DANIAL and Kirin J Callinan on life, fatherhood, and art

Hear DANIAL and musical conspirator Kirin J Callinan sit down and skip the small talk. Like jazz or life itself, the best interviews are improvised.

Daniel Stricker, co-founder of Siberia Records – a label you have to thank for Kirin J Callinan and Alex Cameron, among others – is an interesting dude. You might have caught him slapping the tubs for Midnight Juggernauts, or maybe you walked past him and Sebastian Tellier while they were recording an album together in the Greek islands.

Under his solo moniker DANIAL he released Morphin this year, an album written from a hospital bed with painkillers well and truly taking hold of his system. And today Happy Mag premieres the film clip for Sucker, a single from the record.

The footage comes from a family trip Stricker took to what was once Yugoslavia with his wife Jedda Daisy Culley and son, Lucian. A voyage meant to inspire, the photographs and video lay dormant in the cloud until DANIAL dug them up, was washed over by an “infinity cloud of feelings”, and edited the clip together himself.

And now, DANIAL is back in Australia, grounded with the rest of us. With his debut performance of Morphin set to pop off this Friday at The Lansdowne, DANIAL and Kirin J Callinan sat down for a philosophical chat about art, parenthood, growing up, and more.

KIRIN: Your approach and your results to making music is different to anyone else I know, both personally, professionally, and afar. How would you describe [it]?

DANIAL : I think when I’m approaching making music, I try and be very free. I used to not even be so worried about chords and structure, I just try and find the kind of emotion or the visual element of the music. And as time has gone on, I think it’s just because I was kind of a shit musician, like I was alright, and a good drummer. But I was never an incredible musician. I used to play piano as a kid, but I never really pursued it, you know, and so I just did what I could. And through the years, in different circles and the trajectory of my life, when I picked up new skills by working with people, playing in bands, playing with other musicians, and slowly, slowly, it’s all become part of my palette.

And so now I’ll kind of look at the nucleus of something from the chords or the melody. But I think essentially, yes, I look at stuff from the feeling or the moment that it relates to initially and then go from that. The result, though, yeah, you’re right. I think maybe the result is really different from where I start.

KIRIN: Do you mean the result is ambiguous?

DANIAL: It’s crystal clear what it is to me, but then I’ll play it to someone else. And maybe it’s totally different to them. Does that make sense?

KIRIN: Yeah. That’s why I asked this question. Because I genuinely believe [it] seeing your process and hearing the music over the course of your whole career, particularly solo music. It’s unlike anything. It has a really unique sound and feeling and your process, you know, on the floor over here, sort of chipping away at, you know, carving things out in Ableton, an array of stuff going into it. It’s a mystery to me.

DANIAL: It’s almost like some weird chaos. There’s moments and they come together. I worry that if I become too much of a perfectionist that I’m going to lose the feeling in the music. And so when it comes to finishing something, it’s almost like a fear of overriding something. And I think I was maybe a little burnt early on working with different producers in different projects. I always got the feeling like they were trying to smooth stuff out too much. So I’ve kind of gone the opposite way here and now.

I’m in a middle ground these days. I’ve learned a way of kind of dealing with it. But it’s taken me a long time to get here. To me it just sounds very ordinary, very listenable, like very accessible. You know? But maybe it’s the opposite (laughs).

KIRIN: I think you have a penchant for the obtuse and sometimes gravitate towards as much, as I know you’re a lover of pop music, you gravitate towards strange voicings and chords, strange chords together, a left turn with a melody. And that’s interesting.

DANIAL: Do you practice or believe in ESP [extrasensory perception]?

KIRIN: Interesting. You mean psychic powers.

DANIAL: Like, do you think there’s a way to convince someone with the mind? Is that important to your creative process?

KIRIN: I have to say I haven’t given it much thought. You know, people having the same ideas and the same thoughts and, you know, historically that’s sort of like a union. Yeah. Well, you know, it is sort of specific perhaps, within the creative community, people have the same ideas.

