“FUCK me dead!”
It’s just after 10pm on a Friday night in the centre of Sydney, as a heaving Metro Theatre bounces as one to the bombastic Eurotrash beat of the Vengaboys’ kitsch classic
The expletive is blurted out by Billy Fleming – the drumming half of indie/garage/surf duo Hockey Dad – as he looks out at the crowd that has gathered to see him and his bandmate, vocalist/guitarist Zach Stephenson, perform.
It’s the first of two sold-out shows at the Metro specifically, but every single available ticket to every single show on this tour is long gone at this point. Off the back of their second album, Blend Inn, Hockey Dad have exceeded any and all expectations – the sold-out tour aside, the album also debuted in the top 10 of the ARIA charts and had its lead single, ‘Homely Feeling’, has clinched a spot in the 2017 Hottest 100.
Both literally and metaphorically, all of this is a long way from Windang, a seaside suburb some 15 kilometres south-east of Wollongong. Before Hockey Dad came along, its most famous export was Computer Town Australia – a store known among south-coast millennials for its cheesy TV jingle (“Computer Town Australia/Windang Road a’ Windang!”).
How then did two self-described grommets who had no loftier ambitions than playing at Wollongong’s Rad Bar end up as one of Australia’s hottest rock commodities? In order to get closer to a complete answer, we spoke with those closest to Hockey Dad – their extended family, both by blood and by bond.
Julie and Ross Stephenson
AS is folklore in the Hockey Dad story by now, the Stephensons and the Flemings lived on the very same street. (The band’s debut album, 2016’s Boronia, is named after it.) In the Stephenson household, Julie – Zach’s mum – knew early on that her child had a connection with music.
“Ever since he was a toddler, sweetheart,” she says. “He used to climb up there on the table and sing all of the songs he knew – all The Wiggles’ songs, the Bananas in Pyjamas song, all the songs from Play School.”
Meanwhile, Ross’ earliest musical memories of Zach involve taking him to a since-discontinued program called Meyer’s Music for Toddlers. “Every Friday morning, it’d be Zach with all these other little kids banging tambourines and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “He’d just light up – he loved it.”
It wasn’t long before Zach became fast friends with little Billy Fleming, two years his junior, from up the road. “I can barely remember a time when Billy wasn’t around,” Julie says, smiling. “He was always very quiet and very shy, but he was such a beaut kid. They were best mates, those two – they were inseparable.”
Both ended up as dux of Windang Primary and began playing music together in high school. “We didn’t expect them to have a musical connection,” admits Ross. “We were very supportive of it, though – I could see how much fun they were having together.
“I’d be driving home from work, and I’d be three blocks away from the driveway and I could already hear them going at it in the garage. Bang! Bang! Bang! Thank goodness we had such understanding neighbours – they were all great.”
BACK at the Metro, and the Stephensons watch their son soundcheck with the excitability of some teenagers who won a competition to be VIP guests at the show. Ross sings along to every word of ‘Running Out’ from Blend Inn as the duo run through it.
“This is all very surreal to us,” comments Julie. “I love coming to Zach and Billy’s shows – I love watching the kids up the front, all having the time of their lives.”
Ross agrees, noting he’s probaby as big a Hockey Dad fan as any of the devotees that are lining up outside to score a spot on the barrier. “I’m dancing, singing along, out there with the rest of them at their gigs … I sometimes forget that’s Zach and Billy up there,” he says with a laugh.
Bill and Carol Fleming
AS the youngest of four, Billy kept a watchful eye on all of his siblings growing up.
“They all liked to play guitar, and Billy paid very close attention,” recalls Bill Fleming, Billy’s dad. “Whatever they’d listen to, he’d get into with them.”
Bill and his wife, Carol, go back and forth remembering the bands of Billy’s childhood. “He loved a lot of the old stuff –
“I remember Billy flew back from a tour with the band on a Monday morning, came straight back down to school and sat a HSC exam."
Zach befriended Billy around the time the latter started kindergarten – Windang Primary had composite classes – and the rest is more or less history. “They’d always be out in the front yard – playing cricket, playing footy,” says Bill. “Zach even came on family vacations.”
Although they had a connection with music, both Billy and Zach initially shared more of a passion for surfing. Billy started playing drums more or less by default. “Billy and his surfing mates were all picking out instruments to play,” says Carol. “They all got guitars, and there was a drum-kit left.” Bill laughs, adding: “He’s still never had a lesson in his life!”
It wasn’t long before their surfer boy had taken to the kit like a duck to … well, you know. “He just went at it, every spare chance he got,” Carol says.
