The Big Read: DMA's
In the midst of lockdown, Lucy Gray caught up with DMA’s frontman Matt Mason, fondly referred to by other members of the band just as Mason, to gather an insight into understanding the band’s latest release The Glow, working with Stuart Price, losing fans, and their unique MTV Unplugged album.
Australian trio DMA’s have been one of the hottest names in indie rock in recent years, thanks to their unique blend of classic Britpop and swaggering charm. Earlier this month, the band finally released their much-anticipated third studio album The Glow, containing singles Silver, Life is a Game of Changing and title track The Glow, which allowed fans to gain an insight into the direction that the trio had taken. Whilst sophomore record For Now saw the band take their signature guitar and drum rhythms to new heights, with more grit and edge that resonates perfectly in their live shows, and a balance of harmonic ballads, The Glow sees the three explore their musicianship through different avenues; experimenting with synths and drum-tracks, and something that may surprise existing fans who have followed the band since their first self-titled EP.
Asking Mason about their lockdown sessions, he explains how publications sought exclusive covers meaning they were learning new compositions at a more frequent rate than usual. Mason explains an added challenge; “having to play a song in it’s entirety perfectly is something I haven’t had to do like ever,” he says, perhaps a surprise for such a well-toured band whose popularity is ever-increasing: In light of the pandemic, the band’s album had been delayed from April 24th to July 10th. “Thinking about these isolation sessions, it’s given us quite a bit of exposure – I’d like for it to [have been] out, but the more and more you spend mentioning it here and there, the more exposure it gets” Mason considers; “I said just release it, that way people can listen to it at home”.
The second single from the new record, Life is a Game of Changing, nods towards what the band captured across the whole album, and embodies their influences most accurately. Not just the instrumentation, but by virtue of trying new things that won’t be so familiar against the rest of the DMA’s archives. Still operating within the 90s Mancunian realm, the trio take more inspiration from the dance scene, such as the Chemical Brothers and New Order. Working with producer Stuart Price, familiar professionally with these inspirations, brought their desire for this manifestation to another level. “He’s just such a great guy; after we did our first song, we were talking about how cool Stuart was for hours,” Mason confirms. Talking about how their working relationship organised itself, Mason explains “We gave him free range to pretty much do whatever he liked. We’ve worked with producers before that will ask you first when they wanna try something wild. Stuart didn’t even ask and would just turn around and start doing these pretty wild, out there things on the record. I thought that was really cool and bold; that’s how a lot of that stuff came to be”.
The band have seemingly found themselves to be in a place where experimenting isn’t so daunting anymore, which may arguably seem early for a band like DMA’s. Yet the three have established their musicianship already, releasing an EP, three studio albums, and an MTV Unplugged album, providing a solid platform for the trio to explore their landscape further; “When you start off you have more of a vision and are a bit stricter about what you’re willing to do,” Mason states. “We wanted to try some more genres and branch out; do things in styles we hadn’t done before, gain new fans and get played on radio stations that hadn’t played us before”.
However, Mason hopes that these new landscapes won’t scare off their existing fans entirely; “Hopefully all those fans who are into that Britpop/Mod vibe will catch onto that 90’s/Hacienda influence. There are some songs on there that I think some of our die-hard fans might not like so much. The thought does cross your mind – not that it would have affected what we did at all”. Mason goes onto explain that this synth landscape formed the very foundations of the band; “That’s actually the way we’ve always wanted to be. We’d been making electronic music at home and it was the first stuff we’d ever done, but all of the instruments were in the computer and we didn’t own those sorts of synthesisers”. Since they needed to be seen live before they were signed, these limitations in equipment meant they relied on the songs that contained only the guitar and drums they had lying around; “Then we just stuck with that, so that’s how the guitar element came about; they were the only instruments we had to play live, we couldn’t really afford to buy synths and drum machines. It’s good to be going back to it”.
