With “My People” exploding on the airwaves, are The Presets ready for the mainstream? And is it ready for them? Jason Treuen spends a weekend with a duo on the verge of critical mass.
It’s the final hour of the Laneway Festival in Brisbane and the atmosphere is electric. After a day of left-leaning guitar bands, punters are ready to dance their arses off.
They erupt as Julian Hamilton (vocals / keys, dressed in a t-shirt that reads ‘Safe in Heaven, Dead’) and Kim Moyes (drums / keys, trademark plain t-shirt, acid wash jeans, half-shaved head) take the stage to the sounds of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” before launching into the manic electro spasm of “Down Down Down”.
The crowd ignite but a few songs in, it’s clear something is wrong on-stage. Hamilton and Moyes swap frustrated looks and terse words between songs, double-checking inputs and ear-pieces as two crew members frantically check cords and equipment behind them. “Just fix it!” screams Moyes from behind the drums.
The guys rip through a banging set regardless and bring it home with two new songs – the dancefloor-destroying “Kicking and Screaming” and everyone’s favourite new song “My People” – finishing up with the twisted rave-up “I Go Hard I Go Home” from their first album, Beams.
Oblivious to the on-stage dramas, the crowd go home sated. Well, most of them. ”I’m not fucking leaving until I hear ‘Girl and the Sea!’” screams a guy inthe front row.
As we head backstage to the band’s make-shift dressing room – an odd multi-coloured room with scattered chips, dips and Carlsberg beer – Hamilton explains they had to cut the song due to the late start and technical difficulties. ”But we got through the show and the crowd seemed into it,” he offers.
Matt the lighting guy and Chris, their soundie and tour manager of two years, turn up, reporting that the phantom power crapped out, which meant the foldback kept distorting and speeding up.
“Plus I was getting nailed by the EPA guy on the sound level,” says Chris in disbelief. “He kept asking ‘is there this much bottom end in every track?’ I was like ‘c’mon, this is dance music.’”
The unexpected problems didn’t end there. “I also had an itchy dick,” confesses Hamilton.
The guys realise a bottle of vodka has been nicked from the rider and worse still, there’s not a single cup in the whole building to drink the rest. We make do by hacking water bottles in half. MacGyver would be proud.
The mood cools and talk quickly turns to more important subjects: Hamilton’s new Nikes, circumcision (“helmets versus dog dicks!”) and wanking on the plane (Moyes and Hamiton both fess up to joining the half-mile club). Then the cleaners kick us out.
“Hey Kim, what are you guys doing tonight?” yells a cute, drunk girl as we head outside. It’s a popular question. When I asked the same a few hours before, Moyes smiles and tells me “we’re going to go out and snort Es off my dick.”
Sadly that doesn’t eventuate, but there is an after-party for band and crew at The Zoo and the Damn Arms are DJing at a club near by. In the end, Chris drives us back to the guys’ hotel room to chill first and sink what’s left of the rider.
With a beer in hand, Moyes premieres the new video for their next single, “This Boy’s In Love”. A pristine trance track with a MDMA-soaked chorus, it’s the light to counter-act the darkness that is “My People”. Directed by Danish videographer Casper Balslev, the clip sees two young men fight in a silvery pool of milk while The Presets play keyboards in a shower of glittery rain. “Video Hits want us to cut two seconds of the drowning scene,” Hamilton tells Moyes, who shrugs.
With a UK tour only three days away, talk of kicking on evaporates. The guys announce bedtime, apologise for not being more rock and roll and turn in. The Presets have gone hard and gone home.
Four hours earlier over dinner at a Japanese restaurant, Moyes and Hamilton are animatedly discussing “My People”, the tearaway first single from Apocalypso.
”We wanted to come back with a vengeance so the first single needed to be uncompromising, balls-out,” says Moyes as he turns prawns and marinated beef on the hotplate. ”Almost within itself, that song is like a Presets ‘Best Of’ in terms of our previous work. There’s elements of “Down Down Down”, “I Go Hard I Go Home” and “Are You The One?” in there.”
