British India have been stalwarts of the Australian indie rock scene for over a decade now. Their debut album Guillotine – which featured major triple j favourite ‘Tie Up My Hands’ – launched the Melbourne 4-piece into mainstream success, and the band have continued to deliver many bops since.
With the release of their sixth studio album Forgetting The Future, British India is heading back out on a 16-date tour around Aus this winter.
We caught up with band frontman Declan Melia to chat about the inspiration behind their latest release, artists he’s currently digging, and the possible end of the world.
Music Feeds: What do you find is the best way to keep entertained on the road?
Declan Melia: We don’t drive as long as we used to, but I remember when we used to do the Hume – this was like 10 years ago – I would alternate between reading a chapter of Harry Potter, which was about 25 pages, which would take me about 25 minutes, and then I’d listen to an album, which would be about 40 minutes. Then by the time we got there I was halfway through Harry Potter and had listened to five albums.
MF: That’s cool. Were they albums you’d heard before or a way to listen to new music?
DM: It would have been both. This was back in the day, so we were kind of discovering music that everyone else kind of already knew. So, Nirvana stuff, Radiohead stuff, but also oldies like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. Fond memories, man. You know, the first time I ever heard those classic albums like Velvet Underground would have been in the van with all the other guys. It’s just like every generation has a story about how those albums blew their minds.
MF: I think that’s what’s cool about those kind of albums – they seem to be timeless in a way.
DM: Yeah, you’re right. I think, maybe naively or maybe optimistically that like, the great albums of our generation, or maybe more accurately, my generation, like Ok Computer, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, and the first Kendrick Lamar album, like, are those going to sound as good in 40 years as Velvet Underground and Sgt Pepper’s sound now? I want the answer to be yes, but I’m not sure it is.
MF: It’s hard to know until we get there.
DM: Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen, because the world is surely going to end.
MF: It feels like that though, doesn’t it? Whether its just the media and because we have a 24 hour news cycle, we see so much bad stuff, but, I don’t know…
DM: I like to think I’m a pretty discerning reader, so often I’ll hear like doom and gloom stuff, or read some tweets about Trump or reactionary things that aren’t very well thought-out. Then I’ll do a little more research and think “oh, it’s not as bad as it sounds, if you compare it to the days of The Cold War.” But even though I kind of get there cerebrally and I’m kind of like “well, the world’s not going to end”, I still feel it. Like, in my bones I still feel this kind of doomy feeling, like we’ve had it too good for too long. Or like, the infrastructure of the world is too delicate to sustain us. It really does feel like the world at the moment, with everything, is just being held together with bandaids. It’s like this close to slipping off its hinges.
MF: I get that. It seems like a lot of young people are noticing it as well. I don’t know why that is, whether it’s just that we have more access to things because of the internet…And like you’re saying with the Cold War, whether it would have been just as bad if the leaders then were tweeting about nuclear war.
DM: But ironically, while The Cold War was going on, people’s lives were just getting better and better. Like, The Cold War was bad. It had really bad ideologies, but as time went on if you look at it in history, there was a slide towards liberalism and democracy. The opposite seems to be happening now – we seem to be getting further away from those things… Which is why British India thought it would be a good idea to go out and tour, because we won’t be able to do it in three years, ‘cause we’ll only be touring big piles of ashes where cities used to be.
MF: Yeah, it’ll be some kind of Mad Max scenario.
DM: That would be refreshing! I suppose, having toured for ten years, the idea of touring through a wasteland sounds kind of refreshing. No Harry Potter in those circumstances.
MF: So, how’ve you seen the music industry change in the past ten years?
DM: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s kind of like the particulars change, the small things. Like, the way you get the music out there and the way labels interact with bands is different, but still essentially, in this country anyway, the fundamentals are the same. It’s just about bands writing great songs and connecting with audiences. If I look at a band like Gang Of Youths or Dune Rats and say like, “why are they successful?”, the answer is still the same as the reason why the bands that were big in our day like The Vines and JET were successful then. People still like good music, music doesn’t mean anything less. It still means as much to 19-year-olds today as it did to 19-year-olds 10 years ago.
I’ll tell you one thing that’s changed: Splendour In The Grass has become absolutely massive! The headliners used to be like Tricky and The Presets, bands that were kind of like, cultish. Now it’s like Kendrick Lamar and Lorde, it’s insane!
MF: What do you think of this year’s lineup?
DM: I thought it was really good. I was kind of interested because I saw an article the day before yesterday like “the world will be watching how many women are on the Splendour In The Grass lineup”, and not to get into that debate, but I was surprised how few there were. That’s not a judgement call, but they seem to have ignored that pressure, almost.
