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SXSW Interview with The Presets

The Presets Picture

On Thursday, March 14th, KCSB’s Program Director sat down for an interview in Austin, TX with Julian Hamilton and Kimberly Moyes, better known as The Presets. The Sydney, Australia techno/electropop/dance duo talked about their creative process, the differences between their three albums, the importance of singing about handjobs, among other things. Read the interview below or scroll to the bottom of the page for the audio. Be sure to stay tuned for more SXSW interviews to be posted soon!

Navid Ebrahimzadeh (KCSB): I figured we’d start off with general questions and can get more specific later. We’re here with Julian and Kim from The Presets. Do you guys want to introduce yourselves and talk about your musical backgrounds to start?

Kimberly Moyes: We met each other in 1995, have been musicians for most of our lives, and have been in The Presets since about 2002.

Julian Hamilton: Yeah, about 10 years now. So it’s a uh, going concern.

KCSB: So your first album Beams came out in 2005, and then you had Apocalypso in 2008 and Pacifica last year in 2012.

Moyes: How’s the research?

Hamilton: Yeah, that’s good.

KCSB: I actually didn’t have to do that research; I’m a huge fan.

Moyes: I knew I could find it somewhere.

KCSB: I don’t like getting specific about genre names—I don’t know about you guys—but I always like to ask, how would you describe the music you make yourselves?

Moyes: I guess like electropop, really. We always started out trying to fuse dance music and pop music with a bit of a rock edge. We always managed to get like, 80s electropop as well. But yeah, it’s just always been pop music made on synthesizers and keyboards and computers.

Hamilton: Yeah.

KCSB: So you’ve got a lot of techno elements, and some synthpop and 80s synth, and then your vocals are a little more like rock sounding in some ways, compared to typical electronica.

Hamilton: Yeah, I think especially in the earlier records, we really liked the energy and power of rock music, but the groove of techno. We tried to marry the two a little bit. And, I dunno, maybe my voice is getting a bit softer and mellow as I reach middle age, but there are still moments of intensity in there, sure.

Moyes: Well, especially with Pacifica I think we um, made a conscious effort with not only just the vocals but also the music to kind of round off the harsher elements of previous albums or songs, y’know? And get it a bit smoother in general.

KCSB: Yeah, Pacifica is so much more smoother and less noisy sounding than Apocalypso and even Beams as well. Can you talk about that transition?

Moyes: I think for the longest time, when we made music, a starting point was always a big noisy mono-synth bass line which kind of took up all the room and was always like really fun, but I guess we would always face problems where we were trying to fit more elements into the song than we could sonically. Not only just that, but also after 2008 and 2009, how big electro got with all the noisy electro acts, I think we were just trying to find another angle that was less dominated by noise and more by groove, as opposed to, you know, slamming people over the head all the time with noisy synths.

KCSB: Definitely. Would you guys say that Pacifica places more of an emphasis on lyricism at all? ‘Cause I kind of was paying more attention to what you were saying on this record than the past two, not that I wasn’t before.

Hamilton: Sure. I mean hopefully that the songs are getting better and better over time, you try to get a little better as you go along. I guess it’s funny when we first started out, I always thought the words were just things that you kind of just threw on top as a color. You know, that the human voice was just this kind of color, just filling the gaps with words. Certainly as you get older, this sounds ridiculous, but as you get older you find more things to say, find nice little turns of phrase, and better ways to say it, so, yeah, I’m glad you noticed.

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KCSB: It also seemed like there was more of an emphasis on political issues in Australia as well, like on “Youth in Trouble” and “A.O.”

Hamilton: Yeah, well there’s always been a little of that sort of in our music, but yeah I guess maybe this time I tried to get a little more direct about it. In the past, lyrically especially, I’d sort of say things but then try and hide it.

Moyes: Vague.

Hamilton: Yeah, vague it out, try to use hidden messages and all the rest of that. I’m getting a bit more confident to come out and say things directly.

Moyes: Totally, that again is another idea within the album—was to try to be as exposed as possible and as honest as possible, and yeah, as direct as possible, like Julian was saying.

KCSB: I noticed those elements beforehand, so like, “My People” comes to mind as being political, but I think it was more direct and kind of teased out a little more.

Hamilton: More kind of like, corked down to its essentials. The music and lyrics are trying to get as close to us as we can make it, you know? Whether it be the singing voice or the production or our thoughts and lyrics, it’s trying to get down to the nitty gritty of what we really are about.

KCSB: Can you guys talk to me about how a Presets song gets formed? What’s your creative process as far as collaborating in the very beginning?

Moyes: There’s many different ways. It can just start off with Julian having a whole song’s verse-chorus thing sort of sketched out, a vocal guide painted over the top, then sort of give it to me to kind of mess around with and add beats or production ideas or whatever. Or it can be that sort of situation as well, but instead I might just cut out one section that I like, then sort of try to make other sections, or we just get together and jam until we find something that we like. There’s not really one method.

