On ‘Australia Stops’, C.O.F.F.I.N Are At Their Snarling Best
Like most musicians who have released music in the 2020s, Ben Portnoy has gotten used to chatting over Zoom. After all, his last album as the lead-singing drummer of Sydney punk stalwarts C.O.F.F.I.N — their quasi-eponymous Children in Finland Fighting in Norway — was released in September of 2020. What other means did a band have at that point to promote a new record?
Almost exactly three years removed, Ben has found himself back on Zoom to talk shop on C.O.F.F.I.N’s latest effort Australia Stops. The circumstances surrounding it, however, couldn’t be more different: Rather than being stuck in his home between lockdown-permitted walks, Portnoy is now on the other side of the world in the midst of an extensive run of shows spread across three different bands.
“I dead-set can’t even pronounce the name of the city I’m in right now,” he laughs, “but I’m in Switzerland. I came over in May to play shows with C.O.F.F.I.N in the UK, and then after The Great Escape I met up with Satanic Togas and started a European tour with them. As soon as that tour finished, this one with Research Reactor Corp started — which has five shows left, and then I fly to meet C.O.F.F.I.N in America.”
C.O.F.F.I.N: A Changing Punk Landscape
There’s a slight glaze over Ben as he speaks with Junkee, and not just on account of his phone’s camera quality. The-wear-and-tear of playing frenetic punk shows week in and week out over an extended spell has certainly taken its toll — even with a magnesium tablet per day keeping him above board. “I had a five-day break in-between tours, and that saying about sharks dying if they stop moving really came true for me,” he confesses.
“I just felt completely fucked — I was run down, I was missing home and I was looking around at what I’d stacked up for myself and couldn’t help but think ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ Once the shows started up again, though, it was a real shot in the arm. I was reminded firsthand: This is what you’re here to do. This is what you want to do. You’re meeting other people on the other side of the world that give a shit about what you do. It’s pretty sweet.”
After toiling away for over a decade as a staple of Sydney’s live circuit, which featured everything from rowdy pub gigs to DIY generator blowouts to PCYC all-ages ragers, C.O.F.F.I.N began accumulating a cult following outside of Australia towards the tail-end of the 2010s. Thanks in part to their long-standing friendship with fellow Antipodean punk exports Amyl and the Sniffers, the band have since been able to play in front of thousands both nationally and internationally.
Australia Stops, then, is the sound of a band ready to step up to the plate the same way their mates did on 2021’s Comfort To Me. The band’s latest long-player simultaneously serves as both a culmination of its 18-year journey and an emphatic step forward into their next stage. The Sydneysiders have been able to achieve this by balancing a degree of similarity with previous albums as well as just enough new tricks to keep listeners on their toes — perhaps best exemplified by the stomping lead single and opening track ‘Give Me a Bite’, as well as the slinking, snarling ‘Factory Man’ and the pub-rock barnstormer ‘Beasts’.
It’s still C.O.F.F.I.N, but the children of Finland are all grown up now — and, more importantly, they know what they’re fighting for.
C.O.F.F.I.N: Embracing The Politics Of Punk
As with all of the band’s albums, Australia Stops was recorded live with Frenzal Rhomb frontman Jason Whalley at his Marrickville studio, The Pet Food Factory. “We think our greatest strength as a band is how we play live,” says Ben. “It makes a lot of sense to us to record that way, and the best way to capture it is with Jay in that small studio space.” When contrasting between it and Children in Finland…, however, the frontman sees their latest as a much more considered effort.
“It was quite rushed,” he says of their last album. “We had a tour booked for the States supporting Amyl, and we wanted to have a record to bring over and sell at the shows. We had some ideas already, but a lot of it we were writing as we went in the studio. Inevitably, with hindsight, you look at aspects of the album where you’re like ‘oh, that was maybe a little indulgent’ or ‘oh, that could have been structured better’. With this one, we didn’t really have that — mostly because we had all COVID lockdowns to really go over our demos and enter the studio a lot more prepared.”
The connections between Comfort To Me and Australia Stops don’t just end at scale and ambition — they’re also steps up in terms of each band’s heightened sense of social awareness. ‘City Sun’ sees Ben look on in disgust as The Block in Redfern is torn down to make way for high-rises, while the title track alludes to national indifference as disasters run rampant and human rights are violated. “I never really saw C.O.F.F.I.N as a political band, I’ll be honest,” Ben says.
“As it’s gone on, though, I’ve definitely realised the social commentary is something people find themselves really drawn to. I put a lot of my heart into the lyrics for those songs, and on this album I really wanted to give it the attention it deserved. In the past I’ve left lyrics to the last minute, feeling like I couldn’t achieve what I was setting out to do. There was a lot more confidence this time, though. These are important topics, and they affect people I care about. Of course I want to take that seriously.”
C.O.F.F.I.N: The Logistics Of Creating An Already-Iconic Album Cover
Even before its release, Australia Stops has turned a lot of heads. It’s done so by sporting what may well be the album cover of the year. As captured by photographer Dougal Gorman, it sees Ben and his bandmates — bassist Laurence Adams and guitarists Abijah Rado and Aaron Moss — leaping off a ferry docked in Manly. The idea came to him after a beach trip with Clowns drummer Jake Laderman — who co-runs Damaged, C.O.F.F.I.N’s Australian label.
“I’ve always had a connection to those ferries — we all grew up around the northern beaches, and I see them as having strong ties to Sydney and to the band,” he says. “Even in ‘Reckless’ by Australian Crawl, which I grew up on, it has that lyric: ‘As the Manly ferry/Cuts its way to Circular Quay’. It’s all there.” The idea excited both Jake and Ben’s bandmates, although an eleventh-hour phone call nearly threw a spanner in the works.
“Aaron called his lawyer sister the night before and nearly made us lose our nerve,” Ben laughs. “She was like, ‘this is incredibly fucking dumb’ — and look, she wasn’t wrong. They could have really thrown the book at us — terrorism charges, government property damage, that sort of shit. It could have really fucked us. The next day, we headed down to the dock to meet up with Dougal and I don’t think anyone wanted to go through with it.”
With a friend keeping watch from the adjacent beach and another parked in a loading zone ready to scoop them up, however, Ben and co. knew it was now or never. “We waited for the propellers to stop turning, and as soon as they did it was all systems go,” he says. “We jumped, popped out of the water, legged it to the car and grabbed a case of beer on the way home to celebrate. It was so funny, and just that free-fall moment itself felt pretty amazing.”
C.O.F.F.I.N formed in 2005, when Ben was all of 12 years old. As he enters his 30s with the band, he’s asked what he thinks his 12-year-old self would have thought of Australia Stops if he saw it at his local record store. After giving it some thought, Ben thinks — or, at least, hopes — that kid would have been a fan. “Even on the cover alone, he would have been super into that,” he laughs. “The music, I think he’d find it super exciting — a really hard, shakin’ rock & roll boogie of an album. Plus, he’d see it’s an Aussie band getting released internationally, through really cool labels in the US and UK. He’d think that if they could do it, he could too.”
David James Young is a writer and podcaster from Wollongong that’s currently being impersonated on Instagram by a scammer. He assures you this is actually him: @djywrites.
Image: Alexander Cooke