MF: I noticed that as well. There’s like those memes going around where people will Photoshop all the male artists off the lineup and be like “look, there’s only this many women”, and you’d assume they’d have more on the lineup after that…
DM: Yeah. There’s another thing that’s changed. When we were starting, I think music was really without ideology. I mean, you just have to listen to the big bands when we started, like The Hives. You could listen to a whole Hives lyric and not learn anything about the world, whereas I think today there’s been a real good, and I think for the better, swing back towards ideology and meaning in music again, that we haven’t seen in a long time. I think that’s a really good thing.
MF: What was your inspiration for writing Midnight Homie (My Best Friends)?
DM: That song really came together at the eleventh hour. It’s one of those beautiful songs, the songs you like the best, where you don’t really have to work for them at all. Whereas there are songs on that album like ‘Precious’ and ‘My Love’ where they were like chipping away at stone, and we were really like, workman-like in the way we approach them. Whereas ‘Midnight Homie’ was just a burst of energy. In fact, I kind of came in halfway through that. I think that Will had written most of the music on his little computer, and then we kind of stood around in a big circle.
We were really inspired by this record by Young Fathers called White Men Are Black Men Too. You could hear the way they would write the music is they would write the instrumentals, then they’d stand around and anyone could have a little burst of creativity and a melody idea. So, it was like, they’d sing one and that was the verse, and then sing another one and that’s the chorus. Not really thinking that like the verse has to start telling the story and then the middle has to pick up that story, then the chorus has to be the resolution, more like throwing paint at the wall and seeing what kind of picture that makes once you step back from it. So, in that way it was a new way of writing for us, and an exciting way to write.
But, I suppose from a lyrical perspective, our main lynchpins for that song were a band called McLusky and Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc. It’s got the funky verse part and then the chorus drops down to acoustic. We lifted that idea straight from that song, because we were like “let’s do something we haven’t done before for the chorus”. So, that one was really experimental. A lot of this record wasn’t written with the four of us sitting around in a room, playing music, which is what we did on the first three albums, and then on the remaining two albums we would kind of write stuff at home and bring it to the band. Whereas this one was written almost entirely on computers. Obviously when you’ve done six albums it’s really important to step back and say “what could we do this time that we haven’t done before?”, and that was the only way we were going to get anywhere with this record. I can tell you honestly, if we hadn’t discovered that new way of writing, the record would have sucked, and if the record would have sucked, we wouldn’t have released it.
I think also that lyrically, the line – which I think is a great line, if it doesn’t sound too arrogant – “my night is better than your whole life” is lifted straight from Lou Reed’s “my week beats your year”. People love hearing that kind of arrogance, it’s weird. It’s a bit of flamboyancy and bravado. It’s probably what attracts people to hip-hop. So, we were going for that kind of feeling with the lyrics.
MF: I think it’s great to step outside your comfort zone sometimes and take chances on new things.
DM: Yeah, it was necessary. We kind of sat around for three months, writing in the same way we’d written before, and there were certainly no smiles in the studio. No one was like “that makes me feel something”. It just had to happen, and it’ll have to happen again. The day it stops happening, that’s the day British India stops happening.
I think, you know, in terms of the longevity of the band, I think the day we realise that the record we just put out wasn’t as good as the one before, that’s probably when we’ll think about quitting it. But that kind of goes into the question of what makes a record better than another record? Is it success? Is it where you name is on the festival lineup? Or is it the satisfaction you got out of it? There’s no British India record I’d rather listen to more than the most recent one, and that’s been true every time. So, we’re sticking to our modus operandi, even if the only four people on the planet that are happy with it are us [laughs].
MF: I think people listening can tell as well, as corny as that sounds, if the artists’ heart is in it or not.
DM: I think that’s very true. It’s interesting, especially in this country, because for all of Australia’s cultural shortcomings, we’re so good at spotting a phoney. There are so man acts in America and even the UK – where people really like thrown together, manufactured acts, and they’re really accepting of it. Australian’s aren’t accepting of it at all, even like the pop idol stuff – it carries no weight. For some reason, and I really think this is true, Australians have a great bullshit filter. If you look at the Australian acts that have lasted or made a genuine impact on the culture – I’m thinking of stuff like Midnight Oil or Augie March or You Am I – it’s the stuff that has something to say and is really genuine. It’s almost at odds with the rest of our cultural landscape. We’re so bad at some things, but one thing we’re good at is spotting bullshit.
MF: I agree. Australians are pretty down-to-earth and we like to see that reflected in the art we consume. What are your favourite songs from Forgetting The Future?
