The Presets’ Julian Hamilton On The Evolution Of The Music Biz & What’s Next For The Band

You have to give it to Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes. Trends, fads and movements have come and gone but The Presets have remained a constant presence within Australian music. In the 10 years since breakthrough Apocalypso the pair have released a succession of critically well-regarded albums and remained favourites on the touring and festival circuit. While they may now be approaching the status of elder statesmen of the dance scene, the two seem far from intent on resting upon the laurels of their past achievements.

That’s not to say Julian and Kim are above evoking a little nostalgia here and there when the circumstances call for it. In November of last year, they covered ‘The Power and the Passion’ for triple j’s Like a Version. For those unfamiliar, it’s a song by Midnight Oil a band who, as Julian will now reveal, The Presets owe just as much musical inspiration to as anyone else.   

Music Feeds: Last November you covered Midnight Oil’s’ ‘Power and the Passion’ for triple j’s Like a Version. What motivated you to choose it?

Julian Hamilton: [‘Power and the Passion’] was a song that Kim and I played in our rehearsal room when we first started the band. We’d be rehearsing with our other band [at the time] and when the band’s other members would leave, Kim and I would hang out, set up a synth and a drum kit and just jam.

We would try and play these weird synth rock versions of AC/DC and Midnight Oil songs. We’d try and play these weird live techno versions of ‘Back In Black’ and ‘Power and the Passion’. We loved the grooves and wanted to make electronic music that felt like rock music.

So yeah, our very earliest rehearsals were us literally playing ‘Power and the Passion’. Not the song but the groove and the bass line. We thought that would be a perfect thing to cover for Like a Version.

MF: How did you first turn on to Midnight Oil’s music?

JH: I grew up in the ’80s and me and my younger brother were always very enamoured with the band. Just the band’s look, the look of Peter Garrett! He looked so interesting. And all that iconography and artwork was always, I don’t know – it was scary! Scary to look at for young boys.

I mean we used to love post-apocalyptic movies like Mad Max and all these other scary movies. And we used to see the Midnight Oil album covers with the blown up Sydney Opera House and harbour, the desert scapes and scary kind of two-tone pictures of Peter Garrett with his hands stretched out dancing on stage. I think I fell in love with the artwork and their iconography before I even really knew what they sounded like.

I can even remember as a young kid going to the park and on the back of the public toilet wall seeing ‘Midnight Oil’ written in Texta. Like, just written by some local kid who thought Midnight Oil was such a cool name as well. We were enamoured with their look long before we even knew their music.          

MF: Peter Garrett’s vocals are almost 99% attitude! How did you approach them for Like a Version?

JH: He’s got such a unique, iconic sound and delivery. I couldn’t really go about copying it. Look, I am a baritone male as well. I do kind of bark out at that same register on all of our music. Something like ‘My People’ and ‘Power and the Passion’? They’re not too far away.

It’s not like we were doing a chilled out bossa nova version. [Laughs] So I guess it did suit my voice a little. It would have been harder maybe to do a Cat Power cover or something like that. But yeah, I guess I just barked it out in my own kind of way and hoped I could pull it off in a meaningful way.               

MF: Alison Wonderland and DMAs haven’t been around for as long as Midnight Oil but did pop up on your last record Hi Viz. What motivated you to work with them? 

JH: Well all the music we’ve ever made has always sounded quite diverse. You know lots of different styles and I guess even when we’re trying to make albums that sound coherent — all of one style — we will always fall into this trap of doing too many things on one album: soft ballad-ly songs, weird instrumentals and really rocking aggressive techno things. And I guess after a while we thought, “Look. Instead of trying to fight it let’s just embrace it.

And you know my vocals have always kind of been very different: loud, barking, kind of punky style vocals, really kind of softly whispered sounding vocals, weird sort of robotic autotuned vocoder vocals and everything in between. Getting other singers in to help The Presets create different sounds was just an extension of that. We’ve always had lots of different vocal sounds on our records, the only difference is that in the past it was me making all those sounds. But this time it was nice to get some different vocals on the record.

MF: Another milestone that has just rolled by was the 10-year anniversary of Apocalypso. How do you look back upon that period now?

JH: There’s mixed emotions looking back. I have a great fondness of that entire period and the career we’ve been able to maintain just because of the success of that album and of ‘My People’ – that really was the song that kind of broke it for us. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today and nor would Kim if not for that song and that album and that time. So it’s with real fondness that I look back.

