Magic Dirt's Next Step
Magic Dirt’s Adalita and Dean reflect on 16 years of music and their new double shot of noise.
It’s not easy to get Magic Dirt to look back because they’re so intent on moving forward. You could almost label the quartet, whose roots are in Geelong and are now based an hour to the north in Melbourne, elder statesmen, but the ferocity of their two new releases makes a mockery of the term’s sedateness. Both Roky’s Room, a topographical selection of guitar noise, and Beast, a collection of ferociously heavy new compositions, give vent to a band focused on 2007 and their return to the independent scene via their own label, Emergency Music.
Since their earliest days Magic Dirt have been vocalist and guitarist Adalita Srsen, bassist Dean Turner and drummer Adam Robertson. Guitar duties have been handled by Daniel Herring, Dave Thomas and, since the end of 1997, Raul Sanchez. Adalita – proudly wearing a Spider Vomit t-shirt – and Dean were seated in the quiet corner of a North Melbourne pub for this interview, offering answers and only occasionally laughing at the kind of shared but unspoken joke that exists between people whose lives are thoroughly tangled up together for the better.
Whose idea was it to run a competition for support band slots on your current tour?
Dean: It was mine. We did it a couple of years ago and it’s a good way – particularly in regional areas – to give the opening slot to someone local. We found that if we left it up to the venue they always booked some kind of funk-fusion outfit that “pulls a good crowd”. We were meeting all these kids in band who couldn’t get a gig in towns like Bendigo. We literally got hundreds of entries both times. Half the discs you know after 10 seconds if you’re not interested, but some of them are unreal.
Would you like to single any bands out?
Dean: Spider Goat Canyon from Melbourne. A band from Brisbane called Gyanism – what they term “difficult music”. A band from Perth called French Rockets, another one called Ventolin.
Did Magic Dirt ever enter a band comp early on?
Dean: Adalita and I entered a battle of the band with our first band, Dear Bubbles.
Adalita: We were on last and we didn’t win it.
Dean: We scored 62 out of 120 – at EVs in Croydon. We were just excited to play.
What was Geelong like musically back in the early 90s?
Adalita: It was great because everyone loved music, specifically hard rockin’ music from Detroit and early Sonic Youth and Mudhoney and GG Allin. It was a big melting pot.
Dean: It was a very small scene and we were never in it. We were just observers.
Adalita: Everyone was an outsider.
Dean: What we learned was that playing to a lot of people didn’t matter. Playing to a few people who dug it was as important as playing a big venue. And that crowd did not tolerate any bullshit or posing. People would throw bottles and glasses at the stage if they liked it – they would land at your feet. If they didn’t like it they were aimed at your head. The other great thing was that the crowd was more into the local bands than the headliner. You Am I would come down, early on in their career, and two-thirds of the pub would leave after the Geelong band played. They’d go to a house party. I realised you didn’t need 1000 people to have a genuine rock & roll experience.
Adalita: It was an escape. There were a lot of fuck-ups who wanted to escape bad families for whatever reason going there. You could be yourself and escape the worries of the day. I never thought I was part of the scene until years later when I looked back.
Dean: We assumed every town was like that. I used to think, “If Geelong is like this, what’s Melbourne like?” Then we played The Tote and realised that no-one threw glasses at you in Melbourne.
When did you two first actually meet?
Adalita: 1988 at high school. We had similar interests and both loved music and learnt how to play at the same time.
Dean: Adalita was writing songs from the second she learnt to play guitar. I learnt bass so I could play them.
Adalita: I remember Dean saying, in my kitchen, “These songs are pretty good”, and I really needed to have that encouragement at the time. We’d jam in Dean’s parents garage. The first songs were bad songs – ‘Jets’, ‘Swagman’. ‘Jets’ went: “Jets in the sky/They scare me to my knees/They fly so close…” ‘Swagman’ was about the Swagman restaurant burning down.
Dean; It took a few years and a few incarnations of the band to make the music that we wanted to make. We were going to see bands on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night every week and we wanted to write scary music, but we couldn’t do that. It took Daniel Herring joining the band – we met skateboarding – to provide the final cog for what we wanted.
