West Thebarton are living in the moment. The seven-piece garage rock hydra have come a long way from their early unconventional beginnings to potential pub rock contenders. Conspicuously named after an online group chat inspired by their rehearsal spaces proximity to one of the west’s lesser-known attractions, the band have now rebranded their fearsome live performances—placing them firmly in the crosshairs as one of South Australia’s leading live acts.
I met with singer Ray Dalfsen out the front of the Exeter Hotel, the notable live music institution and one of the band’s earliest stomping grounds. The Rundle Street shuffle is on full display, from uni students skipping afternoon classes to longtime regulars propping up the front bar. A tracksuit-clad couple menacingly walk their uncomfortably friendly pit bull past the lunchtime crowd while an itinerant man lashes out erratically about the government for anyone who will care to listen. It’s about as typical a post-hangover recovery as you can get for a Friday afternoon in the city.
Growing up in a musical family Dalfsen had fairly eclectic tastes, but with a surprisingly early predisposition towards 90s gangster rap. “I had like a bit of a real weird relationship with music growing up. I remember heading to Muses in the mall and getting Death Row Records Greatest Hits. I went up to the counter and the guy was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not selling this to you’,” he laughs.
Playing in knockaround high school bands during his teenage years, Dalfsen started developing a deeper appreciation for garage rock. “When I moved down to high school all my friends were from the northwest or western suburbs. I pretty much spent all of my growing up period of my life around there,” he contemplates. “That’s where I got a real big appreciation for music everyone kind of enjoyed listening to... classic rock like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin was a big gateway for me.”
A shared devotion towards Australian icons The Cruel Sea and You Am I led Dalfsen to form the proto-garage band TEA with fellow local musicians David Blumberg and Jake Morrison. “We didn’t have a drummer when we started and we just thought ‘fuck it’, he [Blumberg] had an acoustic guitar and I had an electric”, he muses. The line up solidified with Ben Kuerschner on drums and the band eventually recorded and released one self-titled album through Off The Hip Records, a pick-and-mix collection of acerbic mod rock songs highlighted in track titles such as ‘Burnside Mums’ and ‘Lead Shoes’.
Early TEA gigs brought the singer into contact with another young band entering the local music scene, the fuzz drenched, Sonic Youth inspired slackers Horror My Friend. “I don’t know how we all thought about each other at the start, but we kept on seeing each other at shows and I was like ‘Oh yeah I have time for these dudes’.” Both groups bonded together over playing endless gigs to half empty rooms at such dive bars as the Gaslight Tavern and the Crown and Anchor Hotel. With TEA eventually going on hiatus due in part to burn out and overseas travel, Dalfsen and his new acquaintances (singer/guitarists Tom Gordon and Josh Battersby) decided to form a new group. “We just wanted to make a punk band, like a real like Ty Segall style,” Dalfsen concurs.
“We met up to play garage rock and it was just fucking around at the beginning,” Dalfsen remembers. “Most of it was just like monster riffs, like real chunky bullshit riffs and then I’d just kind of like yell a couple of words over the top, but then kind of think about it a little more and make them into sentences. It was cool because I just tried to see like what words worked in these songs, because I’d never really just improv’d while singing… so that was really cool fun.”
While the idea of a supergroup started as a bit of a joke, “Seven musicians… what were we thinking?” Dalfsen grins ruefully, the nascent band played their debut gig at the Exeter Hotel.
The core membership continued to grow, with drummer/percussionists Brian Bolado and Hugh Black (formerly of prog-rockers Archers), guitarist Josh Healey (of hardcore heavy hitters Sleep Talk) and bass player Nick Horvat all welcomed into the fold. Larger gigs soon followed, with major slots supporting US indie rockers Wavves, Cloud Nothings and future poet laureate Courtney Barnett propelling the band forward.
With their self-titled EP and recent A side singles ‘Red Or White’ and ‘Dolewave’ released last year through Clarity Records, the band enlisted producer Dylan Adams to record their upcoming debut album. Impressed by his work on the DMA’s album Hills End, the band were able to secure the Sydney producer on late notice. “Luckily his cousin lives in Adelaide, so that helped. He came down and he was just like a real easy guy to work with,” Dalfsen said. “Having said that, you can tell his style. His style is to make you feel comfortable and not to intimidate you, but when he’s heard a good take that’s enough. But if you do a shit take and think it’s great, he’ll tell you.”
The band demonstrate this new and refined raw power in their latest single, the triple j dominating track ‘Moving Out’. The song humanises the doldrums of the twenty-something share house experience, a blistering anthem which gives a shout out to the band’s spiritual birthplace of Port Adelaide and the western suburbs. “The song’s really strange, it’s kind of like a story,” Dalfsen explains, “but it’s me trying to tell three or four really shitty stories in one.”
“All the share houses I lived in were pretty cool and I’ve had heaps of housemates over the years—it’s just about my perspective. The line to me is like ‘falling in love and moving out’ and feeling a bit shitty because you don’t wanna put people out but hey that’s life you know? What, did you think, were we gonna live together forever?”
With many significant changes in store for the band, dropping the long divisive Brothel Party tag, (“we grew up, changed shape, moved on”), new members and future festival performances quickly approaching—West Thebarton seem destined for greater recognition from within the national consciousness. But for now the future remains as bright as it is uncertain.
“I think now is one of the best times... there’s lots of unknowns and it’s a really cool feeling,” Dalfsen muses.
Plus if it doesn’t work out, there’s always life in the west right? Where else would you want to be?
“It’s God’s country mate.”