Damian Cowell talks music, life and masks

Damian Cowell is a veteran of the Australian music scene. While the name may not be familiar, you have undoubtedly heard some of his music. From 1982 to 2004 he was an integral part of TISM, being part of the team responsible for such hits as (He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River (aka “I’m on the drug that killed River Phoenix”) and Shut Up – The Footy’s On The Radio (which saw a lot of air time on both Triple M and Triple J).

Most recently Damian has been involved in a project dubbed Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine. The band released a self titled album in 2015, while the latest offering Get Yer Dag On! came out this month. He is also beginning a short tour with Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine during the next few months.

Even though he is a busy man Damian took time out to answer some questions about his new band, himself, and the required TISM related queries.

Damian Cowell's Disco Machine

ML: To start with, for those uninitiated with the band, can you give an overview of what Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine (DCDM) is?

DC: Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine is the kind of music you need when you’ve been in meetings all day with people whose job is not to actually do anything other than be in meetings all day. Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine is the kind of music you need when you’ve been standing in a paddock all day listening to fragile, haunting, profound indie folk, yet all you sense is a lingering aroma of horseshit.

ML: So, why disco?

DC: Disco, to me, means dance music that isn’t cool.

ML: DCDM’s first album came out in February 2015, while the latest album Get Yer Dag On! came out this month. Can you explain a little about the new album? How is it different to the previous one?

DC: The first DCDM album came about after a protracted period of listening to full on 70s disco, so you can occasionally hear it in the bass lines and the manic violin parts, whereas with Get Yer Dag On! I widened my pre-writing inspiration to include non-cool dance music from the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Basically, music I like to jig around like a fuckwit to. There are bigger choruses, more hooks, cheesier synth lines. It’s much closer to my original band’s predilections, only where my original band had a frantic martial tempo the whole time, the grooves on Get Yer Dag On! are slower and funkier, in keeping with where I am as a person these days – well, I dunno about funkier, but I’m definitely slower.

ML: What were you hoping to achieve with this new album? Which songs on the new album are you most happy with?

DC: I was actually hoping that, after this album came out, people would never again need to use the phrase ‘ex-TISM’. But then again, I also hope to wake up one morning after a night of beer and pizza and discover that I’ve got thinner. I can’t comment on the album’s better songs, because I’ve been working on them for 18 months and I’m completely immune to their qualities. There are little bits that still leap out of the mix and make it all seem worthwhile however, like Ryan Adamson’s bass fills on Can’t Stop The Music, or the way Bek Chapman and Emily Jarrett’s voices hang in the ether after the word ‘remuneration’ on Peachy – these are the small delights for me.

Damian Cowell's Disco Machine

ML: On DCDM’s first album there was a selection of guest contributors. The guest list has grown considerably on Get Yer Dag On! Did this make it easier or harder when putting it together?

DC: It’s a fucking nightmare. I don’t know what I was thinking, asking all those people. Is it an addiction? Quite probably. Once I got two, I needed three. Once I’d got nine I needed ten. It was like collecting plastic spacemen from inside Corn Flakes packets. My Mum had to stop me from surreptitiously shoving three extra boxes of Corn Flakes into the trolley just as she was paying the check-out lady.

ML: What inspired the DCDM ‘format’ of inviting guests to contribute to disco-esque songs?

DC: It started when I was listening to Plastic Beach by Gorillaz. The way Damon Albarn slunk around in the background, while all these stars were in the foreground, yet it still had his recognisable, at times good, at times annoying, stamp to it. Of course I was listening to Mark Ronson as well, and Calvin Harris, and that type of thing. It’s hardly an unusual practice, to get guest vocalists. But in the case of your sorta male-model-ski-instructor DJ types, like your fucken Calvins, your Ronsons, your Guettas, the songs are catchy and all that, but you kind of feel like they came out of a Corn Flakes packet, if I could toss a little self-allusion in there. (Not to be confused with self-delusion, which is the real reason for this entire album, and the continuing state of my career.) I wanted it to sound like me, but often not coming from me.

ML: Who are you most surprised agreed to participate in the new album?

DC: Henry Rollins, of course. Because he’s from ‘over there’, and I hadn’t imagined he’d heard of me, or be in any way familiar with my work. But he was, which was a little surprising, I have to say.

Damian Cowell's Disco Machine

ML: You crowdfunded this new album, as well as the last one. Why have you decided to go with crowdfunding? What benefits does it provide?

DC: I am not so deluded that I would go into massive debt in the hope that everyone would buy my record and come to my shows and everything would be alright. Crowdfunding basically keeps me in existence. Well, in a public sense. It allows me to plan my next move according to the level of funding. I would never do shows with a big band like this unless I had the budget beforehand. Without crowdfunding, we wouldn’t be chatting now.

ML: What does DCDM offer to those who come and see it live that no other band offers?

DC: We’re not debilitated by ‘coolness’. While I mean that answer in all its lazy brevity, there is a more detailed explanation. There’s a lot of dance music around at the moment which has the appropriately energising beats per minute, but an enervated air about it. I call it the ‘can’t be fucked’. It’s often in the vocals. The singer sounds either ‘can’t be fucked’ or depressed. Dance music that’s depressed? It ought to be a paradox. I think it’s coolness. Nobody seems to want to scream and shout and jump around and carry on. It’s like they’re playing ironic dance music. Coolness before abandon. The ‘can’t be fucked’.

