The interview has been delayed a number of times. I’m sitting around with an eye on my phone, when a text comes in apologising for the delay and promising the connection will come soon. The man I’m waiting to speak to is Johnny Took, songwriter and one third of the band DMA’s. If you haven’t heard of them by now, you will do soon. Clearly, he is a man in high demand.
DMA’s began only a few years earlier when three friends from Sydney combined to form a trio that have stormed the stages worldwide and gobbled up airtime on triple J and BBC Radio 1 like ravenous fiends. At the centre though is a focus on song writing that negates all the hype that they have received over the last couple of years. It is purely about the songs for them, and everything that follows is a bonus.
Howl & Echoes got to have a chat with chief songwriter and guitarist Johnny Took where he laid out the beginnings for their highly anticipated debut album Hills End, the virtues of recording on shitty equipment and heartbreak, and the merits of getting kicked out of your flat…
Hey Johnny, how are you doing?
Mate, what’s crackin’?
Been busy with interviews, huh?
Yeah [laughs]. It’s cool though, I don’t mind them actually to be honest. I’m always talking to new people and it’s cool. That’s one of my favourite things to do- I like meeting new people.
I’ve been listening to your new record, it’s awesome man.
Ah, you got sent it?
Yeah, I got it in the press release the other week so I’ve given it a good listen, it’s great.
Thank you. Were there any songs on it that you loved particularly?
Probably Step Up The Morphine.
Oh wow- fuck yeah, that makes me so happy. It makes me glad that that track really resonates with you.
Yeah there’s something about that song, it sounds really personal.
Yeah, it’s about my Grandma dying.
[Laughs] No, it’s one of those things. It’s the first time I’ve ever had someone in my family fucking die. It makes you start thinking about lots of things. What’s actually going down, whether what you’re doing is worth it- all those kind of things. It really makes you think. Obviously I don’t know your personal experience, but I’ve never had someone die in my family before. I think it is something that everyone can relate to.
It’s a great album but that song particularly stuck out for me. I’m all about the lyrics and they’re really evocative in that one.
Thank you man, that means a lot.
I want to go into detail with you about the new record. I read it was recorded in your flat, what was the atmosphere like while you were recording it? Was it loose and free flowing…
[Laughs] yeah. I mean, what do you mean by loose?
Was it, “We’ll do a bit then we’ll chill and get back to it later,” or was it quite structured and you set yourselves certain times to do it?
It started off like that. We did the bones of it in the studio in Coogee, which was maybe a little bit better than my bedroom set up. Mate, it was alright but it wasn’t great. So we got most of that done, but to be honest heaps of the songs… There’s a song called Blown Away, the whole thing of it was recorded like four years ago, using the worst amps you’ve ever heard and the shittiest fucking microphones you’ve ever heard. But then we just gave it to a really experienced mixer and he made it badass. You know what though, maybe you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on recording gear. It sounds just as good as some of the other tunes on the album and we had way better gear to record them on.
Yeah, I read about that. I read that you used a lot of old demos to make up the bones of the record. Was it a weird process going back to them and making something new or creating something a bit more out of them?
Nah, it was actually one of the best things I’ve ever done. We have a song called Straight Dimensions and it sounded pretty rat-shit to be honest for a long time. Then Tommy [O’Dell] was like, “Hey Johnny, do you have that recording we did for the demos?” And I was like, “Yeah dude, we do.” So then we looked at it and it was at exactly the same tempo three years earlier, so I just grabbed the audio file and pasted it on top of what we’d done at the studio, and all of a sudden it sounded like the song was meant to sound. We threw those shitty sounding guitars in and it made it [laughs]. I think it’s important to have that thing in there though.
It’s interesting, because in an interview you said you specifically didn’t want to go into a big studio because you were worried you might lose the vulnerability in your sound. Why is that important to you as a band?
Well, I think vulnerability strikes emotion. At the times when I’ve been revisiting all of the most bizarre things that’s going on in my mind, or going through my heart, that’s when I’ve been at my most vulnerable. Actually these situations where you are at your most empathetic, when you are at your most vulnerable, are the situations that every single person in this fucking world goes through.
I feel like today when lots of music isn’t written like that and people’s attention spans are pretty short, I think that’s what people want to hear. I reckon it will shock people to hear a song that hits so close to home and it freaks them out a bit.
I couldn’t agree more.
You know what dude, that’s why I listen to music. I don’t listen to it to hear some dude create a new genre- to create some new musical thing that I’ve never heard, I don’t give a fuck about that. It isn’t why I started playing music, it isn’t why I started writing music, and it isn’t why I listen to music. I don’t want something that’s shallow, music to me is about emotion. It’s not about transcending genres or any of that shit. For me, I just want to hear a song that makes me want to bawl my fucking eyes out. It should make you feel alive too, you know. From one extreme to the other, that’s why I write music and that’s why we as a band write music. We don’t give a fuck about that shit, we just want someone to listen to our song and let it resonate with them. That’s so important to us.
For me personally, my Granddad died of cancer and when I was listening to the song Step Up The Morphine, it captured that situation so well and just brought all of those emotions back.
100%. Mate, that makes me so happy you said that. My condolences for you Grandpa though. I remember visiting my Grandma in Adelaide, because that’s where all my family are from, and we went down there and she was pretty much… She’d been on morphine for maybe seven days and she died two days later. That’s what the Step Up The Morphine reference was about.
