My Disco’s Bare Essentials
September 21, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: UHH, September 19, 2009.
– words DAN RULE
– photography SULEYMAN KARAASLAN
Liam Andrews has an unfussy way with words. He’s not one for superfluous metaphors and flowery adjectives.
“It’s not often that we do things that are non-essential,” he says plainly, pauses, stares at his espresso. “Our music’s kind of bare,” he starts off again, “kind of naked.”
If today’s quietly affable encounter at Brunswick haunt A Minor Place is to be taken as an example, most things about the My Disco frontman and bassist would seem to have something of an unembellished quality. He is open but direct; he laughs but doesn’t attempt to crack jokes; he has a manageable haircut.
“My lyrics are just kind of a pivotal phrase from a narrative I have in my head,” offers the 26-year-old. “I never write them down. I’m not telling a story.”
It’s a sensibility that permeates the Melbourne trio’s patois. Over six years, two albums — the tearing frequencies of 2006’s Cancer and the arcane, hard-edged minimalism of 2008’s Paradise — and countless ear-shattering live assaults, Andrews, older brother and guitarist Ben and drummer Rohan Rebeiro have crafted a sound that takes rock, post-punk and hardcore to some of its more visceral and minimalist ends.
“Writing music like that just leaves you in this flux,” continues Andrews, off on a rare tangent. “Everything kind of remains open for the live setting. Having those breaks where there is just dead silence sitting back to back against extremely loud music, I find that dynamic is a pretty amazing thing to watch and to hear and to be playing.”
“By making music that’s so bare, any slight change — adding an instrument or a sound or anything — becomes so much more effective and decisive. Things like subtle speed and tempo changes become really noticeable and important.”
The trio’s razor-sharp, skeletal aesthetic hasn’t gone unnoticed. Since playing their first show at tiny, now defunct Collingwood venue Good Morning Captain in 2003, My Disco have garnered one of the most enviable live reputations in the country. They’ve support slots for the likes of Battles, Mogwai, Deerhoof and Death From Above among several others, not to mention pulling off five US tours; the most recent of which saw them play an abrasive set of showcases at SXSW this March.
“With some of the songs, we might sit on the same bass line, the same drum beat and the same wall of guitar noise for 10 or 12 minutes,” he laughs. “It’s never a planned thing. It’s just when it feels right, like ‘This is it, this is exactly what we’re doing right here and now’.”
“When you’re at that point, there’s nothing else like it. It’s kind of like we’re all so inside it that, for us, it might seem like it has only gone for a minute. I’d like to hope that there are a lot of people might watch it and feel that way too, like they’re inside that time and place with us.”
In many ways, My Disco’s penchant for economy comes as little of a surprise. Having spent their early lives in the UK, the Andrews brothers moved to Australia with their family in the early 90s, settling on Melbourne’s outer eastern fringe. From there, the younger Andrews would take the hour-long train ride to the city on the weekends, where he soon found himself ensconced in Melbourne’s then thriving hardcore punk scene.
“There was a lot going on in the local punk scene around that time in the late 90s,” he recalls excitedly. “There were all these all-ages shows just held in studio spaces like Thunderfield in Richmond and Troy Balance in South Melbourne. I didn’t have any friends who were into that stuff, so I just turn up and hang out every weekend. I’d go to Missing Link and then go to shows.”
Suffice to say, it wasn’t long before Andrews began entertaining the idea of a band of his own. “I was seeing these bands that weren’t all that much older than me, so it was just like ‘Oh, I can do this!’. I had a bass, you know, it was a possibility. Ben was also seeing shows — he’s four years older, so he was going to the over age shows — and Rohan was coming to shows too.”
“I think being involved in that scene kind of really opened our minds to the possibilities of music a bit more, this idea that music could be all these different things,” he continues. “A lot of the people who I met back then and am close friends with now, they’re all so broad in what they do and what they listen to. I’ve never worked out what it is, but there’s a common sensibility with a lot of people who were into that kind of music.”
The echoes of the hardcore scene resonate throughout My Disco’s catalogue. While the explosive, bass-driven motifs of last year’s Paradise was their most markedly minimalist to date, it was also their most powerful. Tracked with legendary Chicago producer Steve Albini at his Electric Audio studio, the record saw the trio reduce many of their songs down to singular, repeated phrases; raw, violent pulses clanging throughout otherwise empty tape space.
For Andrews, the record found its bearing structure. “A lot of those songs where very, very concrete,” he says. “That said, there were a couple of songs on the record that we wrote so they could be kind of extended and pushed and pulled a lot. So for playing live, it gave us that kind of freedom where if we were feeling it, we could just keep on going in a kind of repetitive pulse.”
“We were really prepared going into the studio, and we wanted to be because we were going all that way to work with Steve and we didn’t want that to go to waste. So before we went on tour, we did a lot of work in Melbourne just working out the exact tempos we were going to perform the songs at and stuff. That’s why the process with Steve worked so well, because we knew exactly where we were and he knew the studio inside out, so it was just a matter of talking about the music before we launched into it.”
But there’s a far more personal dimension to My Disco’s sound. What isn’t widely known about their brilliant, noise-drenched debut Cancer (2006) is that it charted Andrews’ own battle with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer affecting the lymph nodes.
“It was a really hard time,” he pauses. “A lot of the record was written from things I had jotted down when I was in hospital. I wasn’t able to perform music at the time, so it was just something that I could do to pass the time.”
“When we started writing these songs as soon as I got out, it all just kind of shaped itself in that really minimalist way. We didn’t talk too much about it, but I’ve always felt that that’s when our music started getting quite cold and mechanical, which was kind of reflective of how we were, how we were feeling. It really feels like a long time ago now.”
Andrews understands the experience to have shaped My Disco’s approach indelibly. “After that time in hospital, we just wanted to tour — I just wanted to do everything I could as soon as I could. The fear of relapse was always hanging over me. So we just toured and wrote like crazy and did so much, which was just really great, even up until this last tour.”
Indeed, My Disco are on their first real break since Andrews regained his health. Not that Andrews’ definition of a ‘break’ quite fits the term’s usual connotations. In time off, he’s been busy playing bass in Romy Hoffman’s new pop project and writing a swathe of new My Disco material with Reibero and his brother.
“It’s the first time since I was sick that the band has been able to take a step back and just take it slow and take time, and it’s been really good,” he urges. “It doesn’t sound like much, but we took a month out and you can really hear that in the music we’ve been writing. It’s feeling really free and I guess, again, it’s reflecting where the three of us are kind of at, how we’re relating to each other.”
And in the end, that’s precisely where My Disco’s music is draws its energy. “We never really sit down and say ‘Let’s write this kind of record or strip this right back’,” says Andrews. “Our writing process is always just in our studio space just jamming.”
“No one person has ever written outside of that room — there’s always the three of us in there — so it’s just a matter of finding a drum and bass line foundation and working on the guitar stuff and basically keeping it really simple.”
“There’s so much decorative stuff to most rock music, which is great, but it’s not at all what we’re interested in doing,” he pauses, breaking into a wide grin.
“I just love that kind of physical, instinctual reaction you have to some frequencies.”
My Disco tour the east coast this month and next:
24/9 Sydney, Oxford Arts Factory
26/9 Brisbane, Sounds Of Spring Festival, RNA Showgrounds
17/10 Melbourne, Melbourne International Arts Festival, The Forum Theatre
Paradise and Cancer are both available in Australia through Stomp