Newly SA Music Hall of fame inductee Steve Williams of Australian band Wa Wa Nee has released his latest album Deja Vu. The funk rock days of the 80’s may have been left behind and while there’s still heavy guitar sounds this new album has a cool mix of blues, rock and soul with a little bit of funk. The ‘great’ Melbourne Lockdown gave Williams the opportunity to create the kind of music he’s always wanted to make while also venturing for the first time on lead vocals. Deja Vu delivers a sensitive and broody side to the 80’s popstar showing there’s even more talent than just being the creator of hit Stimulation. Chatting to Hi Fi Way Williams talks about the process of the new album as well as the crazy adventures he got up to while he was in Wa Wa Nee.
Are you excited about your new album Deja Vu?
The thing is a lot of the songs on Surrey Road were quite old. There was only one or two that were written specifically for that project. So, they weren’t really representative of where I was currently at and Surrey Road went better than I expected. I got quite a good response from all around the world and it gave me a boost. Suddenly I got super creative and wrote about five songs in one week. When you have a reason to do it, it just flows. I found it easy to write this new album. The whole process was simple and with any in the arts if you force it, you never get great stuff. You get the great result when you don’t over think it. Its like the songs were almost writing themselves.
I’ve also got the recording process down a lot better. I’m getting better bass and drums sounds. It’s a huge task and in the past I done a lot of records but ‘as the guitar player!’ (laughs) So suddenly I’m doing everything including the artwork. It’s kind of challenging but very rewarding. I’ve learnt a lot more as I’ve gone along.
When you’re taking over the whole process do you feel more accomplished within yourself?
Of course. I think so and there’s something about doing your own music. Don’t get me wrong I love playing gigs and I play in other bands including cover bands. I love playing, it’s an outlet but having said that there’s something about creating stuff yourself out of nothing. That’s really cool. You have a blank page and suddenly you’ve creative this music.
What lockdown enabled me to do because I was talking to my friend Pat Powell (from Melbourne Ska Orchestra) and we both agreed, because I’m a professional session guy, I’ve always done millions of gigs. If you paid me, I was there! That was good for a long time and I made pretty good cash but when you’re doing that, like anything it takes you further away from why you really want to do it. The reason why I got into music was because I love songs and writing them. So, because of the lockdown and there were no gigs and the fact I had no income for two years it enabled me to reconnect with the real reason for doing it.
Are the songs on this new album how you’re feeling now or how you were feeling through the past year especially during the COVID times?
A lot of the songs particularly lyrically are reflecting what I’m feeling at the moment. I think currently the world is in a bad situation. I look at what’s happening in the world and its horrific. If you listen to the lyrics in People, it kind of reflects that. We are in this tumultuous period. I also think it brought out the worst in people. It was ok to talk about guitars and music but once you scratch the surface and see where people’s heads are at when you get to the politics, I just wanted to block and un-friend people on Facebook.
Is that what the song People is about?
People is actually written specifically about refugees and the whole thing of racism. Not accepting people because they’re different. It’s about minorities becoming oppressed.
What made you decide to more involved with the vocals in your songs?
What had happened, when I was with Wa Wa Nee we were managed by a guy Simon Napier Bell. Simon is an absolute legend. He managed so many bands; The Yardbirds who eventually became Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan (T-Rex), Japan, Wham!, Boney M and a whole series of huge acts. He came to Australia to meet us and ended up managing us. Simon and I are still friends and I bounce ideas off him. He is the connection for the big scene. He knows his stuff, is brutally honest and never holds back. Playing stuff to Simon can be confronting because if he doesn’t dig it, he will tell you but he backs it up with good reasons. I kept bouncing ideas off him and he said “Send me some stuff with you singing.” I told him I’m not a singer but he eventually convinced me so I sent him some stuff. He told me my voice was pretty good and because they were my lyrics, he liked the way I delivered them. So it was upon his nudging that I gradually became confident to give it a go.
You also sing on Déjà vu. What is that song about?
It’s about how my wife and I reconnected. Vanessa was a model and I was also career driven so when we were together marriage wasn’t on the cards and we went our separate ways. About a year before we reconnected, I had this dream about her and in the dream, I was with her at this weird kind of building. A really old building with a swimming pool. I was swimming and she was watching me. I didn’t really think much of it.