Hamilton: Not really. I mean we always end up, you know, just riding the initial sketches and the ideas and getting a bunch of ideas together, there’s usually a bit of swapping bits back and forth, as Kim said. But by the time we’re getting towards the end, we spend a good three months or so in the room together producing and actually making the track, in the same way that people in a rock band might work and swap ideas on their own but at some point they get in the studio and record the record.

Moyes: And even in that last period, we may completely turn something on its head, something that we may be working on for months and months that we feel like is hitting a brick wall. Like a song idea where we know something good is there, but it’s like, is it really working? Then we completely rip it apart and build something new underneath it and find a good balance.

KCSB: Out of curiosity, is there a track that you guys are particularly fond of? A favorite Presets song?

Hamilton: It’s probably one of the first records where I really do like all of it. In the past, certainly, there’s been favorites and there’s other songs I wouldn’t make again if we had the chance. Now, it’s a really solid record. We had the luxury of time this time; we had a couple of years to work on this record properly and a bunch of different ideas and could throw stuff away. And we’d never really been in a position before to throw stuff away. You can’t really pick a favorite.

Moyes: And by the time you’ve finished making it and have played it live, it all starts to wear off, the magic, a little bit.

KCSB: I’ve actually always been curious about people who are touring, I feel like it’s hard not to get sick of your own stuff if you’re playing it every night.

Moyes: Yeah, I don’t think you get sick of it, I think you just become immune to it, or the powers of it. The fun thing we’ve done recently is put this show together that’s a techno show with laptops. We’ve got to remix some old songs and spice them up and bring them more into the realm that we’re working on now. Now we sort of have new favorites of old songs as remix versions. If we ever get that bored, we can just continue to remix every song.

Hamilton: It’s funny, you do play the same thing every night. But by the time you get home and hear your song on the radio or whatever, you know, you still like it. It’s just always good.

KCSB: I have some questions about specific songs. One of my favorites is “Buzz Factory,” which is not a typical Presets song at all. And I played it for my friend, who actually introduced me to you guys a few years back, and he was like “What is this song? I don’t have this song.” And I realized it was only on the UK release of Apocalypso.

Moyes: I think it was just on a deluxe edition or something like that.

KCSB: Can you guys talk about that song and that decision?

Moyes: “Buzz Factory” was like the only song that we finished that didn’t make it on the album Apocalypso. And it was just a groove idea that was floating around and it wasn’t even fully finished when we took it into the studio, and I think Julian wrote lyrics for it and recorded lyrics for it the night we mixed it.

Hamilton: That’s right. Probably on the day we were mixing it.

Moyes: I think in terms of how it stacked up compared to the way Apocalypso was shaping it just wasn’t fitting in. It was quite dreamy and not verse-chorus kind of song structure, more like through-composed or whatever.

Hamilton: I totally forgot about that song.

Moyes: It’s really cool, I’ve listened to it recently as well. It’s super fast.

KCSB: I personally like songs where the vocals come in really late. You’re listening to it and think “Oh cool, this is an instrumental song,” and then they come in I think 3 minutes in in that song, and it’s such a nice surprise and I feel so rewarded for waiting. It’s cool too that it seems thrown together not so deliberately.

Moyes: It was just something that we liked and we didn’t sweat about it. It’s got a sort of effortlessness about it.

Hamilton: We should write a whole album full of B-sides. That’d be a nice listen.

KCSB: I’m curious too about the line “We hate you ‘cause we hate your freedom,” which stood out to me from that album as being haunting.

Hamilton: Oh, it can be interpreted so many different ways. That was one of George Bush Jr’s famous lines, you know: the terrorists hate us ‘cause they hate our freedom. It was ridiculous. So there was that, but also like, you know, looking at young kids and the freedoms they have. Also, as an artist when you go out on a limb and choose to make art as a living, it’s very spooky, and I think you have to be brave to do it. And if you can find any kind of success, that’s wonderful. But, when you see rock stars kind of partying too hard and causing scandals.

Moyes: ‘Cause we can do it.

Hamilton: It’s not easy, y’know. It’s a hard life—we have a lot of musician friends who are flat broke and working really hard. When you commit to making art as a living, it can be a, y’know…

KCSB: A strain.

Hamilton: Yeah, a strain. It’s a bit spooky to try and make a life out of it. But you know, we enjoy it.

KCSB: That’s I guess what matters most at the end of the day.

Hamilton: Yeah, absolutely.

KCSB: I think there’s a romanticized notion of what being a musician’s all about. It’s definitely a challenging existence to be creating and traveling.

Hamilton: You know, god, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it’s definitely a commitment.

Presets Boys In Love

KCSB: “This Boy’s in Love,” one of my favorites—I’m probably getting way too specific on this, but…

Hamilton: That’s all right, it’s interesting!

KCSB: I’m an English major so I tear apart songs and analyze the shit out of them. So I was listening to this song and listening to the lyrics and I came up with this schema where the city lights represent social judgment of some kind, or just caring about other people’s perspectives, ‘cause you’re saying “this boy’s in love,” and it’s all melodic and very like dreamy, but then all of a sudden it’s like “under city lights.”