He unexpectedly guests on both Beast and Roky’s Room – how did that eventuate?
Dean: A mutual friend of ours recorded a side-project that Adam drummed on and Daniel played on it and when Adam brought over the rough mixes and played them to me it was the first time I’d heard him play guitar in over 10 years. It was literally where he’d left off – not a day had passed. I just thought, “His guitar playing has to be recorded”.
Has he been playing in other bands?
Dean: Nothing. He just plays along to Neil Young records.
Adalita: It’s like a private thing for him. It’s like he can’t have anyone watching.
Did it stir memories having him in the studio?
Dean: I remembered how difficult he was.
Adalita: It was tense. I was nervous.
Dean: He wasn’t a primadonna. It’s just that he tolerates no bullshit. Even if you want to do another take, he has to have a good reason for doing it.
Adalita: He reminds of the hard line Bob Dylan used to take in those old docos. He’s hardcore.
Dean: When he plays guitar it’s incredibly honest. Scarily honest. And he doesn’t tolerate any industry bullshit. If you’ve got a tour booked and it’s time to drive to Bendigo to play on a Thursday, he won’t go if he doesn’t feel like playing. It doesn’t matter to him that the gig is booked.
*What does he do on Roky’s Room?*
Dean: It was recorded over a couple of session. The first session was Raul, Adalita, Adam and myself – all on guitar. For the second we got a couple of friends to come in – Robbie and Bonnie from Grey Daturas and Tom from Nation Blue – and they played on a couple of songs. But I can’t tell you who plays on what and what sound they provide.
*What was the thinking behind Roky’s Room?*
Dean: The idea floated around since the start of the band. Before we had a drummer it was essentially us and Daniel making improvised noise. I always thought recording that would be too hit and miss. But when I heard Lou Reeds’ Metal Machine Music it cut the knees off the idea – I thought we could never do something that intense, or take that many drugs. When I bought that album it knocked the idea of doing a noise record out of my head for like eight years.
Adalita: Then we saw the Roky Erickson documentary – You’re Going To Miss Me – at the Melbourne Film Festival.
Dean: There’s a scene in it where he’s first seen sitting in his lounge room, with a naked light bulb pointed right at his head. He’s got sunglasses on and he has three or four TVs and half a dozen radios and transmitters around him all set on static. He just sits there listening to it, like he’s having the best Saturday night of his life. Seeing that scene brought home to me that some people need intense noise to cut out all the shit in your life. We had to make the record because it’s valid music and people need it; I need it. Everyone has a moment when you need something that doesn’t allow your mind to think.
Of the numbered pieces I find ‘6’ quite soothing, but ‘2’ is absolutely terrifying.
Adalita: It jumps between the two. It cancels out that inner chatter. I put it on to clean the house and it feels like a sedative. And the silence between tracks is so deafening.
Were you surprised that your relationship with Warner Music ended or was it on the cards?
Adalita: It was on the cards. We knew it was time to move on.
Three albums on a major label is quite an achievement for a rock band these days.
Dean: We always had champions there and they always understood the band and what we were trying to do. The first few A&R guys really understood that it would be hard for Magic Dirt to deal with a major. A couple of years ago our management said to us that it would end one day and that we should all plan for it now, so it happens on our terms not their terms. So we squirreled away money so we could make our own records. We’d written most of Beast in 2006 and we realised that they’d never understand the record we wanted to do. We met with the latest A&R guy and he was kinda happy to let us go and he could see the sense of not even trying to start the next record. So we walked away with everything intact.
You appear to have handled the transition well.
Dean: We have our management to thank for that. All these plans were put into motion two years ago – even before we put out Snow White in 2005.
Champions aside, was there a culture clash between Magic Dirt and Warners?
Dean: The A&R people would leave us alone to do what we do, but the thing I always found weird was in trying to promote the albums. What I found difficult was that difference wasn’t tolerated, let alone cultivated. The more you’re like everyone else the easier to promote you are.
Adalita: They try to iron out all the kooky little edges.
