Melbourne Disco-Punk Band Use No Hooks’ Mick Earls: “I was exploring anything that was outside the cultural mainstream…”

Handmade collage by B.

This year Chapter Music released The Job which is a collection of lost recordings from between 1979-83 of Melbourne post-punk-disco-funk band, Use No Hooks. We spoke to UNH bandleader Mick Earls to get an insight into the band and that era of the Melbourne music scene. They were part of the experimental Little Band Scene. UNH were pioneers and rule breakers, it’s no surprise their music has stood the test of time to finally become revered today.

We’re really big fans of your band Use No Hooks! The album – The Job – of previously unreleased recordings that Chapter Music released this year is really ace!

MICK EARLS: Thank you. Can I ask you what it is that you like about it?

Of course! There’s so much. I really love punk rock but then I really love people that take it further, like what Use No Hooks do. It’s almost like your music has no rules and that there is a real freedom on the record. If you think back to the time period that you made it in and what else was going on, you realise that what you were doing was very different back then as well as even now. The lyrical content is still relevant now too.

ME: Well, thanks a lot! You’ve made a couple of really perceptive observations there about the freedom of it. You mentioned punk and you mentioned taking it a bit further, doing the best I can to think back to what we were thinking then, if you play that record to a lot of people who have a certain idea of what punk was they would think there is no connection because it doesn’t sound like the [Sex] Pistols. What we thought punk did was clear the ground for pop music to start again from scratch, it wasn’t just a new musical style, category or genre; it made it possible for literally anyone again to start playing music without any preconceptions of what they ought to be capable of or what was expected of them.

Fairly soon punk started to think of itself as a particular image and style, which is perhaps modelled on the British bands or American bands like the Ramones, or even going back into the Velvets a bit, these were models for new artists to aspire to, once it started to think of itself in that way it started to lose contact with that enabling idea—that music can start again from scratch. What became post-punk took up that idea and recovered that enabling idea, without feeling obligated to sound like punk. It was quite the contrary to go right away from it while still honouring the aesthetic. That aesthetic was put to work in many ways on many fronts during that period of ’78 to roughly ’84 in inner Melbourne and Sydney too.

In Melbourne it was still really quite a small scene and there wouldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people who were aware of this and attending gigs and playing in the bands. It was very vibrant! There was certainly a freedom about it. Audiences had had their ears blasted off and they were kind of ready for something that might extend their sensibilities beyond what punk had done, and beyond what punk had wiped away to some extent. There was almost a clear horizon, where people were prepared to accept anything. We were one of those bands together with the Primitive Calculators, with that idea of starting from scratch without preconceptions and musical training. It’s not really a new idea though. If you for instance listen to the early Johnny Cash records in the ‘50s, he and his co-musicians could barely play their instruments but they did it in a way that was unprecedented, very distinctive and completely compelling; they did what they could with what they had without any vision of where it might lead them in the end. That’s the kind of things we were doing with the ‘Calculators.

It must have been an exciting time!

Photo courtesy of Chapter Music.

ME: Yes, there was a real sense that anything is possible. Myself and Arne Hanna got Use No Hooks going with drummer Steve Bourke. We all had sufficient musical experience and knowledge, we weren’t punks or starting off having played for five minutes. We knew quite a bit more than three chords and a beat. We were able to draw on that idea of starting again and to do it in a way anything was possible. We could pull in a really eclectic mix of elements coming from different music like surf, soul, electronic drone music, American minimalism and jazz, which had been taboo during the punk period. There was also disco and eventually the funk and rap that ended up on this LP.

The three of us got going with very minimal approaches to things. We would do things like bring in tape recorders with pre-recorded sound on them like, the TV and news broadcasts, which we would operate through reel-to-reel tape recorders—we were sampling it effectively. Our first band was called Sample Only, that’s what we were doing before we even knew we were doing it [laughs]. This was the kind of experimental process we took but then we started adding more players and changing players. We pretty much devised new material for every gig; a lot of it worked, a lot of it didn’t. There were long-form compositions with blending different elements usually over some kind of pumping beat in parts, then it would drift away into other things. Every now and again we would craft some songs. We had a singer and that singer might disappear [laughs] and if somebody else came along and offered themselves we would usually bring them in in some way or another; that’s what I meant by anything is possible.

