Cable Ties: Rocking Hard With a Social Conscience
Cable Ties address misogyny, racism, gender issues, and climate change on their new album, Far Enough, but they’re under no illusions that a loud, noisy rock band by itself is likely to save the world. “Sometimes I think playing in a band is the most egotistical, selfish thing you can do,” says Jenny McKechnie, the Melbourne, Australia, band’s singer-guitarist. “But whenever I start thinking like that, I think about the role music played in my life and the fact that when I was a teenager, there were local folk artists singing about reconciliation and political issues that brought them to the forefront of my mind and shaped me as a person.”
From the album’s opening track, “Hope,” there’s a sense of optimism that lifts up the serious themes on Far Enough and keeps McKechnie’s subject matter from feeling heavier than her riffs. Throughout, McKechnie, bassist Nick Brown, and drummer Shauna Boyle balance the savagery of their musical attack with catchy melodies and smart lyrics. It’s a perfect marriage of self-awareness in the world and rock for the sake of rawk. In the matter of just a few years, that sound has earned them gigs with Joan Jett and the Kills, and it’s gotten them a U.S. deal with Merge Records, sometime home to Arcade Fire, Spoon, and the Magnetic Fields. Along the way, Cable Ties have always adhered to the strong vision and principles they had in mind for the band, going back to when they formed.
The roots of the trio lie in the friendship between McKechnie and Boyle, who met at a music fest around 2012. The singer was playing in a punk band at the time called Shit Sex (“We got some interesting people following us on the internet,” she says), and Boyle, who played in a noise-improv group, started going to Shit Sex’s shows. McKechnie suggested the two of them jam together in 2014, Boyle switched from bass to drums, and they recruited Brown, who’d known both of the women for years.
It was the bassist who suggested the name Cable Ties. “When we started the group, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in a band with a name I can’t comfortably say to my family anymore,'” McKechnie says. Brown figured the band had a “very physical but functional” sound, and the name Cable Ties fit. “We just felt like a very ‘getting on with it’ kind of band, and [actual cable ties] felt like a very ‘getting on with it’ piece of equipment,” he says. “It’s practical. It does the job. It’s a bit no fuss, and that felt appropriate to me.”
Within a few months, they’d played their first gig in early 2015. McKechnie figures the group landed on its signature mix of tight, danceable rhythms, staticky guitar playing, and intense vocals around 2016, after spending hours repeating their riffs over and over again in their jam space. She’d started out playing acoustic folk music, so it took her a bit to get the hang of playing electric. Eventually she developed her own uniquely rattling style by playing around Brown’s throbbing bass lines for up to an hour-and-a-half at a time.
They released their debut single, “Same for Me,” that March, and shortly thereafter got the offer to open for the Kills. Cable Ties had originally drawn inspiration from Melbourne’s local punk and garage-rock scene but playing on bigger stages in rooms of more than 2,000 people gave them a new perspective. “When we played those big rooms for the first time, I was like, ‘Wow, the sound is so much bigger than a spindly, garage-rock thing,'” Brown says, drastically underselling the band’s sound. “It was around that time we were recording our first record, and it was a moment of realization like, ‘Wow, this actually rips a bit.'”
They released their self-titled debut later that year and, with time, started building a following. They opened gigs for Joan Jett and for Melbourne folk-rock singer-songwriter Jen Cloher, whose band at the time included Courtney Barnett on guitar, and started getting words of encouragement from people they looked up to. “When we were done playing, Jen came up and said, ‘That’s a good set,’ and started asking about me about my [guitar] pedals, and I was just losing my mind a little bit,” says McKechnie. “Courtney has come to see our shows, too, and has said she loves it. My heroes are these incredible, local women who are just in Melbourne doing their thing and coming to our shows. Every time that happens, I’m completely tongue-tied.”
Similarly, when it came time to find a label for Far Enough’s international release this year, they specifically sought out Merge Records, which is run by Superchunk members Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. “It was pretty incredible for us,” Brown says. “For a label with such a strong, proud, independent, DIY history to say, ‘Yeah, we get what you’re about and we like it,’ was cool.”
Ballance says that Cable Ties were a natural fit for Merge. “Cable Ties’ songs really stuck in my head. Their expression of raw emotion and lyrics full of meaning, which were very relevant to what we are all going through in the modern world, got my attention. We are notoriously slow about deciding to sign bands, and over the course of several months I kept going back to listen to their album again and again.”
So what did Ballance like about them so much? “They rage, but also express care and concern for vulnerable people.”
Cable Ties’ fusion of heavy riffs and a social conscience cuts deeper on Far Enough than their debut. McKechnie sings about climate change and how it relates to aboriginal rights on “Anger’s Not Enough,” white male privilege on “Self-Made Man,” and how, in her words, “trying to perfect yourself by being the most performatively woke person that you can be by policing the language of other people … to gain power” is not especially healthy on “Sandcastles.” (“I’ve been guilty of this in the past,” she confesses)
The most arresting track is “Tell Them Where to Go,” a driving, punky number on which McKechnie narrates a tale about a group of musicians who were “too shy or too femme” for the boys’ club, so they form their own scene. The band wrote it specifically for a performance at Girls Rock! Melbourne, a camp that emboldens female, trans, and gender-diverse youth by playing music. At the start of the camp, the students are placed in bands with the intention of writing an original song and learning a cover to perform. “We were going to play a set at Girls Rock! and we thought, ‘If they have to learn a cover and original in a week — which is something we’d find difficult — let’s do it, too,'” McKechnie says. “The lyrics are for all the kids at Girls Rock!”
“There was a conga line, so I think that was a pretty good outcome,” recalls Boyle, who was teaching drums at the camp. “The feedback we’ve had from that song is pretty incredible. It’s powerful. People have told us how it’s changed their ideas and helped to inspire people. It’s been able to reach people who really need it.”
McKechnie sees the new album in contrast with their past work. “The last album, lyrically, was really a defiant punk album,” she says. “By the time we started writing [Far Enough], I was coming from a place where I was feeling quite anxious and hard on myself. I was finding it quite difficult to find hope, which is a common theme on the [new] album. It was difficult to see any way out of the climate crisis and the things that were looming in our collective future. I dropped out of uni and was a bit directionless. It started from this place of being really unsure of myself and uncertain, but Cable Ties’ music demanded that I get out of that [mindset]. Ultimately, you find hope and a way to get through, even if it’s not through super-easy answers.”
By the time the album came out in late March, the band faced an obstacle they couldn’t have foreseen: the coronavirus pandemic. Shutdowns and social-distancing measures around the world forced them to stay home instead of touring in support of Far Enough, and even though they considered pausing the LP’s release, they decided to put it out anyway.
“I’d like to be distracted a little bit from what’s going on and have somebody sing or talk about an emotion that I’m feeling in what is a really challenging, isolating time,” McKechnie says. “From that perspective I was like, ‘This album is very apt for the time that we’re in.’ It’s about finding hope when you’re feeling really hopeless and despairing and being able to get through rough situations.”
After all, even if her rock band won’t change the world, she knows from experience that her message of hope could have a smaller, more individualized impact on people. “I remember one time someone coming up and saying that a song off our previous album, ‘Cut Me Down,’ that talks about an emotionally abusive partner, helped them to realize that they were in a relationship where they were not being treated fairly,” McKechnie says. “It helped them to leave that person. I was completely bowled over by that. I never thought in my life I could have that influence on anyone and help someone like that by being in a band. That experience kind of made the whole thing worth it.”
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