An Interview With The Presets
Little Bastard talks to Julian Hamilton of The Presets about the band’s latest release, Pacifica, and the writing process that led to this musically diverse and mature album.
Since I heard ‘Are You The One?’ in the gloriously sweaty bowels of Ghetto in 2005 I’ve been a big fan of Australian Indie/Dance act The Presets, so when the opportunity came up to call Julian Hamilton, the lead singer of the band, in Australia for an interview I nearly snatched the PR company’s hand off. Their new album, Pacifica, is a gloriously layered pop album, that in some ways is a massive departure from their previous albums, and I was fascinated by the writing process of such a diverse and mature collection of songs.
So, cut to me, on my knees in a glass office in London, on speakerphone, shouting questions at poor Julian about their music, their song writing process and their gay following.
Before we start talking about the album musically, I just want to quickly talk about the artwork. There seems to be a correlation between the album artwork for each of your albums, especially between the new album and your last album, Apocalypso – is that intentional?
Certainly with all three albums now, we try to have a certain look that marries up each time, but it’s funny – we have very little input into the album artwork, we have a designer friend of ours who does it for us. It’s always very fascinating to us, because it does add a whole other level of meaning and another layer to the record that we perhaps didn’t intend, and it becomes such a huge part of the record as well, you know? Obviously we write the music and we write the songs, but then when you put it in conjunction with the artwork it creates a whole picture, it’s really interesting.
I can imagine. There’s been such a progression of your sound on the three albums, and I think the songwriting seems to be a lot more prominent on this album. Is that intentional, or did it just happen organically?
I think it happens organically, yeah. I mean, thanks for saying that – over the years we do try to get better at what we do, whether it’s production or, of course, songwriting and lyrics. It’s always been important to us that the songs are good. The songs have to work if you take all the beats away, you know what I mean? If you can take a song and sing it with just piano and vocals then that’s a good song and hopefully we can do that with all the songs on the new record and those from the past as well.Certainly, I don’t think it’s been a conscious decision, I think we’re accidentally getting better at it over the years.
It’s interesting that you should say that actually, because one of the first things that struck me on hearing the album was how easily you could strip the songs down, and do them acoustically or with an orchestra, and how great they’d still sound.
Aww, it’s nice that you say that – I guess that’s what we try to do, we try not to let production get in the way of a good song. The production has to serve the song, there’s no point turning every track into a slamming, big room anthem. You kind of have to make the beats and the sounds suit what the song is, and if that means it turns out in a way you didn’t expect, then that’s the way it has to be. But that’s kind of the thrill of it, you have to let the songs take charge – and just hope they’ll find their way home. (Laughs)
I think it’s natural, doing dance music, that you needed to start with a sound – a sound that would be accessible to clubs, and the fan base, but it’s nice that you’re exploring songwriting more. The production on the album is great, it’s really layered, but the first time I heard the album I didn’t really get it. I was a bit confused…
A lot of people have said the same thing.
I didn’t really understand what I was listening to, but after getting under the skin of it I realised how genius it was. I think part of that for me was the juxtaposition between the lyrics and the music, because the lyrics, for the most part are quite dark, yet the music is quite euphoric…
We’ve always done that kind of thing, and certainly for the majority of the songs that’s definitely the case. I think we try, even if things are a bit sadder and a bit darker, we try not to wallow in it and celebrate it a little bit. Like Happy/Sad. If I think of my favourite New Order songs, or even the Pet Shop Boys, some of them are quite sad, but also uplifting. I suppose if the music in the past that we’ve made has been really thumping and slamming and aggressive that’s probably the way we were feeling at the time, you know? And we had to channel whatever was pulsing through our veins. We still love dance music, and there’s still a lot of parts on the record that are really thumping, but I suppose we didn’t feel like making an album of thumpers this time. It’s funny, when we make the stuff it just feels like us ‘at the time’… what are The Presets today? Oh, today The Presets are this – and then it’s funny when people hear it and they say “oh, I had to listen to it 6 times” and “oh, it’s really different”, whereas to us it just sounds like us, but then we’ve been living it for the past four years.
For me every time I hear it I find something new in it…
Oh, that’s cool!
…which you don’t get with a lot of music nowadays.
Yeah, I don’t think you do – it’s nice that you say that, because I think a lot of music nowadays is made to be chewed up and spat out again and just blasted through your iTunes speakers, or blasted through MySpace or your car radio. And that’s great, and it’s really fun, but I suppose a lot of music is kind of disposable these days. There’s nothing wrong with that, a lot of my favourite songs are, you know, your Rihanna’s… I don’t wanna sound like a snob, because I really like a lot of music, I love pop music and I love really cheap pop music, but I think we’re trying to do something different.
It shows. You haven’t kept dance music in its pure form, you use the same elements you always have, but you’ve taken it so much further. Are you nervous when you release new music? There were quite a few negative comments when ‘Ghosts’ came out, and when Apocalypso was released also. Do negative comments on forums like YouTube affect you?