But I think especially with the connectedness of things these days online, this happens organically, internationally. That’s it. You know, punk music happened in a roundabout at the same time simultaneously in New York, in London, in Los Angeles, even in Australia and other parts of the world. And you see that happening across artistic mediums. And I’m sure in other walks of life as well, whether it be films being made at the same time about the same thing, or I know for me personally, I’ve had ideas that other people executed better or at least touched on the same themes around the same time without an actual knowledge of that. So in that regard, ESP, I guess you could say leans into that.

Well, with my mother or with my friends, I always feel connected to them remotely, people that I, you know, share an understanding with or exist on a similar wavelength as far as you put it that way.

DANIAL: I remember when you used to wait tables at the Hazelbrook Bowling Club when we had a place up in the mountains and it felt to me almost like an extension of your art form, which you don’t see very often in art. And I feel like maybe the way you use your phone is an extension of your art form. I don’t know if that works into the connectedness aspect that we’re talking about now, whether that’s through algorithms itself or whether that’s through just what you present as a medium. So, all these things, I feel like they’re an extension of your art. Is Brenny a part of your art? I think of you as a conceptual artist. Are you the medium or are you the concept?

KIRIN: That’s interesting. I agree. I’m flattered you think this. You know, I can agree that my practice is day to day, it doesn’t begin and end with my music. In fact, far from it. Such a small part of it, really. Obviously, the clothes we wear is a way of expressing ourselves, but the company you keep, the way you hold yourself, the physicality of the language you use, everything that life is.

Brenny absolutely. As Brenny has been a personal trainer and confidante, honestly, you know, we meet at 6am every morning and meditate together, open up and talk about where we’re at physically, emotionally, spiritually, and beyond. Sometimes, you know, we really talk to ourselves. That has boiled over online and just recently, just last week, into my performance, so no doubt it’s part of the performance of my life, but also the day to day practice.

DANIAL: Are there other artists that you that you look up to or inspire you that have a similar approach to their art? It doesn’t seem like it’s that common?

KIRIN: I mean, I think I’d argue that most artists live that, you know. I suppose an extreme expressiveness of my art in life makes my music suffer a little bit, you know, because the creative energy is poured into literally everything… I buy my smoothie to match my socks. Which is probably just really, really annoying for most people.

DANIAL: When I think of people interacting with music, and coming from my own perspective here, sometimes it has an escapist quality, in relation to the world we live in; the escapism quality of music. Do you agree with this? True or false?

KIRIN: Absolutely. I mean, even just the platform that we consume music on now is algorithm-based. And that surely is just that. Always from the beginning, literally from the first album, Embracism was defining that idea head-on in its title. But you know, it’s a demanding list, as all my records are, to various degrees. As the shows are.

You know, I played the show on Saturday night and it was the sort of “I can’t look away that it could implode at any moment”, keep people on the edge of the seats. The very next day, I got a call from our mutual friend Julian, who told me that the night he booked up at the pub had fallen through.

And so what would I be up to? Just improvising 40 minutes with a handful of musicians up at the pub. So I went up there and we played, sort of improvised, quite mellow new wave music. You can play quite digestible background music and people love you. People were coming up afterwards. And, you know, it had a bit of colour and flair in and out. But for the most part, it was just like a just a nice wash of wash of chords and notes.

I was nothing, it was saying nothing. Yeah. And that allowed people to interpret it or just enjoy it for what it was rather than having – you know, there was no lyrics, there was no confrontational element to it whatsoever.

My take on that would be this year basically. I think most people’s reaction to this year is exactly that metaphor, like, in some ways this year’s forced people to look ahead on lots of things. But then when you’re out, you know, just having a good time, it’s the last thing in the world you want to think about. And that’s fair enough. I mean, I definitely make music for this and I really enjoy music that that pulls me in and demands to be, you know, ‘pay attention to this’. Bombast and originality, but also nuance. But it’s understandable that people… you know, they can’t be expected to give a shit.

DANIAL: It reminds me of when I did this record, my own record, I was in hospital for a week and it was probably the first time in my life I had no choice but to look at stuff. I mean, I could have just watched TV, but I made a conscious decision and I was like, okay, I’m going to just stare down the barrel of whatever. But I wonder what that’s like for the audience. You know? Like for me, it was this incredible spiritual growth. But then you put that out into the world. Does that inspire people?

