Music

Stories from the road, second album nerves and disco vibes: a chat with DMA’s

DMA’s have been absolutely killing it for the last three years. Since the 2015 release of their debut self-titled EP, the Sydney lads have released a full-length record, scored a slot in the top 10 of triple j’s Hottest 100, and played some of the globe’s biggest stages.

Just days before the release of their second full-length album For Now and days after the announcement they’d be playing Splendour, we sat down with Johnny Took at the Newtown Hotel to sink a couple of VBs and chat about the new album, life on the road, their iconic fashion sense, and everything in between.

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Photos: Dani Hansen

“We’re just a bunch of everyday motherfuckers trying to play some music”: We chat with DMA’s just before the release of their sophomore album, For Now.

HAPPY: Hey man, cheers for sitting down with us.

JOHNNY: Pleasure, pleasure.

HAPPY: So it’s been over two years now since Hills End, and the new record, For Now, is just about to drop… are there any nerves or apprehensions about releasing the second album?

JOHNNY: Umm yeah, a little bit. Maybe because I feel like some of the songs are kind of growers… you know what I mean? Even In The Air, I think was a bit of a grower.

HAPPY: How do you monitor something like that, as the songwriter?

JOHNNY: I think just from playing the songs to friends and stuff… I think we’re all really happy with all the tracks on there and we know they’re good songs, but I reckon we’ll really know in ten months time, you know? But at the same time, it’s really exciting to just get it out there… because I don’t think anyone in the band has ever made it to a second record before.

HAPPY: Have you been playing any of the new tracks live overseas? Have you had any way to gauge a reception yet?

JOHNNY: Yeah there’s a song called Emily Whyte which we were playing, and then we were doing Dawning and In The Air… but yeah we’ve only just kinda learned them all now.

HAPPY: That’ll come in handy…

JOHNNY: (Laughs) Yeah it’s pretty handy. But nah, we’re really excited.

HAPPY: So before Hills End even came out, you had like over 50 tracks already written…

JOHNNY: Yeah, we actually wrote them all about three doors down from here (The Newtown Hotel), which is where this all kind of started.

HAPPY: Is this new album made up from that same collection of early songs?

JOHNNY: A little bit, yep. Some of the songs are nearly Delete-era, which was when Mason was 19… which is like fuckin’ nine, ten years ago…

HAPPY: So there’s still a bit of that really early material on this new album?

JOHNNY: Yep, yep, totally. There’s also tunes like The End that I wrote maybe a year and a half ago, so it’s a nice mix.

HAPPY: I’ve had a listen to the record, and with a song like The End, it’s got these mad disco vibes going on. We know that Kim Moyes (The Presets) produced it – is this something he brought to the table?

JOHNNY: Yep, yep, he brought that to The End… it still was electronic, and that’s the whole reason I played it to him, because it wasn’t going to make the album, and when we went up to The Grove (Recording Studio) to do the first two tracks, Dawning and In The Air, we were kind of getting to know Kim…

HAPPY: So you didn’t know him prior to this?

JOHNNY: No, not really… like we’d met up and had meetings about potentially working with each other and stuff… but we didn’t really know him, no. But as we were getting to know him up at The Grove and what not, I was like “hey dude, I’ve got this kind of electronic song that I’d like to show you,” you know, I was just curious to see what he thought… and he fucking loved it.

HAPPY: So how much of an impact do you think Kim’s had on the record as a whole?

JOHNNY: It’s just been great to have someone with kind of experience to be able to balance off of. And he’s pretty cut-throat.

HAPPY: How so?

JOHNNY: Like, he doesn’t bullshit you. He’ll tell you if he thinks it’s good, he’ll tell you if he thinks it’s crap… and that’s exactly the kind of person we needed… when us three have different ideas, we’ll ask Kim and he’ll give us an honest answer. He doesn’t owe us anything. It’s not like he likes one of us better than the other, you know what I mean? He’ll just give his honest opinion.

HAPPY: Is there ever a feeling of frustration when you’ve got an idea you’re really set on, and it doesn’t get used?

