Picture by Ben Sullivan
Apparently, the Presets, Australia’s premier electronic band, “like to listen to Beethoven”. This is not a guess, or an assumption – there it is baldly stated on track four of the new Presets album, Hi Viz. He is “everything you ever wanted, everything you ever needed”.
Rightio then. Good to know. Any thoughts on Berg? Telemann?
The reference to Ludwig van on the new album by the two Sydney Conservatorium-trained musicians (Kim Moyes in percussion; Julian Hamilton in piano) is not idle, but not necessarily deep either: those are the only lines in the song; there is no further discussion entered into. It was in fact, part provocation, part deliberate attempt to escape meaning.
“In all seriousness,” says Hamilton. “This time around personally I was getting so bored with writing ‘songs’, like verses and choruses. I thought would be great if we had a song with just one line, we don’t have to make a verse or a bridge.”
Moyes jumps in to explain further: “Like [Daft Punk’s] Around The World: traditional dance music lyrics.”
So Hamilton, who is responsible for the lyrical and vocal direction of the songs, pared everything back and began “writing [single] lines that I’d heard or I liked, and then we make beats and I would go to the mic and try a couple of them. That one really stuck.”
“You throw it down and it’s not much,” he says. “But then you chop it up a bit, add a B-line somewhere else for another section and suddenly it’s ‘wow, this is a lot of fun’.”
And fun was very much the objective says Moyes, the shaggier, cheekier half of the band.
“I remember around that time of [writing] Beethoven we were really into the idea of the high end novelty artists like Yello and Devo, and I would even say Right Said Fred, where it is almost artistic how throwaway it can be,” he says. “We were struggling around that time actually, struggling to find things that really stuck and when you [Hamilton] threw that in the ring it was like ‘oh man, here we go, here’s a little crack we can climb through’.”
That crack was a way to help them look for a new - or maybe it is old – Presets, 15 years into a career begun in the Conservatorium in the mornings after the nights before when the earnest young students were being decidedly less earnest at late night clubs.
The problem though, as Hamilton confesses, is that “we often don’t know what the Presets is until it appears”, which could make planning somewhat superfluous.
“We know what it’s not: we know that’s not it, that’s not it, that’s not it, until something comes along and it’s ‘that definitely smells like Presets’. It connects to a weird nerve.”
So were there a lot of not-Presets moments in the six years since 2012’s top 3 album, Pacifica? What does that even mean: Presets or not-Presets? The dancefloor brutalists? The chanting populists? The out-of-the-closet pop fans? The melancholy realists? We’ve had them all since 2003s Beat On/Beat Off single.
“Every day we made something that was not Presets,” says Hamilton. “There were a few things floating around in my head [going in] that were like rules in my head.” And those rules held for Moyes as well.
“Really early on we decided that we wanted to make it super fun. We were writing a lot of things that were very Presets, a lot of beautiful electro pop, things that were melancholy and stuff, but it just wasn’t ticking the boxes of the other Presets,” Moyes explains. “We’ve always struggled this line in our records where it is so up for it and brutal, and then it can be really heart on the sleeve. This time around we just wanted to boil all that down into condensed punchiness.
“It was not a question of trying to find the Presets; it was trying to find the right, most distilled version of it this time around.”
Picture by Ben Sullivan
Even if they were looking for a leaner, dancier version of themselves, there is one issue. As Hamilton says, “you can’t force a banger out any more than you can force a ballad out”. So it was a matter of following the threads until they had accumulated 40 or 50 ideas and could select from there.
This wealth of material was a first for the duo who would often find themselves on previous albums with just enough to fill the track listing.There may even be enough for Lo-Viz, the sequel/companion album says Hamilton (which is probably a joke, but you wouldn’t completely rule it out).
It’s interesting that both of them talking about distilling the various Presets into a singular theme for the album as the most recent single, Downtown Shutdown, is in one sense almost an outlier on the record as the unmistakably upbeat pop-dance bit. There is a more sustained edgy to the mood to Hi-Viz even as it strips back to hard dance, a bit darker than the joy of Downtown Shutdown.
“Every album is going to have its darkest moment and its most upbeat moment, that’s always going to happen, no matter how much we try to flatten it out,” says Hamilton. “But it’s interesting [to consider this] as we haven’t really unpacked the record ourselves.”
Moyes says Downtown Shutdown has been with them in different incarnations for several years, always with that driving energy, a Chemical Brothers/acid feel, until “it got twisted into a disco track”.
“But for me I still hear all that stuff that is completely in line with everything else [on the album]: it all paints this big picture of a party. We were going for more of a mix tape [feel],” Moyes says. “We don’t really do that many songs in major keys; it’s a really hard thing for us to pull off. The Chemical Brothers – I mention them again because they do it so well – like with Star Guitar or whatever, they do a really uplifting, major key thing that somehow still manages to rock.
“We tried to do those kinds of things so many times on this record, and we’ve done them in the past like with Promises or even some more twee things early on, but this one has been the most happy, uplifting, blissful, yet down-for-it, booty shaking track that we been able to pull off convincingly without sending us out the door cringing.”
There is also the choir on Downtown Shutdown to colour the mood, to be fair.
“You put a massive choir on a track and it’s going to spew energy,” says Moyes. “I wanted it to be like whether or not you liked the choir or the lyrics for the vocals, you wouldn’t be able to help move your arse when you hear it, from the first bar. And that was the goal for every track on this record: to connect with you purely groove-wise before anything else, and then anything else was icing on the cake.”
Fellow icing maker Hamilton offers that “doing techno, dark techno, is very easy for us. Doing melancholy, moody, very bleak is easy. Writing something that is good and tough but still up for it, it’s really hard.”
This isn’t to suggest that Downtown Shutdown is a lesser song for being an obvious “up” track. There’s always a place for it and on this album it becomes one of the “rooms” you walk through in this multilevel party Hamilton describes them wanting for the album.
He remembers early in the album process digging through some old video files and finding some footage shot on a cheap old camera when the pair DJ-d at Splendour In The Grass years back and seeing the variety they played, and the enthusiastic responses they earned.
“Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing, was one of them, and everyone was jumping around, and then there was another more electronic thing, and then All Night Long – Lionel Ritchie. I think we wanted the album to be all like that – a fucking great time.”
Lionel Ritchie? You cannot be serious. Yes, indeed, Hamilton is.
“I was talking to someone who is imagining what happened when the song fades out,” he says. “And she imagines that that song just goes on for hours, floating away.”
Maybe so, but there’s no floating away with Presets.
“No, we just end it,” says Hamilton before affecting a very well known Teutonic/Terminator accent. “Good time over! Next song.”
So we’ve gone from Lionel Richie to Arnold Schwarzenegger just like that.
“Beethoven, Chemical Brothers, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lionel Richie,” says Hamilton triumphantly. There’s your Presets.
Hi Viz is out now.
Presets play Metropolis, Perth, June 13; Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide, June 15; Forum Theatre, Melbourne, June 16; UC Refectory, Canberra, June 21; Waves, Wollongong, June 22; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, June 23; Tivoli, Brisbane, June 27; Nightquarter, Gold Coast, June 29