Snout were masters of peculiar pop through the 90s: what happened next?
Melbourne indie trio Snout were a much-loved part of the Australian music scene through the 90s. Their shrewd handle on pop in all its forms meant that they could employ diverse influences into their sound – sometimes heavy, sometimes groovy, sometimes jangly – yet emerge sounding completely cohesive.
Across four albums, a handful of great EPs and countless killer live shows, the band were a consistent favourite among those in the know, even if they didn’t hit the same heights as some of their contemporaries.
Frontman and bassist Ross McLennan and guitarist Rob Wolf formed Snout in 1991 after breaking up their previous band. They wanted to strip things back and started afresh.
“I just was sort of sick of my previous band,” McLennan remembers. “There were five people in it. I just wanted to tighten it up and get something smaller together. I sort of figured, after five years in that band, those guys weren’t really seriously along for the ride that I wanted to embark on.”
The three-piece band became a staple in the 90s – just ask The Fauves – and McLennan said there were a few distinct benefits of having smaller personnel.
“More money to share, less organisation, less arguments,” McLennan says. “And Nirvana probably didn't hurt. You could make a big sound with a few people.”
We kinda just piggybacked onto my brother’s success, really.Ross McLennan
Determined to tread a different path to that of his old band, McLennan got a little help from family to secure Snout some early shows in Melbourne.
There was one slight problem, though. The music didn’t quite match.
“I sort of felt that we were a little bit ill-fitting in the scene that we started in,” McLennan says. “We kinda just piggybacked onto my brother’s success, really.”
That brother is Lindsay McLennan, though you probably know him as Link Meanie, frontman of Aussie punk legends The Meanies.
“Our experience was trying to fit in,” McLennan remembers of Snout’s early shows. “Enjoying a lot of the all ages things, but maybe not being as heavy and grungy as some of the other bands.”
But, at the same time, he knew they weren’t alone. There were other bands pursuing a similar sound, inspired by great guitar pop music of the past.
“At the same time, there were also things happening with bands like Even,” he says. “We knew there were a few bands around doing that 60s kind of stuff and I reckon that same thing applied to them as to us; we saw that you could have success with 60s type of songs by just making it a lot louder and heavier. That certainly didn't go against the grain at all.”
Besides, bands like The Meanies and Snout shared, at their core, a great appreciation for pop music.
“Our music had a nod to bubble gum in a kinda, I don’t wanna say ironic way, but maybe a more intelligent way,” McLennan considers. “Thinking about the science of why bubble gum works and trying to do it with odd and interesting songs.”
Snout scored a spot on a Half A Cow Records compilation, Slice Two, with their track ‘Holiday’ in 1992. Label owner Nic Dalton also helped them secure a few support slots, including a date with LA power-pop masters Redd Kross.
“It was pretty exciting from the get-go because of the Half A Cow connection,” McLennan says of Snout’s early days. “Things were happening in Melbourne and Sydney basically due to just having good connections for getting gigs here, and Nic's connections as well. We just ended up on great shows like right from the get-go.”
[Recovery] created this kind of idea that we were somehow important and we felt pretty awesome about that at the time.Ross McLennan
It seemed likely Snout would sign with Dalton’s fledgling label, but they ended up on Melbourne’s Au Go Go instead.
“We ended up kind of burning him a little bit in the end,” McLennan admits. “He’s such a nice guy though. You couldn't burn a nicer person. He doesn’t care anymore.”
While Snout were undoubtedly a part of the boom in Australian alternative music through the mid-90s, McLennan said it didn’t feel all that significant at the time.
“I can’t remember,” McLennan says. “It seemed so in my head. It was just like my world was becoming more exciting. I didn't see it as the world changing. I have trouble paying attention to what's going on around me, generally. I just felt happier and more popular.
“I was glad the band were doing well, but I don't think I served as any quantum shift in in culture or anything.”
And McLennan never felt as if Snout were on the same level as some of their peers, who went on to much bigger things.
“I never felt that we were crazy popular,” he said. “It was good and we had fun and all that kind of stuff, and people liked it. But we never built on that success in the way some of the other bands did.”
But things that brought the underground and the mainstream closer together – big music festivals, the nationalisation of triple j, the start of ABC TV’s Recovery among them – meant a band like Snout were able to achieve notoriety on a wider, national level.
“It felt pretty damn exciting that that all started happening. And, for once, the timing was right with something for us,” McLennan says. “It was just a lot of fun. I think a lot of people would probably agree with this; it made us feel more popular than we actually were.