JOHNNY: Yeah, yeah, definitely sometimes. But most of the time, you’ve gotta trust who you’re working with. And if collectively, everyone thinks that something’s the right move, I’m gonna trust that, and I think everyone else trusts that.

HAPPY: How much of an input do the live band play in this decision making, if any?

JOHNNY: Yeah well that’s actually one thing that’s been different. There is a live band we’ve had on for a while now, so it’s been great to have them involved on the record. It’s good to have multiple guitar players on a record. It’s different tones, a different way they play just from being a different human being. It really takes it from two-dimensional to three-dimensional.

HAPPY: A bigger sound.

JOHNNY: Yep, totally. And I think it’s really important that everyone was involved for us moving forward, and for us as a live band.

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HAPPY: You’ve spent a lot of time overseas – particularly the UK – have you ever felt any pressure trying to appeal to a broader, international audience? Has it affected the way you write at all?

JOHNNY: Not really. I’ve never thought about it like that.

HAPPY: It’s never been a consideration?

JOHNNY: Well, the way I think about it is that it wasn’t a consideration when we first started as a band, because no one knew us, and we’d never played a gig – we’d never released anything. And all that’s gone pretty well so far.

HAPPY: Do you think you’ve remained authentic in that way?

JOHNNY: Yeah. I think you’ve just gotta trust your instinct. I think it’s more what kind of music I’m listening to that influences things more.

HAPPY: I remember when you first began as a band, you expressed concerns that people might turn on you… that they’d feel like you were being “shoved in their faces” – it’s pretty safe to say now that this hasn’t been the case – but as a band with hype behind you, how do you maintain this feeling of authenticity?

JOHNNY: Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with the way your team and stuff are working and promoting it. Like you’re not going to complain about radio play – radio play is great. But even stuff like… we’ve just done some murals around Sydney, and we did one down on the side of The Lansdowne, and it’s the album cover but it doesn’t have the name on it.

HAPPY: It’s a bit more subtle…

JOHNNY: Yeah, I think there classier ways to do things. We all saw how it backfired with U2 when they just put their album on everybody’s phone – that’s not cool. Like, what the fuck is this on my phone?

HAPPY: How did that Lansdowne mural come about? I just saw it the other day, it’s sick…

JOHNNY: Yeah so we worked our mate Jamie, a local artist did it, and we’d never worked with him before…

HAPPY: Is it going to stay there?

JOHNNY: Well yeah, we’ve been thinking about going and tagging it. One thing I like about that abum cover is you can draw faces on us. Like when we’re signing records, you can draw angry Tommy and shit.

HAPPY: Makes record signings more entertaining…

JOHNNY: Yeah it’s heaps funny.

HAPPY: How much of a consideration is the visual element to you guys?

JOHNNY: Yeah. I think because we’re a three piece and we’re into similar stuff… that helps. Like the reason that the mural works, is you could go past that and, if you’re aware of the band, you could still know it’s DMA’s, without having to put the name all fucking over it. But yeah, I’ve been speaking to a lot of other musicians and they all say we’ve got a very particular dress sense, and style of music we like, and attitude – I guess it helps. But we’re all pretty straight up dudes, man. That’s what people like about us. We’re not trying to be anything crazy – we’re just a bunch of everyday motherfuckers trying to play some music.

HAPPY: So before DMA’s you guys used to play in bluegrass bands, right?

JOHNNY: Not Tommy, but yeah, me and Mason played lots of bluegrass music, yeah.

HAPPY: And apparently you still you used to wear the same style of clothing at these bluegrass gigs…

JOHNNY: Yeah, yeah… Mason definitely did. Mason’s always dressed like that. I kind of like to change what I wear – I think it’s good.

HAPPY: What was the reception like to something like that at a bluegrass show?

JOHNNY: It was pretty funny. Well, that’s when I first met Mason… He was playing banjo, and I saw this scrawny, little ratty looking, lad kind of guy… just shredding on the banjo, and shredding on the slide guitar. I went up to him afterwards with an EP that I had with a bunch of folk songs on it, and he called me up the next day and he’d learnt every song, singing all the harmonies… I’d never seen anything like it.