At the time of writing, “My People” – a brutal electro battle cry that sounds like The Presets throwing an underground rave in hell – is sitting pretty at #19 on the ARIA Singles Charts, their highest spot to date. Stranger still, it’s kicked down the fortified walls of commercial radio to become the most played song across nights.
“I remember when we played it to our record company and they were like ‘we love it but how the fuck are we going to get this on the radio?’” recalls Moyes. “There were even doubts about how much Triple J would get behind it, let alone any commercial stations. Thanks goes to our manager for believing in it.”
It may be lost in the fists-in-the-air hedonism of their live show, but scratch the surface of “My People” and it’s not hard to find its pumping political heart. Hamilton’s quick to point out they didn’t want to “do a Rage Against The Machine where it’s rammed down people’s throats”, but they did want to make a statement.
”It’s about the way we view outsiders,” explains Hamilton. “Overseas you become a lot more aware of how people view you as an Australian and it’s inspired by everything we saw on the news about back home – John Howard, the boat people, the detention centres, the Cronulla riots.
”A year ago, we played the famous Big Day Out where they wanted to ban the Australian flag. Isn’t that incredible they had to do that because they were worried about racial tension? How sad. Especially when we’ve done so much touring and people overseas have been so welcoming and open. ”
After countless laps, The Presets’ travelling circus finally wound to a stop early last year – albeit only for a month. Hamilton and Moyes moved their studio to a friend’s farm in Bangalow, near Byron Bay, to finally lay down a blueprint for the follow-up to 2005’s highly praised Beams. ”We’d been talking about the new album for ages but we just needed to get away and make a start on it,” says Moyes.
Between sleeping in, swimming and watching TV, the guys jammed and conceived many of the new tracks, despite other distractions. “I was madly trying to research magic mushrooms on my phone. There were heaps of them growing out of the cowshit and I wasn’t quite sure which ones to look for,” he laughs.
From there, they headed to the US to support a band that can’t remember (“or was it our solo tour?” Hamilton wonders) and then onto Europe. Shacking up in Berlin for two months, they jetted off to play festivals on the weekend and tinker away in their portable studio during the week, living on bowls of soup for three euros and soaking up the city’s passion for techno. In June, they performed at the Christopher Street Day gay pride parade to a crowd of 100,000 people in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
”Europeans take their techno and rave so fucking seriously, it’s entrenched in their culture. They have clubs on a Tuesday night and people come home at 8am. Personally for me, that’s really rubbed off on the record,” explains Moyes.
With a hard drive of ideas, The Presets landed back in Sydney in August and hit the ground running. After nailing “My People” and “This Boy’s In Love”, the rest of the tracks quickly fell into place.
In the hotel later that night, we listen to the freshly mastered album on Moyes’ laptop. Gone are the experimental interludes and druggy mood-pieces that clouded the first album’s more shining moments, replaced instead by a sharper focus on songs.
”With Beams, we didn’t think too much about it. The more fucked up it was, the better,” says Moyes. “But now after all this touring, the vision’s been refined and we know what works live. Instead of instrumentals, now we’re like ‘fuck, let’s just have killer songs.’”
“There’s only so many songs you can write about taking drugs and fucking,” says Hamilton. “I think the first album took care of that.”
Apocalypso also sees the duo fully embracing melody – something Hamilton rediscovered while co-writing with good friend Daniel Johns on Silverchair’s last album, Young Modern.
”I think he’s one of the best melodic writers this country’s ever seen,” he says about Johns, who they first met playing keys for Silverchair in 2001. “Personally, it made me remember how important that is.”
He and Johns collaborated on four songs (including the ARIA Award-winning “Straight Lines”) during sessions in England and at the Chair frontman’s Newcastle house in 2005. “Julian is a brilliant arranger and I really enjoy his chord progressions,” says Johns when we speak a week later before labeling “My People” “genius”.
Was Hamilton surprised by the success of “Straight Lines”? “Nup, they don’t get me in to write shit songs, mate,” he deadpans.
