Rocking On Their Axis

The Axis of Awesome return to town this weekend to rock – they’re preparing to “storm” Adelaide, says the Fringe Guide. And the trio are pretty pumped to perform here again. “It’s such a good festival, and it’s been so good to us,” says Lee Naimo, one-third of the Axis.

“It’s one of the festivals that we’ve kept on doing throughout the years,” says Lee (pictured left). “Some we’ve dropped in and out of, but Adelaide, I think we’ve done just about every year. Even if we’ve been about to head overseas for touring or for long stints, we’ve managed to slip Adelaide in.”

Lee Naimo: We really like Adelaide as a festival, and we’re trying out a brand new show there, so fingers crossed that Adelaide still likes us.

I’m sure we do. I can’t speak for Adelaide, but –

LN: If you can find someone that does speak for Adelaide, that’d be great. Get the mayor, please.

What’s it been like preparing for the new show?

LN: It’s been a little bit different to our usual process – I mean, I’m sure you’re aware of the recent announcement, last week I think, that Jordan’s come out as transgender. I guess we’ve delayed the show a little bit, because we haven’t been performing live while Jordan’s been transitioning.

We did a trial run of this show a couple of weeks ago in Sydney at the Giant Dwarf Theatre, and it went really well, but even that was before the announcement – so Benny and I came out at the start and said, “Here’s the deal: a lot of you in the room are family and friends that know this already, but for those of you that don’t, Jordan is transgender, and the news isn’t out there yet.”

So a lot of it is really new material, as opposed to – normally we’d probably wrap up our touring around Edinburgh and then slowly try out new songs over the next six months or so. It feels like there’s a lot of new stuff here. But by the same token, we’ve been doing this long enough to know what’s good and what’s not, and we’ve worked through a lot of ideas and gone “what do we like, what do audiences like”, and the trial show went really well. I guess there’s been a slightly more condensed process – but in terms of the way we write, the way we work and have fun together, it’s all pretty much the same.

Now I guess we’ve got a good chance for Jordan to be a good role model to some people, which is pretty cool – and also to keep doing our silly songs in front of people, with the publicity that it’s afforded us!

I was going to ask – there’s been a lot of media attention around Jordan and her coming out story. Obviously her story itself is pretty wonderful, but what’s it been like for the three of you over the past couple of weeks?

LN: I guess — we’ve known for a long time, Benny and I, so it’s just been about, “How will the wider public receive things?” We got a bit of a taste of that a few months ago when Jordan came out on her Facebook page to friends and family – it was like, “OK, a lot of support there.” Optimistically, you want to think the best of people, and you want to believe people will be super positive. But there isn’t really a precedent for this in Australia.

There’s bands like Against Me! in the States, they’re a punk band – if you’re not aware of them, their lead singer transitioned a couple of years ago, and Jordan and I actually went and saw Against Me! maybe six or more months ago, when they toured. And we were like, “Wow, the audience here are just fans.” We thought maybe it would be a heavily transgender audience – and there was obviously an amount of transgender people in the room, but there were also big blokey skinhead guys that we guessed were fans before Laura Jane Grace’s transition.

The Axis of Awesome cover ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ by Against Me!

LN: So it was like, “cool, we kinda feel like they’ve maintained a lot of their fanbase”. And that seems to be the case – we’ve been getting a lot of support out there from people, and everyone that’s chipping in with a negative comment or being a bit of a troll is getting shut down in the YouTube comments. Not that I’m reading them, because as everyone knows, you never read the comments.

I’ve kind of lost sight of your question in there, but hopefully I’ve answered it at some point.

Yeah, I guess I was wondering how it’s been for you three. Obviously overall it’s a positive story – Jordan’s clearly getting to be who she’s been wanting to be for a while – but I guess it has implications for all three of you, and for the show, given the timing?

LN: It definitely does – but even in the medium term, it’s just going to be back to business as usual. Hopefully it’s going to mean people are more aware of us, which is always a good thing. But all three of us have just wanted to keep doing what we’re doing, which is playing our silly songs for wonderful people around the world.

LN: So obviously it’s been – what’s the best way to put it? – it’s been a new process for Benny and I, and for Jordan as well! But I’ve had over a year to figure out, “What does that mean for us as a band, what does that mean for us as friends?” Really, the answer’s nothing, it shouldn’t mean anything – Jordan’s gender has never been anything to me. We’re friends, and work colleagues, and we have another business together – a video gaming sketch comedy show that we’ve been working on together online.

You’re giving me all the great segues here, because I was about to ask about that show, Insert Coin. Can you tell me a little bit about it, and how it came about?

LN: Sure! Well, Axis of Awesome have worked with Screen Australia on a couple of webseries, we have a good relationship with them, and Jordan and I came up with this idea for this webseries about gaming. We’re releasing one sketch a week over the course of a year, so fifty-two sketches. And video games are something she and I are both passionate about, and we thought that would be a great way to – I guess “skill up” is the best way to put it. We picked up some production and video production skills on the Axis of Awesome webseries we’ve worked on, and we want to do more of that, we really enjoyed it. Benny’s moving more into music production, so Jordan and I went, "Let’s start a production company and talk to Screen Australia about getting some funding."

LN: And the absolute legends at Screen Australia gave us some money to make a year’s worth of content, which is fantastic. It means that we can build those skills as producers and executive producers, but also employ a lot of great comedians and writers and actors that we know in both Sydney and Melbourne, and go, "Here’s an opportunity to write for us and perform for us and get these sketches out there." It’s really cool, we get to go, “I’d like to perform in that sketch, that’s a fun part,” and cherry-pick the fun roles to be in as well. And it’s been going really well, considering we haven’t really officially launched yet – we’ve been releasing a sketch every week but we haven’t really hit the media. I mean it has a little bit with Jordan’s transition, but yeah, the numbers we’ve been hitting we’re really happy with.

