This is quite a feat, given they’ve bucked trends with acute lyrics, leftfield arrangements and a practically indeterminable style of music.
Formed by Paul Dempsey (who had never sung) and his schoolmate Clint Hyndman, the band has thrived despite never fitting into any one scene or style of music. Such uniqueness could be a hindrance to many bands, but it's possibly Something For Kate's greatest asset.
They've enjoyed number one albums, countless mammoth sold-out tours and a passionate fan base that continues to grow.
Something For Kate will join us in the studio for a show that celebrates their 20-year existence. Their music has soundtracked a million moments for Australian indie rock fans over past decades.
"They're special, there's something really, really special and there always was," says Jebediah frontman Kevin Mitchell (aka Bob Evans).
"The thing that struck me about Something For Kate was that they left this residual sense of solidity and depth, and a melding of sound and word that never really lost its integrity over the years," says Midnight Oil frontman and former politician Peter Garrett.
"You've got to hand it to people who can keep putting it together like that."
Frenzal Rhomb guitarist and triple j presenter Lindsay McDougall says they covered a lot of styles.
“They fit with the pop music that came out of the '90s, they've got that kind of Jebediah thing going on,” he said, adding that they did great “singer-songwriter” and “guitar-nerd” stuff.
Failed relationships, death, life beyond death, strange cities with no friends ...there was always something in the songs for me.James Hardiman — Listener
“They'd fit with all the post-punk that happened in Australia and post-grunge kind of like Magic Dirt and Midget... the pop stuff like Pollyanna and Screamfeeder.
“They've kind of transcended all of that up to the Paul Kellys and the Nick Caves and the bands whose songwriting leaves an indelible mark on the Australian music landscape."
Cam Baines from Bodyjar recalls there was something distinct about the band early on.
"They just didn't sound like any of the other punk bands that they were playing with," he says.
"It might sound weird now, but they were a part of the Melbourne punk scene. They had a really original sound, a bit more noisy and a bit more artistic and a bit less structured."
"Even from the earlier songs that Paul wrote, they were really weird arrangements," says Richard Moffat, who booked the band's first show and now books events like Falls Festival and Splendour In The Grass.
"They were never straight verse-chorus songs. They have some songs that are really catchy but they're not so much, 'here's the chorus, sing along'. He's kept that through all the records, he has a really individual way of constructing a song."
"Paul is obviously a very gifted songwriter and lyricist and singer and his presence has always been quite commanding. I think everyone has always recognised that there was a special kind of aura about them," Kevin Mitchell says.
One theory that might be used to explain Something For Kate's singular sound is the influence of travel. A physical disconnect from their home city and the scene in which they operate has allowed the band to flourish without distraction or fear of judgement.
"I think it's important to get away from all that's familiar and anything that might distract you from trying to stay in a creative frame of mind," Paul Dempsey says. "Generally when you're in an unfamiliar place your senses are a little more teased out. You're more in a frame of mind to be an observer and to kind of go with the flow and look at how things are. Whereas at home you find your time becoming monopolised by ordinary stuff and I don't want to write about ordinary stuff."
Instead of holing up in a local studio to record Elsewhere For 8 Minutes, the band debunked across the ditch to Auckland’s York St Studios.
"We just didn't want anyone interrupting us or getting on our vibe," Dempsey says. "New Zealand was cost effective as well. The Australian dollar was better, the studio was fantastic and we didn't want to be in Melbourne."
Dempsey has struggled with writer's block before almost every Something For Kate album, but travel has proven to be a good remedy. Interesting music and lyrics tend to come quickest when they escape from their typical home lives, freed from the expectations of what they should sound like and influenced by the experiences they share when entrenched in foreign cultures.
Prior to recording their second album, and following some upheaval with different bass players, a frustrated Dempsey travelled to Ireland, where he met half of his family for the first time.
"We didn't feel that anything fantastic was happening, that's when I sort of put my guitar down and said 'I'm going to Dublin'," he recounts. "It inspired a lot of the lyrics, I wrote the bulk of them while I was there."
The band regathered and headed off to neutral territory to finish writing their next album. Bassist Stephanie Ashworth says the ability to create in an environment completely removed from their home scene was refreshing.
"We met Paul in Los Angeles and flew to Toronto and decided we'd lock ourselves in a room and write the rest of the album," Ashworth says.