“The idea of a government broadcaster providing people in the arts with a great time and a way of getting this stuff out there. Celebrating stuff that wasn't mainstream. Maybe it became mainstream but I didn't feel like it was at the time. It felt like an odd and unique privilege to be part of that.”
Snout’s performance on Recovery felt especially significant to McLennan. Usually relegated to pub band rooms, suddenly, the band were in lounge rooms nationwide.
“It was a great model, because it was somewhat like playing a gig with a bigger band,” he remembers. “You'd be on the same show as international acts and you kinda felt pretty great to be part of that.
“At times when I was walking down the street I’d get a kid sort of screaming at me hysterically – for good reasons – and that's due to that show. It created this kind of idea that we were somehow important and we felt pretty awesome about that at the time.”
The all-ages scene that Snout embraced in their early days, with their punk contemporaries, became bigger in the mid-90s as well.
Local festivals, populated with bands that kids had heard and seen on triple j and Recovery, were incredibly popular.
Playing in front of bigger crowds at these events led to bands pulling bigger numbers at standard pub or club shows.
“The one that sticks in my mind as being pretty great was Push Over in Port Melbourne,” McLennan remembers. “That was just this crazy, massive, jam packed room. I think people were even crawling through the air ducts and stuff.
“Without those things, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to play to those amounts of people. Subsequently, our regular shows did become bigger.”
Snout’s live shows were great, but this excellence was not lost on record. Each of their four albums has held up remarkably well over time, with nary a cringeworthy, dated sound or trope in the band’s catalogue.
It’s testament to McLennan and his band’s dedication to quality pop music. But it took a lot of work.
“At the time, I was just maniacal about every album,” McLennan remembers. “Everyone in the band – Rob and Hugh [Williams] early on, and Greg [Ng] and Ewan [McCartney] later on – we were all pretty focused on what we were doing.
“[We had] a fair bit a belief that it was the ultimate thing that we were doing here, which is kind of crazy. But that's how it was.”
The band arguably hit their zenith with 1998’s Circle High and Wide, an outstandingly accomplished record boasting triple j favourites like ‘Got Sold On Heaven’, ‘Get In The Car’ and the album’s rollicking title track.
They were arguably Snout’s best songs yet, and the band were in a good position to capture them effectively.
“With Circle High and Wide, we were a bit more organised management and label wise,” McLennan says. “That coincided with it just being ‘the right time’, or whatever, and that felt pretty magical.”
The band had more money for the record, which meant they could book dedicated studio time without compromise. They were also buoyed by the goodwill their previous records and solid live reputation had earned them.
“We had access to really good equipment, our confidence was pretty high up the time and we had lots of good people around helping us.”
Outside help proved particularly valuable, as it meant breaking any deadlocks on difficult decisions.
“We kind of had to put up with people saying ‘Nup’ a bit more,” McLennan says. “Telling us when things probably weren’t right, which made it a lot easier because, between the three of us, that's a hard conversation to have. We felt probably a little bit more guided.”
Though McLennan quickly acknowledges there was always help around on their early records as well. The guidance on their third album was just more focused, for better or worse.
“That seems a little bit unfair to the other albums, because Simon Grounds who did the first two albums, was such a guide,” he says. “Probably in a more wacky kind of way. Whereas, with Circle High and Wide, there was a little bit of smoothing out of some of the arrangement kinks.
“There's good things about that, I don't think there's any bad things about either process. But that early stuff was a bit more all over the place and wacky. It's funny to listen back to it. Possibly, some of the stuff would have worked if we just had played a little bit better.”
Snout were another of the mid-90s indie bands to get a nod from the ARIAs at some stage in their career. It seemed an unfair fight – Savage Garden beat them in 1997, while Natalie Imbruglia took them down the following year – but McLennan said the band were happy for the recognition.
In fact, looking back on how the wider music industry treated the band, McLennan doesn’t have much ill feeling at all.
We could have been a whole lot bigger if we weren't so crazy.Ross McLennan
“I mean, the industry is made up of individuals and some people were really cool and some people were just dickheads,” he remembers. “You’d usually get a fair representation of both within any company, from recollection.
“I reckon we got what we demanded. I think, as a bunch of kinda neurotic guys, if we had had been successful we would have collapsed in a flaming heap.
“I've had a lot of time to process it and I think everything worked out just fine basically. We could have been a whole lot bigger if we weren't so crazy and if we made songs that had a bit more unconventional arrangement sense.”
Snout made one more album, 2001’s Managing Good Looks, and broke up soon after.
McLennan’s next move was a curious one. He bunkered down in the studio with one of Australia’s most revered voices.
