Greg Wadley interviews DC, frontman of Melbourne band ROOT!
Rumours of new Melbourne band ROOT! started to circulate in 2007. I finally saw them live at the Sydney Road Festival this February. Daytime street festivals can be tough gigs: the lighting isn’t glamorous, the audience aren’t (very) drunk, many of them are children and dogs, and even the adults, having avoided investment in the band by getting in free, are inclined to be naughty.
If ROOT! found Sydney Road tough going, they didn’t show it. Singer DC wandered amongst the audience on the road, haranguing them humourously while carefully avoiding stepping on the dancing children. The lyrics and spoken-word rants were laugh-out-loud funny, but delivered with humility. After the show he stood at the merch table, signing CDs and chatting to fans. This is a good-time gig with intelligence and wit: a combination you don’t see every day.
ROOT! play a kind of country rock, with occasional forays into related genres. They are a five-piece, with DC’s vocals backed by Henri on guitar, Doug on bass, Steve on keyboards and Barnaby on drums, and at Sydney Road, a gentleman with a pedal-steel [Joe – Ed]. Their professional sound reflects the considerable experience of the band members. They are not, by rock ‘n’ roll standards, young men. They (normally) play in medium-sized pub venues to diverse audiences, who range in age from teenagers to forty-somethings. As a reference point, imagine a Dave Graney show. Some audience members are curious fans of DC’s last band, though the violence that plagued that band’s shows doesn’t seem to be reoccurring.
ROOT! – “Young Man’s Blues Blues”
(Root Supposed He Was Out of the Question…, 2007)
The first thing I — and everyone else — heard about ROOT! when they emerged last year is also something DC would prefer to downplay. So I’ll get it out of the way quickly. DC was one of the two lead vocalists in legendary Australian band TISM. This is widely known and would be clear to anyone who has heard a song by both bands — the vocal style is unmistakable. People will inevitably compare them — but DC wants ROOT! to be judged on their own merits.
For months the only place you could hear a ROOT! song outside a venue was via their MySpace page. Then in December 2007 they released their first album: Root Supposed He Was Out of the Question. The album begins with a song that has already polarized audiences. “I Wish I Was Tex Perkins” combines a gentle satire of this local singer with discussion of some common male concerns. Next up, the brilliantly-titled and brilliant “Spring Me Out Of Caroline Springs, Caroline” is a funny-but-sad tale of life in that artificial, car-dependent hell-hole. Country music suits this theme and the song could easily be a hit. “Shazza and Michelle” is a tale of regional innocents shafted by the big city music industry. “Young Man’s Blues Blues” is classic satire: an older guy’s frustration with younger guys’ self-pitying bursts out as rant, dressed in blues-rock. “I Still Call Australia ‘Ho'” sends up this country’s eternal prostration before the US, while “The Ballad of the Poowong Magpies” is a very modern tale about water rationing! A love song, “School Mum”, lends credence to my theory that DC had a hand in the movie Boytown. “Root 66” is about a man who works his whole life, putting off pleasure for an imaginary reward in old age. This song would be alarming if it weren’t true about almost all of us. There are other songs too. Do yourself a favour.
DC’s last band produced a remarkable body of work. I am excited to be able to interview him about his new band. Let’s get started…
Greg: What are the aims of ROOT! ? I mean both career aims (releases, airplay, tours) and social aims (changing the world). Do you hope to have chart hits and mainstream airplay? Are you getting these? Is it possible to change the world without broadcasting your message to a lot of it?
DC: We are attempting, inch by inch, to claim some kind of footing on the beachhead of rock consciousness. We’ve started to get airplay, some recognition, a little bit of a “name” around Melbourne. But it’s hard to imagine us getting to the level of being interviewed on Channel V by some chihuahua-brained “vibester”, although stranger things have happened… Actually, no, they haven’t.
Do people get in bands because they want to change the world?
I thought they got in bands because they were shallow. ROOT! are no different to anyone else. We’re in it for the sex. With our wives.
How does it feel to play unmasked?
Facetiousness is my mask, Greg. Never dropping that one.
What have been the reactions to ROOT!, and how do you feel about them? What’s the worst insult and best compliment you’ve received so far?
The insults haven’t rained down on us just yet. Plenty of time for that. It’s surprisingly good to see how our crowds have accepted my shortcomings as a sex symbol, and also accepted the rather subtle genre experiment I’m conducting: ie: a serious/funny rock band. So far our reviews have also gone along for the ride. The Weekend Australian described our music as “cosy” — which was nice.
