Twenty years down the line and The Go Set still sound as fierce, as vital, as the first day they set foot on a stage.
The Geelong-based band has always squeezed out the sparks from the place where rock’n’roll collides with the spirit of Celtic folk.
Now they bring all those forces together in the studio for an album that celebrates those years together, their 8th studio set, The Warriors Beneath Us. Not many bands survive 20 years. Fewer still mark the occasion by delivering one of their greatest albums.
Battle hardened? The band’s singer and chief songwriter, Justin Keenan, who has been there every step of the way, for every broken-down van and sweaty night of glory, knows all about that.
“We have done it the hard way,” Keenan says. “I don’t know a band that has slept on as many floors as we have. We have done 1500 shows and played in 27 or 28 different countries, and you are always building from scratch every night when you do that.”
But as bands often discover, the struggle is what makes the greatness too.
For a band that always paid its way on the strength of their live performances, a global pandemic presented a different kind of hurdle. It was also the making of The Warriors Beneath Us.
Keenan says: “We weren’t playing live so revenue was down but during Covid we discovered we could record ourselves at home without being on the clock in a big studio.
“An idea for a song would come from me and we would send it around to our home studios. We could add, subtract, layer, and that became the creative process. That was new for us. We didn’t have a budget but we had all the time we needed to make the record we wanted.”
And it sounds just like The Go Set, with all the energy they create whenever they are in a room together.
As the title The Warriors Beneath Us suggests, history buff Keenan is still digging deep into the past to find the maps that lead the way to the future.
The album’s first single, West into the Sun, is one of those songs, a story of the British press gangs that took young men from the streets and villages to fight in foreign wars.
“They would press them into service and send them off to conflicts like the American War of Independence, stealing these poor pilgrims, travellers, farmers, to fight,” Keenan says. “Much like the Russians are doing now.”
The song features the bagpipes that have always been part of The Go Set story, and the result is a soaring rock tune that sits somewhere between punk-folk and the anthems of Midnight Oil.
Long before he discovered the electric thrills of punk, folk music played an important role in Keenan’s life.
“I have Irish and Scottish heritage through my grandparents on both sides and that was the kind of music I heard at home,” Keenan says. “As a little kid I listened to those traditional songs with my nan on an old record player. Then when I was discovering bands and heard The Pogues, it all made sense.”
The ghosts of those who have come before are never too far away in the songs of The Go Set, and the album’s title tune is one of their finest on the topic.
“It is about those long-forgotten people of long-ago conflicts who gave their lives to build the things that are part of our lives today. History helps us understand the present and have a more enlightened perspective on the future.”
We Got the Numbers is about the power of union membership, inspired by the dock workers rising up to protest the sale of Australian iron to Japan before World War II. Gallows Bay is a folk tale of the Scottish resistance, and Drink to the Night is the kind of song you might hear in a rural Irish pub any night of the week.
Other songs on the album are stories that come from close to home.
Horizons is based on a true story of a young couple escaping their country-town bonds; Opportunities is inspired by a conversation between Keenan’s 21-year-old son and his grandfather.
Right at the heart of the album are two blazing songs about the realities of a rock’n’roll life, Raise Your Hands and Broken Bones and Hearts.
“All those shows we have done around the world, being away from those you love, that can be really hard on everyone. Broken Bones and Hearts is about lost time, the strain on friendships, relationships, while you are pursuing this way of life.”
But those years together in the moment on stage create a musical bond you can’t get any other way.
“We have had a stable line-up for a decade now and because we’ve done so much touring we really know what each other’s strengths are,” Keenan says. “Rather than adding an instrument because that suits our signature sound, this time we let the songs go in the direction they wanted to go.”
The album closes with a rousing version of The Sunnyside of the Street by The Pogues, a favourite on The Go Set tour bus now captured by the band in one glorious take.
The Warriors Beneath Us is an album with big guitars, big beats and irresistible choruses, while retaining the timeless spirit of the band’s Celtic roots.
“It always interests me that a kid from Germany or the Czech Republic can connect with our music as deeply as anyone else,” Keenan says. “There is something primal and invigorating about it that appeals across borders.”
The Warriors Beneath Us is released on March 17, 2023 on ABC Music.