[ IN THEIR OWN WORDS ]
WHY JOHN SAFRAN, SHAUN MICALLEF, KATE MILLER-HEIDKE, TONY MARTIN, TIM ROGERS, LIZ STRINGER, THE WORLD'S MOST 'TRENDING' BLOGGER (AND 15,000
AUSTRALIANS) LOVE DAMIAN COWELL.
by Michelle Thomas with Jacqui Donchi-Berthaume
Ex-voice of TISM Damian Cowell is back in town, with guests Kate Miller Heidke, Liz Stringer and Tony Martin joining him for two shows to cap off a very big year. It's the 20th anniversary of him singing 'I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix', he and his ex-colleagues were the people's choice to represent Australia at Eurovision. He released a solo album with a who's-who of Australian music and comedy as his guest stars, and to top it all off, he's been tracked down by the world's most 'trending' blogger.
Mere weeks before her anti body-shaming blog 'Tinder Date' shot her to notoriety with chat show hosts, stadium evangelists, self-loathing teens and academics all over the world, UK writer Michelle Thomas was on holiday in Australia, discovered the bizarre TISM-for-Eurovision petition and met the man at the centre of it all.
Here she talks to Damian's recruits and the man himself, as she attempts to make sense of why he out-voted Guy Sebastian
by 75 to 1.
by Michelle Thomas with Jacqui Donchi-Berthaume
"TISM is the sound of one guy trying to force dance beats on six guys who don't really like it."
IT'S LATE FEBRUARY 2015.
At the Corner Hotel in Melbourne. Damian Cowell's Disco Machine is hurling out frantically contagious disco beats to a packed house of baying, wide-eyed zealots. I'm taking a photograph of a girl wearing a t-shirt featuring Bernard Derriman's artwork from a TISM video, when an enormous man lurches over. "I've got a better picture than that for you" he bellows, ripping up his 4XL Tshirt and exposing a TISM tattoo on his back. He looks...wrong, enshrined in the light of a million disco balls to the sweet sound of the Bee Gees, but he has absolute faith that tonight, as Shalamar sang, will be a night to remember, whatever the artist formerly known as Humphrey B. Flaubert has come up with.
As TISM frontman, he was the subversive, sinister, counter-culture shaman who formed part of Australia's cultural backdrop in the 80's and 90's. Through the changing sounds of DC3 and ROOT! it was his wryly intellectual lyrics that held the fans' attention: an "English teacher's wet dream" as one punter put it (DC should know, he used to be one).
The continuum of TISM-grade highbrow/lowbrow yarn-spinning and eagle-eyed life commentary that goes far beyond a Dad joke yet never once lands on the fringes of the cool crowd, is evident in this year's Disco Machine project, an ear-popping album Cowell pulled together with the vigour of a high security prison escapee.
With a crew of post-TISM bandmates on long service leave, he found himself alone at his laptop, taking weekend morning tea breaks to paint the house and listen to Chic albums. It was only a bit of fun, but once he started seeking collaborators, well... When Tim Rogers turns up on your doorstep, you get your game on.
TIM IS BACKSTAGE, AWAITING HIS SLOT, looking louche and lissom in a three-piece suit. I ask how he felt when Damian approached him about joining him on 'I'm Addicted To Moderation', and his gimlet-eyes smirk with amusement as he responds with just one word: "tumescent".
"TISM were one of the first bands I ever saw. I did initially think that he would somehow manage to make the joke on me, because I'm a living, walking cliché. I was alright for that to happen anyway; if anyone's gonna make fun of me, better it be Damian rather than someone who writes bad songs."
Was he concerned about what people would think of their collaboration? That the response might be jarring?
"I don't give a damn. If it's jarring or its not something I'm comfortable with, then I'm more inclined to do it. Particularly with people I like or admire. I think I'm enough of a dilettante that no friend of mine would be surprised."
"If anyone's gonna make fun of me, better it be Damian rather than someone who writes bad songs".