As we discuss the new album in more detail, Mason explains how some tracks appear to be more polarising than others, with members of the band themselves having some reservations. He talks of album cut Criminals, a ballad which is certainly contrastive of their usual sound; “It sounds a bit like a Justin Bieber B-Side”, Mason laughs “and I know that it’s going to be really polarising; I hope we gain as many fans as we lose with that one”. Writing the song himself, Mason expresses his own satisfaction with the track but that it was met with some resistance: “There are some members of the band who absolutely hate it; it could’ve gone in any direction. I wrote that song about two weeks before we went in the studio, which we never do. We usually have songs for years before we put them on a record, so no-one knew what the hell was going on with it; it was brand new. Hopefully it’ll take us to different places”.
'The more you progress and succeed, then the more you can focus on doing whatever your heart desires creatively,' Matt Mason
The rest of the band rarely disagree on anything, Mason tells, and other than Criminals, they were happy with every song on the album, explaining that it was nearly cut from the album; “Some people got sat down and had a talking to. Tommy really loves it. He’s kinda the unofficial boss of the band”. Talking about another track on the album called Cobracaine, which “doesn’t have any guitars on it”, he expresses a further interest in the fan response given their name as a guitar band.
I ask Mason how their live shows may be affected by the turn in direction, but despite his previous concern in fan response, he is confident in their ability to pull through with good live shows regardless: “We were playing Life is a Game of Changing, and that has a big drum-machine beat in the background and a big synth break; and we nailed it. We’ve got people to help us so although we still play all the music, the team set up the computers and how to do things. I’m mostly looking forward to it, and I hope that we get more and more challenges to do live”.
What is most intriguing and refreshing about Mason’s attitude is the passion for his craft; it is subtle but it comes through. Although he shows concern for the band’s fans and their response, he doesn’t let this get in the way of their musicianship, and is evidently keen to push their artistic boundaries; “We’ve been touring with just guitars for years now and we’re kind over it. We wanna do different stuff and keep ourselves entertained”. It’s exciting to hear where the band want to take themselves, and reassuring that they aren’t afraid to experiment. Thinking of the backlash that some artists face for going against their own grain, Mason’s laidback ethos is admirable and is likely to be a contributing factor to the success of their future endeavours, as well as highlight them against their contemporaries.
'The only feedback I really get is from my mum, and she’s always gonna say it’s great!'
When asked what he hopes will come from the release of the record, Mason gives an insightful answer into his ethos; “It’s opening up to our fans slowly with a genre that we’ve always wanted to do and was the original goal. We’re slowly letting people know that this is a direction that may be more permanent in the future. There’s a lot of fans who just like the fast guitar songs, and there’s not much of it on this record and we feel like they might feel a bit left out. So, we’re in talks of recording a five or six song EP in a year with really fast guitar songs and no synths”. This comes as a desire to pay respect to their “day one’s”, Mason says, as they intend to change quite dramatically and open up to the Pop and Electronic world.
We begin to reflect on the past five years and how much has changed in their sound since their first EP. Mason explains that they’re in a different place both personally and professionally than when they started out, and how this has lent itself to their growth; “We recorded our first EP ourselves in Johnny’s bedroom, and we were partying a lot back then. I think that learning a bit of professionalism in the studio has been good for our development. Also just being able to concentrate on your creative flow; if you’ve got engineers and a producer, you can just keep flowing and the creativity doesn’t have to stop. That’s a massive thing for us, because when we were recording our first EP ourselves, the technical difficulties and editing can be a bit of a headache. Focussing purely on the beautiful melodies and lyrics has been huge for us”. I ask Mason if their newfound focus means that their new creations will be more demonstrative of themselves, to which Mason responds “That’s so true,” eagerly. “The more you progress and succeed, then the more you can focus on doing whatever your heart desires creatively”.
