In the past six years, The Death Set has probably toured harder and lived more than any other indie band. Since founding members Johnny Siera and Beau Velasco began playing together in Gold Coast, Australia, in 2005, The Death Set has shifted cities at least four times and continents once. The group has logged more traveling hours than most international airline pilots. When Velasco died in September, 2009, The Death Set lost its co-founder, but his influence remained unchanged. The Death Set’s story isn’t a wrought, loss-redemption short. It’s got more character than that, wreaking of warehouse noise (smashed bottles, amplifiers, soaked shirts) and solemn American road movies (quiet moments in a dilapidated van).
We met with guitarist and vocalist Johnny Siera at The Narrows in Bushwick, to talk about the decision to continue after Velasco’s death, the process behind the group’s latest record, Michael Poicard, and how to stop worrying about smashed motel rooms.
WC: The new record seems like a balance between a party and an elegy.
JS: I don’t think of it as elegiac, really. It was hard to not write songs about [Beau’s death]. I don’t think that it would’ve been written like that if it hadn’t happened, of course.
WC: When Ian Curtis died, Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order) said the remnants of the band got together the day after the funeral and decided to continue playing together. He said there was no question of it. How did you decide to continue?
JS: We knew Beau wouldn’t want us to stop and we knew we couldn’t stop doing what we did. We make music. Actually, the music has definitely helped us deal with the situation on a personal level, as well.
WC: The record took a few years. Had you been working on it consistently since 2008?
JS: We toured “Worldwide” for about two years, 18 months of which were nonstop. We got burnt out. Don’t get me wrong: I love being places I’ve never been and I love playing shows, but too much of anything can wear you out. We took a year off to regroup and find inspiration. We didn’t want to write a road record. That’s boring. We’re not Bon Jovi. There’s no steal horse.
WC: While touring without a break, did you notice your audiences getting bigger?
JS: I don’t think so. It happened slowly, but I actually think that’s better than being a buzz band who everyone hates sooner. I think Sonic Youth are a great example of a band who continually grew, without releasing a single or having some sort of viral hit. You know, the sort of hit hat a jock in an Outback would blast on his stereo even though he’d never normally listen to such a thing. Of course, with this new record, we’re playing some bigger festivals and that’s the shit.
WC: For an indie band, you do a lot of video stuff. Do you work with the same people? What’s the reason for it? Is it incidental?
JS: It was a deliberate decision for this record. I think we realize people listen to music on YouTube a lot. You can’t not have visual content. In the past three years since “Worldwide”, it’s become even more important. Everything is so disposable that you need that visual connection. It’s also an opportunity to make good work. A lot of people see music videos as a way to build a portfolio. We had a meeting with [film production team] Canada. They did “Bombay” by El Guincho. That is my favorite video of all time. We raged with them in Barcelona. They do the things they like for free. They make their money from commercial content. I think that relationship—directors building their portfolios and bands looking to communicate visually—is a really great thing.
WC: Some of the sounds you choose to employ harken back to 1980s video games and pop punk from the same era. Is this conscious?
JS: It’s funny, I would never cite those two things as an influence, but I can see it. For me, it’s about making electronic hype music that is also guitar based. People call it art punk, because it’s punk and it’s weird. It’s definitely punk in the sense that the live show is high energy and the record is punk, but it’s a truly plethora of ideas with a dash of vodka: drunk in and then vomited up.
WC: Justin Trosper from Unwound said that while they were recording albums, Public Imagine Limited’s Second Edition was on his mind, although there records don’t sound anything alike. What practically influenced the record’s production that people might not hear directly?
JS: The production was a step up for this record. I’m stoked on how the first record sounded. It was lo-fi, but that was a conscious decision. We ran vocals through amps, because we wanted it that way. However, we didn’t want to be part of the new lo-fi movement. I like those bands, but I think the whole thing is a bit tired. We wanted to step up the production, but without a “big rock” sound. We chose XXXChange to do the record, because we wanted the electronics to be as important as the rest of the mix.
As far as records, I was listening to a lot of My Bloody Valentine. That may be a reference, but I’m not sure. You can probably hear it on Beau’s song, but maybe not the rest of the record. Essentially, Dan and I listen to a lot of grimey electronic music without guitars or vocals, so it’s hard to compare. When I explain our sound to live engineers, I tell them imagine it’s a DJ with people playing on top of that. I think that’s a way to describe the record as well.
WC: What’s the strangest moment you’ve had on tour outside of the United States?
JS: It’s tough to point to a particular moment. In the space of two or three shows you can play to 6,000 people going crazy and go to another place and play to 5 people with their arms folded. That dichotomy is such a head fuck. It’s the same band and it’s the same music. Obviously, it’s not really a riddle. There are a million variables. Some shows are hot. Some are not, but it is a head fuck. That’s not even negative, really. I can’t think it happens to many other professions.
WC: Maybe standup comedians.
JS: I have infinite respect for those fucking guys. I don’t know how they do it.
WC: It’s not rare for a band to be all male, but you come from different places and backgrounds. What’s touring with that set up like?
JS: It’s touring: I love it and I hate it. It’s great a lot and it sucks a lot. Luckily, Dan and I are both fucking crazy. We drink. We party, but we know how to deal with the most insane situations and the most bland situations. I’ve seen every band mate in those polar-opposite states. If someone is screaming and breaking things in the motel room, I can just put the earplugs in and fall asleep. I won’t have a screaming match over how the person shouldn’t do it, because I know it’s bound to happen again pretty soon. And that’s alright. You just have to be super tolerant. Crazy shit should make you laugh. That’s the key.