Another collaborator, Shaun Micallef, shared Rogers' deference towards Damian and his merciless satirical thrust. Initially concealing it with a toe-to-toe quip-off with DC who kicked off the verbal hockey both are known for :
"I asked Shaun Micallef if he could play the character of Shaun Micallef, which he did with Cary Grant-like élan. But I think I might have underutilised his talents. Later I saw him do this kind of show-tunes version of a TISM song at the end of Mad As Hell, during which he played an extremely convincing Tony Bennett."
"I've always wanted to be on an album," responded Micallef. "Obviously I would have preferred it was by Megan Washington or even Phil Spector but still. Working with Damian was everything I dreamed it would be: a glass of water, a garden shed and a mumbled thank you as I was bundled out the door. I understand my track will be released as an instrumental on a Double-B side. I look forward to buying it."
At soundcheck for the Melbourne launch, he revealed an enduring interest in Damian's work.
"I've got all his albums. I did a TV show on Channel 7 the year of '(He'll Never Be An) Old Man River', and I suggested to the producers that we should interview TISM. TISM agreed, then turned up in costume. They regarded it as a joke, and proceeded to send up the whole thing rotten, leaving me with nowhere to go.
"When I turned up at Damian's house, and was invited into the garden shed to record my one line, I was struck by how very normal he was. It's nice to be approached by someone you admire so much."
The album features an eclectic mix of musicians and non-musicians, from Kate Miller-Heidke and Liz Stringer to John Safran, Kathy Lette, Sam Pang, Julia Zemiro, Lee Lin Chin, Tony Martin and The Bedroom Philosopher. While author of Puberty Blues and chick-lit sorceress Kathy Lette declared: "I can't believe I allowed that man put words into my mouth, I mean, you never know where they've been!" (Cowell provided the lyrics for all of the collaborations) they all seem genuinely thrilled have been invited to be part of what Damian himself calls a shoestring operation.
Safran says Damian "formed part of our collective teenage consciousness", Stringer was "surprised, stoked and starstruck", Miller-Heidke was "flattered and thrilled". All of them rave about this album, about Damian, about their experience of his work - its danger, its fearlessness, its mystery.
“I can't believe I allowed that man to put words in my mouth, I mean, you never know where they've been!”
"TISM were part of my consciousness when I was younger," says Safran. "They seemed dangerous. This was before the internet, so there were just signifiers around Melbourne, like you'd walk past some poster and there would be something fearful about it, not knowing it was a bit of fun. Then you'd read things about them being on stage wearing Klu Klux Klan masks and that really appealed to... well, you'd think... this is dangerous, and silly."
"My friends at school would be [on about the] songs, then when I got on TV for the first time as a doco-maker/comedian, I got a call from this guy who essentially ended up being my manager. A guy called Michael Lynch. So I got sucked into this world and I was a bit of an insider."
"People around Melbourne really found it all a bit fascinating so I'd be in the office about something else and someone else would walk in and I'd be like, 'Oh my God, I've seen them with their masks off!' I still occasionally get a Facebook message from people saying "Were you one of the guys in Tism?" So yeah, I was really excited to be asked to be part of Damian's collaboration."
"I was hugely flattered [to be asked]. He was a hero of Australian music of the 90's and TISM always had this veil of mystery and rock n roll around them, so I was just thrilled to be involved."
Kate Miller-Heidke pitches in: "He was a hero of Australian music of the 90's and TISM always had this veil of mystery and rock n roll around them, so I was just thrilled to be involved and hugely flattered [to be asked]."
The man himself says the pleasure, the flattery, the moments of starstruck revelry were all his.
"Sitting at Kate Miller-Heidke's kitchen bench with my laptop and headphones as she stood behind me and sang this kind of glacially cool version of Epistemophobia was my favourite moment of this entire project. It's the closest I've ever come to liking one of my own songs."
ON THE MORNING OF THE GIG, DC AND THE BAND ARE AT RRR RADIO STUDIOS in Melbourne's north, doing an acoustic version of the album's opening track, Jesus Barista Superstar. During the short interview beforehand the DJ asks Damian about the phenomenal EuroTISM campaign (uncannily, two Australian Eurovision hosts, Sam Pang and Julia Zemiro appear on the album, prompting accusations of a publicity stunt). Damian grins.
