DC Root is, whether he bloody well likes it or not, one of the “elder spokesmen” of the Melbourne – nay, AUSTRALIAN – music scene. His current band, Root!, having been gigging a bit of late to promote their last album, Surface Paradise, an epic journey which lays the vacuousness of the “Idol-contestant generation” to waste. Michael Bowser speaks to the be-hatted frontman about art museum openings, the evils of “cool” people and the faux-profundity of Killers songs.
On Root!’s first album, Root Supposed He Was Out Of The Question, the “sound” of the band kept mostly to the whole “country” aesthetic, with a bit of hip-hop and rock and other more “modern” flavours tossed in. With the second album, Surface Paradise, the band got a bit bolder and stepped more frequently outside of any rigid “genre” confines, and basically seemed to do whatever the hell they fancied, musically-speaking! Is this a path we should expect Root! to continue travelling down in the future? Also, should we be expecting more “concept albums” a la Surface Paradise, and if so, what potential “themes” are you toying with lyrically at the moment?
I like cowboy hats, Michael. At a reasonable distance, even I manage to look passable in one. And that was the length and breadth of my ambition when I started this thing: Try not to look like a cock, and don’t get laughed off the stage. That achieved, I looked over the parapet and went – hmm, coast is clear. So my old bad habits, my vaulting ambition, my genre smorgasbording, slowly returned. Now the challenge is whether I can make people accept a guy in a cowboy hat playing electronica.
Root’s second album, Surface Paradise, was released a ways back now. What headway have the band made toward a third album?
Well, while we’re on this little leitmotif, there’s been a swapping of hats this year from the ROOT! hat to the DC Root hat. Same hat, in actuality, it just depends how you tilt it.
I heard a rumour that you’re currently working on a “solo” album of sorts, in conjuction with an art gallery opening. Care to give us any more info, or is it too soon to let that particular cat out of its bag?
Nice segue! Yep, the DC Root hat happened because I was approached by Australia’s most renowned art collector David Walsh, to make an album for an art museum. Now once you, as I had to, overcome the minefield of hubris lurking in that sentence, here’s the deal: David Walsh has a lot of very very expensive, famous art – Boyd, Nolan, Whitely, Hirst, you name it. He’s got real Egyptian mummies, he’s got crazy experimental installations, he’s got stuff to enrage the callers on talk radio, he’s got ancient artefacts, he’s got a coin – which I had in my hand, at one point – worth a million dollars. And he’s building a museum for the public to experience it all. Not just any little old gallery, mind, this is summed up in two words: “Fuck Off”. It’ll be one of the architectural wonders of the country, it’ll be an international tourist attraction, and if you think all that is highly implausible, here’s the crazy bit: He’s asked me to make an album for it. I was scratching my head for weeks. In fact, I still find it a little, um, dada-ist. He could have got some lugubriously serious “artiste” type, the types you’d expect to write songs about art…he could have got some caterwauling, earnest folkie, or some girl with an irritatingly fey, cutesy vocal affectation…he could have got yer typical roll call of critics’ darlings, yer Nick Caves’ or yer Paul Kelly’s, but instead he asked me. And I said to him, you realise that I might not necessarily treat these works with the reverence they deserve, and he said: “Precisely.”
The museum opens in January next year, which is when my songs written about/despite the art will be heard. I’m not sure about the logistics. At this stage, the idea is that you can listen to the songs on your little headphones while you look at the art. It’s called MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art, and you can look it up on the ‘net.
At a recent live show I attended the band were adorned with “hi-visibility” workwear, and you yourself began the set hanging off a workman’s ladder. Then, at another gig, the band went off at half-time to resume stage in their PAJAMAS! Now, apart from inarguably establishing yourselves as The Best Dressed Band In Australia (if not The World!), could you tell us a bit more about the ideas that lay behind such bold choices of apparel?
It’s those hats again, Michael. When people look at a photo of us, they see the hats, and they immediately put us into a neat little box marked “alt-country”. But as you know, we don’t play alt-country. So we decided to fuck with the image a little. I like the hats, so for the present, they stay. But we’re having a little fun with the rest of the look.
I couldn’t help but notice a number of lyrical and musical allusions you and your band have made to The Killers. Does this mean there’s one or more Killers fans in the band, or are you merely taking the piss?
It ain’t The Killers per se, it’s just one couplet: “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier”. I’m aware that Bill Bailey apparently featured it in one of his comedy routines, which goes to show I wasn’t the only person who found it an hilariously meaningless bit of faux-profundity. So I sing “It’s not soul, it’s solipsism” – which is a bit of a theme running through Surface Paradise – the whole self-obsession of the Idol-contestant generation.
You also appear to be waging a one-man war (which I presume you’re losing) with the very modern phenomenon of the “juice bar”. The lyric “When my juice is ready, don’t call my name / Just call out number 43 – my juice tastes just the same” is, in my humble opinion, one of the most poignant and, dare I say, “relevant” statements to be made in a serious, contemporary adult rock song in many an aeon. Do you get nasty looks from Boost Juice ladies, or has the industry remained none-the-wiser to your taunts?
