Darwin Muso Series is a string of an indeterminate number of mini to medium to mega interviews with Darwin-based musicians and performing artists. Starting in September 2019, and we’ll see how many we can cover over the next weeks/months/years.
Ward Hancock Trio
Airlie Beach Festival of Music is held in November, however, in the lead-up, the organisers stage what is arguably* Australia’s biggest battle of the bands competition.
* It’s big. Like really big. Huge. You might think it’s a long way from the Darwin Bus Interchange to Six Tanks – and it gets further on Friday and Saturday nights – but that’s just peanuts compared to how vast the scope of the Airlie Beach Festival of Music’s Passport To Airlie competition is. (With apologies to Douglas Adams, but I’m starting to scratch around for enough gags to see out this bracket of interviews.)
Ward Hancock is an emerging artist from the Northern Territory, though his young years belie the amount of musical runs on the board he’s already chalked up. His style and repertoire have a strong basis in reggae, but zip around to visit blues, dub, and rock. A home-grown Darwinian, Ward along with his trio won first place in the Passport To Airlie competition, and they’ll be off east in November to represent the Top End on the Whitsunday Coast.
I thought I might miss my chance to speak with Ward after the event, but I managed to reef him away for a few minutes right at the end of the night, and he reflected on his musical background and the competition win.
Bill Quinn: In 80 000 words or less, what’s the Ward Hancock story?
Ward Hancock: I found guitar when I was about 12, because I wouldn’t stop playing an old ukulele that my parents had. No, at first it was drums – drums were the first thing, then I gravitated on to guitar because it was a bit cheaper and a bit quieter.
My thing was I always wrote songs, I always like writing songs more than learning songs. I started singing in about Grade Seven or Eight, because noone else would sing.
The first couple of years, people told me not to sing! Fair enough; it didn’t sound too great. I’ve heard recordings; it’s not pretty, but…
BQ: You’ve got to start somewhere.
WH: Exactly! I just evolved into a singer. I was always a guitarist, but evolved into a singer. Always a songwriter.
There’s a lot of great opportunities living up here. I think one of my first bigger gigs was at the Noonamah Tavern. My earliest memories were of big, tough guys drinking in the beer garden. Bikies, you know? I had no idea, but I had some great experiences with that; I kind of cut my teeth on that.
I had great mentors like [Darwin music legend] JK, and Michael Henshaw – who did sound tonight – he’s a great supporter of music as we were growing up. Mickey at the Happy Yess, and countless other Darwin locals.
BQ: So when you were first performing, were you doing more originals than covers?
WH: Always more originals. Always.
I remember it being a bit of a problem when I started to think about doing weddings and cover gigs, because I knew no covers. So I’d always try to get by with originals. Every now and then I’d learn a cover because I had to.
Now it’s a lot better, I’m a lot better at doing covers. Now that I’m starting to get into the whole covers thing, it’s quite nice knowing them – songs everyone knows. But I was always the songwriter – that drew me to music in the first place.
BQ: You’re originally a Darwinian, are you?
WH: Yeah, born and bred.
BQ: I’m hearing a lot tonight – and I’ve only been here for less than six months – but I’m hearing that Darwin’s very receptive to original music.
WH: Yeah, I think people really appreciate it because they appreciate the honesty, I think. Which is nice.
One important thing I’d like to note is the older musicians in Darwin – how they support younger musicians.
BQ: That’s the other thing I’ve picked up is that it feels like a real community here; it’s a real supportive sssspace. [Note: after using the word ‘space’, even heavily laden with irony, I gave myself a firm slap.]
WH: Yeah, totally. Everyone knows each other. Everyone knows when you’re in town, everyone knows when you’re trying to get something going. And everyone’s pretty down for it because, I think, in a small town everyone wants to see it happening. And they’re always very supportive of someone trying to get something going.
BQ: Was this your first crack at Passport To Airlie?
BQ: And a bit exciting, going over there?
WH: Totally. I remember a couple of years ago, JK told me about Airlie Beach, and he said: ‘That’s the place to be; you’ve gotta go there.’
And I nearly went; I was this close to buying a ticket. But I was dirt poor at the time, and my Dad talked me out of it. Which I think was a good move.
At the moment, I feel like I’m ready for it.
BQ: Have you done a lot of touring before?
WH: Yeah, totally. I’ve always organised tours for the bands. I’ve toured from Darwin to Melbourne, Adelaide, Tassie, and up the east coast. We’re hoping to go to Western Australia.
I’ve always done the tour management myself. I mean, you’ve kind of got to, being independent. And I grew up with it as well. I’ve had help with it because my Dad’s a photographer; he’s a freelance photographer and journalist. And he’s taught me how to hustle a bit!
But also, I’ve had help from musos in Darwin, especially everything about tax, keeping receipts, how to organise a band, how to talk to a band as well. All these things I’ve been learning over the years. I’m 24 now and I feel like I’m starting to get a grasp of it.
BQ: It’s a big ask when you need to be travel manager, tax accountant – all these things, when what you probably really want to be doing as a musician is: music.
WH: Exactly. And trust me, it’ll be the dream when I have someone else to do it for me! Fingers crossed.
But it’s also kind of part of it as well. You put so much into the music, but you put so much else into everything else. It’s a hard road, but there’s times – and a tour is a perfect example of it – it’s the highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows.
There’s been a lot of times on tours when I’ve felt the absolute pits. You’re hungry, something fell through, your accommodation fell through so you’ve got to find somewhere else, someone’s too drunk to drive so you’ve got to camp in the carpark, or whatever. You’re getting bitten by mozzies, or you’ve lost your sleeping bag at the gig before.
But there’s some – not as many! – magical moments. But the magical moments do exist – they make it all worth it.
Especially when you’re up there, playing with your mates, or you’ve just finished a gig and you buy a case of beer, and you’re watching the sun go down on Byron Bay or Noosa or… or…
BQ: Or De La Plage!
WH: De La Plage! Exactly! That’s on par. We’re about to a gig on Sunday there.
BQ: Yes, I know!
WH: It’s going to be awesome!
It’s those moments that really make you realise why you do it because there’s more than the things that make you ask, ‘Should I really do this?’
BQ: Well, congratulations; it must feel fantastic. And enjoy Airlie.
WH: Thank you very much. Cheers. I can’t wait.
You can keep tabs on how Ward Hancock and his trio go at Airlie, and see where they’re playing around town and on tour at Ward’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WardHancockMusic/
Here’s a clip of Ward playing at 104.1 Territory FM and it’s from deep in the vault – six years ago, no less.