"I think a TISM tribute act should do it. Bend over, become totally corporate lackeys, and kill the legacy once and for all".
Damian Cowell's Disco Machine is an unabashedly unbeguiling dance album, but beneath the beats and Boney M-esque strings, his lyrics are an insidious but undeniable vein of bleakness and menace. I'm Addicted to Moderation contains the exquisitely crafted line "I could've been Icarus touching the sun, except I slip-slop-slapped". Upon hearing this comment at the station I wonder: is Damian Icarus? Or is he Medea, killing her offspring?
He is tickled by this analogy "That's beautiful, Michelle!" he enthuses generously. He frowns. "Maybe I'm Oedipus, killing his Dad and fucking his Mum.
WAS THIS REALLY WHAT AUSTRALIA WANTED AT EUROVISION??
The whole campaign had him somewhat bemused:
"It's a difficult thing talking about TISM for me. I think this EuroTISM business was this nice funny joke - and I do think it's funny - but the actual practical idea of reforming and doing Eurovision is the last thing TISM would ever do... this cheesy hammed-up TV show where you enthusiastically play a song representing your country. I watch Eurovision and love it, but it's because of the shitness of it. So while [the petition] is fabulous for self-publicity, the hardest thing was answering that question without raining on everybody's parade, being a horrible old grumpy shithead and just saying, look fuckhead, TISM wouldn't piss on Eurovision.
"I was contacted by a TV channel about an advert that they're shooting". He adopts the enthusiastic lilt of the pitching producer. ""We were thinking that you guys could pop on your balaclavas and lipsync to Conchita Wurst's winning song from last year...what do you reckon?"
"I very clearly and gently explained that the members of TISM do not appear as or represent TISM any more. We went hard and we went home, that's it.
"And then the guy said. "Oh yeah, I understand that...but even if just you wanted to do it...""
Damian winces. "I don't have any interest in popping on the balaclava and appearing as the guy in TISM again. It ended a decade ago, we had a lot of fun and made big things happen. But I'm very sensitive about dredging it up and trying to milk it. It's very hard to explain that to people. People don't want to pay that much attention, which I understand. Those people think that TISM were guys who wore wacky costumes, so they're a perfect match for Eurovision. But we weren't like that at all. We had two songs about Australia which said terrible things about the country. If we went back we would be pissing on the legacy. I always worry that I sound too serious, like a fragile artiste who wants to preserve the great work. I don't want to do that. But people asking me to just bring back the good old days, that's the last thing I want to do. I'd rather quit. I'd rather mow lawns."
"People asking me to just bring back the good old days, that's the last thing I want to do. I'd rather quit. I'd rather mow lawns."
Cowell was the frontman of Melbourne's now defunct TISM who were voted by legions of fans to represent Australia at Eurovision. "While it's fabulous for self-publicity, the hardest thing was answering that question without raining on everybody's parade, being a horrible old grumpy shithead and just saying, look fuckhead, TISM wouldn't piss on Eurovision."
THESE ARE NOT JUST LUVVIE HISTRIONICS - DAMIAN HAS ALWAYS HAD DAY JOBS - Eleven years as a school teacher ("Sir, are you on the drug that killed River Phoenix?"), ten as a copywriter, and now he works in corporate communications. Crowdfunding makes it possible for him to have both lives - be a rockstar, make an album, go on tour with a band, without risking putting himself or his family in debt.
Is he addicted to moderation?
"Maybe. I've always been an observer. Being in a famous band but never being recognised. Doing a gig for 25,000 people, wearing a mask, one step removed from that connection. You're playing a role. You go backstage and take off your mask, get out unrecognised. I like the experience but I like being removed from it, so that I can process it.
"At the end of uni I thought, this rockstar fantasy isn't going to happen, so I got a job. And literally five weeks after becoming a teacher which is the most insanely exhausting job in the world apart from being a police officer or an ambo or something, TISM takes off.