We didn't feel boxed in by maybe what Australia perceives the band to be musically.
- Steph Ashworth
"Being away from home I felt there were absolutely no musical taboos for us," she says. "I just felt completely free and I think those things come through in the album. That we didn't feel boxed in by maybe what Australia perceives the band to be musically."
The band toured ruthlessly after Beautiful Sharks, then found themselves facing a new record without any material that met their high expectations.
"We set a standard for ourselves, I guess, and we were trying to meet that," Dempsey explains of his struggle to write songs for Echolalia. "Nothing was happening, we got really depressed and we kind of hit a wall."
Ashworth and Hyndman made the call for the band to relocate in the hope of garnering inspiration.
"I was kind of spiralling and the other two turned up one morning and said 'We're going to the travel agent. We're getting out of here'. So we literally walked into a travel agent and bought three tickets to an island in the gulf of Thailand."
It worked, and Echolalia was a monumental success. This helped put Dempsey at ease when the writing process stalled again in the lead up to their next album, The Official Fiction.
"After Echolalia I just realised it was going to happen," Dempsey says of writers block. "You can't have ideas all the time, so I guess I gave myself a break a little more."
He took his guitar out on the road in the United States late in 2002 before returning to complete writing the album in Melbourne in January and February of 2003. The band recorded the bulk of the record at Mangrove Studios in Somersby, New South Wales, but picked up and shifted to Los Angeles late in the process.
"I think we have this unspoken expectation that we'll go away somewhere during the writing of a record," Ashworth says. "I thought in the back of my mind that we would end up somewhere overseas at some point."
Hyndman explains the band's view on recording away from home: "We did it once in Melbourne and we realised never to do it again".
Dempsey says they were up for a change of scenery “after spending a year in our rehearsal room in Melbourne”. Desert Lights saw Dempsey once again leave Australia, firstly heading to Berlin to start writing.
"Paul had writers block with the last two records, but nothing like this," Ashworth says. "Both Clint and I really had to support Paul through the process."
"I wrote and wrote and wrote and filled tons of notebooks," Dempsey says. "I guess I'm just too hard on myself and I don't settle on lyrics until I'm absolutely forced to. Until I'm standing in front of a microphone and it's time to sing. If that moment didn't come I'd just keep changing the lyrics and refining them."
The band spent four months in Los Angeles recording the album with producer Brad Wood. It was a pivotal moment for the band. During this time they took a trip to Las Vegas, where Dempsey and Ashworth married.
Prior to the band's most recent album, Dempsey and Ashworth lived in New York City. They returned to Melbourne to put together the songs for Leave Your Soul To Science and ventured to Dallas, Texas to record the album, staying true to their philosophy of getting their best results away from home.
"We much prefer to get away from anyone who might remind us of what we are as a band or what we're apparently supposed to sound like," Dempsey says. "It's liberating."
Something For Kate are a headstrong band. They consistently stay true to their vision. Paul Dempsey's lofty expectations of his lyrics, the band's unwillingness to adapt to musical trends and their fiercely experimental approach to constructing interesting music are proof.
We'd like to do this until we're 35, we'd like to be able to make a living out of this.
- Paul Dempsey in 1997
"We're not aiming for a market, we're just making the music we like to make," Dempsey told Richard Kingsmill in 1997, following their debut LP’s release. "We're honestly surprised that as many people are coming out to see us and buying the CDs."
But even at this early stage, the band said they would only enjoy such success if they remained true to themselves.
"We'd like to do this until we're 35, we'd like to be able to make a living out of this. So long as we're making honest music that we like making and we like doing," the frontman said.
"I mean, we'd love to sell a million records we'd love to tour the world, but it's not a business venture."
The band's reputation for retaining their independent streak is well known.
"You get an innate sense that they've put out whatever they want to put out," Powderfinger guitarist Darren Middleton says.
"They're not a band that will ever follow trends or fashion. The bar they set for themselves as players, as lyric writers and songwriters in general is always very high."
"Even though it's evolved over time, you never get a feeling that they're trying to do something that isn't pure and honest to themselves," Peter Garrett says.