Hamilton: And it’s a bit more heavy. Yeah absolutely. Totally. And that’s kind of what it should be. But also, just to put it bluntly, it’s sort of putting it in a place. We live in a city and people who live in cities can relate to things a bit easier. I didn’t want to write “in this jungle.” It wouldn’t make sense or be honest. That album in particular, we were real city kids at that time. We didn’t have kids at that time and we were out partying under the bright lights. And it was, you know, our generation, and the life that we knew. Which was the “city lights” life.

KCSB: That was illuminating.

Moyes: (chuckling) Nice.

KCSB: Another song specific question. “Yippiyo-ay.” That’s a very sexual song, obviously.

Hamilton: Yeah.

KCSB: I’m pretty sure that’s about a hand job, or something similar.

Moyes: Ah-ha! You’re the only person who’s ever gotten that.

Hamilton: It is. How can I put this delicately? It’s one of those things where you can be really really really in love with a person, and really want to do the darkest things with them. And I think that, you know, traditionally in love songs, they don’t go there, you know what I mean? They can be hugging and kissing and holding hands and there’s never any talking about hand jobs, you know? But that’s a really important part of lovemaking. We’re getting told to wrap up because we’re talking about handjobs.

Moyes: (laughing) The darkest of the sexual acts.

Hamilton: I wasn’t sort of talking about, you know, eating each other’s shit or anything like that. Maybe I didn’t go too far, but you know what I mean.

Moyes: I’m glad you didn’t.

KCSB: I think you went just far enough. Really quickly ‘cause we’re wrapping up, I want to talk about Australia’s music scene. ‘Cause I think, from an American perspective, there’s a lot of great electronic music coming out of there. I mean there’s you guys, Bag Raiders, Midnight Juggernauts, Flume, um… who else, Cut Copy.

Hamilton: Oh, that’s plenty.

Moyes: I was hoping you wouldn’t get through that list without mentioning Cut Copy.

KCSB: Those are really great acts, and every time I’m researching a band it’s like “Oh they’re from Sydney, from Melbourne.” Can you talk about the music scene there briefly?

Moyes: I mean, it’s really great. There’s always been great music coming out of Australia. And not just electronic as well. I dunno, I mean, it’s just like everywhere. There’s great music coming out of every city and every country. I think, in terms of the good bands that are coming out and the size of the population, there’s probably more good bands than there are people in Australia. You know what I mean? Compared to other countries.

Hamilton: I don’t think there’s anything particularly in the water.

Moyes: It’s just a lifestyle. People like to have a good time. It only takes about three good bands for people’s imaginations to run wild and think, “Oh wow, what’s going down in Australia?” But now there’s more than three bands, so who knows.

KCSB: Yeah I was just curious. I’ve never been so I don’t know about the scene there, but I’m pretty consistently finding stuff that I like.

Moyes: You sound like an Aus-ophile, if that’s a thing.

KCSB: I’m getting there. I don’t want to keep you guys, so I’ll just ask two more questions. Can you talk about the LED visuals you have during your live shows? I think they’re really impressive, if you could shed any light on that.

Moyes: Yeah. Nice, again. I think we just have gotten to a size where we’re playing festivals and also larger crowds, especially in Australia, where it’s important to have a really good visual presence. And also I guess, in a way, there’s just two of us on stage, I’m playing drums and Julian’s playing synths and singing. In order for it to really hit hard you need to have a really impressive light show, and we’ve always had lighting directors along the way. When we supported Daft Punk back in 2007 across Australia, we were lucky enough to be approached by their lighting designer Martin Phillips, and he sort of has been an important part of our live shows ever since then. It’s not like we’re a rock band where we just get up there and wear like leather jacks and have cool guitars. It’s a bit more of a show. Hopefully that answers your question.

KCSB: That definitely does. I saw you guys in L.A. last October, and it was my twenty-first birthday, and I was really really stoked, and thought, “Oh they’re here in America,” and was taken away by the entire thing, but the visuals especially, because they were really specialized to your music. Like during “A.O.” it flashed, you know, A.O.

Moyes: We had a lot of specific videos made for the show.

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KCSB: I go to a lot of electronic shows, and there’s always the issue of—‘cause you’re right, it’s not a rock band, so it’s harder to see. I mean, I can see you drumming and you playing the keyboards, but I think the lighting is really crucial to that genre in particular and that yours was really solid.

Moyes: We’re just overcompensating.

KCSB: Final question and I’ll let you guys go. Where are you heading to after SXSW? I think you’re heading Mexico or South America?

Moyes: I think Monterey tomorrow.

KCSB: And it’s just a mini-tour, like a week?

Hamilton: I think it’s like five or six dates across Latin America. Yeah that’ll be fun, then we’ll go home, and we may even see you later again this year.

KCSB: Sweet. Well thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. I really appreciate it and think our listeners will.

Moyes: Yeah, no worries man. Thanks for the interview.

Hamilton: Our pleasure. No worries, we better run off to our next one. Nice to talk to you, thank you.

The Presets Red

Pacifica came out last September on Modular Recordings in Australia and Casablanca in the U.S. The third Presets album peaked at #3 on the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association), the main music sale chart in Australia.