"I'm very lucky. It comes at a price. The staid conservative life that I pursue really gets me down and I feel like a fish out of water. But if I had my time again I'd make the same choices, it's the way I'm programmed. Just doing music by itself would never have paid the bills. I visit people who are doing music for a living in their squat houses and stuff and I just think, it's alright when you're in your twenties but what are you going to be like in your fifties? Are you going to have to flip burgers or something? That fear I think is always motivating me to go and get proper jobs. But I can't have one without the other. If I wasn't still making music I'd probably be very depressed.
The downside is that I've always felt - you fucking timid bastard, why didn't you do something outrageous with your life?"
EACH BAND MEMBER THAT HE'S PERSONALLY RECRUITED FOR THE DISCO MACHINE HAS A DAY JOB - firemen, teachers - and that's just how he wants it.
"They're all living this double life, which is very important to me. I'm suspicious of people who are full-time musicians. I like working with people who have other jobs because I know that they have to fucking get up in the morning and it's painful. It's more than whether you can bend your fingers in a certain way; to be in a band with people, I want people who show up on time, take some of the worries off my back - which these guys do. So I like them as people, and that's more important to me than talent - which, just quietly, they have a shitload of."
" I like them as people, and that's more important to me than talent -
which, just quietly, they have a shitload of."
DC ON HIS BAND MEMBERS
"The thing I didn't count on is how much their enthusiasm has given me a shot in the arm. You should see them onstage - never mind old fucken windbag here - these guys burn up the stage. And they get my whole disco thing, which is the best part."
"I wanted to make a dance album, because I've always really loved dance music. A lot of music is chemicals. Certain types of sounds release certain kinds of chemicals in your brain and for me if there's a dance beat I like it more than if there isn't one. Looking back, TISM is the sound of one guy trying to force dance beats on six guys who don't really like it. Those poor bastards! After TISM I was in an alt-country thing, then an indie-pop thing, again with these guys that didn't really like dance music and me forcing my opinions on them. When I was able to do a solo album, I thought, fuck it, I'm going to go dance, not be embarrassed, not tart it up to please anyone else or justify it, just go exactly where I want to go which lead me to disco."
"Disco to me is a word that describes non-groovy dance music. Dance music to me has become so exclusive. I'm an old guy, I won't fit into that. But disco is dance music too and nobody expects it to be cool. When you say disco to people they laugh and say ohhhh, disco! That's ok then! Nothing to worry about there! After years of trying to be cool I'm realising that I'm not and I'm embracing that."
It's non-threatening, but there's the familiar venom in lyrics:
"Epistemophobia, it keeps me awake at night/ how can you be jovial when everything is shite?" Is he using disco as a sequinned, palatable conduit for hard-hitting, cynical satire?
"Is he using disco as a sequinned, palatable conduit for hard-hitting, cynical satire?"
"I tend to forget myself. I underestimate how dark my worldview can be. But to me they're just words. I don't think it through too much." He grins "You've just legitimised my disco album!"
Which is contrary to the entire spirit of his endeavour.
"There's a lot of menace and bleakness in (one of his previous band ROOT!'s) last album, Surface Paradise. [so this time] I have consciously funned it up a bit. A song like 4D Printer is bleak, bleak, bleak, but then at least there's a silly chorus. Everything is terrible, but let's just try and be silly now. Hopefully people won't listen and think "Oh God, we're all gonna die."
The album has received rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Including Tony Martin, who's been a follower of Damian's work for 30 years: "I think it's the best album he's ever made. it's great to have finally worked with him"
"Having listened to Damian's music for 28 years, it was fascinating to see how it is created. In the studio, he's like Phil Spector without the body count. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to ruin the track. The fear that I would be overdubbed by Andrew Denton was unfounded. I loved being a cog in the Disco Machine, and I am not going to let the fact that Micallef got a CabCharge spoil the experience."
"I loved being a cog in the Disco Machine, and I am not going to let the fact that Micallef got a CabCharge spoil the experience."
