Have you ever been in the shower and had the soap you’re using make this weird gelatinous sheet between your arm and the side of your torso? It never lasts for more than three seconds, but for a minute you kind of feel like you have webbed arms. Never happened to you? Well, It’s a good analogy for the Death Set’s sound—a bizarre, colorful, and exhilarating thing that’s over before you have time to marvel. The Baltimore-via-Austrailia dudes released their first proper full-length, Worldwide, this week through Counter/Ninja Tune, so we called up singer/guitarist Johnny Siera to talk about things like moving from an Australian surf town to an East Coast metropolis and writing songs to make the kids go crazy.
Interview by Sam Duke
So the album came out on Tuesday…
Dude I’m siked, it’s been on my shoulders for so long. It’s just it’s more of a relief than siked, but yeah, I’m super pumped.
What made you nervous about it?
I don’t know. I guess it’s just been such a process, like changing labels and all that sort of stuff, getting all the administrative stuff out of the way, it’s just kind of a relief more than like anything. But I’m siked that Ninja are really pushing the record.
When did you guys make it? Have you been sitting on it for awhile?
Yeah, It’s probably been finished for maybe a year. Probably more than a year, actually. Maybe like 18 months and then we spent six months mixing it, and then it was just kind of like, put it out to a bunch of labels and just took that whole time to kind of swap and all that sort of bullshit.
Did you guys record it yourselves?
Yeah, I recorded it and we mixed it in Baltimore. It’s pretty much a DIY kind of effort.
I know some of y’all are from Australia originally. Can you tell me why exactly you moved to Baltimore?
Well we were playing in this different band and…have you heard of Japanther?
Well we did this tour in Australia with our band and Japanther and I don’t know…I come from the Gold Coast, which is kind of a surfing/Florida [kind of thing], lots of retirees, pretty much devoid of anything inspirational. We did this tour with Japanther and I don’t know, I guess you read books about touring and DIY bands and stuff but it never really hits home until you experience it first hand. It was pretty much just Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney and Melbourne but it just really hit home and I just really didn’t want to do anything else after I experienced it. Obviously the States is the most conducive [place] for a touring band so we just moved to Sydney, put up a picture of New York on the wall and it was just like ,”No doubt.” It was really quite easy.
So there was no doubting that you guys were gonna do it.
Exactly. I mean the first thing was we wanted to be a touring band, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like we wanted to go there and write a record, it was like we wanted to go and tour. That was the first thing we wanted to do. So, it was quite easy and everything kind of came naturally after that, you know what I mean? It’s just a crazy little thing. I guess it’s like that thing where once you decide to do something no doubt, a million little unseen forces come to your aid. It just kind of really fell together and…I don’t know…it was really cool actually to watch it unfold.
Why Baltimore though? Why not New York?
Well, we actually moved to Brooklyn in the first couple of months because it was like…I don’t know, when you come from somewhere like Australia…it was like the romantic thing to do, you know what I mean? Everyone wants to move to New York. And we also had the Japanther contact. So we moved to Brooklyn for a few months, and New York being New York, it’s a hard place to find your feet. We were working waiting jobs or hustling, whatever the fuck we were doing, and not really making any music. And obviously the whole point was to go there and tour.
But, we had a friend called Emily Rabbit who worked at this label called Morphius and she was pretty much just like an angel and let us sleep in her basement for just months on end in Baltimore. And Baltimore at that time was a pretty amazing place. Warehouse shows with Dan Deacon and stuff like that, where Dan is telling 100 kids to lie on the floor and then jump up on the count of five, it was just like, “What the fuck dude? This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” At that time I hadn’t experienced Todd P shows. Todd P shows are just as insane. But at the time I hadn’t experienced that, I’d only kind of been to shows in Manhattan and stuff like that. I hadn’t seen it in Austrailia, I hadn’t seen it in Brooklyn or Tokyo or anywhere I’d lived, so I don’t know. It was a pretty easy decision to move down there.
You guys tour so much and your live show seems to really define your band—do you approach the music differently in a live setting rather than making a record?
Definitely. For me, I have to block off months to tour and then months to write. I can’t really focus on both. But I guess what I was getting back to before was the whole idea for me for this band was to be a touring band from the get go and I think that after we did a few tours it affected the way that we’d write. Because I was writing towards an aesthetic. The whole aesthetic that we’re going for was playing to sweaty kids in basements and trying to write music like, “How the fuck are we going to make these kids spaz?” So I think touring that way, and then letting that influence the way that the songs were written. I think that’s how the process works.
