Ben Woolner is a talented guy. The 25-year-old singer and keyboardist from Canberra’s SAFIA is chatty, keen to explore where he and the band have been over the past three years and where they are headed next. With their debut album Internal, now nine months old, SAFIA have been riding on a high, playing big festivals around the country, including a trip to Snowtunes in September to join a killer line-up alongside Tkay Maidza, Gang Of Youths and Drapht.
What’ve the last nine months been like for Woolner and the band since their debut dropped, following a long run of smash-hit singles? “It’s been a really good experience. We did a lot of touring in the three years leading up [to the record]; we were constantly on the road. It was a nice accumulation of things. We put on the album tour which was the show we always wanted to put on. We’d never had the luxury of a full catalogue of music so to have that full body of work was a nice way to close off the year and I know all of us feel pretty special about those shows.”
2017 saw SAFIA join international electro-pop duo Twenty One Pilots for a national tour, reaching a whole new fan base. Much of a crossover there? “Some would have known us, but barely any. They were a lot younger and were super loyal fans and super open, so it was a good way to give the album a second breath of life to people that wouldn’t have heard it before.” There’s another benefit to opening a Twenty One Pilots show. “[Audiences] even set up tents days before and camped in line for the show. We were very aware that this might be the first-ever concert for some of these kids and technically, we’d be the first band they’d ever see!” Talk about popping someone’s gig cherry!
The group have also been playing a bunch of festivals in 2017; starting with Field Day on New Year’s Day to Big Pineapple Festival and Curve Ball for VIVID, followed by the upcoming Snowtunes, Listen Out and Owls & Yours. Plus, you might have recognised Woolner jumping up on stage with Peking Duk at Splendour recently. “Reaching the big festival crowds is always an amazing experience,” he enthuses. “The music seems to go down quite well in that big environment. It’s kind of fun that we get to finish off the run with some big festival shows this year. It’s the least we’ve ever toured but the biggest shows we’ve done!”
SAFIA’s live show is not only big, but the energy is constant, particularly from their frontman. Woolner can often be seen traversing from one side of the stage to the other and getting pretty sweaty in the process – an amazing show of stamina while slamming out that high falsetto of his! The open-air stage in Jindabyne for Snowtunes festival presents a different problem. “We’re used to the cold [being from Canberra], but there’s still a matter of what we’ll wear on stage,” he laughs. “Finger-less gloves so we can still play guitars, but there’s no need to hire fans to cool us down. I think we’ll be fine! We all share a common interest in bands like Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin – rock bands that have this big, overarching dynamic on stage.”
This goes a long way to explaining the theatrics of a SAFIA live show. “When we came to approaching playing our music live, because we’d grown up with rock bands, the only thing we knew how to do was play like a rock band! I think that if you see the people on stage letting go and having a good time and enjoying themselves, it lowers everyone else’s inhibitions and suddenly you don’t have to feel like you’ve gotta be cool,” he muses. “It encourages people to let go and enjoy the music. That’s what it’s about really.”
Despite less than a year passing since the debut album, SAFIA are already looking ahead. Woolner describes their national tour of 2016 as a celebration of their early years together. “Where we worked up to with the last tour was a perfect ending to everything, so when we come back, we want to do something cool to top it,” he exclaims. “We’ve been writing a lot in-between all these festival shows, hermitted away in Canberra experimenting around. We’ll wait and see what happens, but it’s been fun. We’re always writing. When we have time off, the thing I like to do is write music. The day that the record came out was our first chance to start fresh again so it’s nice and refreshing to just play around and see what happens.”
Internal was certainly a triumph for this young band, scoring two gold records from the debut, with Let Them Wheels Roll and Embracing Me hitting over 35,000 units with ARIA as well as the album reaching #2 on the charts. “We’ve managed to sell some records in this day and age, which is a bit surprising! The good thing about people liking the first record is that we’re still very much learning and there’s a lot of elements we can take from that first record and make immediate improvements with for the next.” Exciting things to come!
1 – 2 September, Snowtunes, Lake Jindabyn