Ha! I am but an aphid on the pineapple leaf of the Evil Juice Empire, Michael. I’ve long since forgotten my gripe about Boost Juice, if I ever had a reasonable one in the first place, but I do like to play the ranting drunk in the bar who goes on about how fluoridisation wrecked the moral fibre of our country.
Another lyrical obsession of yours is that of the plight of the ageing Australian male. From “Young Man’s Blues Blues” and “I’ll Get My Kicks When I’m 66 (Root! 66)” on the first album, to the closing track of Surface Paradise and “I Fought The Groove Police” and other songs besides, one wonders whether you harbour just a little bitterness towards younger men…or perhaps you’re just choosing to “grow old (dis)gracefully” in your own peculiar way? Or are you simply gonna cop out of this question and say that all your songs are inspired by a “friend of a friend of a friend”, haha?!
Hmm. Bitter. DC Bitter – brewed for years. The easy way to discredit anyone’s argument is to slap a nice pejorative hat on them – there’s that hat motif again! – once that hat goes on, people will stop listening to you. Picking on young men?? That must be because he’s a BITTER OLD MAN. Picking on successful people?? TALL POPPY SYNDROME. Picking on conservative politics?? CHARDONNAY SOCIALIST. Picking on male hegemony?? FEMINIST BALLBREAKER. Let’s just clear something up – anyone who doesn’t feel at least a little mixture of sadness and impotent frustration at their diminishing physicality, their subtle, incremental marginalisation, their loss of innocence, is either superhuman or lying. Only, you shouldn’t write about this, because you immediately finger yourself as bitter, defensive, jealous of youth. Being “old” is actually a lot of fun in heaps of ways, but you have to make a point of this, because everywhere around you, the opposite is implied. And of course, no more acutely than in the business of popular music, where being cool is actually more important than the music in the majority of cases.
Can you imagine The Rolling Stones having the same impact if they had been forty when they made their first album? Or Kasabian? Vampire Weekend? You name it. We tell ourselves we like the music, but an angry young man is so much more exciting than an angry OLD man. I like to write about unglamorous people and things. Growing old doesn’t get more unglamorous. Mind you, I’ve felt excluded from cliques ever since I was young anyway. I didn’t go to the right school, I was an unsophisticated oik. When Nick Cave and his Caulfield Grammar mates were the height of the scene at the Crystal Ballroom, I was going to the Fire Station disco at Brandon Park. When I was in one of my early high school bands, playing sort of amateurish Thin Lizzy, one of my mates started going out with a girl from PLC and started getting invites to parties in Toorak, and we tagged along, but we were soon found out.
We met this guy who went to Melbourne High who mocked us and lectured us about punk, and how his band was punk and we were 100 years behind the time and should just quit fooling ourselves. A couple of years later I saw him at a party, dressed like a different person, dancing in a very aggressive “statement-making” way to music I’d never heard before – ska, as a matter of fact. A year or so after that he was at a nightclub in a completely new persona again, this time a white singlet and baggy pants – the new funk. A year or so after that, he was championing R’n’B (the proper original one) and had a band who were the next big thing, and was going out with this beautiful girl who booked the bands for Chasers’ “Club Go Fast”. Let’s face it, he was a hateful shithead, but every time I saw him, he made me feel like last month’s news. He’s no doubt gained some humility in his later life, but he is a symbol – living on at every cool young person’s party, where some “Indie” guy ponces around with a notebook supposedly to transcribe lyrical gems as they happen – he is a symbol of the Groove Police. Cool people – now, then, tomorrow – that’s who I’m after.
In the song of the same name, you sing about a nightmare of appearing on the Australian “improvisational comedy” show ‘Thank God You’re Here’. Was this an actual dream you had, and do you secretly harbour fantasies of appearing on said program?
Are my songs literal, autobiographical? Look, the cowardly, mediocre, mean-spirited bits are; the romantic, Byronic bits are ripped off someone else. As for Thank God You’re Here, I can’t watch that program, because all I can sense is the inescapable whiff of massively competitive ego, daggers behind the smile, a roomful of people who have to have the last word. I have actually met some comedians, and with precious few exceptions, because they know who I am meant to be, they come out firing, wanting to engage me in a duel to the death of fierce intellectual sparring, as if I am constantly up for the challenge. I am not. I will retreat, acquiesce, defer, and generally come across as boringly unlike my stage persona. Give me “normal” people any day, thanks.
A final question, one we always ask here at Music Vice: Other than music, are there any other current vices of yours that you’d like to share with us?
People shit me.
© Michael Bowser, Music Vice
Root! play The Evelyn Hotel, Fitzroy, Melbourne on Saturday 26th June with The Rhetorics and The Decoys as support.