You can hear some of that material on the digital downloads that came with this LP, some of the early material. Not so much the audio-collage drone music stuff though, the audio quality isn’t good enough to be included. We had to patch the stuff up quite a lot.

It wasn’t until the final phase of the band, which is the phase that produced the material on this album, that we had anything like a regular set-list and even probably formed songs. It was still experimental, in the sense that I had never written rap lyrics before; I just came up with a whole heap of almost clichés, familiar expressions you’d hear around worksites and hearing people in the media talk about work or politics and so on, that’s where I drew all that from. I thought of rap as a sort of rhyming machine.

At the time we had been playing these long soul, funk, disco grooves with a four-piece. After our singer Cathy Hopkins left, and our saxophone player at the time Michael Charles left, we just decided to bunker down and try to play long grooves that were danceable. We all loved American funk. We acquired a fabulous bass player called Andre Schuster who could play in that style, like the band Chic for instance. Steve the drummer left and Arne switched to drums because we wanted a more basic drumming style with steady beats and good solid tempos, which he could do without having prior experience as a drummer. Here we were on the punk idea—just do the best you can with what you’ve got!  

Hearing that material now for me, after all these years, that’s what I notice the most, the drumming on that record. I notice it more than the vocals or guitar and even the bass playing, it’s just done so right. We ended up playing that material without any idea of where it would go but it started to acquire a bit of a following and we started to play outside of the smaller venues and inner city pubs where we had played previously.

The excitement was there! It was also right outside the music industry. There was no sense that we should build up a following and make ourselves famous and get on Countdown. We had no idea what we were doing but, it seemed to work and here we are! [laughs].

What first inspired you to pick up a guitar?

ME: This was when I was a kid when I was really young, I’m a bit older than most of the others involved in this, I heard guitar music in the 1950s. In those days there was a lot of instrumental music on the radio in the Pop Charts. Duane Eddy was an American guitarist and theme from Peter Gunn was his big hit and then there was an Australian guitarist called Rob E. G. and then there was The Shadows and the surf bands and groups and the rock n roll guitars like the Elvis Presley records. I had an older cousin that looked like a rocker and had an electric guitar… and then along came The Beatles and so on, which almost became obligatory if you were interested in music to start playing guitar. You could get guitars relatively cheaply and bang away without really needing any sort of tuition. There were books, I basically just learnt out of books and just strumming away in my teenage bedroom [laughs].

I read that in the mid-1970s you were exposed to non-narrative experimental films at the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-op in Carlton; did that influence your creativity?

ME: Yeah, oh yeah! I did! It’s a bit of a personal idiosyncrasy in a way, I was exploring anything that was outside the cultural mainstream at the time, there was a lot going on. In Melbourne there was the Carlton Filmmakers Co-operative and they use to screen a lot of that stuff but there was also a place in Flemington called The New Music Centre, which was a government funded facility in an old church. It was mainly run by electronic and experimental composers coming from the classical music tradition and sound poets and people like that there.

Around the same time I also attended something that was a festival of tape music, music that was composed purely for recording. That was in a run-down factory space, behind the Filmmakers Co-op. I was also interested in writing, I was interested in contemporary literature and poetry. I was open to almost anything! These ideas got into how we compose music. You wouldn’t necessarily start off with an idea of beginning, middle and end, and a progression to get from a verse to a chorus to a pre-chorus; we didn’t bother with those ideas so much.

The non-narrative film style that really caught my attention was the minimalist style using repeating images. There was an Australia filmmaker called Paul Winkler whose films I saw quite a lot of. He would have maybe an image of a brick wall with almost a jackhammer kind of sound going, filmed through a handheld camera that would be shaking back and forwards in time with the jackhammer sound—that synchronised sound and music. You couldn’t take a real lot of it but, it had a very powerful affect. This is what I first thought of when I saw The Primitive Calculators play. It was very much small repeating cels of music played with a lot of distortion and a relentless drive coming from the drum machine.

