A Sniffer In Hell

Considering Rock and Roll Damnation with Amyl and The Sniffers

You call me sane, insane—I tell you men 

were leering to themselves; she saw. 

She was my daughter. She would pare 

her skirt until her thighs grew 

longer, till the split tongue slid into her brain. 

He had her smell. Fear 

will check beauty, but she had no fear. She talked 

doubletalk, she lent 

her heat to Hell’s: Commissioner, the sun 

opens to consume the Virgin on the fifteenth day.

It was like slitting fish. And then the stain 

dissolved, and God presided at her body.

                 -Louise Gluck, The Murderess

I'm not a man, not a man of tradition

I just wanna get pissed here in my kitchen

I’m not a loser, no

I'm not a loser (she's not a loser)

People look at me like I am a hooker

But I just wanna be a venue booker

                  -Amy “Amyl” Taylor, I’m Not a Loser

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In the summer of 2019, I interviewed the delightful Australian hyperreal pub fuck outfit, Amyl and The Sniffers. A few months later, no longer distracted by whatever sad flickering light paralyzed me at that time, I got around to transcribing the interview. Which was a month or two after the editor that commissioned the Amyl and The Sniffers profile had had enough (not of me presumably) and left the music site for which the piece had been commissioned in the first place. By this point, the album “cycle” (that three month period around an album’s release that editors, writers, publicists, and artists all claim to hate yet somehow continue to adhere to as if it were one of the ten commandments that people, in general, adhere to) was long over. I could no longer place the profile. Not for money at least. I felt terrible about this. Not “work for free” terrible. But still pretty bad.

But now, with the deliverance from such paltry concerns that comes with the invention of the thinking man’s podcast; substack newsletters, and with Sniffers’ front person, Amy Taylor, making guest appearances on two new, widely praised, records (singing “Nudge It” on Sleaford Mods’ Spare Ribs and the John Prine cover, “In Spite of Ourselves,” on Viagra Boys’ Welfare Jazz), I can perhaps right that wrong. Maybe not to the same audience numbers as a VICE article, but it’s not like, to my admittedly limited knowledge, pieces unrelated to Kanye West/Taylor Swift/Outrage Du Jour/etc. did huge numbers there (or anywhere) anyway. Let’s embrace the spirit of hope-in-the-face-of-fact that Amyl and the Sniffers embody. Like an Australian summer wind, let us be wild and free.

I interviewed The Sniffers (vocalist Amy Taylor, drummer Bryce Wilson, guitarist Dec Martens, and bassist Fergus Romer) at the Broadway Bar, a Bushwick establishment that briefly catered to New York City’s ever-shrinking, but still admirably impossible to extinguish entirely, rocker population. If the band members’ mullet/sleeveless t-shirt combos stood out when I first met up with them, by the time happy hour ended and it was time to get to Market Hotel for their show, the bar was positively lousy with all variety of ‘70s rocker-roller acroument. 

Like many of their peers (which includes fellow Coloured Balls fetishists, Power, and the sonically dissimilar- but sharing the working class striver/sneerer stance- Sleaford Mods), Amyl and The Sniffers are burdened by “real rock and roll” albatross that’s attached to any band that appeals to rockist, close-to-the-grave, pedants such as myself. This was not the band’s initial intent. “We thought we were gonna start a B-52s style band,” Taylor says about the band’s formation in a Melbourne share house. “But,” due to a collective love of garage rock, the aforementioned Coloured Balls, and their native land’s premier knuckle-punk band, Cosmic Psychos, “it came out not like that at all.. which we were happy with.” 

All those influences, especially absent the lithe eccentricity of the B-52s, can, more often than not, result in something truly dire. Not just in Australia, but wherever guitars and hairdos litter the landscape, there are enough plodding, hookless, AC/DC riff reenactors to fill every thunderdome in every accursed encampment on Earth. What makes Amyl and The Sniffers different is difficult to pin down. It’s not “punk energy” (thank god) and it’s not “authenticity” (thank god). Though they have both, for whatever either term could be worth or even mean, both qualities are dime a dozen. All one needs for “punk energy” is a hairdresser with ADD and a heavy pour. All one needs for “authenticity” is a publicist willing to omit one’s parents’ net worth from the band bio. No, what separates Amyl and The Sniffers from all the other denim demons taking the long way to the top is that most impudent and effete of qualities. That’s right, bbs, Amyl and The Sniffers have poetry. And grace. Just like angels. If the divine host uniformly preferred Powerage to Back In Black and heaven’s hymnal had a song called “Blowjob.” 

When talking about a rock and roll band, especially one of the punk sub-category, “poetry” is a pretty ugly word to just throw around. Often the term is used as either code for “oblique” or, worse, used to diminish, with faint praise comparison, the works of rockers and rappers alike. Like, Iggy’s animal howl and Rakim’s ice-cold flow isn’t enough; it must be something else, something that can be butterfly pinned and taught in school. But, like, from the streets, man. So, to be clear, I’m in no way attempting to diminish the primal, sensual knuckle drag-osity of an Amyl and The Sniffers song. Or in any way that implying that primal, sensually knuckle dragging is ever insufficient to the purpose of getting from primal, sensually knuckle dragging Point A. to primal, sensually knuckle dragging Point B. Perish the thought. I’m just saying that, in addition to what is necessary for great art, whether it's a medium that uses “shake” and “shook” as a negative or positive, Amyl and The Sniffers add a little frosting; poetry and grace as sprinkles and cherry. 

While Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap is Dec Martens’ AC/DC album of first choice, he cops to the fact that “Powerage was a reference point” in the writing of the Sniffers’ self-titled debut. Like the riffs on Powerage, the greatest piece of white Australian art besides “Release the Bats,” Martens’ guitar lines are not the blunt weapons they appear to be on first listen. On songs like “Starfire 500” and “Angel,” (see!?!?!?) Martens takes the Chuck Berry licks that birthed him, and every other party-in-the-front-and-back rocker, and adds squirrelly builds and tails that, like those on Powerage, could, stripped of their balls-out context, almost sound melancholy and bright. As the guitarist says, “Everyone knows when you make a mistake, because you smile.” 

(That quote is drawn from the completely different context of a discussion of the band’s penchant for drunken performance. So what. This newsletter is devoted to the larger truths. “Everyone knows when you make a mistake, because you smile.” That’s grace. Trust.)

I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by trying to project some academic flair upon Amyl and The Sniffers rhythm section. Wilson and Romer provide a stable architecture for Amy Taylor to leap from. They play like punks and that will never be a criticism in my cosmology. Wilson's parents both work with the disabled. Romer at one point corrected my use of the term “Bogan” (I was asking if they knew the old NYC Australian immigrant band, Bogan Dust) pointing out that it’s a “classist” and derogatory term for Australian workers, akin to our “white trash.” Both men are charming, do what they’re supposed to, and then swing harder than they need to. I liked them very much, personally. No need to gild the lily. 

Having said that, while discussing the band’s reputation for partying, Wilson told me, “I’d feel uncomfortable if I had to be sober for a gig because, I dunno, it’s scary.” And Romer said, “We definitely party a lot. But I’ve never felt a pressure to party for some fucking image. If we don’t want to drink, we won’t drink. But more often than not, we do want to drink.” So, you know, it’s not like either Sniffer is a stranger to poetry.  

Which brings us to Amy Taylor. In my contribution to Noisey’s “22 Albums You May Have Missed” list of 2019, I wrote of Amyl and The Sniffers’ first full length (released, counterintuitively, on the indie label ATO): “With all due respect to Tindersticks, Mountain Goats, and the ‘magnetic force of a man’ part of Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover,’ the finest rock and roll lyric of 2019 was ‘Some mutts can't be muzzled/ Well, I guess I got you puzzled/ Woof woof.’ Within a truly odd ode to our most petty and relatable reactions to a former lover moving on, backed by some of the finest pub rock we’ve ever heard, It’s the “woof woof” that does it.”

I meant it then and I mean it now. Amy Taylor, who, despite the appearance given by her onstage antics, and the fact that her stage name is derived from the underground’s preferred head spinner/anal gland relaxent, rarely drinks and largely avoids the tropes of a dissolute front person. Still, she’s the band’s poet. Their Lou Reed? Sure, why not. Even if she’s more influenced by hip hop than any downtown laureate. “I listen to a lot of punk music and it’s like ‘fuck the world who the fuck are you look at yourself you fucking loser,’” Taylor tells me at the bar, contrasting in her thick Aussie accent, “Rap music is like ‘I’m rich. I’m doing what I want. I’m living my life. My friends are so good. They’re all here behind me.’ You know what I mean? I really like that… If you’re not going to stick up for yourself, no one else is.” One could reasonably argue that this presents an overly narrow vision of both punk and rap, but what Taylor is expressing is an ethos that marries both genre’s refusal to just lie down for it, whatever “it” may be. Self-love, backed by force. Despite the tone in which they’re sung/shouted, most of the lyrics on Amyl and The Sniffers debut are either aspirational-y bad-ass or confessionally crushed out. Just like Lord Byron, I bet.

Admittedly, at his best, Lou Reed’s lyrics were stronger. Hard to fuck with “Sweet Jane.” But, as of this writing, with one full length and two EPs under her belt, Taylor’s career “bad lyrics to good” ratio is less embarrassing. Plus, “Buy me a drink, and my eyes glaze over” is certainly as profound as anything off (the pretty profound) “White Light, White Heat,” at least the way Amy Taylor sings it. Plus plus, at one point Amyl and The Sniffers’ singer tells me, ““Everything is meaningless, and the world is fucked in the asshole, but also there’s so much sick shit, and if you don’t appreciate the sick shit you might as well make yourself lie down, bitch.” Which could easily be a mid-seventies Lou Reed quote. But without him using “sick” as a positive. So, long run, I guess we’ll see.

I realize the danger of what I’m playing at here. I’m not dumb, you know. I realize there’s a fine line between praise that reads as hyperbolic and pure irony poisoning. There’s the kind of praise that doesn’t feel all that nice at all. Aren’t I just saying, after all, that Amyl and The Sniffers make a more-than-proficient street rock, a rock that I’m choosing to force into the service of something (poetry) that it has no actual truck with, no actual need for? If “Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)” is imbued (by me) with unnecessary profundity, is that even praise? Why not leave (very) well enough alone? 

Because I’m not being ironic. Accepting an argument as somewhat absurd is not the same as making it untrue. I think “Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)” is powerful stuff, a song that says something valuable that is rarely expressed outside of R&B. (And even then, Jazmine Sullivan is one of the few artists so ably allowing for a female protagonist to exhibit tendencies we’d call “toxic” and “problematic” coming from a man.) “Everyone is trying to suppress that they’re human and have weird emotions.” Taylor says, adding, “We all fuck up and everyone is wants to be like ‘I’m perfect.’ Lies! You’re a hot mess like me, cunt.” Maybe that’s not poetry. But it’s hardly as easy-peasy as mere “punk energy” either. It’s the stuff of real human shit. What Taylor calls, “the prosaic, day to day,” it’s what we burn for, despite ourselves. Lending her heat to hell and whatnot, over an even-more primitifized version of Highway to Hell. If “poetry” is too much or too little then, fine. It’s still grace, backed by riffs. When someone in the band smiles, the rest of the band smiles too. Because they know it means they fucked up.

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