Features

Time Is A Flat Circle: Dan Kelly And The Meaning Of Life

Dan Kelly has a new album out. It’s his third and it’s called Leisure Panic. It’s about an existential and physical journey up and down the East Coast of Australia, and it’s great in a way you can’t fathom until you’ve listened to it four times. Most know Kelly as a laid-back character with a shaggy mop, a famous uncle and aesthetic penchant for the tropics. He’s also a voracious student of music, constantly shuttling complex ideas and lyrical themes through a thematic hall-of-mirrors and the cruel eye of a crack band. His easy spirit belies endless consideration, the casual cool a cover for a curious mind. He can write a pop gem too, bend it to his will. Listen to Leisure Panic to the end. Several times if you can. It’s a luminous labyrinth – a whole new station. A theme park glowing off the grid.

I chatted to Kelly recently at a table against the wall at Japanese restaurant Cibi in the backstreets of Collingwood, Melbourne. He was wearing beads around his neck and drinking tea. I was hungover. Appropriately, we rambled.

Wander, Lust

There’s themes of wanderlust on all your records but especially so on Leisure Panic. In the lyrics you mention “north” six times and “south” five times, all in reference to the East Coast of Australia.
I got the idea for the album when I was in northern New South Wales. I grew in Queensland near the Gold Coast and as a kid I’d make a regular pilgrimage south across the border when I was 16, to buy pot in Nimbin or go to the beach. As soon as you crossed the border from Queensland into that area it felt like a totally different culture. Particularly because Queensland was a quasi-fascist state at the time. Whether it was the classic hippie idea or the New South Wales landscape, twenty minutes over the border you were immediately disconnected from all that. So for me that area is really tied up with the idea of escape.

Did you ever live there?
I lived in Byron Bay for six months. And I lived in Sydney for six months last year at Clovelly. I was right on the beach so I could swim every day, which is something I could never do before. But I couldn’t bring community with me, and the idea of starting again in a new city is not super appealing to me. I fantasise about moving to Italy or something, but with what I do it’s hard. The self-belief to put yourself in a totally different situation eludes me a little. All the attendant drinking and partying is really fun but I’m trying to cool off on that. How would you place yourself in this new scene?

That’s what you sing about – fantasising about new scenes.
Yeah. It’s a massive projection.

Being dissatisfied with reality is all through your lyrics.
Totally. From day one. I suppose there’s reasons for that.

What are they?
Trying to gee myself up to be more effective. Be better at what I do. I’m not a dissatisfied person, but I’m a daydreamer. Being a musician you get to escape. It’s a doorway escaping this other thing, but then that thing has its own constraints. And I think unless you become some sort of megastar or completely become the myth [once there], you find out you’re just still the same person.

You must see a bit of that side of success doing time in some of Paul Kelly’s bands. [Paul is Dan’s uncle.] Is it disappointing because it brings the idea down to earth?
You project so much into the future with music that if success actually happens you’re not really surprised. So when you do have some it can actually be harder to get excited. People say, ‘Oh this must be an amazing life,’ and you say, ‘Yeah I suppose.’ There’s an everydayness to it.

It’s not a disappointment because I know the way it is, but then the older I get the more I can appreciate the freedom playing with someone like Paul. We can go on tour and play 40 shows, I can escape and just concentrate on one thing. He has this energy with his crowds which I think I can get to with my crowds, but I’m not doing 40 shows in a row. So [with my stuff] it degenerates. But I can look back on it all and that ebb and flow of my experience sort of sustains me – I don’t have an existential crisis wondering what I’m going to do next. I don’t have to create the next phase of my life all the time.

I think that’s why I’m still trying to be a working musician, [there’s room to] try more. It’s hard to do in Australia on this level, but you see locals like Courtney [Barnett] and Blank Realm and The Drones go overseas and do the hard slog. That’s something I haven’t done a lot of and I kind of want to dive into that a bit.

Do you think your music, with its Australian iconography and local details, would be a lure or hindrance for that?
It works for some people. I seem to have found one way to write a song. The only way I can vary is change the genre – which is a bit of a worry. It could also be an inability to learn at this point.

But as a lyricist there’s so many places you can go and forms of writing, sometimes I think it’s really childlike [not to do that]. I write childlike pop songs that are sort of complex psychedelic PlaySchool. People say, “My kids always sing along to your thing.” That’s something. Worked for The Beatles. But for some reason I get a bit caught up in details, making my songs so people have to buy into my story to get that out of it.