Experiences of seeing those early films gave me a bit of a sensibility that enabled me to appreciate some of the things I was hearing the punk bands do, even though I was never going to be a punk player myself. I was very appreciative of it though and that’s what went in to Use No Hooks a bit. We used noise occasionally but also the aesthetic of minimalist repetition was something that underlaid most things we did from the earliest to the funk period. We realised that the idea of minimalist repetition could be taken and just applied to different music material, soul beats (which we did in the earlier stages), then disco beats (which we used much later). We’d make up rhythmic parts that would interact and repeat in a way that might be sustainable indefinitely. These were the ideas that went into what we were doing.

Improvisation and experimentation are very important parts of Use No Hooks’ way of doing things; why was this important to you?

ME: Part of this was political, politically inspired, because this was a period it almost seems impossible to imagine now but, very large numbers of people, young people especially, thought that there was some prospect of a major revolution in the Western world. Not in the sense of the Soviet Revolution but something where people could take charge of their own lives to some extent and build some kind of new society that couldn’t be programmed, I suppose. These ideas were very prevalent at the time and very influential and very powerful. People in the Arts in general were pretty much seized by them. The experimentation in a way you could see, was sort of an attempt at modelling how a new world could be constructed. A new society could be constructed from first principles which is what people across the Arts were doing. I’d say that perhaps might help give some understanding of why we felt driven to do this rather than to follow the accepted path of working out of a particular style, or format an image you wanted to follow and getting a manager and trying to promote it through the industry; it’s not what we were remotely interested in doing. The Primitive Calculators too! There were a lot of people in the punk scene that were interested in those ideas! An element of despair had kind of come in by that stage though, it’s not going to happen so we’re angry just the same.

Is there a Use No Hooks song that has a real significance to you?

ME: Not really. There are some I like more than others for the groove really. The ones that have significance for me personally are more of the earlier material, some stuff that didn’t make it on to the record or download. Lyrically, see none of it really has personal significance because all of the material, the rap-based stuff, is all impersonal; they’re all bits of language expression that have come from elsewhere, that have come out of common usage. That was the idea at the time, I wasn’t going to try to write about personal experience or values or so on, that comes through to certain extent in the irony that infuse all of those lyrics.

The track I’m most pleased with lyrically is “In The Clear”. There’s an emotional tenor in those lyrics that I like. There’s a humour. The humour that’s in it all seems to work pretty well. In terms of the groove, the music, “The Hook” is the one I like best. That nice bassline of Andre Schuster! The bluesy, slightly dirty harmonic element in it!

I understand that in 1984 Use No Hooks took a bit of a break because you were going to write new material; what kind of stuff were you writing then?

ME: Yep. Arne and I had decided that we wanted to get into Afrobeat, the music of Fela Kuti was something that we both were taken by. I first heard of a Fela Kuti record in 1971 and gathered quite a few recordings over the next ten years or so, and they influenced us a real lot. We didn’t really have the technical capabilities to compose that sort of music. We wanted to get into it partly because the stuff that we were doing on the record wasn’t working so well in live performance for various reasons. We thought if we got into more Afrobeat stuff… music on the record was pretty much put together in layers and sometimes that wouldn’t work live, if the tempo wasn’t right the song wouldn’t work, this was a problem we were having… because we didn’t pay attention to foldback and couldn’t hear ourselves on stage. We thought if we could compose music that had more interlocking parts where all the various rhythmic components leaned against each other or sat in each other’s space a lot more it would work better. Then we discover we didn’t have the technical expertise to do that. Then I had to get a job.

I had a very high-powered job and others went off to do other things. It just sort of died and never got back together. Although Arne Hanna went to Sydney and did a music degree and computer technology degree. He got into Afrobeat music big time and had a couple of bands of his own playing that music. He also then became a mainstay of the Sydney jazz scene as a guitarist doing session work for people, and also as a producer.