Are The Presets feeling any pressure with Apocalyso? “No.” What about the hype? “What hype?” And are they ready for the mainstream? “Yeah sure.”
Their curt answers are less rock-star bravado and more unshakable faith in what they’re doing. The Presets may have a loose air of sleazy, bent insanity, but underneath the porno humour and cool connections are two classically-trained perfectionists who’ve been making music since they met at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music thirteen years ago.
“We always thought this could be cool and big because we really loved what we do and slowly it’s happening,” says Hamilton backstage at the Sydney Laneway event the next day. “When you’re playing shows around the world and people are really getting into what you’re doing, it gives you a lot of encouragement.”
Of course as “their people” continue to grow in number, the pair admit they’re wary of a backlash, even if they have little time for it.
”I’m ready for all the indie chin-strokers to tell us we’re fuckin’ sell-outs,” declares Moyes, maintaining The Presets have always been a pop act at heart, albeit a twisted one. “Those people can fuck off and go back to their blogs. They’re the ones sitting back and over-intellectualising dance music – get a life.”
“Every direction you ever take someone’s going to think you’re a sell-out, but no band actually cares,” adds Hamilton, amused by it all. “Anyways, most of our fans aren’t like that – they just want to have a good time. They don’t care about that shit.”
Fans need not fret – it’s not like they’ll be seeing The Presets performing “My People” on Sunrise anytime soon. “We shut that down,” Moyes admits. ”They just seem to be having everybody on at the moment and we’re sceptical of the audience who’s watching. But who knows, we might unlock the homo in…”
“A mother making her kids’ lunches?” finishes Hamilton.
That night, all thoughts of phantom power and itchy dicks are forgotten as the guys hurtle through an explosive headlining set. Sandwiched between two skyscrapers in the heart of Sydney, the masses stretch back as far as there is laneway while VIPs spill into the photo pit to dance.
”We’re going to the UK this week so we need all your love to take with us,” Hamilton tells the crowd between songs.
“Girl and the Sea” rings out in all its shimmering melancholy but it’s “My People” the punters are already baying for. Finally it comes; Moyes raining down its primordial drums like a man possessed while Hamilton throws his fist into the air with a maniacal glint in his eyes.
When he sings for the final time “So let me hear you scream if you’re with me!”, the crowd’s roar is so overwhelming there’s little doubt about their answer.
Apocalypso Now: The New Album Track by Track
Kim and Julian take us through some of the stand-out tracks from their new record.
Kicking and Screaming
Julian: “We’re playing this in our live show. The lyrics are loosely based on the film Apocalypse Now – the idea of going up river and the world getting more insane as you get more sane. Some times we’ll play a club and there’s all these wasted kids going nuts. It’s like being in hell, but it’s so much fun – who would have thought?”
Talk Like That
Kim: “A calypso house track with these weird cathedral organs, techno tom toms and a ballsy bassline.”
If I Know You
Julian: “It’s a break up song but I didn’t want it to be a guy pissed off at a girl because that always sounds so wimpy. I thought it’d be cool to write it from a girl’s perspective. The lyrics came out a bit weird and we thought maybe we could flog this off to a girl singer, but then I thought no, this song needs to be sung with balls!”
Kim: “This is my favourite and it’s the only instrumental on the record. The way this was built is so different to how we made the other songs. It’s a whirlwind of sound that moves in a circular motion from left to right. Sonically it’s a milestone for us.”
Kim: “This was very Berlin-influenced and so minimal. It was one of our attempts to be banging but it became really deep too. It just builds and builds and never pays off… it’s about tension.”
Kim: “We got to the end of the record and looked over the table and decided we needed another dancey banger. It’s tumbling, rolling techno with porno samples and slamming beats.”
Kim: “It’s a fuzzed-up electro-garage tune with swirling synth and a 10CC-like chorus.”
Also see these other features on The Presets:
:: Frankie: Party Planning with The Presets
:: Frankie: My First Band
:: Rolling Stone: The Presets – end of 2008 interview