KIRIN: You just can’t really worry about it and you just make it and make what you make. If it connects with people en masse, fantastic, it means something to people. Fantastic, it comes to represent something, whatever that might be. And if it doesn’t, no harm, no foul. You know, nothing lost.

DANIAL: Maybe I’ve learned this through artists like yourself – not just you, but others like yourself – that if you do something really honest and you put it into the world, it’s really powerful, you know, because honesty is a quality. I believe in our society that we’ve lost a little bit, especially with social media and how we portray ourselves. But I’m not saying that when you look at Kirin J Callinan on an Instagram post, what you’re seeing is the honest truth, you know, there’s always this kind of brutal honesty. And I was working on that record. I wasn’t thinking about it too much, to be honest. I was feeling pretty upside down, like painkillers. And I think what happened was I was forced to be honest, you know, and when you listen back to that, there’s a kind of brutal honesty to that. That’s powerful in any art to me.

KIRIN: Yeah, but there’s no absolute truth. Honesty can be played with by someone. There’s truth in fiction for sure. By and by, that can be where the honesty lies as well.

DANIAL: Well, religion, isn’t that some kind of fable? I guess that’s fabricated honesty… anyway, I digress massively.

KIRIN: This is my second question I have written down. I know you were planning to move to Paris early this year in order to work more closely with Sebastian Tellier. But this was postponed indefinitely for obvious reasons. How does this affect your output? And upon reflection, are you satisfied?

DANIAL: Well, yes this is correct. I was meant to move to Paris on the second of April. And obviously everything that happened two weeks before changed those plans indefinitely. At the time, my immediate reaction was, oh, fuck, you know, because I saw this big opportunity to tour in the band, to support the gigs for my own stuff. I just finished my record.

But now when I look at it and even look into the future, I’m actually happy with the end result because I think from a creative perspective there’s so much more I’ve not only learned, but so much more I can draw from now. I think this year, I’m sure lots of people find this, allowed me to be still. And I look at the creation of this record. I was in a hospital for 10 days. It kind of foreshadowed what was to come. I was only still for 10 days. But this year I was forced to be still for a whole year. These opportunities, they don’t disappear. You know, I think if I was to go now, if the opportunity presented itself to say, oh, would you move with your whole family to Paris? I probably wouldn’t do it. I might want to just stay here for a bit because I feel like I’m in a good creative space. And if I go, if I have to move everything, I’ll kind of fuck with that flow.

I think I have to just fulfil this journey I’m on whether it leads to rags [or] riches, you know what I’m saying?

So, yes, there was that opportunity. I think Sebastien Tellier, also John Kirby, other musicians I have done stuff with and continue to do stuff with, there’s always a space to work with those people. And we’ll continue to work with those people and do all the wonderful things we do. You know, the work with Sebastian came about and all of a sudden I went to a Greek island to record with him out of nowhere. It wasn’t like it was this big plan. It just popped up, you know, a month before. And of course I went and that was where I got married in Greece, you know, while doing this record. So I think the easiest way to answer that question is that if you can live your life like jazz, like completely improvise, kind of like what we used to do with those fashion launches. The closer that you can live your life to being completely improvised, the better.

KIRIN: Good to know, because I’ve been improvising pretty hard for a long time (laughs).

DANIAL: I think you have a pretty good life, you’re a nomad. And I think that’s good. I mean, you tell me, is that a good way to live your life from the outside?

KIRIN: No, not really. But I would say I’d say I’m a happy person and and I’m lucky enough to even be able to make people happy around me as well. And I have lots of friends around the world that have great minds. So, yeah, I’m incredibly lucky, I consider myself the luckiest person on the face of the planet.

You mentioned something earlier leading to another question. I know you probably have some more you wanted to ask me, but you mentioned you got married and I wanted to ask you – you know, there might be this perception out there that having kids in your life is destructive as an artist. You have two kids. Has being married and having children impacted your output and and your artistic career positively or negatively?

DANIAL: I think when we decided to have kids, it was kind of how I approached everything in my life at the time. And that was almost like jazz, you know, I was like, ‘yeah, cool, this would be fun’, not even thinking too much what it meant.