Finally after Arne and I got back together in 2016, I hadn’t played music really since 1984, he’d acquired the necessary expertise to compose in that style… we’ve since done a bit of work using those ideas, plus more sophisticated musical ideas that come out of Latin music and funk. That’s what become of that particular band.

Will you be putting out any of the newer stuff?

ME: We’re working in it! We did a few gigs as a duo, using computerised backing tracks, pretty much all new material. Some of the old things we re-worked pretty quickly to get them ready for gigs. They sound quite different, you wouldn’t think it was the same people. I’ve been doing the vocals and I don’t sound like Stuart Grant [also frontman for Primitive Calculators] who’s on the record, I’d never done them before! The experimental approach continues! [laughs].

There are recordings of one of the gigs that could partly be released in time. We are thinking about getting around to posting up some of these tracks plus some of the early material. We have other things in our lives and getting around to doing that stuff takes time. We hope to be able to. Arne and I are working on some tracks we’ve recorded sections for. There’s a fair bit in the works!

What was it like for you to do vocals for the first time?

ME: Look, I found it strangely relaxing if you would believe. I never enjoyed performing, I was always too nervous and too introverted. To come back now, virtually as an old man, and start doing vocals, particularly with writing new material, I found it really helped in light of performance. It was completely unexpected. Vocalising those raps, I’m not a singer and I don’t sing anything in tune [laughs] but to recite rap lyrics I found it relaxing in the sense that you have so many syllables say to fit a bar or two bars, and it’s a bit like rhythmic improvisation, you can put those syllables where you like but you have to get them out. You’re concentrating on the next word like; where am I going to break this or put it? You do it and then it’s gone and you’re on to the next and then the next. You’re fully concentrating on what’s coming in much the way that would a guitar solo or something. You’re less concerned with; how am I feeling? Am I nervous? Can I do this? What are they thinking out there? How is this sounding? All of these things that go through live musicians heads and that can really get in the way of enjoying the experience of playing. That was a most unexpected discovery, quite weird in a way because I thought, there’s a lot of gall involved with me pretending to do this! Somebody my age getting up on stage and out comes these words! It seems preposterous. Someone had to do it though. Arne can actually sing and sing well but he didn’t want to do it in this case. He was too preoccupied with managing the computing side of things. He played guitar on some of these gigs. He would interject with singing when he had to, when I was reciting these lines. It was good to get a response out of him when performing. It was an unexpected, enjoyable discovery.

That’s so wonderful to hear.

ME: The other thing that some people who have heard these recordings of live gigs said was “Your age has helped give you a slight huskiness in your voice and it suits the lyric and material”. The strange paradox of it all is a lot of people work and work at the craft of singing and vocalising and all I did was get old! [laughs].

You mentioned that you stopped playing music in 1984 and you didn’t start up again until 2016; during that time did you miss it?

ME: No. I didn’t. It ended badly for me really. I wasn’t really happy with how things were going and where it might go. There were a lot of personal issues that came up, which just led me to think that I didn’t want to be part of it anymore. I was working full-time. I went and worked on Smash Hits magazine, which had just started up here. It had been going in England for a couple of decades and then I was part of a team that got an Australian edition started in 1984. I was running production on that. It was a huge, very stressful thing and didn’t leave time for much else. Then my guitar got stolen and that finished things off.

I never stopped listening to music. I got right into classical music, which I never done so much before. I found it such a rewarding thing to do, particularly 20th Century composition, then went backwards from there. I’d always listened outside of the box; for me that was out of the box at that stage. Then I expanded my collection of Afrobeat music and got into Washington Funk of the mid-‘80s, the Go Go scene like Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers and Trouble Funk, those influences stayed with Arne and I and found their way in to the newer material. I didn’t miss music.

