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.

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