And then there was a bit of a rude shock. When you have a child, I think you realise for the first time in your life that you have to let go of your ego, like your ego has to die a bit. It’s the death of an ego. Actually, I listened to this Grimes song the other day off her new record. It’s all about her understanding ego death, having a child and understanding the death of ego. But I think it opens you up to more creativity. Well for me personally. I think it’s different for each person.

Maybe in some ways I pivoted from one artistic expression to another. One artistic expression was raising that child. I started doing Siberia Records and actually got pretty involved in your story. And I think it was because I could put one part of my personal life into a human being and the creativity that goes along with that, and one part of my creativity into your career, but your career was less personal in a way. I was very involved creatively, in a sense, but it was less personal. And then maybe when my kids grew up a bit, I found I could really tune in to me and that’s kind of the output I’m doing at the moment.

KIRIN: I don’t have kids as you know… I get to spend a lot of time with your children, I see the way you interact with them as far as a father and then also as an artist. And you’re an inspiration, both you and Jedda, your kids, because I would have thought when I was younger, ‘I can’t have kids. I have too many things I want to achieve’. And there’s some truth to that, of course. But I see the way you guys are with your children and it makes you go, ‘if I had kids, wouldn’t that just be wonderful’.  I have this amazing little thing, blob, but it would contextualise my life choices and contextualise the work I make.

It would – like you said, ego death – remove my own, ideally remove some narcissistic motivations and replace them with the more wholesome motivations of doing this for someone else. And it’s obviously an economical point of view. I’ve got to feed them and clothe them. But also as a spiritual inspiration, as a legacy. I think it would contextualise my work beautifully and I can’t wait to get started.

DANIAL: Yeah, well, your next project. I could see that that working for you.

KIRIN: I don’t think maybe for everyone, but I think in the broader topics that we’ve been talking about, it makes a lot of sense.

DANIAL: It might not increase your artistic output. It might make it harder for you to make more, but maybe, maybe the quality will change. I’m not saying better or worse, but it’ll have more colour.

KIRIN: Interesting, I think. I don’t know, maybe. I’m excited.

DANIAL: I’ve known you since you were basically an underage kid, 17 maybe. I saw you play your first gig and I saw you play the other night. I felt like the other night you almost grew up a little bit. Maybe you grew up a little bit over the past year. Do you think that’s a true or false statement?

KIRIN: 100%. Whatever the cause, I’m not sure. I feel like in the past I’ve got away with gallivanting around the world and charming people with my character and charisma, but not having to be too present ultimately, or learn. Accountable. I have many, many friends, but I feel like sometimes it’s few and far between that they might really know me or that will go through tough times. Sometimes I just pack up and go. Unless they’re someone near and dear to me, it’s like, well, I’m just going to move on. I’m not going to put a lot of energy in to try to mend something that’s broken rather than just keep moving. And I think that’s a strength, but also a bit of a character flaw as well.

I got to be, I guess, diligent with who I choose to work hard on and who not to, because otherwise you lose, as we all do here. But this year… the longest I’ve been in a place for a very long time, probably since I was 21. Years of touring and traveling around the world doing various projects and whatever else has been great. But I’ve had to come to face myself a bit more. Going to the gym is as much about the physical aspect of it as it is to maintain the motion. It’s showing up for them, not for myself either. It’s about accountability and integrity, saying you meet at 6am and you have to bond with the group and hold space for each other. And again, I don’t know, for better or worse.

But I look at myself in the mirror and I feel like I have aged this year. I see the lines on my face. And maybe that’s a beautiful thing. I certainly wouldn’t change anything. It’s been difficult year but one that’s full of growth. You know, it’s November now, I think back to March, April when I was living here in this house with you guys… I was in such a different headspace.

DANIAL: But doesn’t that show you ‘I can get to this spot’, and so if you ever get to that point again, you can look back at that situation; ‘I was here and I got help’. Yes, it’ll be OK.

KIRIN: Oh, absolutely.

DANIAL: I reckon that’s actually a good comparison to raising kids or having kids, because it’s all a bit of out of your control.


Catch DANIAL performing his new album Morphin for the first time on Fri 27 Nov at The Lansdowne, Sydney. Tickets are available here.