When I tell Damian how delighted Tony Martin and John Safran were to be part of the project, and how much they love the album, he reluctantly accepts the praise.
"It's taken me a decade to find the right sound and the right band, I can't stop now, I have to do something else."
As 2015 rolled on, "something else" included a comedy festival show, Damian Cowell's Hara-Karaoke in which he undertook a live, ceremonial disembowelment of his own back catalogue, in an elaborate ritual performed in front of spectators.
TONY MARTIN TWEETED THAT HE WAS WITNESSING "A giant in a tiny room," as, over the course of an hour, DC staged a Hicks-level performance at Melbourne and Brisbane fringe festivals that showed he had more in common with metamodernists, Dürrenmatt, Lessing and Foster-Wallace than he does with the television stand-up comics or interpretive dancers of the day. Should the audience laugh or should they dash to the nearest exit? You never know when it comes to Damian Cowell. The infinite jest is eminently sequestered by the sort of dull rationality your high school teachers used to mutter under their breath when the bell rang. Funny about that.
"Hara Karaoke was just me singing over some tapes, very low-key, and slightly unashamedly, naff. I told some kind of story. I dunno," he reflects.
"DC staged a Hicks-level performance at Melbourne and Brisbane fringe festivals that showed he had more in common with metamodernists, Dürrenmatt, Lessing and Foster-Wallace than he does with the television stand-up comicsor interpretive dancers of the day."
"A feast of wit and wonder run by brilliant people in a world class venue to Australia's most switched-on audiences. Their only lapse in taste was having me on the bill."
"Thanks for the feedback Damian. Best lapse we ever made."
QUEENSLAND POETRY FESTIVAL
In DC's Hara Karaoke, the ancient form of seppuku (or ritual suicide)'s short blade, traditionally a tantō, was replaced with his time-honoured skill of self-deprecating macro analysis. The abdomen replaced by a hall-of-fame-worthy career-long song-writing narrative largely overlooked by the cognoscenti. But cognoscenti be gone with you. Cowell has continued to reign supreme as a legend in his own lunchbox. He is apotheosized by a modest following of hardcore Cowell-ettes and DC die-hards. No matter how much shit he gives himself (and the people who give it to him inadvertently) he ain't done yet.
Over the next month, he's hitting the stage again.
NATIONAL COMIC LEGEND TURNED HONORARY BAND MEMBER, TONY MARTIN will be joining the Disco Machine for some live action at the Corner Hotel on December 19 doing GOD KNOW'S WHAT BUT YOU'LL WANNA SEE IT. Martin and the seven-some (two drummers, a bassist, two leggy backing singers and instrumentalists, lead guitarist, Cowell on laptop and lead vocals) debuted DC's latest track 'Get Your Dag On' at Queenscliff Music Festival and introduced the audience to the evanescent vocal guesting of Kate Miller Heidke (the commiserating Brigitte Bardot to Cowell's teenage Emo incarnation on one track) and Liz Stringer (the Maggie Bell to his Rod Stewart on another).
If the apoplectic chanting that rang from the full house at February's launch was anything to go by, 'Disco Christmas' will be one to put in your calendar.
Meanwhile, the world's most celebrated blogger-to-be had her interview with Australian music's Bill Hicks cut short by the most Cowell-esque of reasons: He checks his phone. "Oh god, the dog's trying to burrow out. My wife wants me to fill in the dog hole."
With that, Damian Cowell is off to pick up his daughter from Baker's Delight and fill in the dog hole: anarchist, satirist, suburban guru, and true Aussie original.
Damian Cowell's Disco Machine feat. Tony Martin present: "Disco Christmas" at the Corner Hotel 19 December Supported by Pinky Beecroft & Anarchy In The Ukulele - FOR TICKETS SEE : www.damiancowell.com
KATE MILLER HEIDKE & DAMIAN COWELL AT QUEENSCLIFF MUSIC FESTIVAL DUET:"I'm Growing A Beard Downstairs For Christmas"
LAURA IMBRUGLIA GETS A DANCE LESSON FROM DAMIAN COWELL