I Suppose an Interview Would be Out of the Question? Greg Wadley interviews DC, frontman of Melbourne band ROOT!

About the interviewer: Greg Wadley grew up in Brisbane and began his indie music career when he joined the Pits in 1979. He moved to Sydney with Tex Perkins’ first band in 1983, and moved to Melbourne in 1987. His efforts since that time include satirical projects Loser Magazine and New Waver, and the Spill label and studio. He is currently a member of performance group the Hi God People.

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 (Damien Cowell) 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.

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…

DC Root - Lead singer from ROOT!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: i.e.: 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 “piss-take” 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. 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 piss-take” 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?

Henri RootI’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.

It’s great that you included the lyrics in the CD — is there a particular reason for doing that?

Pure, naked vanity.

Which ROOT! song is your favourite? For what it’s worth, mine is “Caroline Springs”. [Caroline Springs is a planned and developed community outside of Melbourne, Australia — Ed] I like how you’ve turned a critique of the suburb into a love story of sorts. My favourite line is the one about supposedly being twenty minutes from the CBD. 

I’m really glad and encouraged that you got that Greg. It was always meant to be equal parts melancholy/satirical. All that stuff about seeing her at the photocopy machine, and so on, it’s not necessarily meant to be seen as a putdown of him, or where he lives. It equally puts her down, with her “Golden Mile” background and the fact that she’s slumming it in Fitzroy. If people say you have to know Caroline Springs to understand the song — they ain’t getting’ it.

Lyrically, I like certain moments, more than whole songs. “I never was much good at mixing/here they all drink bourbon and cola” — I’m always trying to put things within things, like that double meaning of “mixing”, or the extended allegory — is that what you’d call it? — of “Shazza and Michelle”, or using paradoxes within lines. It’s not much chop, mind you, in the end I’m just another crummy rock lyricist — but those moments give me a little pleasure.

Musically, I get a great deal of pleasure from certain guitar licks of Henri’s. I’m a sucker for good old fashioned rock guitar. Not turgidly rococo Joe Satriani style playing — I mean bending, twanging, more-attitude-than-technique rock guitar.

But I’m bored with our album. I never play it. There is a whole new album, like a new girlfriend, in my heart. I’m a fickle cheating typical male, when it comes to songs.

What is it like for you to play live? Do you get nervous? What have audiences been like?

Live I’m in a completely shut-off world, so I end up ringing the guys the next day to ask them how we sounded — because I’ve got no idea. I get nervous, but it manifests itself in weird ways: usually I get tired, like I just want to crawl into bed. Someone once suggested this was my brain compensating (in advance!!!) for the huge ordeal I was going to put it through later. Pretty tricky, that brain. The whole day of the gig it builds and builds. You always end up socialising beforehand, but I’m not sure I’m the best company, unfortunately. I just feel uncomfortable, no matter what I do.

Doug Lee RootOur audiences have been very enthusiastic. It still surprises me. But then, I’m not just getting up there and “playing my music and if you like it, I don’t care” like you hear other people say. I think about every gig with this mindset: the audience doesn’t give a shit. That’s how I approach things — how do I win them over? So I try to mix subtle bits with obvious, funny bits. I regard every person in the audience as someone who is doing me a favour. Not like so many bands I’ve seen, who seem to think it’s the other way around.

Out of curiosity, your song about Tex (“I Wish I Was Tex Perkins” [lyrics]) — where does your interest in him stem from — do you know him for example, or have you played on the same bill? He and I played in a band together as teenagers by the way. How literally should we understand these lyrics — I mean, do you really want to be like this or are you being sarcastic? (Sorry if that should be obvious, but I discussed it with someone else who disagreed with me.) Or is it a bit of both? I once did a sticker “I’d rather be — Nick Cave” which was about both soundalike bands and my office job.