Are details a cover for being blunt? You wouldn’t just say “I love you” in a song.
I certainly haven’t written a lot of straight-up love songs and let’s face it, they appeal to people. I’m often being quite honest in my songs but they’re completely shrouded in fantasy as well. If I’m not head over heels in love, I can’t just go and construct a song which says it. I don’t know why. Plenty of people can.

You sneak that stuff in. ‘National Parks and Wildlife’ is largely this idyllic fantasy version of a relationship but the very last line, “There’s no Honey Barbara/There’s no you”, reveals the subject isn’t there. There’s a quiet hurt to that.
It’s either sad or self-pitying. That song is me writing a postcard to someone who’s left, but I’m missing them. I’m heading off into the National Park and I’m fantasising about her being there. It’s a conversation between us. Honey Barbara is a character from Peter Carey’s first book Bliss, set around a mythical Northern NSW town. Honey saves the main dude. Americans would say she’s “the hooker with a heart of gold”.

I think it’s important to try and sneak real emotion in there. I sound stupid when I try and sing with gravitas so I have to use these subtle shifts and pathos. Otherwise it’s all gimmicks. My solo shows in particular are kind of comedic, so I need to hit people somewhere.

“I may as well just make whitebread Aussie rock ‘cause then I would actually make money.”

There’s a hidden craft to it but to some it would just scan as humourous. Does that bug you?
I’ve noticed it. But it’s the bed I’ve made for myself. If I want to be seen as some kind of significant character I should sing lower. If you sing with a certain seriousness or low Leonard Cohen kind of voice, I think people ascribe more importance to what you’re saying. But I sound pompous like that. It’s almost like I need to have some dry sort of comedy distance in there to sound believable. If it sounds sort of whimsical they’re just going to get off on the feeling, which is fine. But the paradox is it can be taken as lightweight.

I remember doing an Augie March support years ago and the reviewer said I was “whitebread Aussie rock”. And I remember thinking, “Fuckin hell. If that’s what’s coming across then I may as well just make whitebread Aussie rock ‘cause then I would actually make money.”

At the end of ‘Everything’s Amazing’, you do it again. Saying of another relationship, “they always take a part of you”. There’s an undercurrent of…
…almost sincerity. God help me. That’s about the promise inherent in that same part of the world [Northern NSW]. Which is hope and the feeling your life is gonna change. Even though I’m saying “everything’s amazing” about the area – because everyone has this kind of life-changing time there and then goes back to their day jobs – it also has to have this real feeling of “anything could happen”.

I left there as a young adult and it shines in my imagination. It probably has a bit more significance than it may or may not have actually had. And I always found it easier to write about the past.

Originality

Your music sounds like it’s touching on different styles but then rejecting them. And through that arriving at something pretty original.
I think a lot of my writing process is like that. I think most people who write have to be a good mimic, but I don’t like trading on the idea of recreating a sound from 20 years ago just because people haven’t heard it before. I have this process when I write a song where I’ll get halfway through a verse and think, “I’ve got to fuck with that or it’s going to be a straight up rip-off.” Perhaps I’m starting to make that a bit clearer.

Do you ever stop yourself writing a slick pop tune because it sounds too much like someone else?
I wouldn’t ever reject a melody based on that but I would mutate it. A lot of musicians say, “I could write like that I just don’t choose to.” I think that’s mostly bullshit. To pull off R&B or pop or even the most basic gym-techno or something, there’s people who specialise in that and even if they’re just pumping it out they really believe in it. People can pick up if you don’t have a real love of something.

But you know, if I had a fuckin banger I’d put it out. It’s just my lyrics are often a bit difficult to do that. It’s like I have to distance myself from my story even though it’s not actually me a lot of the time, have all this multilevel referential personality-stuff on it.

Does that stuff just accrue over the course of writing a song? You can’t help adding details?
Yeah. It takes me a long time to write a song. That’s why I always end up with these semi-concept records, the details all start to bleed into each other. If I just did songs methodically, song by song, they would be much more snapshots of a particular time, not overall what I was thinking about across a couple of years.

You sing with a lot of breath in your voice. On Leisure Panic you don’t start singing in a full voice until the fifth song, ‘Never Stop The Rot’.
This record is a lot more restrained in instrumentation so I’m not pushing over the band as much. I used to push over songs, which can give you a desperate sound, but I don’t have a super strong voice so it suits me to sing in close-mic’d style. If it’s a full voice over a band I often have to effect it up to make it sound tougher or something.

I think that’s why I use the girls [backing singers Memphis and Maddy Kelly, daughters of Paul Kelly] to do backup singing, almost like a chant. They’ve taken on the role of that enthusiastic call and response thing. There’s a dialogue with women in a lot of my songs. They either go “yeah” or “fuck off”.