Dean: We would have long meetings with the promotions department about Adalita and the role of female entertainers in the media and what we were comfortable with. We’d sit around in Sydney and look through magazines together and tiptoe through what we’d do and then two weeks later they’d come back to us and say, “Hey, do you want to review some make-up for Dolly magazine?” When you say no to that they’re hurt.
Adalita: They need good connections with the media and they’re upset when you won’t help them with that.
Dean: The thing I enjoy most is not having the campaign of fear. They love to hold that over you. The more successful you are they more they hold it over you – “If you don’t do this, you won’t get this. If you don’t get that, you won’t get this”. And if you say you don’t care then they want to hurt you, because you’re not scared by what they’re holding over you. The reason we’ve been able to go from indies to majors to back to indies is that we’re not scared by that stuff. It goes the other way as well: people say that if you sign for a major your hardcore fans won’t like you anymore. Well, fuck ‘em.
Did you get that?
Adalita: If it happens I don’t really know about it.
*A lot of people were obsessed with the sound of 2000’s What Are Rock Stars Doing Today when it was your first release on a major after two indie albums. It appeared to drive some of your fans nuts.*
Adalita: Good. Good in the way that you can’t please everybody. We work on instinct and we do what feels right at the time. You do get sick of making loud, abrasive things, so you want to try something else. Then you get tired of writing layered, melodic songs so you move on again. It’s that simple. We get bored and we follow our gut and move on. There’s no magic or mystery to it. I have to please myself first as a songwriter and it all flows from there.
Has your songwriting ever given out?
Adalita: I go through phases where I don’t write – I can’t think of anything or what I do come up with is shit. With experience you learn that you will go through those phases.
A lot of your songwriting ideas are very compact, aren’t they? A lot of 30 or 40 second songs that go to Dean to unpack.
Adalita: I’ll bring in a riff or passage and we’ll hash it out in the rehearsal room. Dean is very good at arranging my ideas.
Dean: The latest stuff was done with the whole band. It used to be that we would tinker with songs before the others heard it. This time Adalita brought in the tapes to everyone. I wasn’t even there sometimes.
What brought on that change?
Adalita: It was practical – nothing conscious.
Dean: Adalita was writing more. Last year was her biggest batch ever. There are hours of tapes full of 30 second ideas – tapes with 100 ideas. And we only use one or two out of a dozen, so after last year we’ve already got the next record written.
Is there a routine or ritual for you, Adalita, which marks the beginning of putting these ideas all down together?
Adalita: Before I bring in the riffs I hone it a little, to pick my favourites. It’s a little nerve-wracking because I always think that the ones close to my heart will be the ones the band hate. Or they’ll love one I hate. I’m always a little bit nervous bringing them in, but I trust those guys with my writing. Then we play it and go through the ritual of jamming it out and deciding what’s good. Now we jam and write songs so quickly. We know after two or three times if something isn’t working, so we chuck it out. We have momentum at the moment because things are coming easy. It feels really good.
You appear very committed to the idea of not having any conscious evaluation of your songwriting. Even today you’ve noted how you don’t foster that.
Adalita: It just doesn’t come into play. The music tells me what is going on. When I’m writing a riff or words I seriously don’t think about what is happening. It’s a reflex action. If a riff comes out I’ll start singing something, but I won’t sit down and say to myself, “The song is about this, so I have to add a verse to explain this.” It just rolls out. It appears. That part of the creative process feels almost like magic, especially that moment when you’re sitting on your own and something comes out. Dean or someone will ask me what a song is about and I’ll have to think about it, because I only really know generally. I go in with a feeling and sing about it. On one hand it feels mystical, like you’re getting that message; on the other hand it’s very utilitarian: I have to eat, I have to drink water, I have to write a song.
Are there compositions you can’t believe have arrived via this path?
