My Disco Inferno
My Disco take their Melbourne DIY ethic to the world; the world proves welcoming
Purple. Green. Yellow. White. Green, yellow, purple, white white white. Lights flash in time to the rigid pulse of My Disco’s post-indie, post-dance, post-punk no-wave rock show. The band’s lined up on a Newcastle stage in white, navy and black attire – and against their sartorial austerity, the venue’s colourful visual display is jarring. Partway through a song, fake smoke billows up from a machine somewhere in the back and the band exchanges nervous, bemused looks.
“Can we go easy on the lights and smoke machine?” singer and bassist Liam Andrews inquires during an opportune break in the set.
The lights sit still, like a dog given its orders, for the remainder of the performance. As the clock approaches 2:30am, the band nears the end of its set. Physically and mentally exhausted, they report later that they’re operating somewhere close to a state of sheer delirium.
“We’d just driven from Brisbane,” says Ben Andrews, guitarist (and brother of Liam). “We got in at 7 or 8pm.”
Nevertheless, the show seemed a hit with the locals: “Those My Disco cunts are the hottest band in town,” went the post-gig review from one boozed patron, holding himself up on a toilet fitting.
Indeed, the set was as tight as ever, yet another display of instrumental prowess and musical control. And control is a keyword in any discussion of this Melbourne trio. Their taut sound is one where restraint and payoff are in an unending dance. Their songs are like military manoeuvres, plotted and strategised for maximum devastation. Their songs are the product of minds uneasy with mediocrity. Their sound is one of extremes – the sound of a band where members are just as engaged in the experimental scene as the punk-hardcore scene. (Ben is in grind band Agents of Abhorrence and also performs as Blarke Bayer, a processed guitar project)
And control is why Cancer, their recently released debut album, is just twenty-five sharp minutes of music.
“It’s been a year – or over a year – of work to do this album,” says drummer Rohan Rebeiro. “We’ve really paid attention to detail.”
Back in Melbourne after a run of launch shows up the east coast, the band is sitting down for dinner in an underpriced Vietnamese restaurant on Smith Street, Fitzroy. It’s an unseasonably cold night, so the trio’s usual dark clothing runs to several layers and the cups of tea are knocked back with fervour. Slickly cheap Cantonese knock-offs of Western hits hiss out of the room’s tinny and tiny speakers. It gives the band’s discussion of its own intense songwriting and studio efforts a bizarre contrast.
“I remember playing one of the songs in Perth,” Ben says, as a small disagreement arises about how old the album material is. “That’s pushing two years ago,” he says. “I remember we were playing in Margaret River to minus-four people. The song wasn’t finished so we just played it anyway without vocals.”
However old the songs may have been, the recording studio was a place to pour acid over them all – to let any fat be stripped away.
“We were just stripping it back and back,” Liam says. “It was even to the point where some of the older material we had, we were fucking around with it while in the studio. We were really stripping back the beats even further while recording. So then we had to relearn how to play them.
“It makes it refreshing for us,” Liam continues, before Rohan breaks in.
“Sort of, yeah,” Rohan says. “And it is refreshing. But when you’re actually there and then, from my perspective, freaking out and being like, ‘this drum beat sounds crap’, try this, ‘no, that sounds crap’, no, try this … And then it can be four or five hours later and you still haven’t finished the song,” he recalls.
“Or you’ve forgotten where the drum beat began,” Liam adds.
“Yeah. It’s a dangerous thing, but it’s good,” Rohan says.
“It’s a dangerous thing, but it brings a little new life to it,” Liam says, consensus reached as more tea is poured. Pools of spilt tea now slick the table.
Both musically and lyrically, My Disco is not a band of epic narrativists – they take oblique shards and sharpen them until any obvious path through a song has been obscured. Lyrically, it’s almost like the anti-emo: the abstract lyrics frustrate and deny attempts at taking away any blatantly apparent or glib ‘story’. The title of the record, though, and some of its other words lead like a breadcrumb trail back to Liam’s bout of Hodgkin’s Disease in 2004: “Administer a prosthetic dream”; “this disease is a numerical thief”; “this needle navigates a field of arteries”; “no scars, no non-fiction”. On Cancer, the vocals chime in as a fourth instrument, sliding in to the song, say, in the last eight bars – right where another band might put the xylophone melody.
It’s the fundamental desire, again, to strip things back – the acid drips onto the lyric sheet too. “I’ve always wanted to not have a focus on vocals in our songs. It’s just nice and it works with some of the songs on the record. It’s something not that many people have done,” Liam says.
“It’s not that I write pages of words and pick them,” Liam says of his lyric writing process. “It’s just these lines that have these meanings here and there; I’ll stumble across lines that I like and use them.”
But there are other reasons for the reticence. “It’s also a lack of confidence as a vocalist,” he says. “When I think about it, that’s how I want to do it – that’s just where it stems from.”
The discussion of My Disco’s time in the studio and unrelenting philosophies of songwriting reveals a lot about the band’s dynamic. Despite three years of fairly heavy touring and regular releases (one CD EP, a couple of seven inches, a few bigger slabs of vinyl and some different international packages in limited numbers, primed for the completists to fight over), they come across as three friends bound by hard work. They’re happy to spend six hours in a rehearsal room working on one song, or 17 hours a day couped in a van – as they have just done in touring Australia.
