The Presets: ‘I’ve Never Been Super Into Pop Music, As A Rule’
Kim Moyes reflects on The Presets’ return, EDM in the US, golden handcuffs and how ‘Adults Only’ compares to Paul Kelly. Interview by CAITLIN WELSH.
After the runaway success of ‘My People’ – the hit single from 2007’s Apocalypso – The Presets found themselves at a bit of a crossroads. They can’t have been that surprised when the track took off; it was made for after-dark at festivals, even more so than its Beams precursor ‘I Go Hard, I Go Home’, complete with the spirit of camaraderie that compels even the un-munted punters to clutch at each other and a dumb-as-shit singalong chorus that was manageable no matter your state of sobriety.
But Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes, whose Sydney Conservatorium of Music background must be mentioned in every profile as proof that their music has artistic legitimacy, had no interest in embracing their newfound chart success, particularly after the rigours of the last album cycle. The first taste of their third record, Pacifica, came at the end of June with a full-on, six-minute club track called ‘Youth in Trouble’: all dark, rubbery beats and slippery Tron synth builds that never quite peak, overlaid with Hamilton’s trademark doomy pronouncements. The next single, ‘Ghosts’, laid a wistful pirate melody across light-fingered beats, emphasising the duo’s lack of interest in keeping pace with the thrashing dialup-masquerading-as-dubstep splattered across the pop and club charts.
Their recent Parklife sets demonstrated that ‘My People’ is still the hysterical set-closer of choice, if only to keep half the crowd from bailing early. But speaking on the eve of the album’s release last month, Moyes hinted that the new album is as much for engaging minds as melting the faces in front of them.
Do you feel like you’re staring down the barrel of the album cycle? Is there a little bit of dread at doing the whole thing again?
I guess a little bit. You think back to past touring experiences and remember some of the trudging around to little shitty clubs in Nottingham and stuff like that. Or the inevitable four-day bender between Toronto and Boston. And so there’s a little bit of dread. But it’s pretty exciting, really. We’ve been away for so long. And we finished the album in April, so having the album actually out is really exciting – it’ll take on its own life, and it’ll actually generate some meaning outside of what we think about it.
And then, y’know, we’ve been working hard putting the show together, so there’s the excitement of that. So I think, all in all, the excitement outweighs the dread. At this stage. Ask me again in three months’ time and I’ll probably give you a completely different answer.
I hope I have the opportunity to: after the Apocalypso cycle I was reading a Rolling Stone interview that you did and it just seemed like with the ARIAs and commercial radio … ‘Resented’ has a too-negative connotation, but the way you were talking about the ARIAs and the way Apocalypso blew up – Julian said something like, “We’re much more comfortable in a dark nightclub somewhere” – it just seemed like you’d really had it with the whole thing.
Well, there’s a certain element to what happened that isn’t… I think it more comes down to how we perceive ourselves, and how we see what our goals are. And when we started to get picked up on commercial radio, there was a kind of indie resentment within us about that. But I think, all in all, we did really appreciate it. It was just such a whirlwind that we were just negative on it in the moment, and couldn’t really absorb what was happening because we were just thrust into doing so much, and it was all beyond our control.
But, y’know, it’s created a really good life for us, and we’ve been able to do things that we haven’t been able to do in the past – build studios and all that stuff. So I wouldn’t be quoted as sounding resentful this time, in this interview.
So you’ve both just had a big break and been able to have a life – having kids for the first time as well.
Yeah, for sure. There was so much touring and making music between Beams and Apocalypso, and a lot of hard yards. And it was great to just stop, take some time off and develop as people and in our family relationships. And get a bit of richness out of life outside of work. It’s been good.
How much of a break was it? Did you have time where you didn’t deal with each other at all?
Yeah. We finished the Apocalypso tour and then my partner and myself went overseas for four months, and Julian and his partner did a similar sort of thing. And we didn’t go to the same destination – we had four months where we had very limited contact with anyone from work. So it wasn’t even that long, but it was well-needed.