That voice suits the character that sings your songs. It helps you take on the tone of the bystander.
Possibly because the intent of some of songs is often more questioning as opposed to declarative. I’d probably feel a bit weird yelling. But whatever style I do I like to do narrative. I’ve always tried to make a landscape with my music, then make it seem like I’m passing by on a train just chatting about it.

Shirts, Scenes and Sound

When you play you usually wear a t-shirt, which is kind of unusual for a singer/songwriter. I like it. If a someone walks out in that traditional white shirt and black suit, sometimes I can’t help but think: “What’s this guy going to say I can use?”
That’s interesting. Some people you wouldn’t notice it, Nick Cave or something. But these days when everything is telegraphed to you – the band name or the imagery or there’s so much going on all the time – you make these snap decisions. It’s impossible not to and it’s terrible. It’s like “Oh, fuck that band”, because there’s some inflection in their name and you think you know what they’re going for. But you’ve never even heard them.

If someone’s in a suit and standing in a wheatfield in their promo photos I refuse to listen to it.
No wheatfields. I should be more clever about those cues because a lot people have them worked out and it’s harder to discern what’s good or bad. Even sonically, everything sounds so good now, either because it’s been deconstructed in an authentic garagey way or it’s super produced – you can’t just rely on that cue anymore. It’s harder to tell whether it’s bad or good.

I think that’s why people get deep into DIY and underground scenes. Often the only people you can trust to be genuine are the one’s you’ve personally had a genuine experience of and are involved in the community. You’re getting bombarded with so much bullshit from all over the world, that on a community level you get a much clearer idea of what affects people emotionally. In a way [being bombarded] is good, it drives people inward. You can suss out the bullshit a lot quicker when you’re actually in there.

Do you think about those things when making your music? Cues that might intimate that you’re genuine or not?
I’d like to say no, but yes. But they are what they are. The only thing that Aaron [Cupples, longtime producer, collaborator and engineer] wanted on this album is to make it clear and open. On the last record I tried to make every song leap out like a single but it was a bit fatiguing after 50 minutes. I wanted this one to be physically easier to listen to, so getting that stuff right is really important.

When I think of the stuff I’ve wanted to go and see over the last four years in Melbourne, it rubs off on you. If everyone’s getting into a sound – let’s say some of the stuff around [Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s] Mikey Young or something – and you love it too, then you’re going to feel like a bit of a twit if you come out with something that sounds like Yes.

“If I had a fuckin banger I’d put it out.”

Which would actually be way more punk.
I think that’s why I genre hop and my albums sounds the way they do. I like weird guitar music and I’ve always gravitated to that punky style, even though I’m not actually that good at making it.

Is Leisure Panic opening with a nine-minute krautrock jam, ‘On The Run’, part of that lineage? A statement of intent?
Yeah. I felt stupid about the idea of waiting a long time to make a record and then coming back sounding exactly like the last one. So ‘On The Run’ fit in a lot of ways. In the narrative; the sense of heading off on a journey; I wanted something sounding clearer; it was recorded in one go right after the last record. I really liked it and thought, “Fuck this is easy”, and never got bored with it.

It was the band and it was very much us four in a room doing it. I didn’t have to go and mould it and smash things into it and sparkle up a section. That’s fairly rare for me to have that. Then I went back into some old things and lost confidence in some of the older stuff.

When you have all these different concepts and styles, there’s something reassuring about those ones, even if they’re not exactly what you set out to do.
Yeah, there’s a naturalness to them. I often overthink things. That’s what’s really attractive to me about the Melbourne scene we were talking about before – people striving for naturalness and simple songs . And you have your peers and stuff too. I want them to listen to it and at least be drawn in.

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Band and Producer Stuff

Is Aaron Cupples the guy you use to tell you what’s good?
Certainly in the studio. Sometimes he’s part of the song construction so much it’s difficult for him to tell if I’m going the right way, but he’s definitely one of the people I ask. I ask friends and the people I’ve worked with on the record. Well some of them I don’t always. Like Dave [Williams, drummer]. I’ll always ask his opinion but sometimes I’ll completely discount it. He has strong opinions and sometimes I think, “Not sure if you’re right there.”

What’s an example?
I recorded this record once and I wasn’t sure about it. I played it to Dave and he was like, “Nah.” I was really pissed off with him but I knew he was right. So I did pay attention to him that time. By the same token my personality is, “Well, OK fuck you, I’m not going to ask you again.” Because I’m not psychically strong enough to handle another rejection. So I value his opinion, just sometimes I don’t want to know it. Sometimes you get so caught up in an audio component of a song you can’t make a good call about it. It’s hard to get perspective when you’re in it.

