Musos are in thrall to the image of the mad genius. From Brahms to Bowie and onward, mental illness and addiction are all too common in the picture of the tormented visionary. Now, indie-punk twosome the Hard Aches are setting out to demystify mental illness with their new album Mess. Turning concert crowds into ad hoc support groups, the band hope to weaken the stigma surrounding anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, says frontman Ben David.
“I think the ‘woe is me, my life’s so hard’ attitude is an easy, cop-out way to write music,” says David. “Artists glorifying their own mental health issues doesn’t put that positive spin on it for the people who are listening to it. The message just comes out as, ‘Well, we’re sad too, so we can all be sad together.’ But it’s deeper than that: we can all be sad together, but we can also get better together.”
David and bandmate Alex Upton recorded Mess over a punishing three weeks at Holes & Corners studio in Southbank, working six days per week and then flying out to play live on weekends. David and Upton were joined by guest vocalists including Craig Selak of the Bennies and Jeff Rosenstock. Producer Sam Johnson, whose credits include records by The Smith Street Band and Camp Cope, stepped up to mix the album.
“It was nice setting ourselves such a tight deadline, because it meant there was no fucking around,” says David. “We got in there and got it done. We didn’t have a chance to stop and think – it was go, go, go.”
The result is a DIY-flavoured slice of lyrics-driven alt-punk that delivers a message about mental health without reducing itself to a sonic pamphlet.
“As much as mental health is a serious topic, we’re not a ‘serious’ band in that you’re not gonna have to sit there and listen so intensely that you’re not going to enjoy it,” says David. “We’re just more conscious of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.”
“I haven’t slept in a week / too much thinking to get done,” sings David on ‘Happy’, a single recorded in duet with friend of the band Georgia Beq of Camp Cope. One of Mess’ most intimately autobiographical tracks, ‘Happy’ tells the story of finding that a previously “strong” friend was suffering from mental health difficulties.
“‘Happy’ is probably the song off the record that I most vividly remember putting together,” David says. “I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who was having a hard time, and I was seeing a side that I hadn’t seen before of this person who’s really dear to me, whom I’ve always seen as this really strong person. It really knocked me back because it resonated with me and my own experiences. It made me really realise that we all have a lot of the same experiences with mental health. It made me want to put that on paper. The words just fell out onto the paper.”
Now, the Hard Aches are spreading Mess across Australia, joined by punk act Antonia and the Lazy Susans and ‘literature-rock’ three-piece Sincerely, Grizzly. The Mess tour also includes a stop at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel on Friday April 13, where the Hard Aches will be supported by ‘90s-nostalgia rockers Face Face.
“You’re not alone if you come to a show – you have a big support network of people you may not even have met,” says David. “We try really hard to promote a space where everybody feels welcome. We want everybody to feel like they can go up to anyone and become friends.”
The band are also collaborating on a campaign with Don’t Fret Club, a program aiming to educate musicians and fans about conditions like anxiety and depression by way of zines, podcasts and events.
“I want to shine a light on mental health in a different way than I have ever done before,” says David. “We’re trying to break that stigma of mental illness being a weakness and say that it’s okay to feel shitty, but we’re here for you, so it’s okay to ask for help. This isn’t just a publicity stunt. It’s something that we feel strongly about, and it’s going to be prominent in everything we do.”
Catch the Hard Aches on tour around Australia from Friday April 13. Their album, Mess, is also out Friday April 13 from Anchorhead. Singles ‘Mess’ and ‘Happy’ are available now.