About a year later she sent me a friend request on Facebook where we re-connected. We actually got engaged six days later then married three months later. It was a total whirlwind romance. I moved to Melbourne once we got married to be with her and we went out to a restaurant one day and she said to me “Oh let me take you and I’ll show you the place around the corner that I nearly bought my first apartment in a really old building.” It was the building in my dream! I’m not into all this weird spiritual stuff but this gave me full goosebumps and thought it was really weird. So, Déjà Vu is about that dream!
What genre of music do you like? I noticed listening to the new album there was quite a mix there.
I like all genres of music but there are a couple that I’m not that fond of like that 80s soft rock. If I’m going to listen to rock bands, I want them to tear me up like Sabbath, Deep Purple or Zeppelin. I’m open to almost anything and I’ve done all sorts of gigs. I played in Lee Kernaghan’s band doing the Man from Snowy River show. I always thought country music was lame but once I got into that scene the guys in his band were such incredible musicians and really cool guys that I put away my preconceived notions. I realised ‘There’s some really good stuff here!’ I think it pays to turn off the blinkers sometimes and be open to shit. You know what I mean?
Having that open mind does that play a part in your music on the new album? I listened to it and noticed there were different feels to each song.
I can honestly say I don’t consciously think about it. I hear a song in my head and I just try to get it out as I hear it. One track off the album is almost heavy metal. It’s almost Zeppelin-ish and the ending almost sounds like Black Sabbath it’s bordering on metal and I dig that! Sometimes I want to hear that and being a guitarist there’s nothing like whacking a bit of distortion on it. I mean I don’t do it all the time because I find it a little passé but occasionally I indulge and people seem to like it.
How many songs are on this album?
Ten. There’s ten songs. In the old days when you signed a record deal the standard was ten songs. It was five songs per side because that’s all you could fit on a LP. To me that’s a great concept. So, when they introduced CD’s then you could have unlimited tracks. Suddenly everyone was having twenty tracks. To me it lost its focus a bit. I think there’s something really cool about a record having ten tracks. I’ve written so many songs I’m half way through the next album! (laughs). I could have put them on this album but I decided not to. I thought I’d rather keep it undiluted and keep it to the ten tracks.
Let’s talk about Pump. What a great song! What’s it about?
I wrote the music a long time ago and a friend of mine who I won’t name ended up going to jail for fraud! That’s what that song’s about. It’s about someone being in jail. I’ve never personally been in jail although I was locked up once on the way to a Wa Wa Nee gig for speeding. We were driving to Sydney to Brisbane because we were doing the support for Cyndi Lauper and I was driving at 170 kilometres an hour whilst smoking a joint. That was normal back then (laughs). We were always checking the rear-vision mirror for cops. Suddenly there was a cop coming towards me with this thing flashing and he pulled us over. He had this new invention called a radar that clocked me at 170 kms.
They did a warrant check on all of us. There was myself, Phil Witchett the keyboardist that’s since passed away, Mark Gray and Elliott the merch dude. Phil and myself both had parking fines around $1000 each so they took us back to this small town on the Central Coast and put us in a jail cell. We had a phone call and I called our manager in Bondi Junction. He went straight to Bondi Police Station and paid the $2500 odd dollars. The cop had to let us go and he was super pissed off as he was keen to get us. About two weeks later we were in Darwin for a gig and we went to Fanny Bay Jail which was a tourist attraction and I sent the cop a postcard “Wish you were here!”
Do you miss those times when the band was first starting out and you were travelling and it was all crazy?
Ahh, look yes and no. Obviously you do miss having something that incredible in your life but having said that, not really because that was then. I’m super lucky to experience that. It opened so many doors. I really don’t have any regrets. It happened so quick it was incredible!
What’s the best memory or what memory stands out for you the most being in Wa Wa Nee?
