Originally a backing band for Des Miller’s solo work, Magnetic Heads have since taken on a life of their own. Sharing an obvious appreciation of the 80s new wave movement, the band, bolstered by production from the Philly Jay’s Berkfinger, have succeeded in contemporising these influences without sounding disingenuous or overly derivative.
With a new EP recorded and set for release soon, Magnetic Heads will headline MUM at World Bar this Friday night, in the first such event hosted by Throwshapes.com.au. Band leader Des Miller, fresh from a short tour of the UK, took some time out recently to talk to Music Feeds about the band, their influences and approach to the recording process.
Music Feeds: So first off, you’ve been involved in a few different bands over the years, as well as making quite a name for yourself as a solo artist. Most of the members of Magnetic Heads have been touring with you for some time, so what prompted the decision to start working on the group as an entity in and of itself? When did it cease to be merely a back-up band?
Des Miller: We were fortunate to spend a fair bit of time rehearsing at Matt Downey’s studio/performance space in Marrickville a little while ago, The Pitz, and when you spend that amount of time in a group, things start happening. Though we were rehearsing my songs, we started jamming and writing songs. It was a good place for that. To be honest, there was always an intention to start a band, and in the liner notes of my solo record, there is mention of the ‘Magnetic’ players on the record. But the songs were not representative of all of us, at that time, so I put the album out solo. This time it’s different.
MF: Would you say that the material Magnetic Heads have been working on is different to your solo material, or more an extension of it? I know that you’ve still been working on some solo projects while recording with the band, so what is it that separates the two? Is it merely that fact that there are more people collaborating on the sound, or have you made a conscious decision to approach it from a different direction?
DM: This group of songs are collaborative, they were born out of the rehearsal room (with the odd bit of tinkering here and there by me at home). Sometimes I bring things in partially or semi-formed, inspired by things outside, but the majority of these songs are inspired – at least sonically – by the sounds we stumbled upon together. In that sense there is a clear distinction between Magnetic Heads and my solo work. The latter of which is more a process of somewhat narrow minded expression. The focus and intention is different, as is the method. The resulting sound then, is totally different, mainly because it draws on the influences of five people rather than simply one. That said, I think there is a continuity of sorts between the two. There are certain influences I can’t escape from, and that bridge the two projects.
MF: Lucy Kaldor is a relatively new addition to the Magnetic Heads line up. How did you guys hook up with her, and what was it that she brought to the mix?
DM: Lucy is the cousin-in-law of Robbie, our old keyboard player – he has moved to Cambridge to pursue literature and colder climates. A slight stretch, but with my brother William on bass, we are a family band. Lucy brought a whole lot of feminine touch to the outfit. She’s a great player and singer, and brings a whole lot more technical understanding to the music. So much of what we do is driven by a more… intuitive approach to music. Lucy has some musicology, and a whole lot of hours playing Debussy up her sleeve. That said, I think the most played song on her ‘portable music device’ at the moment is ‘Color Blind’, by Ice Cube. So she’s a mixed bag. Oh… and we’re married!
MF: So a real family vibe then. I always like to ask musicians about the artists that first turned them on to music. I think there’s something significant in that first ‘light bulb moment’ musical awakening. What artists do you remember first opened your eyes, really turned you on to music back in the day?
DM: The first tape I remember getting from my grandma was John Farnham (that’s right folks, on cassette. Ridiculous!). I think it was one of those Christmas presents that was born out of desperation on my Nan’s part… that and she works at Vinnies on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it was probably overflowing with discarded copies of THE VOICE… The main thing here is that I didn’t buy it, or ask for it!
The first music I remember loving was the Beatles. Mum and dad didn’t have a huge record collection, but they had Sgt. Peppers on vinyl and that was rad. Then there was Bowie, who I thought was Australian for ages because of the film clip for ‘Let’s Dance’. And I listened to Zooropa (U2) on cassette over and over. I’ve always had a thing for British bands, it seems.
MF: I’ve read that you’re also very influenced by film. Have there been any films lately that have inspired you?
DM: I’m no film buff… the word ‘obsessive’ probably describes me better. Not because I know everything about film, but when I stumble upon something that I like, I like it a lot. Film is one of those things that totally overwhelms me, there is so much of it (and so much I haven’t seen), but there is something about images that strikes me down. I feel like my eyeballs are massive windows into the back of my skull… and when people do things well with film, the images stay with me. So I guess stylisation and composition are things that I dig. But also ideas. I really like expansive sci-fi. Blade Runner, Dune, THX 1168 (George Lucas’ first sci-fi produced by Scorsese). David Lynch is a bit of a theme, I just watched A LOT of Twin Peaks… god that is good.