And this weekend, while we’re in Adelaide, Jordan’s going to fly back to Sydney for GX, which is an LGBT gaming expo – I think it’s the first one of its kind, they did crowdfunding to run it, and it’s kind of exciting to be involved in that. Jordan’s going to be there as kind of a guest speaker, and that’s really exciting, for us to be making new contacts in different parts of the gaming industry.

I particularly enjoyed the MMO Office sketch, because I’m also currently getting paid in experience points.

LN: Well I hope you level up soon!

Do you think there’s something in comedy that attracts ‘nerdy’, ‘gamer’ types?

LN: Perhaps – I mean I think to get ahead in any artistic field you need to have a lot of ambition, and I think that can kind of go hand-in-hand with being ‘nerdy’ about something, which I think is just getting right into it. I hesitate to use the word ‘nerd’ for things, because I think that just means you’re really passionate about something, and that’s something a lot of us are – that thing just happens to be gaming for a lot of comedians.

I guess it’s also that you travel a lot, you’re on your own a lot as a stand-up comedian, even the three of us touring some years we’ve brought an xBox along, or we’ve played mobile games, alone or together. You do have a lot of downtime.

Have you thought about touring an Insert Coin show?

LN: Well, part of the funding from Screen Australia was to submit a broader business plan, and I guess rather than a live show, necessarily, we’d want to expand in the same way that overseas groups like Penny Arcade have. I’m not sure if you’re aware of them, but they started as a webcomic, and now they run PAX! There’s nothing like it in Australia right now, so we’ll have to fill that hole in the market, and create an empire…

Obviously it’s very far down the road, but genuinely, it would be such a dream for us to build Insert Coin from what it is at the moment – which is basically a single-stream webseries – to have other streams coming alongside that: things like Let’s Plays, reviews, maybe lower budget sketch content or another stream of sketch content with a different angle to it; building our site into a one-stop-shop kind of website, like the Nerdist – and then do events and expos, which would have live shows. I mean, we’ve already produced some live shows in Sydney: we co-produced Dragon Friends, which is a live, improvised Dungeons and Dragons stage show; and Big Head Mode, done by Bonus Stage, which is a kind of panel show for gaming. We’re pretty heavily involved in those two. So yeah, given our live backgrounds a show’s certainly on the cards, but I think we also want to see how far it can go.


What can people expect from the show this year?

LN: Obviously we do deal with Jordan’s transition – our opening song kind of addresses the ‘elephant in the room’, and it’s called "The Elephant In The Room." And then we move back onto pretty familiar Axis territory – there’s some classic musical deconstruction songs in there, along the lines of our "How To Write a Love Song" and "In The Club Tonight." As we go on, Benny gets better and better at musical production, and so we can tackle more and more genres – so there’s some funky dance stuff, and a bit of Johnny Cash in there as well. And look, there may be a song in there about how many chords it takes to write a hit song. You never know, we might have time for that one.

(If people want to know: it’s definitely in the show. If that’s going to make up your decision to buy a ticket, for the positive, then yes, that’s in there.)

What if it would throw someone off?

LN: [laughs] If you don’t want to see it, you should leave approximately, I would say, fifty-two minutes into the show, and you’ll be perfectly satisfied. We will refund that percentage of your ticket, for those eight minutes that you didn’t get. But you’ll miss our encore.


Has much changed about your shows since you started performing at the Fringe back in 2008?

LN: Definitely. I mean, as we’ve become better performers, we’ve gotten to know each other a bit more – I mean, 2008 would have only been a year and a half into me even knowing Benny as a person, really, and now it’s been another eight years on top of that. So we know each other really well, we know our roles in the band; we’ve all gotten better at our individual jobs, and at working together as well.

LN: I mean, oh, wow, so much has changed since then – that tour was like, acoustic guitar and keyboard, and three mics, whereas now we have a whole arsenal of backing tracks that we play along to, and it’s rare for us to have a song that’s just keys, guitar and vocals. Pretty much everything now has drums and bass, and maybe other guitar parts or other vocals on tracks – they’re parts we’ve produced ourselves, and we still sing and play live, but it means we have a much fuller sound, and as I said earlier, we can tackle so many different genres that we couldn’t in the past.

And I just think we’re a lot funnier, as well! We’re just a lot more socially aware, too – there’s a lot of songs in that show where I kind of inwardly cringe at the subject matter. But, you know, that’s fine. It would be odd if we hadn’t grown up in that time, I think.

Yeah, I really enjoyed myself at Scissors Paper Rock, but if you’d done nothing for eight years, that would be strange.

LN: Yeah, look even the songs we’re still playing from that time have changed and take on a whole new meaning now. I mean "Four Chords" has evolved so much since then – and the other song we’re doing that’s a really old one is "Birdplane", which has a brand new meaning now because of Jordan’s transition.

LN: Not to sound like a bit of a wanker, but it’s a really powerful song now, “part-bird, part-plane”, and when we did that at the trial show, a lot of people said that they were getting a bit teary during the song. So it’s like – cool! Maybe there’s some other emotions you can feel at an Axis of Awesome show, other than just laughter.

Lee, Jordan and Benny will be performing ‘Won’t Ever Not Stop Giving Up’ in the Garden of Unearthly Delights until March 1st.