Then I had a problem with my hand. Because I’d never been trained to play guitar properly, I never really had the right posture and I almost ended up with my fret board hand pretty much crippled! Dupuytren’s contracture, it’s a condition that involves a calcification of the tendons. The hand curls up. I had to have an operation on it to have it straightened, which meant that I’m left with hand that doesn’t have the strength it did originally. I thought I’d never play guitar again but when Arne and I started up, I had to play again. I can’t finger the fret board with same dexterity that I could before. I’m limited to mainly rhythm playing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with my right arm, I can still play rhythms reasonably well. I can’t do that much with the left-hand, I had to invent a new approach. I hit certain combinations of strings and move the hand around minimally between complex chords and play parts of them. I’ve got around it in that way and it’s still enjoyable but it’s prevented me from ever becoming a proper guitarist again like I was. That was a sad consequence of the early years, we did a lot of playing. Quite often I’d play for hours on end and be in pain but I thought it was part of it but I ended up stuffing my hand up!

I’m sure now playing guitar in your own way because of your hand, you can play stuff in a way that other people can’t. I believe that if you play guitar, you’re guitarist.

ME: [Laughs] Yes, point taken. I suppose I’m comparing myself to myself and how I was. As a guitarist I was the only guitarist and in some ways, not so much on that record but the early stuff, the guitar is quite prominent and I’m playing with a delicacy and speed that I couldn’t replicate now.

It’s a new guitar playing you!

ME: I guess I have made some advances! I’ve always been an experimenter, and I guess I can play in a way that’s appropriate for what we’re playing now.

I’m excited for new stuff!

ME: Thanks so much!

Why is music important to you?

ME: I’ve read a lot and thought a lot about music aesthetics, I’ve read a lot of philosophers’ writings on music which I could dip into but, that doesn’t get to what attracted me to it in the first place and before I had any theoretical perspective on it. What’s kept me listening to music constantly is its capacity to put you in a certain mood and ability to enable you to constantly modify those moods to what your desires might be or your needs might be in some cases. People that listen to a lot of music, particularly different sorts of music, know that if you’re in a really rotten mood there’s music you can put on that will most likely get you out of it. Alternatively if you’re feeling a bit flippant and light-hearted, frivolous, and you want to hear something more substantial, you know where to go to get that. This is something I learnt at a young age, that there’s a whole universe or feeling that can be generated through music. If you hear enough of it often enough you carry it with you internally without need to actually be hearing it through device, that’s been the experience of my life. There’s often some music that will come up in my head that suits the occasion I’m in, or even provides some sort of commentary on it. It can do that in a way that visual and verbal media can’t. It does it at such a basic level even babies seem to have an instinctive understanding of this; music makes me happy, if you take it away I feel unhappy and I want to hear more. Once you realise it’s actually possible for you to play some of this yourself, you’re on a bit of a road that you know other people are going to hear it and then you have a bit of a capacity to put them in certain moods.

Then there’s a technical element of music, because it happens in time you can put sounds together in a certain order and see where it leads to construct patterns and structures and things and combine elements—it’s a very, very intriguing, engaging process. You can never be sure of the outcome because it’s happening in time and there’s a compulsion to keep doing it. If you can do it well enough and you’re aware of your limitations and work within what you’re capable it can be really satisfying.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

ME: I think I’ve said enough but, I am fascinated and amazed with the interest that’s been shown for our music now. We never paid much attention to recording and putting out records then, these recordings on the record were done at a practice session in a single take. There was also a fellow Alan Bamford, who is not long deceased, he came to all of our gigs and recorded them all. We weren’t so interested and didn’t want to hear them but Alan had the foresight to realise that in years to come someone might be interested in this stuff. It’s intriguing to think why people of your generation is interested in this music.

Maybe part of is that… if you look at a lot of music now, everyone records themselves at home, very lo-fi and maybe in one take, and they make the most of what they have, they aren’t trained musicians, and it’s the rawness that they can relate to.

ME: The idea that it’s being pulled together in a way.

And it comes back to the no rules and doing things how you wanted without caring for commercial success. Lots of musicians Gimmie talks to don’t care about being popular of famous, they just love making music with their friends and making art for art’s sake. AND I’m sure people like it because it’s just a really, really cool record—that infinite groove! It makes me so happy and it makes me want to dance, it simply moves me!