Sometimes you can attach an emotion to the wrong thing – a reverb or an organ sound.
That was the attraction of spending less time on this one, trying to overdub less. The ones I did with just Aaron or myself are essentially bedroom jams worked up and I coloured them in until they felt right. But the band ones I’ve tried to keep the amount of tracks to what I could do live.

You’re already up against it if you’ve made something sound like you could never possibly play it. That first rehearsal when you play a song live after mixing a record, you hit the first chord on guitar and you think, “Fuck me this doesn’t sound anything like it. I’m fucked.” With some bands that doesn’t happen because it’s just a snapshot of what they do.

What did the first version of the record sound like when you thought it was finished?
Sort of a mixture of soul-electro. A faster version of ‘Haters’. Then a sort of scuzzy Royal Trux-y vibe. The bones of those songs are still there but I didn’t have them finished. I did some recording with the band and then went to London and wrote with Aaron, then I went back and finished some stuff with the band, then tried to mix it all in London in Aaron’s little studio.

Was that version of the record the same songs as Leisure Panic?
No, there’s about six others that live somewhere else. Aaron and I had 17 days in London so we said let’s write 17 songs. We’d go, “OK let’s try and write a Wings song today”, the next “I’ve got this Bert Jansch thing”. I ended up cherry-picking from them all because I could only write lyrics to the ones that suited the vibe of the record. I have all these left over songs that sound a bit insincere. You don’t believe in them.

It’s always seems important for you to have a pretty killer band.
Because they have to represent all these pretty big statements, plus it’s hard to play those songs super loose. They’re kind of parts-based and they’re hard for people to learn unless you’ve contributed to it.

Dan Kelly from Mess+Noise on Vimeo.

The bands you have are usually also a particular kind of people.
I think about this a lot. I always kind of go for strong personalities, often people that have got their own little project going on. On the record my personality’s quite strong but then I’ve always tried to make them sound like group records directed by somebody rather than solo records with anonymous people.

I like to have kind of sparkly characters. The girls have an enthusiasm and innocence and party vibe from those girls that really makes the band sparkle a bit I reckon. It’s a different beast live. Not so many danceable songs but it’s kind of a party vibe and a bit joyous. If it all works it can be quite uplifting.

Is that feeling still present when you play solo?
Yeah I reckon. I make the crowd sing all the choruses so it’s still got a communal thing. I can’t go into that Jeff Buckley, Matt Corby thing – their voices are kind of like a jewel and everyone’s reverent of it. I don’t have that. I stop the songs a lot and chat. That’s where I get to be more loose. With the band it’s hard to be loose because my arrangements are so specific. But if those parts are played by people who have got big personalities then it adds.

Technology, Competition and Doom

Your lyrics often talk about avoiding technology. I’m pretty sure technology is making me dumber.
It’s getting perspective. We’re all pedalling towards some kind of doom and we’re totally distracted. I spoke to a friend of mine who worked for Greenpeace a few years ago and was working on a global warming campaign. He was like, “If people actually really got what was happening, even though we sort of do on the surface, there’d be riots.” But on a societal level, the level of outrage is we’re just waiting to see if someone else will sort it out.

It’s too big to think about.
It shuts you down. It’s a low-level depression the whole time.

It’s hard not to be a bit cynical about putting your empty cups in the yellow bin when BHP are wiping out a large part of Brazil.
And that works on a lot of levels. You can get distracted by the bigness of everything and not concentrate on your own thing – that happens with music too. If the tiniest little thing that you do is getting compared to everyone in the world, the greatest bands in the world, and the history of music, it’s overwhelming. It stops you doing something that is just you. Again, I think that’s why having really tight little DIY communities is good because there people are connected and there’s an attraction to the humanity of that. Which is different to trying to be across everything.

Also those people end up making music for their communities. Instead of trying to make a big statement with music, the community is the statement and the music reflects it. But on the flipside, some people end up making that music because they want it to fit – they play it because that’s what their friends do – as opposed to say, having something inside them they want to get out. Or is that wishful thinking and really that’s what artists have always done?
You make the music for the environment you’re going to play it in. In that David Byrne book, How Music Works, he talks about how African tribal music wasn’t performed in big opera halls because it would have sounded shit, and opera singing would sound shit in a village because you don’t have the acoustics. The environment directs the music, so it’s natural for them to do that.

What’s the ideal environment for you to play, say, ‘Baby Bonus’?
Probably in a room full of about 100 people.

That’s your ceiling.
So in that regard I’ve probably got what I’ve asked for [laughs]. That’s the meaning of life and we’ve circled around to it.

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The Australian Music Prize-nominated Leisure Panic! is out now on ABC Music.