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Interview: Ben Woolner ‘SAFIA’

After months abroad spruiking their latest single Embracing Me, Canberra-based electronic outfit SAFIA have finally returned home. We chatted to the group’s vocalist Ben Woolner about the best moments of the tour, the trio’s humble acoustic beginnings, and wanting a giant puppy for Christmas.

You’ve just come home after the U.S leg of the “Embracing Me” Tour, what’s the first thing you did after you recovered from the jet lag?

Well I didn’t really give myself any time to recover from the jet lag when I got into Canberra. The first thing I did was do a giant bike ride round the lake because I had a ridiculous amount of energy, but then I drove back up to Sydney and see Tame Impala at the Opera House and have a bit of a party night…didn’t really give myself a chance to rest!

How did audiences in say Hamburg receive your music compared to the American shows?

Well the German crowds are very cool, but the Hamburg show was part of Reeperbahn Festival so it was kind of like South By South West industry shows. But the German crowds are very responsive to our music, especially the weirder stuff like Counting Sheep. Obviously the main places in America we’ve built a little bit of a fan base there, not a massive one, but we’ve got crowds there.

You guys put up a picture of a massive pizza in Chicago you were about to devour, what was the biggest Americana food you guys tried to finish?

Ahh well that deep-dish pizza was pretty hectic! The last time we were at South By South West we did giant ribs and that was pretty insane, but probably that pizza was the most intense!

Your Brooklyn pad looked pretty cool, can you tell us more about that?

We stayed there last time we played the CMJ Showcase, it was kind of an Air BnB owned by a French film producer. Basically now every time we go to New York we give him a call and we’ll go to one of his various apartments and stay in amazing set ups. The place we put a photo up of is an old industrial garage in the middle of Brooklyn which has been converted into this awesome loft kind of thing and it’s such a cool space. It’s funny as well because the day we got into New York the guy ended up giving us a call to ask if we could be out of the house from 7 till late at night because he had to do a photoshoot for Vogue with a top supermodel in the house! It’s such a cool space… 

What was the most memorable moment from the Australian leg of the “Embracing Me” Tour? 

To do four sold out Corner Hotel shows [in Melbourne] was pretty surreal! Like two years ago we were lucky enough to support RUFUS there, and we supported them for two of their four sold out shows and it was amazing, and I remember just imagining what it would be like to do our own headline shows at the Corner [Hotel]. So to do four this early on [in our career] it was pretty surreal, but all the [Australian] shows were good and the crowds were everywhere, like it was surprising to see so many people [at our shows].

You’re playing a stack of Festivals over the Aussie summer, starting with The Plot at Parramatta Park. Do prefer playing to Festival crowds or more intimate club gigs?

They’re different but they’re both equally as good. It kind of depends what festival, like most festival crowds are a lot of fun and they’re up for a big party day and you can get a lot of response from them. But I think we’ve been lucky, our crowds even for the small club shows tend to be so up for it and really into the music and happy to sing and dance along. We’re lucky in the respect that there hasn’t been, for me, a major difference in Festival crowds to club shows, apart from the sheer size obviously!

Why have you chosen to base the band in our nation’s capital rather than say Sydney or Melbourne?

We’re all from [Canberra] so when we were just starting out and we were in other bands it was like common practice to think if you were going to try and make it in the music industry or as a band [in Australia] you’ve got to move to Sydney or Melbourne. But we started making music for fun and chucking it up online, and then it all started happening and suddenly we were able to play shows in Sydney and Melbourne without having to be from there which is pretty cool! It does sometime get a bit annoying because there’s no industry in Canberra so I find myself driving to Sydney a lot. But Canberra, especially now that [our career is] all going pretty well, is pretty chilled and it’s really good place to write and hang out and there’s not a lot of other artists here. Like I find when ever I’m in Sydney or Melbourne it’s catching up with a lot of people and we tend to go party and stuff like that, so [Canberra] is a really nice relaxing space and kind of back to normal life, and then we go off again…  

How did your collaboration and featured vocals with Peking Duk on Take Me Over come about? 

I knew the guys vaguely because they’re from Canberra, like their school is basically down the road from my house, and they were starting to get popular when The Way You Are was released and played on Triple J. So they were local celebs back in Canberra, even before High came out…I went to their DJ set at a local bar called Trinity and had a massive night and I remember being quite drunk and going up to Reuben [Styles] and saying “I love your stuff and if you’ve got any demos I’ll sing on them!”. So the next day he sent me the demo to Take Me Over and then I just kind of jotted down an idea for the verse and chorus and sent it back and they thought it was awesome, it kind of built from there. We’ve become really close friends since that so it’s really cool!

Who or what are the biggest influences behind SAFIA’s sound?

It’s probably just a broad range of what we listen to and our musical backgrounds, because we all play various instruments. There’s no specific artist we go in and try to write like or try to avoid, rather we just sit down and build it and let it go anywhere and hopefully something weird and different comes out the other end! We definitely come from the old school stuff, like I listened a lot to my dad’s jazz and soul records and we all we all kind of met through 90’s rock as we were massive Guns N’ Roses fans. So it’s a lot of old school mixed with like Skrillex and the more modern creatives.

There’s a video of you performing an acoustic song Hideaway on YouTube back in 2012. Was this a solo project or the beginnings of SAFIA, just unplugged?

Oh wow how’d you find that? Yeah that’s the beginnings of SAFIA! Basically Michael [Bell] and I came from a band background and we just got into making electronic music. We were making dance music for fun, like dubstep and big sounding full-on dance music, and I’d always had a plan to do a solo project. At the time I was playing folky kind of bluesy stuff under the tentative name of SAFIA because I wanted it to be something that could be a single person’s name but could still be an artist or a band name. After that video [Hideaway] though the venue wanted to do a launch gig, but I didn’t want to do it alone anymore so I got Michael and Harry [Sayers] who were in my other band to come play and just write a few makeshift songs by mixing the acoustic stuff with the electronic thing and this cool hybrid came about! So we just kept kind of going from there…

There’s pretty strong whispers you’ll be dropping your debut album sometime next year, will the new album throw up any surprises or genre-crossing tracks?

Well I hope so! From the five singles [released so far] people have heard they’re all so different, so it will definitely be a diverse album. Where we’re at right now and writing it’s cool because we were initially just writing a bunch of songs and I thought they we all so different and didn’t know how they would fit together as an album. But sitting down and listening to them back to back they kind of work together! The album goes down strains of what we’ve presented already with our five songs, like there’s songs that go down the weirder tangent like Counting Sheep, there’s the more pop tangent like Embracing Me, and then also just straight up dance like Listen To Soul, Listen To Blues.

When can we expect to hear the first single off the album?

That’s the part that everyone’s coming together to work out but we’re hoping to get it out within the first six months of the year [2016] and hopefully roll out some singles starting in February if not earlier!

Finally, What would SAFIA like for Christmas?

Umm this is a hard one, it’s what my parents keep asking and I don’t know! Ahh I don’t know, maybe a puppy? 

Ha! What kind of puppy?

Well I already have a dog, so maybe a massive dog seeing as I’ve got a medium sized dog.  So like a giant dog that’s like a horse, like a Great Dane or something!

SAFIA Live Dates:

The Plot

Saturday 5th December

Parramatta Park NSW

NYE On The Hill

Wednesday 30th December – Friday 1st January

Loch Village VIC

Field Day

Sunday 1st January

The Domain, Sydney

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