Youth in Trouble: An Interview With the Presets

Coming off of the tour of their life, dance mavens the Presets talk about their influences, Chicago house music, and a sneak peak of what we can expect in their next whole decade.

The Presets

Check Yo Ponytail Tour

Date: 2014

Since 2003, Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes of the Presets have been making some of the smartest dance music in the world. Their first two EPs, Blow Up and Girl and the Sea announced the arrival of an act that was unafraid to get down and dirty when it came to mixing rock beats with pulsating electronic tempo, something that has become the norm as EDM and electronica become the most popular music genres around.

When the Presets released their first album Beams, they had pretty much secured their status as one of the most exciting duos in the genre, but what has always set them apart are their haunting lyrics, sung with soul-piercing bravado by Hamilton, who in songs like "If I Know You" from their sophomore album Apocalypso takes gender bending heartbreak to new levels.

The duo is currently celebrating their tenth anniversary by embarking on an ambitious tour that will continue well into 2015 as they headline a series of concerts in their native Australia. Their last release Pacifica, which came out in 2012, and is perhaps their most mature album so far (although the same could be said for each of the previous two as they were released) was a preview of great things to come for the band, who on tour often preview songs they're working on.

We had the opportunity to talk to Hamilton during the American leg of their tour, where from a hotel room in Texas he looked back at their career and discussed plans for the future.

* * *

First of all, happy tenth anniversary! Did you guys see yourselves making it this far when you started?

I don't think we were really thinking about it when we first started. I guess we always wanted to have a career making music that we liked, so I guess we hoped we'd still be doing that. I don't know what we thought the Presets would end up being, but it's nice that it's still going!

What would you say is the biggest technological change you've seen since you first started?

Two things have changed: the music technology and means to create music have become a lot easier, a lot cheaper and faster, but also the means to share and distribute music online has become so different. When we first started we signed a record deal, made our first EPs and then MySpace started. There was no Facebook, Soundcloud, Twitter or anything like that ... so things have changed a lot since we started, which makes it much more exciting. Now bands can make their own albums in their bedrooms, on a laptop computer, and not only that, they can share their music with the world with the click of a button and we weren't able to do that when we started.

Has technology made it easier for you to go on tours, since I can imagine you need to bring less equipment with you?

[laughs] Even though we make dance music, it's funny, we still have a hundred thousand dollars worth of gear and huge equipment, also lighting and sets that we built. It's not quite as easy for us to take a laptop or a USB stick to a show. It might as well be a 20-piece orchestra judging from the amount of equipment we take on the road.

I've always thought of Beams as getting ready for a party, Apocalypto like getting completely shitfaced at said party and then Pacifica like waking up hungover and wanting to be soothed.

[laughs] That sounds nice. I never thought about it that way, I think certainly those three records for us represent certain times in our lives and listening back to songs feels like going through a photo album and recognizing a younger self. Even Pacifica, our latest record, feels kinda old to me. I don't feel like that guy anymore. When we made Beams we were young and enthusiastic and then with Apocalypso we were working hard and trying to make the most from the opportunities we'd created for ourselves. Everything was so fast at that time, with Pacifica we were more reflective, more relaxed after the madness of Apocalypso. I think it's good, hopefully when you make an album it should feel like it's part of your life, otherwise it's not sincere.

When you set out to make a new record do you work from an original concept or just try to put together a number of songs you've made?

I think certainly Kim and I will always have musical notes and little ideas in our head, or themes, I guess little musical ideas that we want to explore or musical things that we want to get off our chests. I guess when we made Apocalypso for example, we wanted to make something rocking, something to party that was really explosive and I feel we did that. Next after that we didn't feel like we needed to say that again and went for a more pop style, electronic, but more melodic and more lyrical, just because it was what we needed to get off our chests and now we've done that. So yeah, we are making new music and again, is different from everything we've done before, hopefully it'll still be recognizable as us, but it's the next chapter.

Since you brought that up, I do agree that all your records sound like they were made by The Presets, but it's not because of the sounds, but because your lyrics always have great moments when you just stop cold on the dancefloor and go "Did they really just sing that?" Were you always interested in making reflexive dance music?

Thanks, that's really kind of you to say, you know, I guess we don't really sit around and go "This time let's just write some lyrics that really mean something." You don't really think about it, it's just what comes out. We just sit down with our instruments, we make beats, and sounds and then we sit down with the track and play around with little lyrical fragments that I've found from different places, and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together and then Kim and I, just know, when a cool song is finished. We're not poets walking around with a little notebook and writing all day long.

Bear with me as I say this, but your songs often remind me of country music, in how you're telling little stories, which isn't very common in dance music. "Promises" for example has always made me think it would be a perfect opening number for a Broadway style musical ...

That's cool!

Is that something that you've discussed at some point? Using your music to explore different kinds of narratives?

Certainly, my favorite songwriters, someone like Morrissey for example, their songs are always stories or even hip-hop, or rap, there are people I listened to growing up who would write these interesting stories and obviously the beats were cool and the delivery was great, but at its core they were interesting narratives. So we try to do that with our songs, instead of just saying things like "let's party" or "this is the best night of our lives", the kind of thing that gets done again and again. We have done work with dance choreographers and this year we worked with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, so we do different things with The Presets outside of pop records, but we haven't done a musical yet, maybe one day, The Presets Story as a musical!

There's a film called Eden which chronicles the rise of electronica in France and it made me wonder if you'd personally seen any films that capture the essence of dance music.

Wow. Not really. A few years ago I saw a little documentary about the Detroit techno and Chicago house scene, and they interviewed some of those guys in their homes. I can't remember what it's called. [Ed. Note: we're guessing Pump Up the Volume from 2001.] I daresay there's probably been hundreds of documentaries made about EDM and dance in the years since then, but since we're in that world making that kind of music, we don't usually seek out documentaries about it, cause we spend all day making it anyway. I know many bands that will take documentary filmmakers on the road with them to make films about the tours they're doing ... I'm lucky if I have enough time to watch a movie once a month these days.

Prepping for this interview made me feel really old, because it took me back to a time when I was in college and there was all this amazing dance music from bands like Cut Copy, Sneaky Sound System, Empire of the Sun. and PNAU, which for a moment made everyone think Australians were the only ones who knew how to make good dance music.

There was a while back there that was very interesting, I guess I wouldn't say that Australians weren't the only ones who knew how to make dance music, but certainly there was a scene coming from Australia that was very, very exciting! It's funny, I'm in a hotel room in Austin right now talking to you and I remember walking down these streets eight years ago playing SXSW and I remember at the time when we came to the US, some of our favorite music like the Detroit techno, were things we really loved growing up in the '90s and when we came to the States we wondered what had happened to dance music here. It kinda disappeared. When you go to Europe the party scene that started in 1998 felt like it never stopped, but in the US it disappeared, we couldn't really find it. I'm sure there were raves and parties going on, but it was all either country music or hip-hop, but now of course EDM is huge, back with a vengeance, it's almost the most popular music around!

So what can we expect from The Presets for the next ten years?

Ten? Wow! Hopefully we're still making music in ten years! Kim and I really enjoy making music together, and as long as we enjoy doing it we'll keep doing it. Lord knows what kids will be listening to in ten years' time ... but I daresay there'll still be the need for people to go out and have a little dance, so as long as they want to dance, hopefully there's still room for us to exist.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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