And also, as you get older, you have regrets as well. I wish I enjoyed it more and wasn’t so stressed out at the time. I mean we were younger and hungry, hungry for success and working hard, really chasing something. Sometimes I wish I’d just slowed down and enjoyed it more at the time. But all in all, it’s a real fondness [with which I] look back at those days. And I’m very, very thankful that we’ve managed to keep doing it and people still think our music is relevant in some way.

MF: The Presets have had a long and critically well-regarded career. Where do you see yourselves going from here?

JH: Look, we’ve watched the music industry change so much since we started. It’s moved, it’s changed, and it’s evolved. When we both started there wasn’t any Facebook or Instagram or Soundcloud or Spotify or anything like that. It was a very different world. I think Myspace was just starting out when we started!

It was a very different time and we’ve watched it change. We’ve watched the record industry really go through all sorts of turmoil and change. The way that people consume music has changed so much and just the amount of music that’s out there has changed so much.

I mean there’s just so many more people out there – bands, artists – making music than there were when we both started. So the whole thing’s changed a lot and we’ve been very lucky. And also, we’ve worked hard to maintain some kind of career through it all.

Where we go to from here? I guess we just keep going. We’re still enjoying it, we still like making music. I will say that we are an albums bands but there’s a whole lot of effort and work and time and love and sweat that just goes into making a whole album. And then if it doesn’t really explode, well you know, it’s a whole lot of work that’s kind of gone in and it kind of goes by.

A lot of bands these days obviously they just sort of make songs and singles. If one of them doesn’t really catch fire they just move on to the next one and three months later, they have a new song out. It’s a very different world. 

We might start doing that sort of thing or start doing more collaborations with different people. I don’t know, I think maybe there’s a lot more freedom out there for bands to just try different things and that’s what we’re looking forward to doing next. We’re obviously still making ‘Presets music but also trying some things with other artists, trying some shorter format material, and you know there’ll always be albums as well. It’s a fun time to be a musician.

MF: The Presets have always been pegged as a dance band, but you obviously have this deep love for rock music as well. How do you see it all as fitting together? When you two started out, people in the rock music and dance music camps were quite religiously opposed…    

JH: People pigeonholed us from the beginning as electroclash. That was the electroclash era, that kind of weird, poppy, Avant-rocky, sort of punky dance music you know? Like Miss Kittin and Peaches and that kind of stuff and Chicks On Speed. People sort of put us in with that. And then it was indie bands and then there was the new rave thing that came along. It’s kind of changed over the years but I guess we’ve always been ‘The Presets’.

But yeah, it’s funny. I’ve always loved techno. And I remember when we were making ‘My People’ back in 2006-2007 I remember being backstage at a festival playing in Berlin and seeing Kevin Saunderson DJ, this Detroit DJ. And this music was so great. I remember just seeing it with Kim and saying, “Man, this is what I want my ‘My People’ to sound like. This is what I want I want the next album to feel like!

I’ve sort of wanted to make us a techno band forever! [Laughs] And then Kim is more into the live thing and wanting to make it more rock sounding. And there is The Presets! That’s kind of where it always lands, this weird kind of rock-meets-techno thing. So yeah, it’s interesting. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but it has been interesting to see how we sort of fit in. I mean we’re definitely a dance music band.

MF: Are you working on anything exciting at the moment? Do you have anything cooking that you can share?

JH: We have a few little bits that we’re working on. It’s funny, I would love to tease more than that but I can’t only because – look, we’ve made so many songs over the years and so many ideas we’ve worked on get to a point and we just can’t hit the landing and they end up getting chucked out. Other times we’ve made something we kind of orient to and then by the time we finish it we just don’t like it that much anymore and we throw it away.

To have teased those things before they came out would have been really crappy because people might have been expecting something and then it doesn’t happen. That’s why it takes us four years to make albums, unfortunately. We’ve got a very high-quality threshold. So a long answer is that we’re working on a few different things and hopefully you will hear some new music before Christmas.

But what it is and what it’s going to be? We don’t really know yet because we haven’t really finished anything yet. We’re not really on the downhill stretch with any of it yet so I don’t want to give you any more information than that. But we’re working on a couple of bits and newish, different things.

The Presets will play Snowtunes Festival this August.

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