And you both had your babies around the same time?
[Laughs] Yeah! I think someone suggested that our manager had organised that for us. But yeah, it was very convenient. [Laughs] I can’t say any more than that without sounding creepy…
When you’re interviewing singer-songwriter types who have just had kids, you do have to ask them how parenthood has changed their writing. But can you blend face-melting techno and meditations on the burdens and joys of fatherhood?
You probably can! I think we’ve done it a little bit, maybe. On this album we’ve got the bangers, and ‘Youth in Trouble’, and ‘A.O.’ has a very intense moment in it. And then you’ve got ‘It’s Cool’, which is very much a ballad directed at Julian’s daughter, and the hopes and aspirations that a parent would have for their child. And it seems to work on the record, but I don’t know that we could put something like ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’ on an Underworld track – that would probably be a bit too much of a step.
Maybe a little bit. But I think that definitely comes through. ‘It’s Cool’ is a lovely, soft thing, and it balances out the harder stuff a little bit. But there’s also this fascination going on with youth – ‘Youth in Trouble’, and the reflections on ageing in ‘Ghosts’. And I just watched the clip for ‘Ghosts’ this morning, which is gorgeous, and you’ve got all these frantic shots of these incredibly fit, young people looking amazing…
Yeah, it’s a shame, actually. The directors had asked a couple of older divers to come in as well, so you would get the idea of the cycle of life with some of the younger, fresh-faced ones, and then some of the older ones. But they didn’t turn up because it was such crap weather that day, so the oldies said they would sit inside with their cups of tea. But that would have been amazing.
And yeah, I think you’re right – it is a bit of an overarching reflection on the cycle of life, I guess, just because we have experienced it firsthand with becoming parents. And the ‘Youth in Trouble’ thing … I think where Julian was coming from with the lyrics was more about the way the media demonises The Youth, and a bit of an ironic observation. But yeah, we haven’t actually been asked that question before, and I kinda like where you’re coming from.
I just felt like it really came through, and there is this meditative quality to a lot of the album. Obviously the face-melting stuff – ‘Youth in Trouble’ – is super fun, but ‘Adults Only’ might be my favourite track.
Yeah, cool. It’s certainly becoming pretty obviously – sorry to lump you in with everyone else, but it is the one that we’re being asked about the most. And certainly, when we made it, we did have that moment where we high-fived each other and felt like it was one of the best things we’d ever made, and one of the most liberating things that we’d ever made. And one of the most interesting things that we’ve ever made. It came about when Julian played me the idea for ‘Ghosts’, and I heard something very Australian in that. And I went home and tried to make something that would complement his idea, to make something different and make something colonial – like a kind of colonial techno that only an Australian could get away with.
And then we talked more about our ideas of Sydney, and we were both reading Leviathan by John Birmingham, and we were just like, “Yeah, why don’t we make a postcard for our friends overseas about what we really think Sydney is like?” Sure, there’s all the tourism ideas of what Sydney is like, and it is a really beautiful place, but then there’s this underpinning fear and darkness here as well. And maybe there is that in a lot of places, but when you think about the way the city was founded, and what happened when white man came, it doesn’t feel like a lot of those spirits or those events have really been dealt with. Or they’ve gone in to the foundation, and maybe it’s in our heads, but there’s something based on darkness here – for whatever reason.
I think Australians have become a little more fascinated with their recent history – that Underbelly thing just will not die.
No, as much as we would like it to. I did like that first one, but it did lose its way pretty fast, didn’t it?
Yeah. But this is a deeper thing. The chorus is one thing, but the verses are amazing. It’s almost like a Paul Kelly song – very literate, very reflective, a real sense of a journey.
Yeah, cool! Oh, that’s really good – and thanks for saying that. Julian would love to hear that it reminded you of a Paul Kelly song – it was definitely coming from that sort of place. Obviously we’re not trying to rip Paul Kelly off or anything, but we were consciously thinking of ourselves as An Australian Band for the first time, whereas I don’t really feel any nationalistic allegiance. And we’re not Southern Cross tattoo Australians, or whatever.
