Five-piece alt-country rock band Ralway Bell have won the group of the year award at the WA country music festival. But how did it all begin?
Lead vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter in Ralway Bell, Ben Wilson, played in a lot of rock and grunge bands throughout his teenage years and his university days. When he moved to Western Australia he tried to be in rock and Indie bands instead but his passion for these types of music just didn’t quite sit right. As he got older he realised he wasn’t doing what he actually loved. “The older I got, the more I stopped trying to be something I wasn’t. I was trying to sing them high indie melody lines when I knew I couldn’t.” he said. “I was able to go ‘you know what? You really like elements of country, you really like elements of rock so let’s mix them together’ and that’s how I’ve ended up feeling most comfortable.”
Ben grew up on a beef farm in a small country town in New South Wales. There were about 2500 people in the town and his parents owned a couple of 100 acres of land. “I spent a lot of time on the farm working with dad and we used to ride horses competitively.” His upbringing was the cliché country vibe but that was his childhood. His dad played country around the farm all the time, his dad especially liked Dylan and Neil Young but his mum was more the rock chick with her love of the Rolling Stones.
However, he always rebelled the country genre when he was younger and throughout his teenage years. “We’d go to these horse events and they’d be a lot of people playing country and of course I rebelled,” he said. In high school he was still on the grunge bandwagon. He used to grow his hair long and pretend he was the next Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam.
Instead, Ben used his Alt-Country love for music to put together a new band together called Ralway Bell, “And that’s how we ended up here!” At the moment they are at the starting out point within the music career. He is the manager and social media guru of the group. “You find you have to talk a lot more roles early on I think,” he said, “I am looking at other people who are now starting to get management and record deals and they all started off the same way doing all the leg work themselves.”
Every member of the band is also either in jobs, between jobs or looking for jobs. Ben currently works with operational technology for high precision machine guns. He enthused, “I’ve just had 12 weeks off. I go back to work on Monday which is going to be a massive downer because it’s been an awesome summer. We’ve had all these cool gigs, these awards and festivals but it’s time to come back to reality.” Because of work the band schedule their music around their shifts and work hours so performing is usually left for weekends. “It would be nice to get to a point where we could focus on it 100 percent but I think the reality of original music, especially in a city as small as Perth, is hard.”
As well as working he also manages the Alt-Country and Western Australia Facebook page and contributes to a national Facebook page called Americana Australia so it helps him keep tabs on a few bands new and old. “Alt-country and Americana is what I am listening to at the moment. Country music has changed so much over the years. Sometimes when I’m looking through stuff I feel the Americana genre is back to where country started. It’s the very simple blue-grass kind of influence or just a person with a guitar telling a story.”
He travelled to America in 2008 and he couldn’t believe how big country was over there. “You would drive into the towns and cities and there’d be like ten country stations all advertising with big billboards and we’d be like flicking through trying to find some pop or rock!” He feels Americana is circling back to the original country like music such as Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie which is why he loves that sound. But he also loves Alt-Country that then twists rock and electric sounds with tones and themes of country music. “I think that’s what Ralway Bell are, the bit rockier, a bit edgier sound,” he said. “We have a pedal steel guitarist in our band and I just love that pedal steel sound.”
The Alt-Country and Americana genre are what Ralway Bell’s sound is based on. They tell stories of their own experiences and use the genre as the vehicle for their new songs. “I don’t think anything we are doing people are going to go, ‘wow I have never seen that done before’. But the greatest compliment we can get is someone coming up and saying that we really reminded them of a band they love. We just want to represent that sound and that style for everyone.”
One support act gig they did this year for Kasey Chambers was interesting because Ben lost his cowboy hat he wears for every gig. “It’s like a size 62, it’s a massive piece of gear,” he said. They were playing at the Quindanning Inne on the WAM Wheatbelt Touring Circuit. It was the last show of a three-night run and since he didn’t have to save his voice for any other shows, they were out in the crowd while Kasey was performing. The hat got taken off his head, “Since it was so big I could keep track of where it was going through the crowd. I got the hat back but after a few more trips to the bar, I must’ve gone to bed without the hat.” He woke in the morning and wondered where his hat went. The last person who had the hat seemed to have written their phone number on the drummer’s t-shirt so they got in contact with them and they still had the hat as they had taken it home with them. “We got it back a couple of weeks later,” he said. “When it was returned it came with a little photo-book because they travelled a couple of hours from where they lived to the gig and they’d gone and put the hat in different tourist spots and taken a photo of it so they’d written this little book of stories of my hat.” This was the weirdest encounter the band have had but Ben says usually, “What happens on the road, stays on the road!”
So far the band have had a nomination in the WAM awards for Best Country Act last year. “It’s judged on a few elements: your recordings, how you’re going with profiles, social media and gigs.” Then February this year they won Group of the Year at the Boyup Brooke Country Music Festival WA Music awards and it blew their minds. “I feel we need to not sit around too long, we need to keep active.” Ben feels travelling east is the next move as they have gained a lot of fans in Western Australia and there is a bigger population and drum up support. In the next few weeks Ralway Bell are playing at Port City Folk Festival and helping out their good friends The Jackson Roses launch their new CD.
With an EP released, I am a Superhero, and playing at various gigs Ralway Bell are well on their way to be successful. The band are now in talks after a pretty busy first half of the year with the Boyup Brook Country Music Festival and the Nannup Music Festival. There was also a WAM Showcase Show end of last year so they didn’t really have time to build the best line-up. “We kind of just said we’ll get these gigs out the way and then we’ll have a bit of a sit-down and a chat about how everyone’s feeling about everything and where we want to go.” The band seem happy with where they are now, though, “If we keep doing that and keep enjoying that and something grows and happens from that then that’s a bonus but as long as we stay where we are now then that’s a good place to be.”