I read the review you wrote about us at the Sydney Road festival. You’ve been more than generous about my lyrics, but you dismissed ROOT!’s music fairly cursorily. This can tend to happen with what we are trying to do, and it’s based on a misconception which I would dearly like to disabuse people of.
It’s the whole “they are a lyrics band” bullshit.
Of course, my music might well be shit to some people. As are my lyrics. That’s fine. I can’t make everyone love me. What I want to attack is the lazy assumption that leads to “lyrics:good = music:bad” being trotted out as some kind of incontrovertible musical maxim.
I believe if you listen to ROOT! with this preconception somewhere in your subconscious, you will immediately find our music slightly shitty, or ill-conceived, or somehow less worthy. When I was a teenager, I thought the Beach Boys were a silly bubblegum surf group for oldies. You could have played me Pet Sounds and I would still have had the same impression. Now, the reverse happens: with any “serious” musical scholar, one must attest to the genius of the Beach Boys. Which is true? Both, and neither.
I also think people, with the best intentions, may be distracted by lyrics which stand up on their own without the music. The lyrics become the entire focus – it’s like your brain is so engaged by following the story, or “getting” the point of the lyric, that you aren’t really listening to the music. Not like if you were listening to Crowded House. Neil Finn writes lyrics which sound poetic but are so vague (meaningless? Maybe, although I’m sure they mean something to him) — they are so vague that they don’t engage your brain, you don’t have to hang on to every word, listen hard, follow the story. So you relax back and just enjoy the words as if they are another, tasteful, sublime element of the overall Neil Finn sound. You therefore are receptive to the qualities of his music.
But if I took a Neil Finn song, got Crowded House to play it (behind a curtain) and stood out the front singing “Ennui Will Rock You” there’d be someone out there thinking: “great lyrics… shame about the music.”
This is the misconception before which I stand, sword-in-hand. And as for people who say “you can’t take the piss but expect us to take your music seriously” my reply is thus: If you are an unimaginative fuck, it’s not my fault. Was American Beauty simply a comedy? Did Frontline have nothing serious to say? It’s possible within film to work on two levels, to make people laugh, but also have a darker, serious point lurking within. Why not music? I agree, pop music is a basic, unsophisticated artform, but it shouldn’t follow that we apply basic, unsophisticated rules to it. So, whether anyone likes/dislikes ROOT! is not the point.
Here’s the point: I do not write “pisstake” songs. I write and re-write both lyrics and music so I can make them, in their own right, a thing of beauty. My songs have as much “musical craft” as anyone else’s. When they sound a little country, or rock, or hip hop, it’s because I like it that way, not because I am making some intellectual critique of that style of music. I love popular music with a fan’s ardour, and when the guitar goes “twang!” in our songs, that’s because I really dig it — dumb and un-‘conceptualised’ as that may sound.
Furthermore, the players in this band (I can talk about them with frank immodesty) are really good. They have played with the best/won awards/have huge and varied experience, etc etc. They are as good as it gets in this country.
So when it’s all said and done, my point is this: this band is a “real” band, and our music should be listened to with this mindset — not “it must be a pisstake” or “the music is just tacked on at the end” or “the lyrics are better than the music”. If, after all that, you still think our music is crap, then fine, we have failed to impress you. Because after all, it’s a matter of opinion.
Is anyone still awake? I’ll try to be more succinct from now on.
(Note from Greg: You bet I’m awake – I’ve just been chastised for two pages! I should clarify that I don’t dislike ROOT!’s music. I am simply Country and Western-phobic, which is not the same thing. It’s the result of bad childhood radio experiences in Queensland. Whenever I hear a band play C’n’W I unconsciously assume, often wrongly, that they are taking the piss — like hearing a metal band after watching Spinal Tap.)
Compliments? Well, this one bowled me over: A girl has a tattoo of the “Root” character. How does one react to this? Should I offer to mow her lawn for a year?
How did you meet your band mates, and why did you choose this particular musical genre? Are they session musos or friends?
I’ve known Henri for a long time. He is the Renaissance Man: Jazz-trained saxophonist, guitarist in a Barcelona punk-rock band, soundtrack composer, recording engineer, and best of all: carpenter. He built me some shelves. I said “shall we attempt to rock?” and he agreed. Here we are. Henri knows this huge network of musicians. So we hand-picked the two best ones we could get our hands on. Steve did a lot of sessions and still plays as a hired hand in all kinds of musical fields. It was Steve who originally played on our demos and told me they were good enough to form a band around. I needed telling, because I am a bit weird like that. We got Barnaby next. He won a national drumming title at 19 and went to live/play/learn in New Orleans. He’s a drum teacher and plays in various jazz and blues combos. I think he and Steve find ROOT! as a kind of fun diversion to their normal musical pursuits. And they probably think we’re going to become huge, poor bastards. I will become huge, eventually, that’s for sure — have you seen how many chins I’ve already got?