The list goes on and on in that respect, but I can’t help but be amazed at the depth of some of the conceptualisations. To be honest, this is normally driven by the literature behind the films, and if I’m a junkie in any respect, it’s vintage science fiction novels. What have I seen recently that I liked? I spent a lot of time recently on a plane, and I’m not sure if it was the jetlag/sleep-deprivation prior, but I really enjoyed ‘Bright Star’ (Jane Campion). Far from a sci-fi, this is period romance! But John Keats is a favourite of mine, and Abbie Cornish is hot. And I met Ben Wishaw when I was in the UK, so perhaps I’m biased. But more than the performances (which were good), the film was shot and styled so beautifully.
MF: Now, this kind of retro aural aesthetic that you strive for is as impressive for the way that you’ve recorded it as it is for the music itself. I know that you’ve been working with Simon Berkfinger on most, if not all of the band’s recordings so far. Is it important to you that you have someone mixing and producing Magnetic Heads tracks that you’re comfortable with, and know that they’ll be able to get that sound down on tape?
DM: It’s been awesome working with Berkfinger a second time. We had heaps of fun the first time round, but this time there was a maturity to the working relationship. I am pretty sure I know what I want to achieve, and when I’m with him, I know that I can call on his know-how to achieve it. But at the same time, he has a lot of production ideas. In terms of the production style, these songs were recorded (sometimes surprisingly) in a relatively modern way… At risk of exposing our trademark method (hah), the core of the song (drum, bass, some guitars) are recorded live and to tape in studio. In this instance at BJB with Berkfinger. Then we take these cores away from the studio and work over the top of all of that using some pretty good quality home-studio gear.
The rest of the songs are recorded in all sorts of places, like the top floor of Chris’ (drummer) place which happens to be a massive warehouse… or rather less romantically, in my living room. Some of this is choice – I like recording guitars with Evan in certain types of rooms. Some of it is pragmatic; the day before we mixed I really wanted backing vocals on a particular track, so we set up a mic in our sun room. I have spent a bit of time collecting gear, and I have a nice community of friends (Berkfinger, Ned Cooke [Dappled Cities], Richard Cartwright [RIYM], Aidan Roberts and Liam Judson [Belles Will Ring, Maple Trail]) who have been more than happy to lend me equipment. So for me, recording and arranging is a strong point, and am lucky to have had a great partner in Berkfinger who I am confident can take the reins when it comes to mixing and production. I’m open to working with other people, but if I was to go into the studio next week, I’d do it the same way.
MF: I read a quote recently about the major label system, and who actually said it escapes me for the time being (although I think it was Jagger), but the point was that they said there was really only about fifteen years where the current system actually worked to the financial benefit of artists. I tend to think that the recent drop in ‘reported’ record sales is as much a reflection on that failed system as it is the perceived success of musicians. It’s almost as if independent artists garner more respect these days than do major label artists. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? Do you think this is something that’s only a relatively recent development?
DM: I think whoever said what you are saying they said, said something quite correct. That said, the role of the record label is not defunct. Independence is something I enjoyed, but there is also something really nice in being part of a community. Sharing skills, talents and resources. It’s almost impossible to be good at everything, and it’s definitely impossible to be excellent at everything. So I think that artists need to make good choices about the team that they work with. From recording, all the way through to touring and marketing. It’s certainly a modern way of thinking about music, and it’s a product of the fact that you can do what we did: record things cheaply, partially at home, partially in the studio, and well. Then there’s the internet, and cheap video cameras… So it changes the game a little.
MF: Now, I noticed that Magnetic Heads just recently played a gig in London. How long were you guys overseas? What prompted the decision to head to the motherland, and how was the response?
DM: I went over there on a reconnaissance trip more than anything as we plan to go back there as a full band and put out a record. We have some close friends who are living there and performing so it was a good opportunity to spend some time in a different city, and see the musical landscape, and it was great! It was fun hanging out with a bunch of other Aussie bands over there (Dappled Cities, Philadelphia Grand Jury), and there is a general feeling of vibrancy when it comes to music in London. Lots of venues. Lots of people. And lots of good music. We were received really positively and I’m basically desperate to get back there… as soon as possible.
MF: You’re playing MUM at World Bar this Friday. Any surprises in store for punters? How much new material will people be hearing?
DM: The surprise is that Will, our bass player, is in Europe. So Lucy’s other cousin, Dave, will be filling in. As I said, family band. It’s great having such talented people hanging out. We’ll also be dragging Imogen (Chris’ girlfriend) on stage to play percussion. It’s a tight fit on the World Bar stage but we like the sound of lots of people making sound. All the songs will be those off our forthcoming EP, and we also have a video clip to launch, which will be hitting the digital airwaves in the next few days. We may even play an old Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music number… we’re suckers. There are heaps of great bands on this Friday too, which is what makes World Bar such a good night.
Magnetic Heads play MUM at World Bar this Friday, 4th June.