Dean: ‘Dirty Jeans’. We had started writing after [1998’s] Young and Full of the Devil, so we’d already got down ‘City Trash’ and some others. It was a great example of her not knowing what we’d like. On the tape she had ‘Dirty Jeans’ on she wasn’t going to even play it to me – we were supposed to listen to something else. She just accidentally rewound the tape too far and I heard 15 seconds of the song. I was like, “What’s this?” That was before Warners were involved and we didn’t have a label. We thought we’d be making another indie record, so to me with the backbeat being so poppy and simple it seemed like a really punk to do to break all our own rules. When that song worked within the band – we were all comfortable with it – we realised that we could do a lot more.
Adalita: A lot of the songs feed me emotionally. I feel physically nourished. Art is important to me, but I never thought about how important it was to me. I never even thought I’d be in a band – that was a complete accident. Only recently did I realise that I was in a band and that I wrote music. I was conscious of it, but I didn’t realise the magnitude of it. When I come into the rehearsal room with a heavy song with heavy lyrics that have to do with my life, I find it a headspin that I can actually write about that. The art feeds the life and the life feeds the art. You can’t separate the two.
Dean: In the rehearsal room we have the saying: Don’t spook the muse. You don’t delve in there too much and try to analyse it. If you stare at it, it disappears.
Adalita: Sometimes I write in my bedroom and sometimes I’ll go to a rehearsal room so I can crank up. You write differently that way. What I love about working with this band is that even if I think everything I’ve done is shit, they say to me, “Well let’s just try it.” The guys are really encouraging. Recently I thought that and they found something that’s become a new song we’re about to play on tour, so sometimes you have to push it. It’s not always about waiting for the magic fairy of inspiration.
When did you realise that this wasn’t going to be a band, but a kind of extended, yet intimate, family?
Adalita: Late ’90s for me.
Dean: Part of me always knew. We started the band in 1991 and ever since then I’ve found it quite easy to make harsh decisions for the band’s sake and put our personal lives and friendships behind the bands’ wants and needs. Dear Bubbles was about to make a single and get to record, but there was something else we had to do so we moved on. Part of me always knew that it would go on, but how intertwined it was with our friendships I’m still not sure.
Why the late ’90s for you, Adalita?
Adalita: We were writing Rock Stars and we didn’t have management or a label, but it hit me that we just had to keep doing what we do.
*Looking through your back catalog, what do you remember of 1994’s Signs of Satanic Youth?*
Dean: Those are the first bunch of Magic Dirt songs we wrote – literally the first five. There was no thought put into anything. The touring, the recording was all a result of us being pushed along by other people. We had a label and management – Bruce Milne at Au-Go-Go and Gavan Purdy – that wanted to put something out, so we were like OK. We needed some more songs so we wrote some more songs. If Bruce liked it we put it on the record. Steve Pav was booking us and he’d put us on tours, but we’d barely sent anyone a tape. We never thought of any of that stuff. We were pushed along by external forces.
Adalita: Signs of Satanic Youth and [1994’s] Life Was Better were recorded under much the same circumstances. We were recording in Melbourne at Birdland with Lindsay Gravina and there was a 24-hours Coles over the road. For me that was bright lights, big city! We could go to Greville Records. It was an insane amount of fun.
*Your debut album, 1996’s Friends in Danger?*
Dean: I always call that our fight record. We hated each other. When I listen to it now it sounds like a bunch of musos who aren’t listening to what each other are playing. The relationship between Adalita and I was in a bad way, Dave Thomas was in the band and we were already not going along with him. That was disheartening for me because Daniel had been a really good friend of mine and I still hadn’t got over the fact that he didn’t want to do it. He wanted to create music still, but not do band things, so I was getting over that. Dave had always been the leader of a band, so he hadn’t slipped into his role very well as a collaborator. Robbo was drifting along in his own world. We never talked to each other socially and we barely got the songs together. When we recorded that album I fucking hated every other person in the band.
Adalita: That’s awesome!
And that’s the album that was given to Warner Music in America after you signed to them?
Dean: They wanted to sign us on the back of the EPs, and we consciously held the album back until we signed. That album was made on an Au-Go-Go budget of $20,000.
Your American A&R man, Geoffrey Weiss, must have been pleased?