She was very Christian, a very old school woman. All she wanted to do was go to heaven. She just wanted to move on, getting pumped with morphine. It made me think about life. There is a line in the song where it goes, “Caught in the heavens, planning a new one, taking the sky.” That was a tip of the hat to her.
It’s clear lyrics mean a lot to you, I know you’ve cited Bob Dylan and Van Morrison as influences, but was there any certain thing that grasped you and made you want to write your own words?
With me and writing lyrics personally?
I don’t know, to be honest. I couldn’t sing a tune when I was in high school. I was almost tone deaf. I was almost 16 and I had books of poetry and because I couldn’t sing, I secretly got singing lessons in high school. So I started singing and that’s when I properly started writing songs and paying attention to the words. I still don’t like hearing my voice, but at least I can sing a song like Step Up or Blown Away. I can get the initial idea down.
Our singer Tommy used to be a painter, not like Van Gough or some shit [laughs].
Like a decorator?
Yeah. He used to do heaps of memos at work. While he was at work doing that, we’d pretty much record the whole song; acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and then a few electrics. It sounded uninspired at that point, but then Tommy would come in and it would redeem the whole idea.
I read a press release that said Tommy wasn’t initially the singer in the band, it was discovered organically. What was the plan before you realised he could sing so well?
We never fucking thought of it, man. It was very organic the way it happened. Basically I was in a psych band with Tommy, I was the bass player and he was the drummer. I remember one time during rehearsal Tommy asked a question singing. I heard him sing the line and thought, “Holy shit.” He has an amazing voice. Later on he came over to my flat in Newtown and I was recording a folk song. It’s called Tainted, we’ve never played it again but I’ve still got the recording. It was the first song where he heard his voice recorded.
I played it back to him and he was like, “Tooky mate, do I really sound like that?” And I was like “yeah, dude.” He was pretty blown away and ever since then we were on our way. I think secretly he always wanted to be a singer, but he just didn’t know he wanted to do it. Then we wrote tunes and recorded them. He lived in my flat for like a year and a half and we just wrote songs every day. I would write during the day and pretty much get the whole song ready, then he would finish work at 3:30pm and he’d come and record vocal takes.
That sounds great.
Yeah, it was some of the fondest times of my life.
Have you moved out of that place now or are you still in it? Is it still like that when you want to make new music?
Nah, it’s fucked man. I got evicted from that place. It was above a clothing store so I used to wake up every morning to house music blaring [laughs]. I used to wake up fucked and that was all I could hear, but we got Blown Away out of it.
I really like that song, it’s a great hazy ballad.
Cheers man, thank you. The drum take of that song was taken from in my bedroom. Then like 30-35 seconds in, we got the call from the arsehole downstairs. He used to call up like “Keep that fucking noise down!” We only recorded 30 seconds of it, but we used it anyway. That’s how we do it; we’re not one of those bands that goes “Aww” about a perfect take, fuck that. There’s more important things to music than just if the drums are played perfectly.
Within the band is it a competitive thing when you’re writing songs, where you try to better each other, or is it not that kind of dynamic at all?
I think maybe initially it may have been. I think if someone brought something in, maybe not competitively, but it would move you on in ways because you were inspired to write new stuff. After a while it becomes your life, and quickly it’s all encompassing.
I didn’t see [Matt] Mason for a month or so after we came back from a six or seven month tour and we just kind of went into our own space. I went over the other day and it was the first time in a long time. We had a couple of glasses of wine and we started playing music together again. To be honest, I had been feeling a little insecure about some of the songs I’d done recently. I wasn’t feeling great about it. I played one in particular to Mason, it was a slower one because I’ve been writing a lot of ballads recently, and he just came over and gave me a hug. He fucking gave me a hug and that was great because you’re never really sure how people are going to respond to your songs. It meant a lot that he did that.
He said, “John, you’ve been playing a lot of piano recently, what have you been playing?” So I played him this song and he didn’t say anything- he just came over and gave me a hug. It hasn’t got a title yet but that’s the kind of shit that I know is going to keep this band together for a long time.
That’s one of the biggest strengths of your band I think. Some of the songs seem so personal and heartfelt like Blown Away, Melbourne and Step Up tTe Morphine.
Well, the whole reason this band started was because Tommy and I were sort of going through a similar thing. He doesn’t write lyrics, but he does sing. I think the main thing was he resonated with the lyrics I was writing because we were in the same situation. It’s like having your heart broken for the first time. We were at a mate of ours the other day and he was going through it and we were like, “You poor fucking bastard.” Everyone goes through it though and it can be horrible and it does change people. It changed me and it changed Tommy. It’s one of the main reasons why we started doing this. When it comes to music and it can get quite emotional and real like that, I think it is best to be honest about it.
Yeah, that’s true mate.
I think it’s the reason why we love to have a laugh and take the piss a bit and wear fucking chains. We’re just having fun and it’s what we like to wear, but at the same time everyone is going through the same shit. And if you’re not feeling any of the stuff we sing about in our songs, you’re probably in fucking denial. If you haven’t had your heart broken before, I feel sorry for you. Yes it’s horrible, but at the same time it’s something I think you need to go through in order to grow. It’s what makes you who you are.
Hills End is released via I Oh You on February 26th.
DMA’s 2016 Australian Tour Dates:
Friday 27 May: The Zoo, Brisbane
Friday 3 June: Fat Controller, Adelaide
Saturday 4 June: The Rosemount, Perth
Friday 10 June: The Metro, Sydney
Saturday 11 June: The Corner, Melbourne
Saturday 28 May: The Big Pineapple, Sunshine Coast QLD