Hockey Dad: Sweet Riffs For Smart Kids

(Image credit: Ian Laidlaw)

The first time we saw Hockey Dad tear shit up in the flesh, they were opening the side stage at a regional festival (the name of which escapes us) where the security guards propped against the barrier made up around a fifth of their crowd. 

This was long before their debut album Boronia put them on the map as one of Australia’s biggest and most ballistic indie-punk outfits, but regardless of the punters they were pulling (or weren’t), the Wollongong duo put on one hell of a set. They played as though their legion of fans spread far beyond the hills, each strum Zach Stephenson pummelled done with the passion of someone shredding out to a jam-packed stadium. 

When they did hit the mainstream not too long after, they were an easy hit with the Triple J crowd and those on the market for simple, fun rock ’n’ roll that didn’t take itself too seriously. They carved out a winning formula for themselves in quick and witty, easily-singalong-able quips and sharp, pit-ready pop-punk hooks that echoed the likes of Blink-182 and Goldfinger, but with a distinctly Australian edge. Circa mid-2018, they were absolutely unstoppable.

But eventually, two chords and the truth starts to flake away at the surface. After the February ’18 release of their second album, Blend Inn – which was certainly no small drop, landing at #6 on the ARIA Albums Chart – Stephenson and drummer Billy Fleming started to hunger for more than just quick riffs and snare hits; they set their sights high and spread ambitions out to cover a wealth of new sonic avenues – everything from slow, searing ballads to roaring country and Americana. 

Cue: Brain Candy, the duo’s third full-length (via local legends Farmer & The Owl) and a defiant proclamation of what Hockey Dad are truly capable of. There in excess is the instantaneous energy that catapulted them from the Rad Bar to arenas worldwide, but weaved around it is a slew of musical inspiration that kicks their artistry up to a whole new level. This is Hockey Dad declaring that not only are they one of Australia’s best indie-punk bands, but one of our best rock bands in general, defiant of subgenre.

Before the band played to a sold out field of Commodores and Corollas as part of their Alive At The Drive-In concert series (since, y’know, regular gigs are totallly off the cards at the moment), we caught up with Stephenson for a chat about how Brain Candy came to life throughout the last few months of 2019. In addition to an off-hand mention of a fourth album already in the making, we learned a lot about how the band endeavoured to step outside the box for LP3. 

The biggest recurring theme was how, while they could’ve easily slapped together another stack of two-minute crowdsurfer anthems, the pair needed to shake things up – part of why Brain Candy has its title is because that’s exactly what it was for Hockey Dad: material that kept them thinking as opposed to just mindlessly churning through the motions. We also spoke about how Stephenson’s current obsession with country music, which is something literally none of us could’ve seen coming a few years ago…

So of course this record has a lot of the Hockey Dad flavour we’ve all come to know and love, but you’ve also pushed the sound in some interesting new directions. How were you excited to shake things up with this record? 
I don’t know how it kind of came about. We’ve done a few albums already now, so I think we just naturally started to be excited by different sounds and new ideas. I was writing a lot on my own, and I think a lot of those sounds came out of that process – being at home and listening to different things, trying some new stuff in the studio whenever I had the chance… And once we brought all of our ideas together, we realised that we were both super excited to try some different things, like a real slow‑burner and a big fast track, and a few little country licks here and there. That’s really what kept us interested.

Does part of it come down to necessity, being three LPs deep and not wanting to get stale? 
I don’t think it’s ever really a conscious thing where we go, “Oh, we have to make this record sound different.” I think it just kind of happens. You’d get bored doing the same thing for three albums in a row; it just wouldn’t be fun anymore. We play in a band to have fun, and because we like trying out new things and new sounds. That’s what makes us excited. So yeah, I think it just comes naturally, and it’s probably going to happen a lot more with every record that we do in the future as well. We just want to keep going and keep pushing forward, making new sounds and seeing what we’re capable of.

As a guitarist in particular, were you keen to explore a few different playing styles and techniques as well? 
Yeah, I think so! We’ve been listening to a lot of country music lately, and I just really love that whole atmosphere. I love pedal steel guitars and slide guitars, and how they give the music a bit more of a character. I was inspired by a lot of that kind of stuff, so there a lot more of a jangle on this album, I think, than there was on the older Hockey Dad records. A lot of it was done on the bottom three strings of the guitar for this one. 

Country music definitely isn’t what we think of when Hockey Dad comes to mind. How did you get into that vibe? 
We were never really into it until maybe a few years ago when we travelled all over America. You go to Nashville and see it out in the open, and it’s all a bit too much and a bit animated for some people, but we were really drawn in by how fun it was. So we went and picked up some records – and y’know, there’s a process to getting into country. First you have to find those gems, and then you kind of just go deeper and deeper down the rabbithole. I think I just fell in love with the simplicity and the soul behind country music, and now I can’t stop listening to it!

What guitars were you slinging in the studio this time around? 
I used my two Jazzmasters for this record. John Goodmanson [producer] had a bunch of guitars with him in the studio, too. There was a ‘60s Les Paul and a ‘60s SG that he had – they were these total Frankenstein things – and I really fell in love with the SG, so I used that a lot on the record. And then there was a ‘90s Les Paul that we used for the beefy, crunchy stuff. But otherwise, I stuck to the Jazzmasters for most of it. Playing live, I’ll probably just be using those.

What is it about the Jazzy that you froth? 
I think it’s the floating tremolo – I just love the feel of that, having the strings up and just having more air around them like that. The string-through bridge, or whatever it is on something like a Strat – I can get into it, but I think I just love the openness of the Jazzmaster a lot more. I think you can feel the bridge move when you play if you’re playing it too hard, and I kind of like that feeling – y’know, it might fall apart at any second.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…