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HAPPY: Do you think elements of that bluegrass, folk music have influenced DMA’s current music?

JOHNNY: Yeah well I was also listening to a lot of Springsteen, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Band… you know, old school stuff like that. I think that shows through, you know… Step Up The Morphine‘s like a country tune.

HAPPY: Yeah well I remember watching this video of a live acoustic version of Step Up The Morphine you put out, where Mason’s killing it on this lap guitar and I was thinking ‘woah’…

JOHNNY: Yeah, people are like “I didn’t know that guy could do that.” He’s great at it as well. He taught me how to play it… it’s called a Dobro. It was originally made by Dopyera brothers, then they moved to America and it became this kind of stock standard bluegrass instrument. I’ve got one from 1934 actually… it was brought over in the fifties by an American couple, and I found it in Bondi.

HAPPY: So, as we mentioned before, you’ve been spending a lot of time overseas, a lot of time on the road. Do you ever struggle with it?

JOHNNY: Yeah, I did. Especially the first time around, back on the Hills End tour, because you don’t have much money, so we were sharing beds for like a good year, which was pretty shit, doing head-to-toe kind of shit. Also, because we were in a sprinter van – like, you put the gear in the back, and because we’re a six-piece live, plus the tour manager… it’s just everyone in this hot fucking van. Whereas now, we’ve got a bus. So now after the gig, you leave at like 2am, and you travel through the night, then you wake up Manchester, know what I mean? And it’s a lot more inspiring now, because the gigs are heaps better…

HAPPY: How so?

JOHNNY: Well when we first went to America we were playing in front of like seven people in St. Louis or something… and I think Mason put some guys on the door from the pub down the road, and they’d just got out of prison… and they stole a whole bunch of vinyl and shit, which was pretty funny…. and we had to take all the gear out of the car as well, because they were like “don’t leave it here, cos it’s not gonna be when you get back.”

HAPPY: Holy shit…

JOHNNY: Yeah man, St. Louis… it’s like the fourteenth most dangerous city in the world.

HAPPY: Did you ever find things like that disheartening?

JOHNNY: Look, it was alright. It was alright because I’ve always wanted to travel from one side of America to the other, and this was a good way to do it while you’re working. The gigs were still fun, and that’s how we got our chops up live… from just playing hundreds and hundreds of gigs. So now when people actually know your band’s name, it’s all from those hours you’ve gotta put in. And we’d be going pretty hard… and for the first few months it’s fine, but after about six months, it gets really weird…

HAPPY: Why’s that?

JOHNNY: Just mentally. I mean, you can’t be drinking every night. There are not many jobs where you rock up to work and they’re like “here are two cases of beer, some red, a bottle of vodka”… and you’re just sitting around waiting for soundcheck… so of course you’re gonna get pissed.

HAPPY: And that’s something you’ve had to dial down?

JOHNNY: Yeah totally. The last tour we did, I did like two-and-half, maybe three weeks of it sober, which was kind of weird.. because you kind of need like a bit of a buzz to get up there.. to get up on stage.

HAPPY: Do you ever still find that difficult?

JOHNNY: I don’t find it that bad, but I know a lot of musicians who’d really struggle to get on stage and perform in front of people without a few drinks under their belt… and musicians aren’t really the most stable humans. So that extensive touring and drinking, it’s not very good. That’s one of the things that The End is kind of loosely based off – that period right at the end. I remember saying to my tour manager “what the fuck are you doing to us?” But it’s your responsibility to look after yourself too, you know? You’ve also gotta work. It’s the only way you can make money as a musician these days.

HAPPY: Was it at all profitable doing those early tours?

JOHNNY: It didn’t feel like it at the time, but now it definitely feels like it’s paid off.

 

For Now is out now. 

Catch DMA’s live on their extensive European tour, some Aussie dates in June, and at Splendour In The Grass.