DM: Midnight Homie is the first one that comes to mind. What we really wanted to do was, we wanted to make the record sound quite futuristic and sophisticated sonically. We wanted there to be a lot of layers, a lot going on, and kind of like, overwhelm the ear a little bit. But also, it’s really hard with indie music and the kind of music we’re doing, not to lose the emotion in the process. It’s like the better things are recorded, it kind of dissolves the heart of the song. So, finding the balance between something sounding exciting and sounding raw and sounding genuine, with a slick production was a tightrope we had to walk on this album, and Oscar Dawson, who produced it, was the real instigator of that. He was really the only guy able to pull it off. So, I think we kind of married those two competing notions on ‘Midnight Homie’.
I also really like a song called ‘Just Sing Like Everybody Else’, which is one of the longest songs we’ve ever put out. We’ve always loved epic songs, and admired other people doing epic songs, but every time we’d tried it, we kind of look at each other like “ah, not quite there yet”, but this is the closest we’ve got. For all my bias, I think British India, and by that I mean the other three guys, they can play so well together, you know? I just love listening to that band play – which is handy ‘cause I have to do it a lot. I just remember in the studio when we demoed that song, just giving Matt and Nic free reign to kind of do what they want, and there’s that big psychedelic breakdown in the middle, and I just enjoyed it. So, there’s hope yet!
MF: I love that after 10 years you still love listening to your band play.
DM: Well, I didn’t like them at the start because they were rubbish, but in ten years they’ve gotten better!
MF: What are your favourite songs to play live?
DM: At the moment, it’s those two. It sounds bad, but the live aspect of British India is almost in a state of arrested development – it hasn’t really moved on from when we first started. When we first started, playing in pubs and small clubs and half drunk and really energetically to kind of win the audience over, that was really our bread and butter, and that’s never really changed. People don’t come to a British India show to see a fabulous light show or to hear perfectly blended harmonies. I think they come to have a dance, have a few beers and yell until they lose their voices in small, crowded rooms. It’s not a big stage production or anything, it’s just punky and raw, and we’ve never really gotten away from that. When it locks in and when it’s just right between the audience and the band, at that stage, the whole set is my favourite song to play. When we’re feeling it we’ll go right off the setlist and play what we kind of feel like.
MF: What artists are you listening to at the moment?
DM: I’m listening to, do you know Liz Phair? She put out a record in 1993 called Exile in Guyville. I was really into Brand New and I found an old demo of theirs where they cover a Liz Phair song, and it was just beautiful, so I tracked down the actual album and it’s just rockin’ man. It’s just one girl with a great band and she said that it’s based track-for-track on Exile on Main St., the classic Stones album. I’m forever intrigued by stuff like that. The way I consume music is like, I don’t just like a sweet groove or a sweet lick, I really like the story behind the songs and how they were recorded. I like the ideologies behind them and how it fitted into the time it was written. I love all that stuff. If I listen to a record I want the whole thing, the whole backstory and the whole experience, I don’t just dip my toe in.
I mean, my favourite records of the last year are kind of just like everybody else’s. I love the Kendrick record. There’s a guy called Rostam who used to be in Vampire Weekend. His record was a real touchstone for the recording of our last album. The cool thing about British India is that there’s four guys, and our music tastes are kind of pretty eclectic. So, when you come into a studio, you know, I might have been listening to Black Sabbath on the way in, but Matt might have been listening to The Avalanches. So, then we kind of both come in, both trying to get our way on a song, and I’m trying to do Sabbath and he’s trying to do The Chemical Brothers, and we make something completely different. That’s the cool thing – we’re not like one of those bands that has three lynchpins that are always going to inform our sound. I love that question though, I wish I had a better answer for it [laughs].
MF: You guys are pretty busy with your 16-date May/June tour coming up, do you have anything planned for the rest of 2018 afterwards?
DM: Well the thing is, this is the longest time we’ve ever taken off from British India. With keeping going for 10 years, we love it to death, and it’s just like the four of us with competing ideas and opinions, and then there’s the entity of British India, and we always want to do what’s best for that. So, we kind of thought, let’s take some time off ‘cause we’ve never done that before, and see if it calls us back, and I think that’s starting to happen now.
Will, unbeknownst to me until a few days ago, has been sitting in the studio in Collingwood, so I think after the tour, and probably even before, we’ll hole-up in that studio and get some instruments and see what comes out. As with every project, we’ll just kind of let it happen naturally, and if it doesn’t come together, c’est la vie, man, there’s nothing you can do, you can’t force it – as we said. I’m looking forward to getting together with those guys. I think the tour will be really good for getting us back into the headspace of writing and getting us listening to the same music, and getting us exchanging ideas. So, yeah after that, British India album number seven, let’s see. It’s gonna be a lot of fun! Hey, and by the way, who would have ever thought they’d hear that sentence: “British India album number seven”?
MF: Yeah, that’s a lot of albums!
DM: They’re sleazy numbers. They’re starting to get into danger territory now!