INTERVIEW: Tonight Alive at Slam Dunk Festival 2017

It’s been a fair few years since Australian alt-rockers Tonight Alive graced Slam Dunk Festival. But this year, with two more albums under their belt, the band returned to the festival to take on the coveted Key Club Stage headline spot. We sat down with keyboardist Whakaio Taahi and rhythm guitarist Jake Hardy at Slam Dunk North to chat all about new music, touring, and using songwriting as therapy.

Did you enjoy the festival yesterday?

WT: Yesterday was really fun because we got to see a lot of our friends. I’ve got my brother out here, he just moved to Amsterdam, so that’s pretty fun too.

JH: It’s definitely good to be back at the festival. It’s been about four years since we last played it so it’s good to be back.

What was it about the festival that made you want to come back?

WT: I think it’s just a good hang with everyone, and it’s really well run too. We’ve known Ben Ray, who runs it, for a while now and he’s always really supported the band.

JH: I feel like it’s one of the underdog festivals as well. You’ve got your much bigger festivals and then Slam Dunk — it’s grown so much in the last five years as well, we’re really happy to see that it’s doing so well. Festivals like Reading and Leeds are great but they’re more of a mixed bag whereas this is strictly alternative.

It’s been a while since you’ve played Slam Dunk — How different will your set be today to how it was the last time you played?

WT: We have two new albums and we play for an hour which is awesome because we get to do some things that we wouldn’t normally do on a half hour set. We’re playing a song that we’ve never played before — first time ever we played it last night. We kind of just get to do our own thing so it’s really cool to be able to headline a stage.

Your recent releases have seen a quite significant move away from the pop-punk world — I know a lot of your fans have been around since the start of Tonight Alive, how have they responded to this change?

WT: It’s so funny that we’re even put in a pop-punk category. I guess people put us under that because they didn’t really understand where to put us. It’s not like we grew up as Neck Deep or The Story So Far, but I think our fans are just real people and they really kind of understand what we’re trying to do and the message that we’re trying to get across. They’ve kind of grown with us and the connection we have now is unbreakable.

JH: Yeah, we’ve got kids that have been with us since the start and we see the every show now and it’s like they’re my friends, it’s just great.

Were you worried about how Limitless would be received?

WT: Yeah, for sure, but I’m not going to let that change what I do; I don’t want to be scared about anything that I want to do. It was definitely a big step but I needed that growth. I think we only get a couple of albums in our career alone and we never want to do the same thing twice, so with Limitless we kind of just asked ourselves “What are we doing here and what are we trying to achieve? Who are we as people, who are we as a band? What are we here for in this world to do?”

We asked ourselves those questions and that’s when the growth came and when the message really became a lot clearer for us. That was just the way that we wanted to portray that initial message.

But this next album — I think ‘World Away’ is a really good indicator of where we’re heading — but the next album is kind of in between The Other Side and Limitless. We’ve figured out what we love in our live show and kind of connected that with our next album.

How different is the way you approach festival sets to your own headline shows?

WT: This is different because we’re playing for an hour so it does feel a bit like a headline set, but with Warped Tour when we only played for half an hour you play mostly singles.

JH: You basically just have to play the hits.

WT: But this is really cool because it’s kind of like our own show.

JH: With a half an hour set you have to kind of make it as exciting as possible, but with a longer set you can have more dynamics in it. We can play some of our ballads and slow it down for a bit and then pick it back up later and, yeah, it’s definitely more fun.

Do you ever feel any pressure at festivals, like you’re trying to win people over?

WT: I don’t think so anymore. In a couple of days, we’ll have been in the band for nine years so I guess we’ve been around, and I think we’re really proud of our live show and we’re really proud of what we’re portraying onstage. I guess sometimes definitely but headlining you’re not really trying to win anyone over because they’re either there for you or they’re not.

JH: When we first started we were definitely trying to win them over but, now, people are either going to like us or they’re not.

You dropped a single ‘World Away’ in April — Is it ever nerve-wracking to play a brand new song live?

JH: Yeah, for sure. I mean, you can rehearse it as much as you want but it’s going to be way different to when you play it live. When you get up there you never really know how it’s going to go until you play it, but it usually goes pretty well.

WT: When you play old songs onstage there’s a lot of muscle memory to it and you’re not thinking about what you’re playing. I’m thinking about what I ate for breakfast or something when I play onstage. But with the new songs, you have to concentrate so hard and then sometimes when you concentrate too hard you completely overdo it.

JH: You’re like “No that’s the wrong chord!” Not that we ever make mistakes.

WT: I’ll look at my guitar like “I don’t know how to play.”

JH: “Do I play this guitar?”

WT: That’s definitely happened a few times.

You’ve been releasing a lot of really interesting and powerful music videos recently — what can you tell us about the World Away video?

WT: I guess we just wanted to do a lyric video but in a different way, and it was Jenna’s idea to have those sort of emotive things projected onto her with just her singing it. I think that worked really well for the song. It’s kind of a way to do a video without doing a video.

We just wanted some kind of video content to show the emotion that we wanted to portray in that song. I think it worked really well.

You’re really passionate about being true to yourselves and you make this clear on stage. Are the speeches you make as much a message to you as they are to your fans?

WT: Definitely, I think that our music is quite selfish in the way that it helps us realise what we’re saying and I guess if you’re saying something everyday onstage then you have to believe it too. You really become that thing.

I guess even with What Are You So Scared Of? at the start, Jenna was saying that mantra “What Are You So Scared Of?”. She was saying that even before she really knew what she was trying to say, but it was coming naturally to her.

Then we toured the world and kind of came to the realisation that that’s who we want to be and that’s who we are, so going onstage and saying all that stuff really solidifies that and grows us constantly. That’s really where Limitless came from.

We didn’t realise what The Other Side was until we put it out and started playing it and the fans really connected to it. Jenna and I really grew from that, because we were in a pretty dark place. That’s kind of where that album came from but singing those songs every day and having that message and realising the message really helped us to heal those wounds.

I think the best way to heal is to really face what it is, and it’s also the hardest thing to do.

So is songwriting somewhat therapeutic for you?

WT: Definitely, it definitely is. It’s a way of saying your emotions without saying them.

Songwriting’s such a personal thing but you can also make it universal. So instead of saying — we were talking about this yesterday — for ‘The Ocean’ when it says “I feel heavy” instead Jenna wanted to write like “I’m fucking itchy all the time and my skin hurts” and all this stuff, but you have to write it in a poetic way so that it makes sense.

It’s putting something really personal and making it into that but, it’s definitely therapeutic in that way.

What does the future hold for Tonight Alive?

WT: Well, we’re about to record a new album. We really just didn’t want to stop from Limitless. I think we really loved where we got to with our live set and the message and we just wanted to keep going.

But we wanted to take the best things that came from that album cycle and really just keep going into this. So, Jenna and I have been writing and it took us about three months to finish writing, which is insane because Limitless took us two years.

JH: We’ve got a completely new label team as well so it’ll be very interesting to see how we work together. Even just with the ‘World Away’ release, it’s been incredible and we’ve worked together so well. We’ve known the Hopeless guys for such a long time, so it’s really good to be working with people that obviously we’re close friends with and we respect so much as well.

Let us know your thoughts on our interview with Tonight Alive on Twitter @CelebMix

Written by Faith Ridler

Faith Ridler is a UK based student, music journalist, and twenty one pilots aficionado. Follow her on Twitter @FaithLRidler!