth but how did you guys find out about bands like all of these in the world’s most isolated capital city? In your case, was there an older brother or someone else in your neighbourhood?

The second band that influenced me as a teenager were the Kryptonics. I thought, wow, this is like a real gritty version of the Gurus. And started to go along and watch them play at all ages shows at skate parks and the Old Melbourne Hotel’s 'Beatroom'. They would play Flamin' Groovies songs and MC5 songs and City Slang, I think.

I started taking real pride in my city. I learnt about all these local bands like the Victims, The Stems, The Scientists, Bamboos and the Hoodoo Gurus. I spent my teenage years watching and listening to local guys like Dom Mariani, Greg Hitchcock, Ian Underwood, Dave Faulkner and so on and so forth.

Brad Miller was one of my friend’s older brothers. We all grew up on the coast over here and he was one of those long blond-haired, smoking, tough surfer guys that were around back then. He's had a Radio Birdman symbol tattooed on his arm since he was a teenager. So there was that whole tough Radio Birdman, Celibate Rifles surfer element around back then.

Q I was in Perth recently when you and three other bands did a support to the Hellacopters at the Globe (I actually ran into Nicke in Dada Records). I couldn’t make the show because of a prior work commitment, but how was it?

That was a really awesome show, especially for us. It was the first gig back with our old drummer Adam Sciullo. It was the first time in over a year when the rhythm section could stand on their own and drive the band, and I was just along for the ride. It's a great weight off your shoulders as a front man when you know the rhythm section is holding it all down. The band felt confident again and we played like it. And the audience picks up on that energy. We had a big crowd response.

Q I figure if a bill like that could draw, the local scene is pretty healthy. Is that the case and are there any other local bands worth mentioning?

I think it's a very healthy scene, I love the gigs and the punters here. But the problem lies in its isolation. It's just such a long way to the other side of the country. A lot of great rock and roll musicians have moved over east and have never returned. The same situation applies to punters as well.

It's just that if you’re in a band you can't just throw your gear in a van and drive to another city and play some gigs. You can if you want it just takes five days to do that. So that’s why bands pack up and move over there. This city's great to play gigs in, it's just that you’re stranded.

Dom Mariani's Majestic Kelp are good. I'll watch any band if Dom's playing guitar in it. The Volcanics are awesome, a lot of spirit, great singer. I'm serious these guys are a good band!

Q The M16s have put out one single, "Sweet Luck", in a limited edition. Is it sold out yet and how typical is it of the band live?

When we recorded "Losing Time" and "Sweet Luck" the band had never played live. We had one rehearsal of the songs and went in and recorded it. Flying by the seat of our pants. I didn't even know what I was going to sing and I pieced together lyrics through the vocal takes.

"Losing Time" and "Sweet Luck" are old songs for us now. We have progressed with songwriting since then. Live we are a really loud band, not distorted though, clean and mean. There's a lot of natural energy when we play. Our songs are emotional and honest, and we play like it.

Q You’ve put about eight songs together for release and I believe a Sydney label will be handling them later this year. What’s the story there and in what form will they be issued?

These songs have been recorded over the last four years. They were never originally intended to be compiled on the one release. We weren't ready to do an album and thought that recording a few songs for seven-inch singles would be a good way to hammer and chisel our song writing and studio skills. That's why the release is called "Loose Bullets". Reverberation Records are releasing the CD version of the recordings. That should be out towards the end in June. A Spanish label called No Tomorrow Records is also releasing a 12-inch version of "Loose Bullets". That should be out in July.

Q So when are we going to hear an album and what are the prospects of you guys touring overseas?

We are gearing up to start recording a new album within the next three months. It will take till the end of the year to finish it. So I'm guessing it should be out very early next year.

We have another release coming out soon through Out of the Loop Records. It's a compilation with three other Perth bands, The Volcanics, 4 Stoke and Jed Whitey. Each band were asked to record three originals and one cover of a Perth seminal rock and roll band. We recorded The Victims’ "Television Addict".

As far as touring overseas, that would be a dream come true. That's something we all have wanted to do since we were young. One day I hope to get off this island to play in another country.

Q You’re still on good terms with Johnny Casino and I believe you’ve arranged some shows for the Asteroids on the Perth side of the country? When’s he going to reciprocate so you can play Sydney?

This will be the third Asteroids tour we have arranged for them. Perth people have accepted that band as one of their own. There's a strong connected with the crowd when that band plays over here and they have a lot of close friends in Perth.

The M-16's will be playing Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in mid July. Some of these shows will be with Asteroid B612. So Johnny is going to reciprocate the favors for us. But I feel he's doing me more of a favor when Asteroid B612 tour over here. People really appreciate it when they get over here, It means a lot to this city.

Q Since we’re in a bar, what are you drinking?

Orange Juice on the rocks!