But I guess it goes back to the experience of becoming fathers, and the experience of having success in Australia, and thinking about what we could contribute to the cultural fabric. And yeah, using our experiences and our ideas of the place to make something that you can lose your mind to, in a way. [Laughs] It’s going to be fun to see how that goes down live, actually, because for us it’s a really big tune in our set that we’re doing at the moment. But it is such a literary journey, so I’ll be interested to see how all the kids on drugs deal with it.
I’d love to see them learn all the words and shout along with it, like they do with ‘Losing My Edge’ by LCD Soundsystem.
But it is very Australian, and I wanted to know about your approach to the US. Obviously what they have now decided must be called ‘EDM’ has undergone huge changes since Apocalypso came out. And you’ve just released an album full of six-minute techno anthems that don’t have drops in them, in the usual sense of the word, like that audience is used to…
We don’t really have ‘An Approach’. We just do what we do. And it’s always been one of the places that has had a bit of a fascination with us, and with Australians. And we didn’t think it would be the logical place for us to feel most comfortable, but it turned out that it is – apart from Australia. So I don’t know. I think we’ll just turn up and do our show, and there is no plan! [Laughs] But there is no plan! There is no method for dealing with the US; I just hope they think our accents are fascinating enough to come to our shows.
It’s a very weird country. I feel like the perception seems to be that something has happened with Skrillex and co, and every Top 40 hit now has to have a massive four-to-the-floor beat behind it, and people are saying that they are more receptive to dance and electronic music than they have ever been. Like it’s finally clicked.
Yeah, right. Well I’ve been there plenty, and there are parts of America that are responsible for techno. It’s funny that what they have termed EDM – which is basically just a pop hybrid of techno – is finally a mass, commercial style. It’s really weird. And I’ve never been super into pop music, as a rule, although there are always things that stand out that are amazing. And so you can always look through history and think it’s all pretty shit – but I kind of feel as though it’s the worst it’s ever been in my memory. I’m not so into it.
Yeah. There are some cool production things going on – I love what Diplo is doing with his occasional Top 40 stuff, but apart from that it’s just really mindless.
Yeah, totally. We were just at Nova doing some stuff and I heard a lyric that said, “I’m hungry for love, are you going to feed me?” [Laughs] That was pretty funny.
I wanted to ask about the relationship between the title of each record and the mood of each record – obviously Apocalypso was the party at the end of civilisation, so what’s Pacifica? Clean, fresh, natural light?
Yeah, sure. And a state of mind – a peaceful state of mind – and there’s the very loose connection with the Pacific Ocean and where we’re from. Vaguely. But you’re on the right track, I don’t need to add to your perfectly acceptable statements.
Mine are cribbed from the Time Out review that just came out, but yeah. [Laughs] [Laughs]
And the golden handcuffs? Is there a little bit of symbolism to that?
What does that mean?
The golden handcuffs? You guys are shackled together on the cover… Yeah yeah, but what do golden handcuffs signify to you?
I dunno. You’re making so much money together that you can never go your separate ways?
[Laughs] Oh, right, wow! I thought it was more like … Actually, yeah! I don’t mind that at all – we’ll go with that. That’s pretty cool.
Alright. Maybe check with Julian…
I think more to the point would be [art director] Jonathan Zawada just trying to see how much queer shit he can get away with, and making us look silly, and then laughing behind our backs. That’s probably what’s going on.
Well I like it. I like the thematic cohesion.
Yeah! Me too. We really like that sort of thing. Björk has always done that sort of thing – maybe not so directly similar with each thing, but a similar sort of thing. You look at three different artworks, and they all make sense.
Yeah – and get it on vinyl and then put them all up on the wall.
Oh, I’ll definitely do that in my house. For sure.
Weird pictures of yourself…
Yeah, in my bedroom. In the Kim Shrine.