I don’t have a specific memory but the most super exciting thing was when Paul and I put this thing together and got a record deal pretty quickly. We didn’t even have a band. We did the demo and we got signed by CBS who became SONY worldwide, off the strength of the demo. I mean, we’d never done a gig so we had to put a band together really quickly. It was hard to get a gig so we got a gig with six other bands at Manta Room, a nightclub in Sydney and within one or two gigs there was a vibe. We were doing something different and obviously pretty commercial sounding.
Eventually there were about two to three hundred kids coming to our gigs then we got a residency at the Piccadilly around the corner where within a couple of weeks we got around six to seven hundred people coming to our gigs. Then the first record Stimulation came out and it was a ridiculous hit so suddenly we were touring nationally. Next thing we were overseas! That early period was really exciting.
You still have a large following for Wa Wa Nee. It was such a unique Australian band for that time.
I think so. We had some pretty good songs. The thing about Wa Wa Nee it was a killer live band and a really fun band. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Paul was a hilarious guy and I laughed so much I had stomach aches. We weren’t pretentious and we were about having fun. I think that reflected in the music and people loved it. The live band always got a great response. We had a kick ass band and we’d improvise a lot stretching out the show. We had an amazing drummer in Chris Sweeney and it was a pretty cool show.
What’s you favourite Wa Wa Nee song?
I Could Make You Love Me because that’s what the band really sounded like. We didn’t really sound like the song Stimulation. When we recorded Stimulation, we didn’t even have the band. I’ll tell you the deal, right. We went in and recorded the single because the record company thought it was quite commercial. A week before we were due in the studio I had to go into hospital because my appendix burst. I was so fucking sick! So, the session was booked and this was my first real big session. I was begging the surgeon to let me have a day pass to go to do the session. I remember him saying “How many tracks are you cutting?” He sounded like George Martin (record producer) or something (laughs). I said “Oh just one!” So, he let me go but I could barely stand up. I did a funky little thing on the record and my friend who was hilarious would always say to me “Man! I can hear the stitches feeding back when I hear Stimulation.” (laughs)
So that song was thrown together and we didn’t think it would be a huge hit like it was. We thought I Could Make You Love Me would be the big hit because it was rocking. We thought Stimulation would go Top 40 and get the bands name known and I Could Make You Love Me would be the blockbuster and things didn’t go that way but it was all good in the end!
Stimulation is one of my all-time favourite songs to be honest!
I think with a song like Stimulation if you hear it that many times it can do your head in! But in the last couple of years of the band we didn’t even play it. We all got so sick of it and we dropped it. We wouldn’t play it. It wasn’t in the set!
At one point we used to do three different versions. First one was Stimulation as on the record. The second version was called ‘Stimulation the movie’ which was a slightly longer version and the third was the ‘Stimulation the mini series’. This version went for about fifteen minutes which was super cool because we’d segway into songs like Early in the Morning and a whole bunch of funk classics like Jungle Love by The Time. Because we were so sick of Stimulation, we put this whole medley together and at the very end of the medley we’d go back to Stimulation which used to really kick butt!
I heard a version of that at your show in Adelaide and I really thought it was really cool. You do need to do something to break the monotony of a song that you play so often.
There’s also not a lot in Stimulation. The song is pretty much the bass line (sings) ‘downg da downg downg da downg’. What else is there? I mean there’s fuck all else going on. There’s not even a lot of vocal happening there. It was a hooky bassline and it’s also the production. That was the era of production. When you hear Stimulation in a club over a massive system it sounds incredible because the bass is massive and it has those cool claps. It was kinda more about production than the song.
I remember seeing Wa Wa Nee play live at A Day on the Green at a winery in South Australia. That was a great show.
The classic thing from that gig, we hadn’t played for ages and when we came on a whole bunch of girls rushed up the front with a bunch of signs. They were holding up signs which often happened. My son who was five or six at the time was back stage with Buzz Bidstrup from The Angels who was looking after him at that time. When I came off stage my son was super excited and he says “Dad! There were grannies with signs!” (laughs) That’s what we should’ve called the tour “Grannies with Signs.”
That’s hilarious! I mean we’re old but do we look that old??? (laughs)
To a young kid everyone looks old. Kids just say the funniest things! The kids loved it because they had never seen one of my gigs before. It was also about five or six thousand people there. It was up at the Barossa.