I’ve never met Tex. I’m sure he’s nothing like I make out in the song. But I wrote it because there were women I knew, intelligent, literate women who don’t take shit from fuckwit males, and more than one of them admitted to quite fancying Tex. And it made me think, for all my crappy poetry and my crappy intellect and my crappy witty, metaphysical carrying on, sometimes I think I’d give it all up if I could just have that base, animal power to simply walk in a room and make women swoon. Wouldn’t it be ace? For starters, how much less tired would you be? No Wildeian conversational gems. And time. You could cut to the chase and still have enough time to watch the footy! Ah well.

So, Tex is just a symbol, really, of the guy I could never be. And anyway, the song starts going off the topic pretty quickly, quite deliberately. It’s more about me than Tex. So, when people go “ooh, you should get together with Tex” I think, well, not really. I’m always keen to deflate the balloon of reverence around rock stars. But I’m not really having a “go” at Tex.

I liked your Nick Cave thing, because the whole problem with Nick Cave isn’t Nick — who is obviously a smart, talented, original guy. It’s with the horrible, fawning, reverent, Nick-Cave-worshipping orthodoxy that exists whenever anything is written about him. It begs to have someone come along and poke fun at Nick, just to see the outrage on their faces.

But I don’t think that about Tex. When women say they want to root Tex, I think, well, fair enough, really, good on them.

Audiences often perceive lyrics as autobiography. This was a problem in my old band. People assume that singers are singing about themselves or someone they know. Even when they’re right it’s annoying. Does this happen to you, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Aha! Yes, well Greg, I can see that being a problem with New Waver. Anyone who can stand there in a coldly-lit room full of people, completely naked with an “L” painted on your non-footy-player chest, singing about masturbation… I’m not surprised that some people assumed you were playing “yourself.”

I guess we might have that perceived autobiography problem. It’s an interesting question. I think our audience is pretty smart, by and large, so they have the ability to distinguish between bits of the real me and bits of persona. I try not to harangue my audience too much…OK, I harangue them in “Back to Mine” about my abhorrence of the term “comfort zone” — but I am being very exaggerated there. If anything, you know, I think I may personally suffer from the opposite problem, I assume everybody in showbiz is, in the end, as the German man once said to the English barman, “stealing ze urine” — I assume they all are just personas. (Well… I like to assume it, anyway. I like to sit back and imagine Jon Butler eating pies and hanging out with property developers, chuckling about how he pulled another one over those fucking hippies at Byron.)

And while we’re on personas, let’s go back to our friend Nick. When I was a pine-headed teen I used to go see the Birthday Party. I thought they were great, and — quite honestly — I thought they were meant to be seen as a figure of fun. The audience was full of people who went to expensive private schools so they could live on heroin and bin juice in their Brunswick Street squat, and there was Tracey Pew with a gay bar moustache, cowboy hat and string vest, grinding his hips behind the bass, and Rowland Howard standing with one leg ridiculously bent behind him like a Monty Python Silly Walk, and Nick Cave yelling “Pow! Pow! Pow!” in a song called “Hamlet” — I thought it was all deliberate nonsense, designed to make fun of the whole “arty” scene. I was cacking myself! And when Nick sang “In the Ghetto” for an encore, again, I thought he was being silly, singing a schmaltzy Vegas song to a crowd full of Velvet Underground-dupes. But, you know, I started to realise that maybe I was wrong, as Nick’s entire career turned into retreads of “In the Ghetto”, and the same people who would have sneered at their parents’ Marty Robbins record collection back then, were growing up to write pant-wetting reviews in the Age Good Weekend about Nick’s latest tale of a bible-toting killer. I still say a little prayer at night, though, that maybe, just maybe Nick’s sitting at home having a quiet chortle…

Conversely, if you sing about someone else’s misfortune, some people will assume that you are making fun of the victim. Take the “Caroline Springs” example — it’s good to puncture the ads and say what it’s really like to live there. But is it cruel? How do you deal with this fine line, if at all? Also, comment on this song in the light of this year’s rise in interest rates. Would you now add an extra verse? Your prediction that values will plummet seems to be coming true. Have you tried selling this song to Delfin’s ad company?