So when you write songs you are writing them to have a certain effect live?
Yea. That’s pretty much the whole reason it’s short and fast. It’s different and I’ve come from going out to clubs and stuff and I love club music and electronic music, but I guess when we’re playing these kind of DIY spots in kids’ basements and warehouses and stuff like that, that kind of really didn’t work. It was more of the short and fast spazzy attack that seemed to make kids dance I guess.
You say that you love club music and electronic music but you’re music is at its core punk rock—when you’re writing, is it just four chords on a guitar? Is it a beat? How does it start?
It kind of starts either way. So it can be written like a normal punk rock song, I’ll be sitting there with a guitar and I’ll write a song and a structure with lyrics and all that sort of stuff. Or it can be exactly like you said, like a dance track where I’ll be fucking around on my computer or MPC or whatever and I’ll write a beat and then a synth line and then it’ll build up around that. I guess, yea, for me I can kind of see the difference when I listen to the songs, it’s kind of usually sing-along punk rock songs or spazzy electronic songs. And that’s usually how things are written, the spazzier ones are usually written with electronics first, and the sing-along ones are kind of the song structure first.
Have you ever wanted to write a different kind of music?
Totally. I kind of wanted to be an electronic music producer as a start.
Is that what you grew up listening to?
Yea. Well, I kind of grew up listening to everything. Not everything, but I went through a big stage when I was listening to punk rock. I couldn’t really get into hardcore too much—I like eighties hardcore but I couldn’t really get into the new hardcore, it’s a little bit too macho. I listened to electronic music for years, I got into IDM and that sort of stuff. And I’ve always listened to hip-hop, so those are pretty much the three styles of music that I’ve listened to for a long time. I guess this record is a little bit of a mish-mash of all those styles mashing in my head and I kind of vomited out this little weird DeathSet project. I don’t know.
But do you feel that writing sort of party music that you’re sort of cheapening it a bit?
I don’t know. I mean, like, I think there’s honesty in writing stuff that’s just straight forward and up front, you know what I mean? I don’t feel that listening to a record has to be a deep emotional experience. I think that just being honest and up front in a way is deep. Again, I think it’s coming back to this record [which] I’m hoping reflects the energy of the live show, I think that’s what I’ve been trying to capture with it. Some of the songs definitely are honest and personal and I think that’s what comes across as well. The lyrics as well, some of them being throw away or whatever, have a sense of positivity and all that sort of stuff. But you’re right by saying it is short, fun, party music and isn’t trying to be anything else other than.
And there’s integrity in that.
I would definitely like to think so.
You guys are heading out with Bonde right, soon?
Yea we’re on our way to meet them in LA.
How do you guys feel about that? They’re coming out with a new lineup and it’s still club music but it’s completely different than what you guys do.
I think Bonde and us hopefully should go pretty well. The energy is there, I think that’s our common strand in the live show. I haven’t seen the new lineup yet but I’m pretty much imagining that it’ll be the same. I don’t know, it’s a weird little beast, The DeathSet, because it’s a punk rock band first and foremost. But it seems to be able to get away with playing to like electronic crowds or sometimes even hip-hop crowds and, I don’t know, I like to play with bands like Ninja Sonic and stuff from Brooklyn. I like playing with bands that are a little bit skewed and different. So I’m pretty confident. Obviously Bonde are pretty big right now and we’re going to get an audience that might not be as open as a smaller crowd or a smaller club but I’m pretty siked. We actually just played with Girl Talk and I was SUPER scared to play with Girl Talk. I love Greg, but his music attracts a sort of frat crowd. But, that seemed to work. That was rad.
How do you guys try and bring the basement show feel to these bigger stages with Bonde?
It’s hard, it’s like one of the hardest things to do and we try and play on the floor when we can, but sometimes we can’t and that’s when it kind of gets hard. But Dan’s pretty massive now and he plays on the floor wherever. He played on the floor of that Pitchfork fest which was rad. So first we try and play on the floor, second we try and get kids on stage. I don’t know, just trying to re-create the energy of the small space in a bigger space somehow. It’s hard though, definitely it’s hard.