From a “bunch of hippies” busking on the Fringe streets of 90s-era Adelaide to headlining the mainstage of WOMADelaide, The Waifs’ relationship with our city is a neat shorthand for the band’s steady trajectory over 25 years.
To mark the quarter century, sisters Vikki Thorn, Donna Simpson and guitarist Josh Cunningham are paring it back, rounding out the career milestone like they started, with a series of smaller shows in less-travelled parts of the country.
“I joined up with them just a few months before they left Albany in Western Australia,” Cunningham recalls. “Their dream was to drive around the country and play music. The ‘big smoke’ was not something they at least were drawn to, and for the first few years that’s what we did, just travelled around towns up and down the West Coast and across the top, Queensland as well. We didn’t really even bother with going to bigger cities, it was more the rural places. That’s how we cut our teeth really.”
Although Adelaide has a far better chance of seeing major acts pass through than other stops on their itinerary like Grafton, Caloundra, Mossvale, all South Australian music fans are familiar with that sinking feeling as you read down a list of newly announced tour dates. “Many times bigger bands bypass smaller places,” Cunningham says of the “extra layer of appreciation” shown by more neglected dots on the map. “It’s not always cost-effective when you’re touring these days, people just tend to stick to the major centres and people from the country have to travel if they want to see a band. So when someone does come through their neck of the woods they seem to come out in force with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Cunningham is quick to clarify however that Waifs crowds are more or less uniformly warm and appreciative, often with a core contingent of loyal long time fans who are almost family. “We’ve had people that have tracked with us the whole way through, and then there’s a lot of people who were young back in those days and have had kids,” he says. “Now we’ve got kids or young adults whose parents might have met at a Waifs gig in 1992, and now they’re coming to our gigs.”
That “indoctrinating” as Cunningham jokingly calls it is testament to the staying power of the band’s music, and its way of finding a way into people’s lives. “It’s humbling actually,” he reflects. “It’s one thing to enjoy a nice song, but talking to people over the years and hearing people’s stories of their experience with the music, the way it’s sunk into people’s lives… you hear about people who have got through very difficult struggles and the music’s been instrumental. Then conversely, great experiences in life that music’s been a soundtrack to.
“You get a sense of how significant the music has been for a lot of people, what it’s meant on a deeper level than just appreciating a sound they like.”
That much was evident during the band’s WOMADelaide set earlier in the year, which saw vocal fans embrace both hits and deeper cuts alike. It’s a long way from their first visit.
“The first time I went to Adelaide it was just Vikki and I,” he says. “We were driving across from East to West, or the other way around. We stopped in Adelaide at Festival time, we didn’t have any gigs there, we were just a bunch of young hippies with a campervan. But we bumped into a bunch of other young hippies around the Fringe area, and some other people we knew from Western Australia. I just remember roaming around, doing some busking and getting this real sense of Adelaide as a festival state, and it felt really exciting. We made a train of about twenty people with guitars weaving our way through.”
And much like Cunningham’s road trip with a pair of singing sisters spawned a quarter century of collaboration and performance, that hippie conga line through the dreadlocks and flannel of 90s Adelaide sure planted a seed.
The Waifs 25th Anniversay Ironbark Tour
Tuesday, December 5
Tickets available here