Andrew Johnston discovers that it's no guts, no glory, for Melbourne's loudest rockers
There has always been a strong link between the Australian music scene and Northern Ireland. Doc Neeson, lead vocalist of pub-rock legends the Angels was born in Belfast, while Chris Bailey of punk pioneers the Saints grew up here. If we’re talking purely Celtic connections, you can throw in Rose Tattoo, with their southern Irish roots, and the Glasgow-born Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC.
It’s a heritage new-Aussie-bruisers-on-the-block Airbourne are proud of. ‘When we landed at the airport in Northern Ireland for our first show in 2008, it was like being home in Australia,’ smiles singer and guitarist Joel O’Keeffe. ‘There were people out front, drinking bottles of red wine, smoking cigarettes. It was absolutely amazing!’
As well as listening to hard rock and metal growing up in Warrnambool, Victoria, O’Keeffe says he and brother Ryan – Airbourne’s hard-hitting drummer – were inspired by Irish traditional groups. ‘We used to watch guys’ fingers bleeding in a session, in a smoky pub, when we were five or whatever,’ reveals the frontman. ‘Now, when we’re in Ireland, we chuck on some ripping reels before we go onstage.’
Speaking to CultureNorthernIreland as Airbourne gear up for their third Belfast gig in as many years, O’Keeffe – note the Irish spelling, with a double ‘f’ – spills his guts about his family’s bloody past:
‘The English got the murderers and rapists out of the jails and put them in the army to go kick people out of their homes. They walked up to my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s farm, where he lived with his brother, and they basically said, “We’re going to kill your families and rape your wives if you don’t leave” – and they were probably going to do it anyway.
‘My ancestors locked their families inside, walked out with their shovels, and beat them to death on the front lawn of their house. The real English army rocked up and said, “Yeah, well, you haven’t actually killed any soldiers. You’ve killed worse evil people than you, so we’re not going to hang you – but we are going to have to send you out to Australia.”’
Today, the O’Keeffe brothers are on a mission to play straight-up, four-on-the-floor, balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll, in the classic style of AC/DC, Motörhead and Thin Lizzy. There are no fancy haircuts, no designer clothes and no socially aware lyrics.
‘We’re not here to save the melting polar ice caps,’ says O’Keeffe, cracking open another beer. ‘But if you love to drink, if you love rock ‘n’ roll, if you love sex and if you love a good time – and if you want to forget all the bullshit – come on down.’
The band’s gig on April 13 at the Mandela Hall in Belfast is close to selling out, and fans will be hoping for more of the same high-voltage mayhem Airbourne delivered at the venue in November 2008, and at the Limelight in June that year. Indeed, the first show has gone down in history, as Airbourne played so loud they overloaded the club’s PA system. ‘Yeah,’ chuckles O’Keeffe. ‘We blew a power amp. That’s what happens when you play hard!’
Airbourne’s new album, No Guts, No Glory, is 13 tracks of whiskey-soaked, whiplash-inducing rock ‘n’ roll, with titles like ‘No Way but the Hard Way’, ‘Blonde, Bad and Beautiful’ and ‘Back on the Bottle’. O’Keeffe says the inspiration for the songs came from three years on tour promoting their 2007 debut, Runnin’ Wild. ‘Yeah, mate,’ he grins. ‘This album is all stories from the road – from playing rock ‘n’ roll and seeing the world.’
Since forming in 2003, it’s been a wild ride for the quartet, whose line-up is completed by rhythm guitarist David Roads and bassist Justin Street. ‘We toured hard,’ says O’Keeffe. ‘There was a lot of driving around in Australia playing small pubs, but if you love it you just keep doing it.’
They paid their dues, but that doesn’t mean their success doesn’t occasionally throw them for six. In 2008, Airbourne played with their heroes Rose Tattoo at the Download festival. In fact, they were above them on the bill.
‘It didn’t feel right,’ confesses O’Keeffe. ‘I had to stand there and watch Rose Tattoo do a show, and then get on and play. I just put it in my head that it was reversed – that we’re still supporting Rose Tattoo. It felt really weird.’
As for their other main influence, AC/DC, O’Keeffe says: ‘I’d love to play a gig with them. I’d even load their gear!’
The bands certainly share the maxim that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ‘Mate, it’s never changed for us from day one, when we first picked up our instruments,’ says O’Keeffe. ‘We love the sound the band creates – loud rock ‘n’ roll. When you crank your guitar up, nothing sounds better. You just ride the wave.’
Airbourne perform at the Mandela Hall, Belfast, on April 13. Tickets, priced £17, are available from all Ticketmaster outlets.