In the near-decade since Spiderbait last released an album, their bass player and singer, Janet English, has completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She’s not sure if she wants to practise. “I was just really interested in how the brain works,” she says.
English is the owner of one of the most interesting brains in Australian music. At school, she excelled as a gymnast as well as at hockey, mime, theatre and art, before forming Spiderbait in 1991 with singing drummer Mark Maher (better known as Kram) and guitarist Damian Whitty (Whitt) in the Riverina town of Finley, New South Wales.
Kram was an accomplished musician but, back then, English could barely make it from one end of a song to the other. “She’s kind of an accidental hero in a way,” Kram says. “She was a painter and artist who sort of stumbled into music through her friends and then discovered that she had these incredible talents.”
Kram talks like he plays drums, at an overdriven mile a minute. English is more reticent. With Spiderbait marking their 30th anniversary last year, Kram had an idea: to celebrate English’s work in a single 33-track compilation, Sounds In The Key Of J. It features almost everything English has contributed to the band.
That includes many of their most loved tunes, sung in English’s distinctively high and soft register: the acoustic-electric pop thrash of Calypso, the winking Fucken Awesome, and the glorious Jackson Five homage Stevie – songs that walked a tightwire of whimsy and cynicism, naivety and irony, humour and melancholy.
It’s unusual for a group with three distinctive songwriters to release a single member’s work in one package. Most bands argue – and many break up – over songwriting credits, royalties and egos. But Spiderbait share everything equally, a trait of other bands with longevity on their side, including U2.
English was not keen when Kram floated the idea but figured it would be one of many Spiderbait ideas that never came to fruition. “I have to credit Kram, he’s such a champion,” English says. “He’s an amazing musician but he’s so open to other people’s input, and respectful of what they bring to the table.”
The band’s inclusive spirit was a product of the punk and hardcore scene from which they emerged. “We went and saw Dinosaur Jr in 1989 and they had a woman playing bass [Donna Dresch],” English says. “I think it was one of those nights where it felt like half of Melbourne tumbled out of the Prince of Wales [hotel] and went, ‘Let’s form a band.’”
They quickly became indie-radio favourites and mainstays of the festival circuit. Their third album, Ivy And The Big Apples, released in 1996, went double platinum; its Kram-written lead single, Buy Me A Pony, topped the Triple J Hottest 100 poll, making Spiderbait the first Australian band to achieve the feat.
The group pulled back a little after that. “I remember feeling like the gigs were getting out of hand, I was a bit over it all and I just wanted to retreat back into the studio,” English says. Their next album, Grand Slam, saw her dabbling with electronica and “all the pop stuff I grew up with in the late 70s and early 80s”.
Sales dipped and, after 2001’s The Flight Of Wally Funk, recordings became sparse: Tonight Alright, which featured their hit cover of Black Betty, was released in 2004, then nine years passed until a self-titled follow-up. Geography has played a part: English lives in Melbourne, Whitt in Ballarat and Kram near Byron Bay, where his home was recently flooded.
Kram says Sounds In The Key Of J is the second instalment of a trilogy of releases. The first was a reissue of Ivy And The Big Apples for its 25th anniversary. The third will be a new album, to be cut this year. “We’re having this beautiful renaissance on stage and we feel like we need to do the same thing on record,” Kram says.
But for now, he says, it’s all about English. “She’s one of the greats of Australian music to me, and I think me and Whitt benefited from playing with her as much as she did with us,” Kram says. He draws a parallel with Magic Dirt’s Adalita, with whom Spiderbait played often: “The two of them are like the sun and the moon.”
He describes Sounds In The Key Of J as akin to a solo album, but in the context of Spiderbait. It’s probably the closest English will ever come to making one. “I’ve got creative control, I’ve got two amazing collaborators, so there hasn’t been that burning George Harrison post-Beatles desire to just show everyone,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky in that regard.”
First published in the Guardian, 8 April 2022