As soon as Peter Bibby comes on stage, you can tell something is wrong.
We’re at the Bank Hotel in Newtown and he’s playing with his new band, Dog Act. They launch into their first song, a new one that’s dark, brooding and heavy. “I’m obsessed with the middle of the ocean,” he screams across the pub. “I’m depressed in the middle of the sea.” The room is packed and the crowd are captivated, but there’s an unmistakable tension in the air.
A big security guard, arms folded, is standing side-of-stage, less than a metre from where Bibby is facing the crowd. As the song finishes, Bibby turns to the bouncer and tells him to get the fuck off the stage. After some kerfuffle, the bouncer leaves the stage, only to be replaced with a bigger, badder looking security guard. Clearly angry, Bibby tells the audience that the security had threatened him and his band before the show, muttering, “Sydney’s going down.” A few songs into the set, people start jumping around and dancing, only to be systematically reprimanded and evicted by the bouncers. Pretty soon the sound is cut and the show is over.
It’s another sad reflection of Sydney’s struggling nightlife.
When I ask Bibby about the night, he says that before the show, the bouncer had been threatening Strawberry Pete, the Dog Act bass player, who had broken his back less than a year before. “You get pretty protective of your mates when you’ve seen them in a state where they may not walk again,” Bibby explains.
After Bibby kicked the first bouncer off the stage, the replacement bouncer leaned in close and told him, “Unless you want to start a war, you better cut that shit out.” That was the beginning of the end. “I remember not wanting to adhere to these intimidation tactics and making small jabs at this bloke until he unplugged our amplifiers,” Bibby says.
That was the King Street Crawl 2017, which, for the second year in a row, was cut short by overzealous bouncers. Bibby describes the event as, “The violence and horror that makes someone like me, from a shitty little isolated town like Perth, say ‘This ship is sinking.’ ” He adds that, “Musicians and punters in Sydney are bloody grouse, no problem there, [it’s] got some ripper venues too.”
About a month later, at the Captain Cook Hotel, Bibby and his Dog Act returned to the nanny-state and treated Sydneysiders to a raucous show, playing a bunch of his folky classics, as well as the newer, heavier stuff they’ve been working on. The room was captivated, lapping up every song and demanding an encore, which the band was happy to oblige. It was refreshing to see the boys from WA get the chance to redeem themselves in a sweaty, booze-soaked pub while 50 punters jumped around, spilled beer and sung along.
During that weekend, Bibby and Dog Act also managed to play three seperate gigs in peoples’ backyards, which were hooked up through an agency called Parlour. “I’m happy to be booked by people to play in their yards,” Bibby says. “Some have been super loose and rowdy, others have been really quiet and respectable. It’s nice to be welcomed into peoples’ homes to play my music.”
The humble guy playing guitar in the backyard is a starkly different image to the bloke screaming, “Get off my stage!” in the bouncer’s face, but Bibby is a man of multitudinous character. Some of his songs are sentimental, Paul-Kelly-esque folk ballads while others are more forthright, built around janky rock ‘n’ roll riffs. His voice sways between soft-spoken and loudly rugged, with an unmistakable Aussie accent.
But it’s the lyrics that really grab hold. If the riffs sound familiar then his knack for storytelling sets him a cut above other contemporary songwriters. The unflinching honesty of his words are intensely powerful and personal—often to the point of being painful. “Hates My Boozin”, from his 2014 album Butcher, Hairstylist, Musician, is a good example—it’s a track about a lover who was concerned about Bibby’s heavy drinking. As the song closes out, he wails, “I wonder if she knows that my love for her is shrinking.”
Bibby explains, “I remember the first time I played ‘Hate’s My Boozin’ publicly, the girl I wrote it about walked out of the gig crying… That made me feel pretty shitty but also pretty proud of myself.” He clarifies: “I don’t want to write fluffy bullshit.”
Hard living is a running theme in Bibby’s songs. Having been touring on and off for five years with a whole score of different bands (Frozen Ocean, Fucking Teeth, Bottles of Confidence, Dog Act), you get the vibe that he’s no stranger to sleeping on floors and couches or to playing three or four gigs in a weekend. This lifestyle takes its toll, as revealed in the lyrics of his recently released single, “Medicine”. It’s about being sick and malnourished, then going to the doctor, only to be told to eat better and get some sunshine. Bibby howls, “But I didn’t come here for advice… I want pills, pain killing pills.”
Bibby has been playing this track at gigs for the last five years and an older version has been kicking around YouTube for at least that long, but this year that he officially released it with a brand new film clip. When I ask why he would release such an old track, his response is cryptic: “Let’s just say I wanted to get a proper photo of the old girl before I said goodbye for good.”
I can’t help but suspect he might not have written anything for a while, but he assures me there’s no shortage of new material, with two seperate albums on the go. The first is a solo album, Grand Champion, which is already finished and will be released once he submits the artwork to his label, Spinning Top Records. Then there’s a Dog Act album, which the band recorded just before this tour. Bibby says, “I’m hoping it will see the light of day in the next 12 months.”
With so much gigging and two new albums, it’s clear that Bibby has a pretty solid work ethic. Having grown up on the outskirts of Midland, a suburb of Perth with a rough reputation, you get the vibe that he works hard at his craft and appreciates that he’s able to tour the country as a working musician. “I consider myself pretty lucky that anyone wants to listen, not to say I think it’s shit, it’s just nice that people care,” he says. “Playing music and travelling together in the name of music is an ever flowering garden that I intend to keep watered and vibrant.”