Yeah! I remember that gig. You guys rocked it!
You know what was really interesting about that gig? Paul and I literally hadn’t seen each other for about fifteen years. He called me and said we’d been offered this gig. It was only Paul and I and we were going to use the house band. Paul was in the UK with Tina Arena at this point but he was going to fly back to Australia in time for this day. His plane was meant to arrive at midday, the doors opened at 3pm so the plan was to have a quick rehearsal with the band before opening time.
You can see where this story is going! So obviously his plane was delayed, doors were about to open and no sign of Paul. We weren’t first on. We were about third or fourth on. I’m just standing side of stage with my guitar ready to go on. I had no clue what was going to happen. We hadn’t played these songs in ages. Then suddenly I see him. He just arrived. He’s on the other side of the stage. This stage was about 200 feet wide; it was massive. So, I waved to him, he waved at me. Next thing they introduced us and we played. We played the set and absolutely killed it.
I think there was a nervous energy because we were totally unrehearsed. We had no clue on what was going to happen and we smashed it. The promoter came up to me after the gig and said “You guys actually stole the show. The energy level was incredible.” I think it was. I reckon there’s something when you’re in a band and you rehearse it’s a vibe killer. When you’re a really well rehearsed band it’s boring. It’s boring man. It’s meant to be a little scary. It’s live performance. If it’s too safe it’s like ‘why bother?’
So, this had that element in spades. Because we are both proud in what we do we both stepped up and managed to pull it off. I guess those songs are in our musical DNA that we’ve played so many bloody times there was an energy there then there was the grannies with signs and all that! (laughs) I came off stage walking on air. I forgot how amazing that was to do.
Do you think that chemistry you had with Paul, this musical energy that you had together was the thing that made Wa Wa Nee so special?
Yeah it was. People had this notion of Wa Wa Nee that it was a contrived thing but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We literally almost never spoke about what we were doing. He would present his ideas and I would do my thing. We were on a wave length and it wasn’t contrived it was just what we did. It came out that way. It was really easy. It was effortless working with him. Paul and I had a kind of unspoken chemistry. You kind of don’t realise something until it’s not there.
I’m in a band called Matt Finish who were big in the 80s and I play in that same circuit. Don’t get me wrong it’s an honour to play in that band but I still feel Paul’s presence. It’s a little be weird to be there without him. He was such a huge personality.
You can’t manufacture that kind of stuff. The chemistry you had with Paul can’t be manufactured.
Also the fact stylistically we were very different. Paul would say this a lot “Man without you I’d be Daryl Hall and without me you’d be Gary Moore.” I was like “Yeah, you’re probably right!” I wish to preface and say I wish I could play like Gary Moore!
I noticed the difference but it worked!
It was that matched up that made the group different. If Paul had a guy on guitar that was more of a funk player that wasn’t doing those metal influences into it Wa Wa Nee wouldn’t have sounded like Wa Wa Nee. They would have sounded like a generic funk band because we were doing slightly more rock than most funk acts. Obviously, we were hugely influenced by Prince. The initial incentive for me where I thought this sort of music could work was when I heard Michael Jackson’s Beat It with Eddie Van Halen playing the solo on it. I‘ve always loved funk. I was into Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind and Fire but there were no metal solos in it. Then I hear Beat It and its funky but then Eddie Van Halen comes in and does the greatest solo ever played. Then you go “Oh! Shit that’s a cool fusion of styles.”
That’s the thing with Prince. Everybody kind of thought he was just funk but really, he loved that guitar. He loved putting that guitar solos in his songs. If you listen to a lot his albums there’s that crazy rock guitar in it.
I saw Prince a few times. One time I was really close to the stage I could see his pedal board. He came up to his pedal board and hit this thing like some fuzz pedal and did this lick, I kid you not it was like fucking Hendrix. I knew the guy could play but this was shaking the ground. It was so incredible. The sound was so huge and fat it was next level.
I could talk to you for hours. Your stories are fantastic but lastly, congratulations on being inducted in the SA Music Hall of Fame! How do you feel about the induction?
Everybody is famous in their own world. But thank you, it’s nice to get the recognition from my peers.
Interview By Anastasia Lambis