Well, you won’t find anything ‘can’t be fucked’ about the Disco Machine live. I appreciate that people who come to shows have to endure the travel to and fro, finding a parking spot, the inflated bar prices, the increasing ache of their feet on the unforgiving venue floor, the annoying fuckwit who plonks right in front of them and sways from side to side, obscuring their view of the stage – they have worked hard for this show. To get up, like most performers do, with the attitude of: “I’m great. I’m going to do whatever the fuck I feel like, because it’s your privilege, not mine” is a direct personal insult to everyone in the room.

So I strive to make our live show so upbeat, silly, eye-catching, that you will forget your troubles – maybe even for the rest of the night. There’s too much for your eyes to take in: forget about me, there’s two beautiful women with fabulous voices doing very silly dance routines. Our guitarist is a show unto himself. And if that’s not enough – and I don’t think it should be enough – there are video clips for every song, so that even if you don’t know the words, you can sing along. And when you are singing along, you might notice that the words aren’t the sort of words normally associated with dance music.

So that’s a little extra flavour for you to think about later. That’s what you get when you see the Disco Machine. Giant stadium-sized shows in small venues. It’s the least you deserve as an audience.

Damian Cowell, quite young

ML: What is it like performing with the rest of Damien Cowell’s Disco Machine, especially when compared to your previous bands?

DC: I wish they had been around when I was 20.

ML: Speaking of previous bands, mandatory TISM-related questions time. You must have known it was coming. Is it more or less restricting, either in a literal or metaphorical sense, now that you aren’t wearing the mask?

DC: It’s less restricting, but that’s a massive generalisation. I was in a famous band without ever having to worry about how cool I looked. That was a massive advantage, and undoubtedly helped me be more true to myself. However, I was only being partially myself, because I was part of a collective with a collective mindset. Now – it’s me. And I still don’t have to worry about being cool, because – well – have you seen me lately?

ML: What do you think whenever you see a band trying the mask shtick?

DC: I have to persuade myself that TISM were better than the shit gimmick for which most people remember them.

ML: Let’s move away from TISM and talk about you. Has age tempered the songs you write at all? Or are your songs even more politically, socially and culturally charged?

DC: Some of the lyrics I wrote for TISM weren’t that great. I’m a much better lyricist now. I don’t expect anyone to give a shit about that, but it’s important to me to keep improving. These days I also roam further in moods – some of my lyrics are wistful or melancholic, in amongst the silliness – sometimes all at the same time. These days I’m less likely to point the finger at others. I write in the first person, because I’m as fucked and shallow and venal as anybody. But that doesn’t mean age has necessarily tempered me. ‘I smell M.A.N’ is pretty out there.

Damian Cowell

ML: You are almost exclusively known for ‘fun’ or ‘novelty’ songs. Are you annoyed that you painted yourself into a corner? How do you think your fans would react if you released something serious or heartfelt?

DC: OK Matt, you used a couple of interesting phrases there. Whereas ‘fun’ is a neutral term, ‘novelty’ is a pejorative term which implies something worthless, ephemeral, loud and showy yet by its nature soon to be obsolescent. Something by ‘Crazy Frog’, for instance, might be considered a novelty song. A song that is definitively of a moment, ever more to be referred to as a curio, in a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ way. Does this apply to TISM? I’d say if you disliked the idea of TISM, or you weren’t aware there was much else going on other than masks and swearing, you’d call their music ‘novelty’. And believe me, many have. Another phrase you’ve used, “painted yourself into a corner” is an emotive phrase which implies that the protagonist does not wish to be there, or is not in an ideal place.

If you were to use the phrase “Are you annoyed that you have maintained a consistent focus” it implies a completely different bias, yet is essentially the same question. No-one would ask Nick Cave if he was annoyed at painting himself into a corner because he was exclusively known for serious lyrical themes. It would seem nonsensical. That’s because popular opinion regards something which is ‘fun’ (we’ll leave out ‘novelty’, if we can just puff up my self-importance for a moment) as a less worthy artistic endeavour than something ‘serious’. I understand this, but I don’t agree with it. I like ‘fun’ music, but I often yearn for there to be a twist, or something you can get your teeth into, amongst the fun.

That’s what I try to do. I don’t always succeed, but it’s what I attempt. It’s extremely difficult to do, and if you can pull it off, it’s twice the artistic achievement of something that is one dimensionally – there’s my pejorative term – serious. Contrary to your suggestion, I have included such one-dimensionally serious and/or heartfelt songs on almost every one of the albums I’ve done since TISM. On ROOT!’s Surface Paradise there’s Home, which is a song about loss, among other things. On the DC3’s May Contain Traces Of Nut there’s Something Good which is not in the slightest bit ironic or mocking.

On the same album Being is bleakness personified, and Market Forces is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. On the Vs. Art album I did for MONA in 2011, the majority of themes explored are serious in nature, including despair, love, self-hatred and nostalgic longing. How would my fans react? Well, I haven’t seen any particular controversy or complaints. I’ve had a few compliments, which is very encouraging, but you won’t find much evidence of it on my current Disco Machine album, and that’s deliberate, because I believe my listeners deserve better than me being lazy and one-dimensional.

Am I suggesting that some purveyors of ‘serious’ music might be lazy and one-dimensional? Geez, that’s an extreme claim – I wouldn’t do that, would I…?

Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine is touring nationally, appearing in Melbourne on 4 March, Sydney on 10 March and Brisbane on 11 March. Get Yer Dag On! is out now on the Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine website.

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