Yeah, see, I could be accused of being some horrible middle-class snob putting down the battlers. It’s Delfin I’m after, not the people who live there — but maybe I’m just not good enough a lyricist to get this across. I was hoping that the listener sides with the main character, I guess. Just like the guy in “Root 66” whose entire life is spent working towards his retirement. There are, believe it or not, autobiographical elements in both those songs. I’d much rather side with the compliant society-obeying guy than the fuckwit “I’ll never be a suburbanite” who lives in St Kilda and hasn’t been past where the tram stops. But maybe I failed.

What about today’s music scene — do you like any of it? What do you listen to? Do you mostly listen to music in the same genre as ROOT!’s? Do you listen to experimental music? Is there any particularly good or bad music you’d like to comment on?

I’ve got to the point where I just can’t be into everyone new who I should be into. There’s too much stuff, and not enough time. The last time I really really immersed myself in a new musical culture was in the early 90s when I listened to only techno. These days I occasionally stumble across a band that I like, like, say Art Brut, because they sound like they are doing something original. I was a huge fan of the Beta Band. They were the most original band I’d heard in years, they were trying something genuinely hard to categorise — and even a little bit shoddy as well… were they meaning to sing shit like that? I loved it. Of course, if I’d lived in England, I would have hated them, because I gather the NME types were wanking on terribly about them — but I only found that out later, after I’d come to love their shambolic shitness.

This is my terrible problem: if I sense everyone raving about a band, I’m out of there before you can say Thom Yorke. And I’ll wait till about 5 years after they’ve had their day and disappeared off the face of the planet…and secretly love them! I must have rock-historian disease, or something. I have to enjoy everything retrospectively.

I like Aussie hip hop — only when they sing about going to the milk bar, and Aussie stuff. If it’s music of the streets, then sing about your fucking streets, not stupid gangstaland. I recently saw Corrine Grant do a comedy routine where she did the “come on! Who likes Aussie hip-hop? Nobody, right?” sort of attitude. I was sitting there in the audience thinking — well, love, I’m exactly the person who you feel confident isn’t in this room.

I’m also still trying to catch up on artists I never knew during their day — so last week I was listening to Dusty Springfield, Hunky Dory by Bowie, the Temptations.

I had my experimental music phase a long time ago when I was hanging around black clad bookish girls in the vain hope that after a night of Jarry’s Ubu trilogy performed by some avante garde troupe in a hell hole somewhere in Fitzroy we could cruise over to the Black Cat for a chinotto and light discussion about how becoming precedes being, and then maybe later she’d let me pop my Converses under her bed. These days I prefer air guitaring at home to Thin Lizzy. I get about as much sex.

I listen to roots music a little bit. But like reggae and hip-hop, I find the sameness gets to me after a while. I hate posturing. Gangsta posturing, heroin-chic posturing, whatever.

And I hate vocal affectation, which is absolutely rife these days. I listened to the Kooks, thinking they’d be like the Kinks (their new album is called Konk — that’s a bit of a giveaway) — but their lead singer completely wrecks it by singing in this vomitous-cute put-on voice.

I get angered by bands that, to me, are just up there because they want to be famous, without having anything new to say or contribute any new sound to rock’s long, exhausting history. I also get angered by bands with shit lyricists.

What is the point of music in 2008? Is it just a waste of time, money and carbon? Rather than play shows and press CDs, should we all minimise consumption to ward off climatic disaster? Should musicians lead the way on this?

The point of music is, as always, to not have one, single, cogent point.

You have been critical of the last government. Do you support any particular party or policy? Do you subscribe to any particular ethic?

I was also critical of the current government. But neither were reasoned criticisms, more just irreverence. Because I’m simply not well-read enough to have an opinion worth sharing, and I’m very wary of becoming what I hate most. What I hate, far more than politicians, are pontificators — about politics, about footy, about music — anyone who feels the need to shove their opinion down your throat as if it is some immutable truth. Kind of like the way I’ve been pontificating for these last thousand words…

Thanks to Nick Potter for photos of ROOT! at the Sydney Road Festival, and to Olivia Mayer for editing the interviewer text. DC’s text is unchanged.

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