ME: That’s a really pleasing thing to hear. If something makes you happy, that’s the highest praise really.

Your record also gets one thinking about the endless possibilities in music.

ME: That’s even more gratifying to hear. I think the female voices in there has some appeal too, they’re not trained, you’re not listening to The Pointer Sisters or anything [laughs]. Hearing them gets you thinking that, I could do that! That could be me!

Please check out USE NO HOOKS; The Job out now on CHAPTER MUSIC.

ATOM’s Harry Howard: “Universally in art, death and sex and love are the big themes… I’m constantly writing songs that mention death”

Handmade collage by B.

Melbourne trio ATOM made one of the best records of last year that you may not have heard. In Every Dream Home is a dark synth-punk outing in an apocalyptic world, their music is primal yet futuristic at the same time. On Sunday, guitarist and co-vocalist Harry Howard chatted to us from his Melbourne home while eating chocolate. FYI, there’s a new ATOM record in the works!   

You’ve been making music for a long time; what keeps things fresh and interesting for you?

HARRY HOWARD: It’s just endlessly fascinating really. Having a creative outlet is just such a great thing, it’s worth going through all the little doldrums that you go through for the breakthroughs and for the good times—the good times are just so good!

As an artist what are the things that you value the most?

HH: What I value is when people put their own personal input into things. It’s very hard to be original in this world. I think it’s completely fine to borrow ideas from people, that’s what culture is, a pool of shared ideas and as long as you put something new into it it’s fine to borrow things. When people put something into it that really comes from them then it becomes unique. It’s hard to explain, but all of my favourite artists seem to be… they might not even be well on a mental health level, but perhaps that helps them put more of themselves into what they’re doing.

They also may interrupt the world in a different way and give us a unique, unfiltered new perspective.

HH: Exactly! For some people things come out of them more directly than other people, some people are very filtered. That’s the stuff that I like, when you really get personality.

Same! What inspired you to start ATOM?

HH: Meeting Ben Hepworth. I met him on a video shoot we did with NDE [Near Death Experience], we got on really well and had a lot of common taste in music and we shared a perspective about music. He told me about his band Repairs that were playing live at that time, we went and checked them out and we got them to play with the NDE. I was invited to do a project for the Little Band…

The late Alan Bramford’s Little Band Scene?

HH: Yes. It was Stuart Grant [Primitive Calculators] too, I was invited to take part in a Little Bands night at The Old Bar. I had to make up something new and I thought, god if I go along with my songs it’s just going to sound like a solo NDE show. I thought to ask Ben to do something with me. I knew anything that I did with Ben would really sound different, with him doing beats and synths. I thought it would be such a huge change for me and it was something I wanted to explore, that was a few years ago now. It just worked from the start. Edwina [Preston] joined as well. Whenever we work it’s very quick and pretty easy. It took a while to get the live shows together though. We don’t do work that often but when we do it’s great. I credit Ben as the missing link we needed to create the whole project.

ATOM’s also a new way for you to say things musically?

HH: It is. More than that it inspires me in different ways, to do things differently, because of the mood of those instruments, it is so distinct and then there’s the references that it brings up in your mind. For me it’s taken me back to all these early electronic bands that came out at the start of new wave after punk, there was quite a bit of interesting experimental stuff and then it developed into that synth-y pop, some of which I like as well. With punk and after and before there was Suicide – Alan Vega and Martin Rev – all of those things it just brought out those influences. Synthesisers have this futuristic thing about them, the sound, even though it’s not quite old it still references some kind of made up idea about the future that we have, it gives you an opportunity to write about different things like how the world’s going.

Where did you get the album title In Every Dream Home? Is it from the Roxy Music song “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”?

HH: Yes it is. It’s also a kind of pop art reference, there’s an English pop art painting that has something about a dream home in it, it has that kind of ‘50s isn’t-everything-marvellous-in-our-dream-home vibe—of course though, it never is!

A lot of the themes on the album are things that I feel are happening right now in the world, like us all running out of stuff.