As high school progressed, the boys’ first band fell by the wayside and Hockey Dad kicked off in earnest around 2013. Within a year, things were moving fast.
“I remember Billy flew back from a tour with the band on a Monday morning, came straight back down to school and sat a HSC exam,” says Carol, laughing. “He got home that afternoon, and he could barely put together a sentence – which was funny, considering he’d just done his English exam.”
Not long after that, the duo hit a crossroads – pursue the band or pursue their academics. “Billy had early entry into uni, and Zach was already at uni,” says Bill. “That’s when he sat the two of us down and said that he and Zach wanted to give the band thing a proper go. We told him to go for it – you can go back to uni any time you want, if you want. If this is what you want to do, then we’re behind you.”
Bill looks around the Metro, a glint in his eye. “And here we are,” he adds.
TONIGHT is a big deal for the extended Fleming clan, several of whom have come from all around the traps just to see it. Carol is especially proud. Tonight, she adds, is literally a dream come true. “When he was 14, he told me there were three things he wanted to do in his life,” she says.
“One: To sing a song and have everyone sing the words back to him.”
Tick. Thanks to ‘Sweet Release’, which features Billy’s lead vocal debut.
“Two: To play at a music festival.”
Big tick. The band have played Falls and even the mainstage at Splendour In The Grass.
“And three: Headline a show at the Metro.”
Two shiny new ticks for that one.
“How amazing is that?” says Carol.
“He’s bloody done it,” Bill confirms.
Manager/Owner, Rad Bar
BEFORE owning the bar at the end of Crown Street known as Rad, Daniel Radburn worked there as a barman and sound engineer. At the time, it was still called Yours & Owls, before the titular collective sold the space.
One fateful night in 2012, Daniel was working at the bar when two underage kids made a valiant effort to sneak in.
“I think they were trying to get into a Hunting Grounds show,” he recalls. “Zach probably would have been about 16 at the time. They were begging to be let in – ‘We’re not gonna drink or anything, we just wanna see the show.’” Eventually, he relented – and that’s when his friendship with Zach and Billy began. “Little did we know,” he adds, laughing.
Months later, Daniel was playing an all-ages matinee at Sydney’s Metro Lair – he is a long-serving drummer of garage-rock band
“He was excited to find out that I played music, as well. We became pretty fast friends after that. Anytime there was a cool show on at the bar, we’d always make sure Zach and Billy could get in.”
“Just that moment of meeting Hockey Dad made him want to be in a band. And, to me, that's really just the coolest thing in the world.”
When the two friends formed Hockey Dad, the newly-christened Rad would serve as the venue for their first ever show. Eventually both of them would end up working part-time at the bar itself once they each turned 18. As the band prepared to release their first EP, Dreamin’, they began to look at managerial options to keep up with the increased interest in the band.
“It had never even crossed my mind to try and manage a band,” confesses Daniel. “I guess, after years of playing music and working around it, I felt like a new challenge. I loved the band – both musically and as people – and so I wanted to help them with it.”
Despite the relative inexperience on either end, their relationships has been a match made in heaven. Often referred to as the band’s “dad”, Daniel oversees nearly everything to do with the duo.
With the release of Blend Inn, this has meant putting in more work than ever before. “It’s been pretty insane,” Daniel says on the growth and trajectory the band has shown in the last six months alone. “I’ve seen them play more than any other band – I’m at pretty much every show – and it’s still so surreal to see how many people are out there for them.”
“The growth has been really organic – just getting out there and playing all these shows over the years, they’ve built up this audience. You see the crowd’s response, and it’s so real because it’s so excited. The audiences are so passionate.”
One can draw a conclusion that a key reason for their success with a younger audience is having teens see themselves in Zach and Billy – small-town kids that love music. It doesn’t have to be Windang, it could be anywhere. Newcastle, for instance.
He cites a gig at The Small Ballroom, a mid-sized Newcastle venue in Islington, as an example of the band’s generosity.
“A dad rocked up while they were soundchecking, and he had his 10-year-old kid with him. ‘I know he can’t come in,’ he said to us. ‘He just wants to meet the band.’ Zach and Billy came out, hung out with him, got a photo and gave him a t-shirt. He was so stoked. Fast forward a few years later, and I get an email from him out of the blue. He’s started a band, he says – and they want to come and play at the bar!”
Daniel smiles. “Just that moment of meeting Hockey Dad made him want to be in a band,” he says. “And, to me, that’s really just the coolest thing in the world.”