Doug Lee sang on our album. But he was busy touring with Ice Cream Hands, so I couldn’t “pinch” him until this year. He’s a fine bass player, but importantly, he’s the best harmony singer I’ve worked with, and I have a long abiding love for that whole style of singing that Doug’s into — the whole Big Star/Teenage Fanclub/Badfinger genre of harmony pop. I wanted that into our vocal arrangements. All of the guys are good singers, which was important to me.
And then, there’s the personality factor. We have a no fuckwit policy in this band.
As for the choice of musical style, that was a long, drawn-out process. I listen to wildly different styles of music, so it was never a case of just picking my favourite one. At the time of writing our first collaborations, Henri and I were listening to the first two Flying Burritos albums, and The Fall. So it was never “proper” country, right from the start. We don’t sound anything like Buck Owens. I just took the things I loved about country, and mixed/matched them with other things. I like the fact that country music allows for long-winded lyrical excursion, often a little wit as well. I also like the fact that you can be old and ugly and still play country. And I love the “accoutrements” of country — the twang of guitar and pedal steel, the straddling piano chords, the swinging tempos. And of course the outfits and hats, which I’ve always loved. So we started writing with a country feel. But I hate rigid genre rules — go see a “proper” country band, and the songs will all have a familiar feel. We aren’t like that, and our new songs are departing even further from that feel. The next album will sound like a rock/soul/pop/country/punk album.
How does the band divide up duties? Does one person write music and another write lyrics? I’m assuming you write all or most of the lyrics? Do you have staff outside the band, such as managers and road crew?
The lyrics are mine. Don’t join this band if you want to write lyrics. The music is Henri and I. The percentage varies, although we list ourselves as equal partners. Some things, like “Caroline Springs”, are more him than me, whilst “Pauline” is more me than him. But we work excellently together because we’re very frank and don’t give a shit about who does what — it’s just: “is this good enough?”
We don’t use a road crew. Can’t afford one yet. We have a publicist working for us at the moment, but basically we manage ourselves. However, if the right person was to offer, we’re not closed to suggestions.
What is your writing process like? How long does it take to write a song? Do you redraft a lot? Do you use a word processor or pen and paper? Do you run the lyrics past the band, or test songs on friends before playing them in public? How do you choose which songs get released? Why didn’t you release “Crown Tower Blues” — was it for legal reasons? Do you employ a defamation lawyer?
I put a huge amount of time and care into my lyrics. I try to get them to do at least two things at any one time. I try to play tricks with paradoxes and rhythm and in-line rhyming and consonant sounds, the whole wanky kit and caboodle. Of course, doesn’t mean I’m not shit.
I’m one of those annoying people who carry a little notebook. I had a hugely prolific summer on holiday at the beach. Some people were sitting on their deck chairs reading Dan Brown — I was scribbling lyrics. At work, at barbeques, at parties, at school collection time, I meet people who say “you should write a song about X”. This happens regularly. And there’s one rule: as soon as anyone tells me what to write, that guarantees I won’t write it.
Music writing is a lot less inspiration and a lot more perspiration. It always starts with a little idea in my head, and then I work at it every night for three weeks and do twenty different excursions until I find the one that works. Or, like “Tex Perkins”, bang — the first idea was the one that worked. I like to play new songs live and see how they go. I’m very keen to hear people’s views. But really, it’s mostly gut feeling.
“Crown” was not recorded, initially, because I thought it was a bit of a throwaway song. But it has become one of the most popular numbers in the set. So there you go — I’m happy to be wrong. Similarly, “School Mum” has been misinterpreted by quite a few people, so clearly I failed there. Can’t win ’em all.
Defamation isn’t something I’m too worried about. That’s based on the theory of obscurity. Mostly, we’re too obscure to be noticed. And if you run something past a defamation lawyer, they always say “No.” Given that I know the answer in advance, why pay all that dough?
What about production and recording — do you go to a studio or do it at home? DIY or with engineers?
DIY recording is fantastic these days. We recorded the bits separately at home, and then mixed it cheaply at Toyland with Adam, who is very cluey and super fast. When you have no budget, this is how you do it. But it took time, probably about four months for the whole project.
Go to Page 2 to have “Caroline Springs” explained, Tex Perkins examined, the cult of Nick Cave exposed, DC’s iPod dismantled, and more.