“I was mucking around, writing stuff for and stuffing around in the studio with Renée Geyer for a bit, with a view to working on an album of hers,” he reveals. “That was a real education, and a lot of fun too.”
“Due to mutual insecurities and dashed expectations we ended up having a massive fight over the phone. It's quite funny in hindsight.”
Sadly, there are no existing recordings from these sessions.
“I was pretty rapt that she knew my stuff. I reckon if we could have kept our moods in check, we were pretty on the same page in a lot of ways musically. It’s not necessarily evident from a lot of the Snout stuff, but I just loved all those 60s rhythm and blues grooves and am obsessed with grooves. I reckon we pretty much clicked, musically.”
But McLennan still had plenty of musical drive and set his sights on a new goal.
“Then, after that, I thought, ‘Oh I’ve gotta make a solo record’,” McLennan says. “I really put my head down and devoted every spare moment to doing that for a couple years.”
The early 2000s was an exciting time for home recording. Cheaper and more powerful computers, software and recording interfaces began the democratisation of the recording process. A home studio, humble as it may have been, was easily achievable and affordable.
“It was just great,” McLennan remembers of making 2003’s Hits from the Brittle Building.
“It coincided with me getting my first decent computer and computer recording replacing tape machines and stuff. Cal Orr, who was managing Snout in the 90s, built me a computer and set it up for me and I just went for it.
I felt quite motivated to make this what I thought would be the best record ever.Ross McLennan
“Discovering all these new toys. All the plug ins and ways you could frig with sound. It was good to have this freedom to move in a really quick way, have complete control.
“The mixing is pretty wacky. The fidelity of that record is pretty in your face. I didn't really know anything about creating space in mixes, everything's really up and your face and crowded. It was such fun.
Complete independence and a drive to create something brilliant meant that McLennan gleefully threw himself into the new project.
“I just really had ‘I’m gonna show ‘em’ kinda mentality,” he remembers. “I don't know why I did. I felt quite motivated to make this what I thought would be the best record ever.
"I felt like I just really knew what I was doing. Being alone in the studio for long periods of time hadn’t got to me. Like, it’s sort of got to me a bit now, and I try to make sure I mix it up with doing band stuff with mates. But, at that time, the freedom was everything.
“After ten years of the conflict – and love as well, of course – all those pressures and that swirling stuff of being in a band – trying to figure out the personal stuff as well as trying to make music – to be away from that and just in a room with only my own dysfunction was a pretty direct path to a finished product that I was really happy with.”
This feeling of liberation didn’t necessarily last. By the time he started making his second record, 2008’s Sympathy For The New World, the novelty of working alone had worn a bit thin.
“It certainly was a progression from loving being alone to not liking being alone very much,” he admits.
McLennan puts a lot of himself into what he writes, each record is a reasonably accurate snapshot of his mental health at any given time.
“When I made Sympathy for The New World, it's a lot darker kind of record. I think my lack of humour was starting to kick in a bit. I was also on medication at the time and that changed my brain a little bit too.
“Then the next one, The Night's Deeds Are Vapour , by that time I was getting pretty depressed.”
McLennan has just about finished a fourth solo record, which should be out in Spring. It sees him try and balance his love of pop with some of the darker themes that naturally find their way into his songs.
“I was kinda depressed up until about half way through, and then I just thought, ‘screw this’ and I threw away a bunch of the songs and started trying to get a bit of cunning pop stuff back into the mix,” he says of the new record.
“Try and make something that, if it was going to have to deal with dark stuff, that will be a little bit more palatable.”
It seems as if McLennan is working hard to strike a balance of levity and consideration in his musical life these days.
“Every now and then I’m getting together with a guy, and maybe some other people, to just pretend to be a 60s trashy garage band,” he says. “It's like playing squash. It's just so good for me.
“It's hard to justify from an artistic point of view but, every time I listen to it, I just feel like feel like one of those old dogs that thinks they're a puppy for a second. I just get filled with this really positive energy.”
Anyone who has followed McLennan’s post-Snout work knows that the quality of his output hasn’t deteriorated in the slightest. Perhaps that’s because McLennan knows he must remain true to himself, rather than change what he does to try and again be part of the pop music conversation.
“I like new music, but I don't know where it's coming from,” he says. “I just know that I like the sound of it. It's not something I can even try to be part of. I’ve just gotta do my own thing.”
It’s what McLennan has done throughout his entire career, and we’re all the richer for it.
Ross McLennan plays the Spotted Mallard on Saturday 17 June. His new album will be out later this year.