Not really – we’re more nervous when we make it. Kim (other member of the band) and I get nervous when we show each other our ideas, because we really care what each other thinks. But when we make a song like ‘Ghosts’ for instance I wasn’t nervous about it coming out cause we thought it was a dope song and we couldn’t wait to get it out there. Certainly there’s been a lot of positive comments and, from what I understand, a lot of negative ones too – I know it’s a cliché, and artists say this all the time, but you really can’t worry what people think, otherwise you go crazy. Everyone has their own opinion, and I think that’s the cool thing about making music, it doesn’t really mean anything until someone hears it. Kim and I can write all the songs we want, but until we actually release them to you guys and the fans they don’t actually mean anything.
I understand you wrote the majority of ‘Ghosts’, or you wrote a sketch of ‘Ghosts’, that you sent to Kim…
Well, I write all the words, but to be honest Kim and I co-write everything, it’s very hard to say who writes more of the song. Sometimes one of us might create a couple of sounds, and they might be really important sounds, you know? But certainly, in terms of the basic song, as we were saying before about it being played at the piano, I guess that’s my bit, generally – but that being said, some of those bits would never have happened if Kim hadn’t given me idea’s to start with, so it’s truly a collaborative process.
I want to ask you about ‘Push’ specifically, because it’s my favourite song on the album… (Julian laughs) It’s quite an unusual sounding track – how did it come about?
I was playing around with this groove on my computer, that was a different time signature, it had more of a triplet sound, and that was something we hadn’t tried before, and it’s hard for that kind of time signature to not sound Glam Rock – and we were quite conscious of that, and wanted to make something quite tribal sounding, like a tribal house song. Lyrically I had this idea to try and write a song, about nothing… or rather try to write a song where you don’t say anything. You hear people in meetings or on the phone on the bus, and they’re not actually saying anything. There’s so much noise and so many words get said by people but very little is actually being said. So I kind of thought it would be fun to write a song where you get to the end of the song and you think “what is he even saying?”. A demented pop song! We played it in rehearsal today on stage and it sounded great, we’re really looking forward to taking that one on the road.
I understand you prefer festival gigs rather than your own shows because of the atmosphere?
I’m not sure where you heard that.
It was quite an old interview and I think it was only with Kim, so maybe that’s his opinion…
Well yeah, he would say that, wouldn’t he!!!! I mean, it’s all good. The festivals are good because they’re huge, when we headline festivals and we’re playing to 20,000 people and they’re all jumping around, it’s great! But playing somewhere like Manchester, or Cleaveland, Ohio – there’s plenty of places in the world where we can still play tiny clubs and the crowd are in your face and you can taste the sweat, and we really enjoy that too. They’re enjoyable for different reasons.
You’re just about to tour America. So You Think You Can Dance used your music, has that raised your profile?
It’s nothing like it is in Australia, but we sell out shows and drive across the country and it’s going really well, we’re really happy. When we first went there I thought it would be really difficult, but it’s been really enjoyable, I really enjoy going back.
How easy did you find it? I know a lot of Australian and English artists find it hard to be understood over there.
I mean even though we sell out shows there, it’s still quite niche, it’s not like we’re Matchbox 20, and certainly the people who like those bands wouldn’t jump up and down and go out and buy our CD.
Kim has in the past talked about your gay following. Do you find you have a strong gay fan base everywhere, or is it more diverse in America?
It’s been the same in most places, the gay scene were early Presets adopters, and some of the first shows we did in the States were at gay pride and leather marches and stuff. They were in to us long before the “cool kids” were, you know, and we’re forever indebted. There’s always a bear contingent in the front row of most shows we do in the States, and we love them.
Do gay men have better taste in music in Australia and the States?
I’m sure there’s some very daggy and uncool gay men in Australia and the US too. (We laugh)
You wouldn’t hear the Presets in the majority of gay clubs here.
Well, there’s gay clubs and there’s ‘gay clubs’, isn’t there? The gay clubs here in Sydney play terrible, terrible, bad music. The first two shows we played were at a place called Club Kookie a gay night which some of our friends put on, and the other was at a night called ‘Bad Dog’ here in Sydney. Theres a lot of cool gay nights in Sydney, but don’t worry, there’s some really bad ones too. (Laughs)
Are you planning on touring over here at any point?
Ah, we’d love to – I’m sure we will, it’s in the hands of our manager. It’s been a while since we’ve been anywhere, so I’m sure we’ll be back early next year.
I hope so, I can’t wait to hear the new album live.
You’re in London right? Yeah, we’ll be there – Forrrr Shorrrr!
And with that I bid Julian a good night, and got off my knees, looking forward to the possibility of hearing this awesome set of songs live next year, and thinking what a bloody nice guy Julian is.