"I was in a band that was very headstrong and wanted to do things their own way. Any artist is much better if they can connect to their muse and determine each step along the path. It's kinda bumpy sometimes and sometimes it's a rollercoaster, but if you're making the calls then you've got something left of your skin at the end of the day and they've got a heap of their skin left.
"I think that's marked them out as well, being independently minded artists who took what they were doing to a point where you couldn't ignore it and they didn't let it get snipped at and sliced at by anybody else. It was them and it was a very good them."
The band's sound is so individual that it makes it hard to ascribe it to any specific influences.
"Something For Kate are so special because they're completely individual," former J Mag editor Samantha Clode says. "They do things their own way, they don't sound like anybody else, you can't pigeonhole them and they're just as dedicated now as they were 20 years ago."
Dempsey says his lack of exposure to other bands' processes has helped Something For Kate create a sound that is unlike anyone else's.
"I feel that we're unique, but for the simple reason that this is the only band that I've ever been in seriously," he says "So I only know what it feels like to be in this band and I only know the aims and intentions are of this band. Our intentions make us unique because they're out intentions, not anyone else's."
This admirable dedication to only writing for themselves will serve the band well as the years go on.
"The legacy they'll leave is that they're pure," Middleton concludes. "They were a pure band in what they did."
Most bands are aware that they would be nowhere without their fans, but not many of them have fans like those Something For Kate's.
"They've got the craziest fans that I've ever seen at a concert," Kevin Mitchell says.
"Their fans are the most passionate, diehard fans you can get," says Darren Middleton. "They've got the kind of audience that any band would dream of, because they're so loyal."
Record sales alone indicate the strength of Something For Kate's voracious fanbase, which has led to two consecutive number ones and an impressive string of top ten albums for the band.
My favourite band. I'm afraid I can't exactly tell you why. They just are. Listening to something for kate just makes me so happy and the world is a better place for having clint, paul and steph in it, together, making music.Tamara Rettke — Facebook
Something For Kate have also fared well in fan voted polls. They’ve appeared 14 times in triple j's annual Hottest 100– including two covers. They scored two mentions in the Hottest 100 Australian Albums (and Dempsey's Everything Is True also got a nod), plus a song in the Hottest 100 of the Past 20 Years. Rolling Stone readers named them Artist of the Year, Best Band, Best Album and Best Single of 2001 and Best Band, Best Single and Best Video of 2003.
It’s the dedication of their fans that has sustained Something For Kate’s success. Double J met four fans at the band’s recent Enmore Theatre show on their 20th anniversary tour. Aurelien and David travelled from France, Anya flew all the way from Germany and Tantura made the trip from Thailand to experience a number of Something For Kate shows on this tour.
"I am here for five days. It is only for Something For Kate," Aurelien says.
"The best band. Everything they do is awesome. Clint plays like a beast, Paul's voice is just amazing, you can recognise his voice from thousands of other voices and Stephanie is just the best bass player in the world, she's very good, very talented."
The Australian trip served as a reunion for the four, who had all met at shows over the years. Aurelien and David first met when they saw Something For Kate supporting Silverchair in France in June 2003. Anya and Tantura met the men at a Paul Dempsey show in London in 2010.
Samantha Clode credits Paul Dempsey's relatable lyrics and brooding public persona for this obsession.
"Something For Kate fans are crazy," she says. "It has a lot to do with Paul Dempsey, which is not belittling the other members of the band at all; they're all very equal in the group. But even from day one, Paul Dempsey has that kind of mysterious thing you can't quite put your finger on, a captivating figure.
"Lots of young guys looked up to him as a figure they could identify with – something about that, combined with the music, they just gravitated towards and never let up. Everybody has a man crush on Paul Dempsey.
"They probably don't realise he's actually a very funny, Volvo-loving, hilarious geek – he's not the deep, dark mysterious Paul Dempsey that people might have thought he was from his lyrics."
It's never easy to distinguish precisely what the appeal of any given band is. But when talking about a group with as feverish a following as Something For Kate, it's clear that there's something that sets them apart from their peers.
Something For Kate are a perfect testament to the value of individuality. They've never changed to pursue commercial success, nor have they positioned themselves to ensure critical acclaim. They're a band unlike any other, and that's precisely why they're so loved.
For 20 years the band has held a special place in the hearts and record collections of Australian music lovers. If they last another 20 years, we'd imagine those fans will still be there with them.