Dean: Till this day he won’t talk to us. He was out here for a Jet show a few years ago and I went up and reintroduced myself with the intention of having a bit of a laugh about what had happened all those years ago and… nothing. He did not want a bar of me. Friends in Danger is the lowest selling album that Geoffrey Weiss has ever been involved in.
And then he had to pay out because your contract guaranteed the release of two albums in America.
Dean: We collected hundreds and thousands of dollars US for the first album and they paid us out because they didn’t want to release a second album. We literally never recorded a song specifically for them, but they paid us for two albums.
*‘Bodysnatcher’ from Friends in Danger remains an incredible track.*
Adalita: A song like that I still don’t know what it’s about, but I know it’s come out of my psyche. Obviously it’s about a child or a struggle, but I don’t know who the fuck Ducky is. I have no idea where that name came from. There’s no touchstone for that.
You once told me that the other character, The Crusher, comes from a Warner Bros. cartoon. But in the context of that song it’s quite chilling.
Adalita: ‘Bodysnatcher’ was in some book – something like 1001 Songs You Have To Hear – and I couldn’t believe it. That song?
*What do you remember of Young and Full of the Devil?*
Adalita: Oh man.
Dean: I’d call that one the drug record.
Adalita: Oh my God.
Dean: We’d all moved up to Melbourne and got it back together and Dave was out of the band and we tried a couple of guitarists out – Daniel even rejoined for 48 hours – and we were trying to figure out what to do after all our overseas deals had fallen through and we had no management. On a whim we got Raul in the band after Adalita said she remembered this guy and he came and jammed with us. He moved into our share house, in the living room, and we just played music every day together and we booked into Birdland with Lindsay Gravina and that session was just like a party. We were getting deliveries of mull cakes to the studio – we ate so many that our sweat smelt of them! We took mushrooms and acid and did a lot of drugs in the studio. It was all too easy that record. It’s my favourite, even though we didn’t take it seriously enough.
What’s your favourite memory of Lindsay Gravina, who’s produced the majority of your releases?
Adalita: We were trying to blow up some little practice amps to get a crazy sound at the end of recording Young and Full of the Devil, so we attached all our pedals together and tried to blow them up. Lindsay was trashed like the rest of us, so he came in with his jet black hair and pointy shoes and he goes, “If we can’t blow it up, we’ll slash it!” He gets this knife and starts cutting up the practice amps and then tries to light them on fire. We thought we were extreme, but he is hardcore. I just like the way he tells me off. He really is the big daddy and he won’t take any shit.
Are you a producer now outside of Magic Dirt because of Lindsay, Dean?
Dean: Absolutely. He was the one who said I could do it, despite having no training and only just knowing my way around a mixing board. He made me see that what I can bring to a project is valid, even if I can’t sit behind the desk or choose the best mic. I can sit in the studio and hear what’s best and he taught me to value that. The best thing about Lindsay is that he will always tell you what’s shit. When no-one else will tell us that, he will. And he’ll never do what the A&R guy wants. He’s more protective of Magic Dirt’s legacy than we are.
*Third album: What Are Rock Stars Doing Today, with a big name English producer?*
Adalita: Phil Vinall was the producer and he was the first real one we’d had. It was our first serious production. We recorded it at Festival Studios in Sydney with a big budget and no drug parties – we’d get Thai for dinner.
Dean: We’d work from noon to 9pm.
Adalita: It was like an adventure for us, because it was a new way of doing things. Although having a producer meant that you have your moments. You had to assert yourself and assert the song, but Phil would go, “No, you have to do it this way!” You kind of had to hand it over to him because he was the producer. There was give and take.
Dean: To me it sounds weird. It’s our most experimental record because of the way it was made. I remember the clashes with Phil. There was a lot of him walking out and there was lots of yelling and slamming of doors. I’d get mad at the rest of the band for not backing me up. The record is weird because they’re guitar rock songs, but we were trying through Phil not to mix them that way.
Adalita: The mixes really shaped the songs as well. Phil would edit parts out and put others back in.