Over these past five years, DMA’s have frequented releases, with an EP, a third studio album, and joining the MTV Unplugged hall of fame. It seems that the band are extremely productive in their musicianship, yet Mason says this isn’t the case and that they aren’t too different from other artists; “Although we put out the MTV Unplugged album, we’ve basically done fresh studio material every two years, but that kinda means we don’t do anything for a year and a half”. It’s difficult to tell whether Mason is just being modest and perhaps this flow of music comes naturally as a result of their drive and interest. He elaborates on his own productivity; “I think it’s funny when people think we’re productive because- yeah, an album every two years is pretty good, but I think we can be pretty lazy sometimes. I like that people think I’m productive, because I don’t think I am; thank you!” He compares the process to one that Australian artist Paul Kelly, a proclaimed influence of the band by all members on separate occasions, describes; “He’s a massive influence. He was saying that ‘Everyone thinks I’m so productive but I don’t do jack-shit for eighteen months. Then the last six months I write and release an album' which is very easy to do, “and everyone thinks I’m productive” So it might be another year or eighteen months until we even start talking about another DMA’s record”.
The conversation digresses as I begin to ask about the MTV Unplugged album, however this leads to an interesting anecdote regarding the subject of ‘Emily Whyte’; “She was in the front row; I was freaking out. I was playing this instrument that was super difficult. It has like 10 strings and you change the notes with your feet; it’s a really crazy instrument, and I was sweating! If you look at the live video you can see my fingers are shaking, and she’s sitting right there; I was so nervous. She said it was good but I don’t know if she was just being nice,” Mason laughs nervously, reliving the event.
I ask him about one of the new album tracks, Learning Alive, that is reminiscent of the Unplugged compositions, and whether inspiration was drawn from that project; “Fully. We just love those stripped back pianos and violins; it’s classic and I think everyone loves that stuff. Stuart crafted the direction for that song; the sonic landscape. I don’t know if he’s listened to our live album, so how it came to sound like that might just be a coincidence”. Considering their MTV Unplugged album, and the new style of The Glow, it is evident that the band are keen to push themselves further from the staple DMA’s name that has been created thus far, and instead establish themselves as artists who are capable of grappling with other musical backgrounds.
A significant release within the past few months for the band ironically came from another artist; Orbital. The dance giants released a remix of second single Life is a Game of Changing early-mid March, a testament to the trio’s ability to grapple with the genre they were influenced by. Being artists within this Electronic genre, Mason explains how big of a deal this was; “There were a couple of guys in our camp who freaked out when that got locked in; and I love it”. As Mason tells more of the process the remix went through, I get an insight into Mason’s eclectic taste, as he talks fondly of the original “psycho” version that is yet unreleased; “It was super heavy and a bit scary, and I think our label asked them to tone it down a lot. What you hear is quite different to the first thing they sent us – it was very intense. I loved it, but I think it would be a bit too hardcore”.
Considering the die-hard nature of their following, it’s difficult to say how fans will react to their change in sound. However, it’s undeniable that their artistic landscape has broadened significantly in a relatively short space of time, a testament to their dedication to their craft.
Asking him whether he would like to release the original, he eagerly responds “Yeah! I hate it when labels try and go ‘Oh that bits good, but why don’t you change it?’ Like man, that’s not what you do”. Intrigued by his ethos, I ask him about their own label’s attitude towards their own work; “Music? We get away with everything. They’re pretty good with that. Stylistically and musically we don’t butt heads that much”. We talk about the single pre-remix and the reception it had, to which Mason voices that he isn’t one to obsess over comments; “We were a little worried but it’s hard to know. The melodies are pretty signature Tommy vocals, but the instrumentation’s different. The only feedback I really get is from my mum, and she’s always gonna say it’s great,” Mason chuckles, “Annie Mac played it a few times which is really good”.
The context Mason provides for their new album encapsulates what we should expect from DMA’s going forward; the unexpected. As cliché as it sounds, there is a clear interest in pushing boundaries and creating another element of the DMA’s name that isn’t defined by genre, but rather a musicianship that isn’t limited to the bounds at their foundation. Considering the die-hard nature of their following, it’s difficult to say how fans will react to their change in sound. However, it’s undeniable that their artistic landscape has broadened significantly in a relatively short space of time, a testament to their dedication to their craft. The trio will continue being a force to be reckoned with, and I am eager to witness their progress in the next year following this release.