HH: I know, I know. It’s weird because some of the songs that I wrote since then and after that are even more relevant. It’s like people would think I would have written them lately. There’s one song called “Teenage Saviour” about how a teenager inspires everyone to change their way, politically. That was before the movement of the teenagers coming up about the shootings in America. I thought, oh god everyone’s going to think it’s about that! Then Greta Thunberg came out and I thought, oh my god, this song is about Greta [laughs], this is ridiculous. That might be on the next album. I think sometimes when you write about the future you’re going to get it right [laughs].

You’re prophetic!

HH: [Laughs]. I think it just happens.

How did In Every Dream Home start? Does Ben, Edwina and yourself write collaboratively?

HH: We do, overall it’s collaboratively but some of the songs, I would have music and words and I’d bring it along and they’d make up their parts and things would develop from that. The other option is that Ben would bring in a track of music and either me or Edwina would add vocals or another instrument. Everything is getting quite strongly effected by what the other members bring in. Everyone gets a credit in the end. You come up with some of the best ideas on your own but you can still collaborate on those and make them better.

How do you go about writing songs? Do you have any rules you like to follow?

HH: No, not really, it’s good not to have rules about anything and go for what works at the time. Sometimes I’ll write music and I’ll try to put words to it, sometimes I’ll write words then try to make up music for the words; sometimes you just get a bit of both, you’ll be banging away and a phrase will come to mind then it will turn into a song.

I really like how in ATOM songs there’s a lot of repetition.

HH: Yeah, yeah [laughs], I know. I thought that was something that suited it, I really love the way it was so minimal, reusing versus of words. Part of it was expediency, I will admit. It was also though that it suited the robotic quality of the music to be like that. It helped create a comic book quality to it… do you think?

I do. I also think that the album artwork by Darren Wardle lends itself to creating that comic feel. As the tracks unfold it is almost a journey through a comic, a story.

HH: I like that. It’s different for me. I think we’ve all really enjoyed that aspect of it, it feels really quite cool when we can make stuff like that—it’s a good feeling.

Cover art by Darren Wardle.

Something else that I have noticed in your song writing is that you often write about the theme of death; where does that come from?

HH: Yes, yes. I can’t help that, I’ve always done that to some extent I’ve always been a dark writer. Universally in art, death and sex and love are the big themes. It’s such a big thing. I was very sick, for a while it was quite touch and go, for over a year with my own health. My brother Roland died after I started getting better, and my parents have died… it’s a good way to deal with these things, making songs about it and stuff. It’s hard to talk about things like that, but if you put it into this framework of song lyrics, you can take any attitude you want and be quite playful with it. I don’t know though, I’m just attracted to doing it. I’m constantly writing songs that mention death.

Like you said, I guess it’s just processing stuff.

HH: Exactly. Even if you’re not thinking about them, these things are there in your mind, you know them and you can’t ignore them. Whatever you say about them can be useful, it doesn’t matter what attitude you take with them, if it’s some sort of dialogue it’s going to be useful.

Absolutely. I’ve lost both of my parents as well… I don’t know if you ever get to deal with things like that, for me anyway, like you said, it’s always there. It sucks that you can’t just simply hug a loved one anymore once they’re gone. Making stuff helps.

HH: Yeah, they’re the things you can’t change; what can you do about them? [laughs]. Not much! You have to have a release for it in some way.

I even noticed with your band names, ATOM is the building blocks of life, The Near Death Experience is death, then you have These Immortal Souls that’s life after death or eternal life.

HH: [Laughs]. There you go, it’s all about death.

Yeah, the whole cycle of life!

HH: I hadn’t thought about that! Things are strange how they work out, they can start making sense after a while. It’s very odd. For example when you write words and you have no idea of what you’re writing about and then you realise after, oh that make sense now.

Where did the ATOM song “I Used To Win” come from?