Dean: We didn’t know how to pick a producer. Looking back, we shouldn’t have picked Phil. We just listened to some albums we’d bought over the last few months and went with him. On the second last day we were in the studio – and this is after each song took three or four days to complete, as opposed to three or four hours – working on a version of ‘Pace It’ and we all felt it wasn’t working and went up against Phil to say that we had to try something different. He just went, ‘Fuck it, you guys do it how you want!” So we went in and banged it out live. Everything else was pieced together with edits and pulled together in the mixing. But it’s not polished.
*Followed by 2003’s Tough Love.*
Adalita: Back with Lindsay at the new Birdland.
Dean: It took us a long time to get Warners comfortable with the idea of recording with Lindsay, which we felt we had to do. That album is about the songs – we spent years getting them right.
Adalita: I like that album. We had the luxury of time. The thing I remember is doing the vocals – it was so hard. It was boot camp for vocals, because I did take after take after take to get them right and added harmonies and layer. It was a big load. I had to have a punching bag in there because I was so worked up. My housemate at the time was a black belt, so she leant me the bag and the gloves. I’d do a take and get angry and work myself into a state and start hitting the bag.
Dean: Adalita would spend 40 minutes trying to get just one line right. We’d be in the control room and could hear her hitting that bag, then she’d walk in and go, “I got it!” But Lindsay would go, “OK, just do it in tune this time.”
Adalita: He held up a magnifying glass to Magic Dirt. The tuning of the guitars was a big deal, so full on. It was like making a giant tapestry.
Dean: Then an American, Adam Kasper, mixed it. He was from L.A., although he’d grown up in Seattle, and he’d just done the Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam and Queens of the Stone Age. He was “the guy”. He came over and didn’t have any attachment – he was ruthless. We’d spent so long on it, but he’d just walk in and throw stuff out. He taught me not to take it personally. If something is not right it’s not right.
Adalita: I’ve been listening to that album a lot lately. Dean’s kid loves it.
‘Plastic Loveless Letter’ and ‘Watch Out Boys’ even made commercial radio.
Dean: They made it to rotation on both Nova and Triple M.
*2005’s Snow White measures up so well. It sounds accomplished, but with an ease.*
Adalita: We felt that way when we went in to do it. We had some experience from Tough Love and the songs are great, but the promotion went a bit…
Dean: It got caught up in the restructuring of record companies. But in terms of us setting aims for ourselves – we wanted to make a lush record – we really nailed it. I wanted to fuck with the legacy at that point and break some of the rules that defined Magic Dirt. We took the growl out of the vocals and had a record where Adalita wasn’t angry.
Adalita: And I wasn’t angry. I wanted people to hear tracks like ‘Envious’ because I felt good about it and how I felt. It was such a gorgeous time – we’d have Clint Eastwood or Russ Meyer films on DVD in the studio. It was kind of idyllic.
Dean: But it doesn’t feel comfortable when it’s easy. That record was another point where we pulled it off, but we don’t want to do it like that again. So now we’re at where we are again – recording live, like an old Dinosaur Jr. record.
*Which brings us to Beast.*
Adalita: We had a lot of material, so we decided what we did and didn’t like. It’s a document of our best faster, heavier stuff, which I was writing at the time. It’s all based on very real primal, animalistic emotions. There’s no rational thought. With ‘Horror Me’ I went in and put on a drumbeat, started playing this droning detuned riff and just started moaning into the microphone. A lot of the songs are about being strong and asserting yourself. There’s a lot of feelings within the songs that relate to sex, aggression and power.
Dean: Lyrically you challenged yourself by creating characters on a song, instead of a feeling.
Adalita: I thought about a place and a character and sometimes I even wrote the lyrics out, instead of making them up on the spot.
Dean: The music was done in four or five days, all live, and that was important. You become accustomed to hearing music a certain way after using that magnifying glass Adalita talked about, so to me how the music is recorded is really different to the other records. We’d just record things without even discussing it. It just was.
We’re gone roughly through 16 years of your life with this interview – does it feel like so much time has passed since you first started making music together?
Adalita: It does for me.
Dean: We feel like we’re only a little over half way into Magic Dirt.
Adalita: There’s a lot of work to still do.