Kim from The Presets. Pic: some chick's Flickr.
On Thursday morning I spoke to Kim from one of my favorite bands, Australian electro duo The Presets. The interview was ostensibly to promote their new album "Apocalypso", their upcoming US tour and all the usual PR kerfluffle. But mostly I was interested in hearing what I don't normally get enough of in interviews: the musicians talking in detail about how they make their music.
Baron von Luxxury: The electronic/indie rock crossover landscape has changed so much since your debut "Beams" three years ago. Since then we've seen acts like Justice, Cut Copy and Midnight Juggernauts continue to blur the genre lines and to bridge the gap between the "rock" and "dance" music audiences. What changes have you noticed?
KIM: Five years ago "House of Jealous Lovers" had just come out, dance and rock music were just coming together, and we were playing clubs to 20 people who didnt know what to do with us. Eventually we built it up to really big shows, and what was an underground thing Australia is now mainstream culture. For example our album and Cut Copy's album debuted #1 on the Australian charts and ours has been top 10 for 12 weeks now. Its weird, its gone from being something that was underground and subversive and is now mainstream culture in Australia. Imagine if Justice debuted at #1 in the US, it a bit of a headfuck! But it's definitely a good sign, particularly when you have all this American Idol manufactured stuff going on and everyone is resigning themselves that that's how pop music should be. So it seems promising.
BvL: I imagine it must be incredibly gratifying to go from playing to 20 people to having a #1 record!
KIM: Yeah, and even this time last year we were still underground. It wasn't til October last year that mainstream radio picked up on us, like they couldnt ignore the size of the shows anymore or the culture around it. Its just really cool! Its one of those things as an artist, you want as many people to get into what you do, but also retain your credibility. It's a fine line you tread. It's weird to have a moment where everything you imagined going well has come together and happened. It is really gratifying, rare and special.
(Interview continues below...)
BVL: The new album "Apocalypso" is fantastic. The biggest difference to my ears is that it sounds much bigger than "Beams."
KIM: I'm glad you think it sounds bigger! When we made Beams we hadnt toured much, it was just us with our weird take on indie electronic music. But after touring for two and a half years on that record it became obvious what we were: "warped techno." We found we really love that moment when we play when there's just breakdowns and buildups, and everyone punching the air, and we wanted to encapsulate that particular energy for this record. So we really stripped every thing back to make it bigger. That was one of the most important lessons we learned, we really wanted to be sparing about what we used to maximize the impact.
BVL: That reminds me of a documentary I saw about Queen where Brian May talks about how on one song the more guitars they added the smaller it sounded. So they reduced the overdubs to two or three and suddenly it sounded massive.
KIM: Your canvas is only so big, and there are ways of maximizing it: if you take stuff out, you boost what's there. Its a bit like packing a fridge...Um, wait, that doesn't make sense. But yeah, it's a common mistake when you make music; I hate it when people say "less is more" but its so true: the less you use the more space you have to make what you are doing bigger. Its a real lesson we learned.
BVL: Lets talk about the songwriting process. Walk us through how you wrote the song "My People."
KIM: The initial thing was the kick drum and the bassline, that was real start of the track [he sings it]: "do do do do do- doo doo doo." It sounded real early-2000 Electroclash, fucking stupid [laughs]. But what was cool about it was the thing that became verse. And from there it was a bit of a labor. It took six months and many versions, but we kept hacking into it to make it sound like "us."
There's not too much in the track: there was the bassline, getting the right sounds for the drums, and an arpeggiated synth that comes in the chorus. So there's only like three things and the vocal in the song. When you are doing "less is more" you need to make your choices super right. We tried different choruses, chord progressions and vocal melodies. But pretty much everything you hear in the verse was always there in the guide vocal, which is where Julian will just grab a mic and sing nonsense words that eventually turn into lyrics.
So it was chorus that was the problem, we had a few that didnt really lift off. Eventually we got to the AC/DC "Thunderstruck" backing vocal thing which was initially in the bassline. Then we had this idea of the 90s vocal sample thing, just chopping bits of the vocal and playing it on a keyboard. So its just a question of taste and style that gets a song like that finished. It was much harder to finish that song than anything else because it was first thing since "Beams" that was our own thing and we wanted to set a new stage to for what we were doing. But once we got it out everything else on the record was much easier.
(Interview continues below...)
Video: "My People" - The Presets
BVL: So how did the rest of the album come together amongst all of your touring?
KIM: We started get ideas together February of last year. We each had a set up with Pro Tools, some preamps, instruments on a farm in New South Wales near the beach. Then we left that to tour and everything was done on laptops. We were in Berlin for a few months last year and did lots of things with softsynths as guides but that ended up being in the final. And then August til January we were just working every day on the album.
What's interesting to me is what happens by doing stuff. I guess "I have this whole song in my head" happens to a lot of people, but to me the most interesting things happen by it being a daily routine and a process. A lot of times you think you know what you're doing and it bites you in the ass and turns into something different.
I have this vague lust and desire to make music. Maybe at one point the vision was much stronger, but now its more about doing it. I just try and demystify the bullshit around creativity. I was inspired by Terry Riley interview where he said he works with a 9-5 schedule Monday through Friday. It's not the mythology of rock and roll: it's just fucking turning up and doing a job. That's cool to me, that you can sit at a piano or computer and have nothing in your head but anytime you sit down to do something somethings gonna happen. Its so interlinked, anything creative: cooking, reading, its all related, and like cooking, if you make music, it's about it being satisfying and hopefully delicious.
Four more things you should know about The Presets:
1. Their new album Apocalypso is out now on Modular, you can buy it on Amazon;
2. KIM is DJing this Tuesday July 22, at Cinespace Los Angeles w/Steve Aoki and friends;
3. They are returning to the US in September, and tour dates are coming soon;
4. They do the Myspace thing.
The Presets - 'My People' mp3
The Presets - 'My People (Mouse On Mars Terror Pretzels Remix)' mp3
Baron von Luxxury is My Fake Name