Farmer & The Owl/Yours & Owls
ONE of the key figures responsible for putting Wollongong on the map in the 2010s as far as local music is concerned, Ben Tillman had a close eye on Billy Fleming and Zach Stephenson when they started turning up at Yours & Owls. Still, as it turned out, not quite as close as the others.
“They’d been coming to shows for awhile, and then Billy emailed me out of nowhere one day,” says Ben. “He asked if I could get him a fake ID – I didn’t realise how young he was! He was only 16, and he’d been hanging out at Owls for two years already!”
The release of the Dreamin’ EP in 2014 was the first official release on Farmer & The Owl, a co-op imprint between the Yours & Owls team and the owners of Music Farmer, Wollongong’s longest-running independent record store.
“We’d been talking about doing something together for awhile,” says Ben. “We were looking for some sort of medium to broadcast what was going on in Wollongong outside of Wollongong. It all just came together really naturally.”
Hockey Dad were soon selling out shows at Rad Bar and playing homegrown festivals like Farmer & The Owl on the grounds of the University of Wollongong in 2015 and Yours & Owls in Stuart Park in 2016.
“It was fucking packed,” Ben says of the latter. “We had them on the smaller stage, but they ended up having one of the biggest crowds of the entire weekend. Looking out and seeing that got me really emotional.”
Sold-out shows followed as far away from home as the two could possibly get. “It feels like everything they’ve set out to do, they’ve gone and done,” Ben continues.
“For those from the area, they’ve always felt like everyone’s little brothers. Everyone’s been more than happy to help them out at every point along the way.”
Ben looks around from the mezzanine of the Metro Theatre, overlooking the soon-to-be full dancefloor. “Look where it’s got them,” he says. “We thought a top 10 debut for Blend Inn would be really cool – we got it. We were worried about doing the Metro – we’re doing two.
“People might just see the band on that surface level, but there are definitely those that will look closer into the label, the other bands on the label, where we all come from. There’s a story to all of this.”
The Farmer & The Owl collective/Music Farmers
A VETERAN of the Wollongong music scene, Jeb Taylor – co-owner of local record store Music Farmers – has seen lots bands come and go. When Hockey Dad started, it was inevitable they’d cross paths.
“They came into the store on Record Store Day,” Jeb recalls. “We were still using the space up in Crown Lane for the store then [the store has since moved down the street to Globe Lane]. I think I’d seen them once already, playing at Rad – I heard about them through a housemate, who had heard the demo they’d uploaded to Unearthed.”
Talk turned to Billy and Zach’s plans to release their music – and that’s where Farmer & The Owl as a label began to take shape.
“They got a friend to record a couple of demos, but I didn’t think it captured them at all,” Jeb says. “They took the feedback on board, then I didn’t hear from them for awhile.”
The duo took an opportunity to improve, and through connections with new manager Daniel Radburn found themselves recording with Tom Iansek (Big Scary, No Mono) at his studio in Melbourne.
“After those first demos, the next thing I heard from them was the EP,” says Jeb. “It sounded amazing. It was everything I wanted from them. I knew they were ready.”
Dreamin’ hit the shelves in the first half of 2014, and with it came the establishment of the Farmer & The Owl greater collective as a new creative force in Wollongong.
“I was there for a lot of those early shows and those early tours,” says Jeb. “I remember one night, they did a show at FBi Social in Sydney. That was never a particularly big venue or anything like that, but even playing there off the back of only a few plays on triple j felt like things were starting to happen.”
Soon enough, Hockey Dad were making international in-roads. Both Jeb and Daniel joined them for their first American tour in 2015, which was built around a showcase at CMJ in New York.
“They’d played BIGSOUND, and Leo from Kanine [Records] was out here for that. We hung out a lot with him while he was in town and he offered to bring the band over to do CMJ.”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t met with a uniformly-positive response from their peers: “Pretty much me and Dan were the only ones who thought we should do it,” Jeb continues.
“Everyone else was saying that it was too early for the band to go over to America, and that going back the next year would be better. We decided to take the risk, and we flew out more or less straight after the Yours & Owls festival that year. All the Owls crew ended up coming over for it – we were staying at this loft in New York City.”
As luck would have it, not only did Hockey Dad end up signing their US deal with Kanine on this visit, but it ended up being the final CMJ in its original form – so if they had waited for next year, they would have been too late.
High risk, high reward.