HH: Ahhh, well… that’s a good question. I was actually trying to write something a bit dark and a bit negative, I’m a big fan of film noir, that’s almost like a celebration of things going bad in a way. I wanted to do something along those lines and I just came up with that phrase and I thought it was evocative because it implies so much. “I Used To Win” is a more interesting way of saying that you lose or that you’ve lost a great deal. It’s got nothing to do with the Ollie Olsen song “Win/Lose” but it somehow clicked ‘cause I was doing a thing and writing about winning and losing, it was a personal reference for me. That’s a side thing that sometimes you might be influenced by people but you’ll have a reference from wherever and it encourages you. There’s a connection to Ollie’s song but I was just doing my own thing. I thought Simon Grounds did a good production job on that song, it turns into an apocalypse of noise!

I love that the album has a lot of atmospheric sounds.

HH: Synths are very atmospheric. They have such a strong personality.

It’s interesting that you’re in a band with synths now, I remember reading an interview with you from a while ago and you mentioned that as kids your brother and sister was enrolled in piano lesson but you dodged them.

HH: [Laughs] Yeah, I did! When I think of synths now, the keys are like a way into the sounds. I can’t play keyboards, I can only play rudimentary riffs on the keyboard, it takes me ages to work things out. So, I should have gone to more lessons! [laughs].

A lot of the music you write is quite dark; where do you find joy and happiness in your life?

HH: Just in the silly things [laughs]. There is an awful lot about life that is dark, e.g. the fact that you die and everyone you love that’s around you dies. There’s a lot of misfortune and there’s a lot of people that never get to be as one bit lucky as we are in Australia, being one of the richest countries in the world. There’s lots that you could describe as dark that goes on, on top of that I’m a bit of a sceptic about happiness, I don’t think we’re meant to be happy all the time. I don’t know if we’re designed to do that, I think it’s a bit of a high ideal. If you’re going to really look at things realistically I don’t think you can be happy all of the time. People use mind-altering substances because it’s easy to forget about why you’re not feeling happy at a particular time. I don’t want to be grim about it, I think life is really great, there’s so much to enjoy. I’m dubious about optimism, of always looking on the bright side, ok, but the dark side is alright sometimes as well, I don’t think we should block that out completely. It’s quite enjoyable when you embrace it in the way of film noir or look at all of the literature, film and music that is dark and how incredibly life affirming it can be—it can inspire you.

I get you. Sad songs often make me happy.

HH: Yeah and it can be a quite useful way to get out your own emotions. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of sad.

That’s been a big lesson for me in the last year. I was one of those I-should-be-happy-all-the-time people until my husband pointed out that it’s insane to try and live like that.

HH: I agree. You’d have to make yourself really shallow to live like that, we have many sides; I don’t want to be like that.

Same! What are you working on now?

HH: At the moment we’re working on a new ATOM record.

Yes!

HH: We’re doing it in isolation. Ben told us today that he was working on some updated beats and things we’ve got going. Ed and I will work on them here. We’ve got songs on the go, about half the record is written, it just needs to be arranged. We have three writers and things happen pretty quickly with us, everyone really wants to get their stuff in so we can be quite competitive; there’s no shortage of material. So there’s the next ATOM album, ATOM 2, and then I’ve got all this solo stuff I keep working on. I’ve just been in touch with Dave [Graney] and Clare [Moore] – Dave has a lung condition and he will be isolating quite seriously for a while – I thought we might try emailing stuff back and forth for a potential NDE project. I work in a hospital, so I’m in this lull before the storm too! Which is taking up a bit of my mind right now, it’s very stressful.

It’s scary what’s happening in the world right now?

HH: It is! It’s like the future is here now!

The ATOM record has come true!

HH: I know! All those shows we’ve watched on Netflix about the dystopia has come, it’s really arrived.

We’re very excited that you’re still creating throughout it all!

HH: Thank you!

You’ve made our day that a new ATOM record is coming! It was such an underrated record, when I first heard it I thought it was so cool and different; sonically it was like a punch in the face in a good way!

HH: [Laughs]. I wish it had punched more people in the face, not many people I think have heard it.

That’s why we’re having this chat with you! It was one of our favourite records of last year!

Please check out: ATOM. Get In Every Dream Home out now on IT RECORDS.