“You just have to do it,” Ben says of driving around. “It’s just a necessity.”
“As opposed to flying, you get the feeling of escaping and going on a holiday,” Rohan offers. “It’s more like you’re doing it by yourself. Just jumping in the car and driving. There’s more independence. It’s a great bonding session too,” he says, half serious, half laughing.
“The first US tour we did was seven weeks of driving,” Ben says. This less-than-ideally-organised 2005 tour at least gave them the basis to judge their imminent second drive around the US.
“We know where to go and where not to go. This time we’re playing places that we want to do better in, did well in, or didn’t go to last time. Places like San Diego and Portland,” he says.
The upcoming tour has all been organised from Australia. They’ve divided the trip into west coast and east coast legs, which helps with some of the logistics. But it’s still a slog to do things remotely.
“It’s a lot of work,” Ben says. “You might get a venue or some dates around a certain show, then there’s a lot of changing and shuffling around that – and that’s before you’ve thought about line-ups. It’s awesome having someone on the inside to do the whole thing, if you can get that. But doing it this way gives you more control to pick and choose which shows you want to play.”
If the itinerary goes to plan, it certainly won’t be a sightseeing tour. “We’re aiming to have a show a night,” Ben says. “The longer you spend there [without playing] the more it costs. When shows fall through it costs you. But the cities are closer together, so this time there isn’t really a drive of more than three or four hours. We organised that better this time. We’re all set up on the east, because we know a guy in Philly who owns a studio, so we’ll use his gear.”
One of the aspects which helps touring in the States is the DIY networks in each town and throughout the country. Tapping into those is essential.
“Bands survive on doing tours that are just basement shows, houses and parties,” Ben says. “Bands that have put out a demo can do a couple of week tour and break even. If you have a van, you can do it. It’s a lot more economical for bands over there. Coming from the outside I find it really hard. It’s so expensive to hire vans and gear over there.”
The DIY ethic is certainly something that appeals to the band, from releasing through their own label to setting up interesting shows – and it’s something they’ve tried to propagate locally.
“It’s where we’ve grown up and it’s where our interest in music has come from, that grassroots thing, the punk ethic of keeping it DIY,” Liam says. “There’s a strong network in Australia and all our touring has been done through that.”
It’s also a practical reality of playing in a band that doesn’t get played on Nova. Besides being “more interesting that way,” Ben says, “it’s more that if you do something different you have to seek other avenues. No one’s going to come up to hand you stuff.”
“It makes it more ours,” Liam adds, “like choosing to do an album launch at a not really legitimate venue,” he says, referring to the sold-out show at Melbourne’s Public Office. “It’s more of an event rather than another show.”
This push to move outside of orthodoxy extends to playing with a variety of interesting bands, like the album tour with hip-hop artist Macromantics. “We always make the line-ups differ – it’s usually bands and music we’re interested in at the time,” Liam says. “There’s no real sound we try to keep it pigeonholed to. It’s more interesting for the audience and for us to be there and share it with them.”
Audiences usually respond well to this diversity, My Disco report of the Macromantics tour – although it takes some audience members a while to see the connections. “We’re both very energetic bands,” Rohan says. “I don’t feel like people have come for Macromantics and then left – which is the fear. It’s a different performance that we do. Everyone’s going when crazy is Macro playing. Then when we get on, everyone just stops for a bit and goes ‘this again’. And then they get into it.”
Aside from creating an enjoyable night, the varied line-ups also have other, on-going effects. “It broadens the music community,” Liam says. “You don’t want to get trapped into a sound. It’s a strange concept when you get stuck in a sound or scene. It’s something we have avoided.”
Going back and listening to the band’s early vinyl releases and the debut EP, the shift in sound is apparent. In their earliest material, the songs shifted and moved around time signatures; the vapour trails of late-90s math-rock and post-hardcore still streaked their sound. While that formative element remains – protean rhythms have always been at the centre of what they do – there is now more focus on the continuity of groove and mood. If the early stuff is shifting and disruptive, the newer stuff is closer to a jarring and stark minimalism. Cancer sounds like a picture with the contrast up – relationships between instruments and moods are plainly apparent.
“It’s our band and we do what we do,” Liam declares. “There’s nothing outside of that which should influence how we go about what we do. It defeats the purpose.”
“There’s more longevity in being progressive too,” Ben says. “It’s more sustainable to push your scope and boundaries.”
So it’s time, then, to start thinking about album two. “It’s nice to think about the next one,” Liam says. “We don’t want there to be such a long stretch of time. We have a lot of ideas of what we’re going to do. It’s a good time to be talking and in discussion anyway. Outside of doing the band, our lives are hectic – which is why it’s nice to be on tour and discussing things. It looks like over summer we’ll start writing new songs.”
So far they’ve solidly worked in studios with former Ricaine frontman Neil Thomason as engineer, so they are contemplating a change. “We’ve talked about going overseas, but finances and all that,” Ben says, puncturing the fantasy before inflating another one. “It’d be nice to record at Electrical Audio,” he says, referring to the famed Chicago studio owned by Steve Albini.
The approach to the songs, it seems safe to say, will be something different again. “We want it to be moving somewhere else,” Liam says. “At this point it seems like we’ll be stripping things back even further. We’re on this simplistic road at the moment. But it’s a challenging road. This next record will be done in like two months. There’ll be less time in there for ideas. We want it to be a concise explosion of a record.”