When Hockey Dad scored a spot in the 2017 Hottest 100 with ‘Homely Feeling’ it marked the first time that a band from the Illawarra region had entered the countdown in 20 years. Their predecessors were stoner-rockers
“They were massive when I was a teenager,” he says. “I’d say they were probably one of the biggest reasons I got into music. I’ve become really good mates with that whole crew, and they’re all really supportive of everything that’s happening with Hockey Dad and with Farmer & The Owl.”
It’s a timely reiteration of the fact that this greater musical community – the leisure coast, the steel city, whatever you might want to call it – takes care of its own.
Anthony “The Hog” Sweeney
MOST of Hockey Dad’s crowds can’t take their eyes off Zach and Billy – and with their baby-faced, surfer-boy good looks you can’t really blame them.
Still, were they to shift their focus even for a second to the side of stage, they’d have easily noticed the six-foot guy with dreadlocks tuning Zach’s guitars.
His name is Anthony Sweeney, although he’s better known mononymously by his surname – or from his recently-acquired nickname of The Hog or, even more simply, Hog.
“I don’t even know how that started,” he laughs. He’s found a few minutes of spare time to sit down, having just loaded in the band’s gear and run a line-check with the sound guy for this tour, Dan Stork.
“I think someone was asking the boys what it is I do for them. ‘Is he a roadie? Is he a tech? Is he a sound guy?’ Zach just shrugged, and answered: ‘He’s just the Hog.’ I guess it’s my job description now!”
Aside from the Stephenson and Fleming families, Anthony goes the furthest back with the duo out of all the current team, albeit coincidentally. “I played a show with Abstract Classic somewhere in Warilla,” he says.
For those of you playing at home: Abstract Classic was Billy and Zach’s high school band before Hockey Dad, while Warilla is yet another suburb in the south of Wollongong best known for a local jingle (“I shop here/I shop here/It’s all at Warilla Grove”).
"The fact that these two kids who just hung out at Rad Bar all the time were not only playing on the other side of the world, but having people come and see them... it completely exceeded any expectations that we may have had.”
“I honestly don’t know if they remember that – they were still kids – but it’s pretty funny to think that some random gig in a church was where we first bumped into one another. We started seeing more of one another once I moved up to Wollongong from Kiama, and I started spending most of my time at Rad and with Dan.”
Were you to borrow from the animal kingdom even more to describe him, The Hog is also Hockey Dad’s gopher. As in “go-fer this, go-fer that”. He’s taking care of the load-in, getting the levels on the amps, running correspondence with the sound person and the lighting person at the venue, checking in on the band and management, handing out AAA passes, printing off guest lists and ensuring the whole show runs smoothly from the wings of the stage. It’s pretty impressive for someone that was literally brought along initially as a running joke.
“They were heading up to play this festival, Lost Paradise,” begins Anthony. “They thought it would be funny to bring me along to be their guitar tech – mostly because they didn’t really need a guitar tech, and I wasn’t really one at all. Zach brought a second guitar that he never played, just so I could tune it and have something to do. It was all just a bit of a piss-take – it was never something that was meant to be taken seriously.”
As the shows themselves got bigger, however, Anthony found himself in a position – almost by default – where he actually had things to do. The position kind of just stuck, and he’s been more or less inseparable from the band ever since.
“It’s a ripple effect, kind of,” he says. “The more work the guys put in, the bigger the shows become – and the bigger the shows become, the more that everyone around the band has to put in work. You see it every time we go out on the road, really.
“I’ll never forget when I came over with them to America for the first time,” he continues. “The fact these two kids who just hung out at Rad Bar all the time were not only playing on the other side of the world, but having people come and see them … it completely exceeded any expectations that we may have had.”
THE Blend Inn tour has become the biggest run of headline dates the band has ever undertaken. By the time Anthony is interviewed, it’s the final night of the tour and their second Metro stint.
“How did this happen?” Anthony asks rhetorically. “I’m the dude that pretends to be the guitar tech for the band that doesn’t need a guitar tech – I shouldn’t be here!
“This one has been a massive learning curve,” he continues, laughing. “There was all this stuff that we actually needed for this tour – and the kind of bands that usually play these venues already have a team taking care of all that for them.”
Ultimately, Anthony views the Blend Inn tour as a massive triumph – both for the band and for everyone involved with the shows.
“I have honestly not heard Zach’s voice properly this entire tour,” he says. “That’s not because of bad sound – it’s because everyone that’s rocked up has been singing all the words to every song so loudly. It’s easy to think that, because you’re working away in the middle of it all, that you may have a skewed perspective on things.
“Looking out at that first Metro show, though, I knew there was no way you could see it any other way. This was a big deal.”
He pauses, laughs nervously, and corrects himself.
“This is a big deal.”