The Death Set: A Reactionary Sort Of Band
For an album informed by tragedy, The Death Set’s ?Michel Poiccard? sounds oddly celebratory. DOUG WALLEN talks to co-founder Johnny Siera about its genesis, inspirations and dealing with the death of guitarist Beau Velasco.
The Death Set is forever. Formed by Johnny Siera and Beau Velasco, the bratty duo relocated from Sydney to Baltimore before stints in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. The electro-punk buzz of hyped early releases coalesced in 2008?s Worldwide*, and the band toured the hell out of that album. Then, in September 2009, Velasco died suddenly from a drug overdose. But The Death Set has surged on nonetheless, rebuilt as a trio with Aussie guitarist Dan Walker and itinerate drummer Jah Landis. And Velasco sure hasn’t been forgotten: the band’s new second album, *Michel Poiccard, features his voice and laugh, some of his recovered musical ideas, and the noisily uplifting tribute song ?I Miss You Beau Velasco?.
Named after Jean-Paul Belmondo’s classic character in Godard’s Breathless, the album sees The Death Set in full resurgence. Hurtling lo-fi anthems still teem with hip-hop and electronic touches, but it’s all defiantly punk in spirit. XXXchange (Spank Rock, The Kills) handles production, and Diplo and Spank Rock briefly show up. Bleary catharsis combines with prankish fun for songs that are more melodic than ever. A channel-surfing haphazardness rips through the record, and yet the songs are reliably catchy and indeed optimistic. In true Death Set form, it’s a bristling experience.
Why name the album after this Belmondo character?
Primarily it was a song off the record [?Michel Poiccard Prefers the Old?]. The initial inspiration was just about Michel Poiccard, the badass, anti-hero, lady-killer, suave, amazingly handsome dude who the girls can’t help but fall for. When I was looking for an album title, it made a lot more sense because Jean-Luc Godard became famous in that film for his use of jump cut. And I found an analogy with The Death Set with that. Our live shows go from punk songs to sampling hip-hop and punk, and the production is just a clusterfuck of so much different shit. It became an analogy that I found a bit of truth in. It made sense on a level of songwriting and on a deeper level of technique.
Yeah, there’s this irreverence to the band.
Totally. It’s definitely a reactionary band. It’s not planned, it’s not thought out. It’s very reactionary in every sense of the word, from music writing to touring to the whole sort of journey that the band’s taken.
Was there something particular that prompted the band in the first place?
To be brutally honest, the band started from just wanting to tour. Growing up in Australia, you tour and what do you do? You go to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and you’re booking flights in between. It’s so fucking expensive, just because of that geography. So I would look at bands? MySpace pages – fuck, MySpace, I’m showing how old the band is [laughs] – and see like 30 dates in a row and just be completely fucking envious. You can only do that in the States and Europe, essentially. We wanted to tour like fucking madmen, so we moved to the States.
And moving to Baltimore put you within striking distance to lots of other cities.
We actually live in Brooklyn now. But we were in Baltimore for about two years on and off, and we lived in Philly for a year. And now Brooklyn for a year.
You connected with some people who are strongly identified with Baltimore and Philly, like Diplo and Spank Rock. Did you sort of find your niche there?
I don’t know, I think we were pretty much already on our path when we wrote the first EP [2005?s To] in Sydney. But I definitely think Baltimore was a great little fucking petri dish for what we were doing. And it gave us a lot of confidence that kids were reacting to this in a positive way. When I lived there – and I think it’s different now – it was this classic formula of an art school with warehouses where you can throw illegal shows coupled with underage kids wanting to go to illegal shows. That formula is a brilliant little equation to spawn weird bands, because the atmosphere is suited to make that flourish.
And now you’re in Brooklyn, which is oversaturated with bands.
Yeah, I mean, New York City is New York City. You can’t fuck with it. It’s one of those places in the world where everyone moves here to do something. I think that’s the beauty of New York City. Yeah, it is saturated, because everybody moves here to do something, but on the flipside of that, there’s so many people willing to help, which is a great thing. My experience of New York has been far from ?protect your rung on the ladder?. It’s been just wanting to create and do whatever. I know it sounds cliched, but just wanting to do shit in general. But yes, it’s fucking different to Baltimore. But I think for what the band is, it’s the right place for us to be situated in at the moment.
Are you going to tour here again soon?
Tour Australia? Fuck yeah, dude. I mean, we were just out there. We played shows over December and January. It was literally the worst time for us to tour, because it was the very end of the album cycle. The press for the new record hadn’t started, but we wanted to go see our families. Everything revolves around a press cycle. But fuck, I obviously love Australia and want to tour there as much as possible.
?I definitely think Baltimore was a great little fucking petri dish for what we were doing.?
As a producer, XXXchange has done a lot of hip-hop and electronic stuff, whereas this record is quite punk. Was it sort of counterintuitive to work with him?
Again, it sounds cliche, but every decision with the band, I like to think, ?How can I do this a little more original? How can I not do something just the same way?? We could have done the record in a rock studio or whatever, but I wanted to do something a little different. We all love dance music and electronic music, and that’s been as influential as the other aspects. XXXchange is a fucking genius in the electronic production realm, so it really made sense. Plus, he’s an awesome friend. I stayed in his house the first night I stayed in America, just through a mutual friend. So we all agreed that he understood what the band was about and what the band wanted. It was a good little partnering.
My favourite song on the record is ?7pm Woke up an Hour Ago?, which references The Stooges? ?Search and Destroy? and Bill Hicks. And Spank Rock guests on it. Is there a story behind that?
There actually is. That song is a guitar riff that Beau wrote. We wanted to have his input on the record as much as possible, so that guitar line was fished off an old minidisc. So it means a lot that that song got realised, because it was Beau’s. But yeah, I guess it’s a little clusterfuck of a song. It’s more melodic than what we’ve done in the past. It’s funny that you picked that song out. A couple of people have. It seems to be one of the more un-Death Set songs on the record. It was fucking scary to explore a couple of those non-spazz styles on the record.
Some songs remind me of No Age, like scrappy and dreamy at the same time.
Totally. It’s funny, I put on a show for No Age in my living room in Baltimore before they exploded. But I love that band. That band is fucking great.
I wanted to talk about your song titles, which are very playful. Like ?Yo David Chase! You P.O.V. Shot Me in the Head?. What’s your approach to that?
I think, again, it’s just trying to make normal things different. So I really wanted to play with these ridiculously long titles, just to fuck with people. [Laughs] With everything I’m doing and the band’s doing, it’s just wanting to do something that you’d like to see. I want to put on a show that I would like, I want to read a song title that for some reason interests me. Hopefully someone will smirk at it.
Was it tough memorialising Beau on this record? Was it hard to find a balance?
Yeah, I think you’ve got to the crux of what the biggest dilemma was, which was trying to write songs that were a celebration. More of a wake than a funeral, if that makes sense. Obviously he passed right in the initial writing process, so it was hard to write a song that wasn’t about him. The lyrics would just turn to be about Beau. The whole record was very therapeutic. But I think the whole essence of The Death Set has always been positivity and a celebration of the moment.
To me, the last song [?But is the end not the end again??] sums up the whole record. It’s quite hopeful, I think.
I’m stoked that you feel that, because that was essentially the idea. A lot of Death Set songs are written about being in a bad place but getting over that and getting to the better place. I think that’s what the songs about Beau and celebrating Beau were about on the record.
####The Death Set’s ?Michel Poiccard? is out today (February 25) through Counter/Inertia.