INXS. Nick Cave. Midnight Oil. The Presets? Manuscript tracks the electronic duo's bold attempt to join the Australian music canon.
When two highly skilled but emphatically bored Conservatorium of Music graduates stumbled into the role of punk-dance prophets for a new generation of Australian hedonists, it didn’t sound like a formula for a serious, lasting career. Yet somehow, almost a decade later, Julian Hamilton and Kimberley Moyes find themselves standing on a precipice so far above their contemporaries that they have nobody to rebel against but themselves. Internationally acclaimed and locally deified, The Presets return this spring with Pacifica, their third and perhaps most dangerous outing yet. “We’re in a really gifted position right now where we’ve worked really hard to get all of these people’s attention”, says Mr Moyes, The Presets’ propulsive drummer and keyboardist. "Now we have a lot of people waiting to hear what we do next, so let’s deliver it to them in the most ambitious way that we can."
Whether it’s turning up to the ARIA awards clad in Romance Was Born or remixing Kings of Leon, The Presets revel in shocking their audience. It’s a trick they perform to devastating effect on Pacifica, which was preceded by what Mr Moyes refers to as the ‘face-melting techno’ of lead single ‘Youth In Trouble’ that had tastemakers aflutter about the supposed new direction of the group who have led Modular’s electronic brat pack – The Avalanches, Cut Copy and Van She – for what seems like an era. They were right, of course, but also completely wrong. A sprawling, ambitious record that encompasses a whole new spectrum of sounds and ideas one would never typically associate with the group, Pacifica is perhaps the best magic trick of all because it reveals what The Presets have been masking their entire lives; namely, that they’re actually proper musicians. “One of the concepts for the record was to base the centre around the piano and the drums. We wanted every song to have some kind of subconscious meaning, which is ‘This is Julian and Kim and this is who we are and where we came from,’” says Mr Moyes.
Where The Presets come from, of course, is Sydney, Australia. Pacifica is defined not only by its astonishing excursions into sledgehammer techno, classic mood rock and major-chord synth-pop, but also by an inescapable, driving Australianness. There’s a tune called ‘Ghosts’ that is a bass-drum driven convict sea shanty, and another, ‘Adults Only’ which references Darlinghurst small bars, bushfires, yuppies and cocaine. “I think in the past we were much more concerned with presenting ourselves as an international act,” says Mr Moyes. “And in the wake of all the success we had, particularly in Australia, we started to look at who we were as Australians and as an Australian band, and who we liked growing up.”
This extends beyond Hamilton’s accent, which has always been pronounced on The Presets' records but typically wrapped up in loop pedals, effects and pitch modulators, through to the aesthetic of the songs themselves. “We looked at the amazing quality of certain Australian acts, like INXS, Midnight Oil and Nick Cave and wanted to create something that we felt could exist amongst records of that calibre. This time around we didn’t want to disguise Julian’s voice. We really went to town on previous records by layering it up in distortion and creating these dark characters that were quite punk-y. Now we really tried to take the mask off everything, in the most natural way we could.”
It’s hard to move beyond ‘Adults Only’ when talking about Pacifica, a disturbingly noir epic about the seedy underbelly of Sydney, because there’s just so much to talk about in those six minutes. “We really wanted to inject a bit of this feeling, which is something we personally have felt for a long time about Sydney,” says Mr Moyes. “It’s this place that’s quite idyllic with good times and beautiful beaches but there is a dark history to it and a dark present. There’s something crook underneath it all and we wanted to draw attention to that, perhaps to people we play to overseas, you know, who think Australia is all Home & Away and Neighbours.”
The song ends with a menacing buzz of pure white noise that only relents at the final moment. It’s uncomfortable, grating and never quite drops into the house beat you’d imagine it would, which Mr Moyes maintains is the exact denial of pleasure he was aiming for. “We were trying to create absolute tension. It’s that non-verbal feeling of fear that we wanted to inject. Someone actually said to us recently that the white noise at the end sounded like blowflies, which I don’t think we thought about, but that adds another amazing Australian element to the song.”
Perhaps the most useful way to think about Pacifica is that it sounds like The Presets after they’ve gone to bed at a reasonable hour (unlikely, given they’ve both recently become fathers) and had a decent shower. The rebellious streak is still there, but clean pop songs with very few bells and whistles have rinsed in with the grime and dirt of their signature sound. Down tempo ballad ‘Its Cool’ is almost completely organic, nothing but voice, drums and piano, while ‘Promises’ pumps out a major chord progression that is perhaps even more stunning than ‘Adults Only’ because there’s not a hint of darkness in there. Nobody will see it coming. Certainly hearing Hamilton sing out a proper pop melody instead of flattening his notes to match club grooves will be a revelation – and a divisive one at that – for many fans, but The Presets remain confident. “Pav [Stephen Pavlovic, Modular CEO] told us ‘This album is the career definer. The last one was a breakthrough success and if you nail this one, it sort of seals the deal,’” said Mr Moyes. “At a certain point in the making of this record, we needed to hear that.”
Have the bad boys of electronica mellowed? “You have to remember we’ve both had kids in this time, so we also have that circle of life sort of thing come to the forefront. You see in your child and start to look back at yourself, and become less concerned about where you’re heading. We are fortunate to be in a position where we could settle down and enjoy those moments of inspiration and not worry about whether anyone would listen to it if it didn’t sound a certain way. Hopefully it comes across like that, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t,” says Mr Moyes. “I don’t really care either way if the next wave of great Australian music is electronic or not, I just want it to be great.”