THE MIRROR BALL IMPERATIVE
- Michael Dwyer, The Age
Celebrities used to be hapless grist for Damian Cowell's satanic mill. As one of the masked men in satirical techno-rock outfit TISM, he skewered pop culture identities for breakfast. River Phoenix, Britney Spears, Shane Crawford, Derryn Hinch. No one was safe.
But all that's changed. He's recently made friends with Tim Rogers and Shaun Micallef. Kate Miller-Heidke invited him round to her kitchen. He's Skyped Kathy Lette. Julia Zemiro entertained him in her hotel suite.
The magic word is in the title of his new album, Damian Cowell's Disco Machine. Hint: it's the dirty one.
"To me, disco is dance music that's not cool," Cowell explains of his subtle change of direction. And the mere mention of it, as illustrated by the album's stellar parade of guest vocalists, opens doors faster than you can say, "Yessir, I can boogie".
"If I were to call these people and say, 'I'm doing a minimalist techno album and I want you to recite a bit of Proust', it might be a different response," he says. "Disco says, 'I'm being an idiot. Would you like to be an idiot on my idiot album?'"
And so Lee Lin Chin relishes the pulse of Jesus Barista Superstar, Liz Stringer unveils a magnificent diva register on I Hope You Get Laid For Christmas and John Safran gets down in the confessional groove of Things I've Said In Job Interviews.
From I'm Addicted to Moderation to Groovy Toilet, the three-minute slices of conceptual genius and cryptic crossword-play are classic Cowell, as heard on three DC3 albums since TISM folded in 2004.
But the old school allusions to Georgio Moroder and Chic represent a breakthrough for an artist who, like all white blokes of a certain vintage, took years to surrender to the disco inferno in his soul.
"I was programmed to hate it [in the '70s]," he says. "I had a sticker that said 'Keep Music Live' from the musicians' union. It was seen as this enormous threat, which is hilarious when you look at it from today's perspective."
It was Cowell who eventually brought the shearing electronic dance edge to TISM, having found a cool way in to the dance party via credible British rock appropriators such as the Clash and New Order.
"I saw techno as the new punk," he says. "It was very underground … and it was the kind of music that people who like classic rock don't understand."
But wheels turn. As house music turned into mainstream fodder for regular yobbos, the unmasked bloke from TISM became a middle-aged dad feeling a curious twinge in his groove thing when Boney M came on at the parent-teacher barbecue.
"The songs are so enduring," he says. "Nobody takes them as seriously as they take DJ Shadow, but they're actually part of the same huge genre.
"It also helps me with the fact that I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable that I'm a senior citizen trying to compete with these young hipsters making serious dance albums.
"I can call it 'disco' and that gives people who don't want to give me more than a minute of their time something to hang it on."
He got more than a minute from most – although Lee Lin Chin wound up speaking her part into an iPhone at the SBS news desk just before she read the evening news.
"Listening to Kate Miller-Heidke sing into my laptop completely legitimised my career," the gobsmacked songwriter says. "It's the closest I've ever come to liking one of my own songs."
He admits he was "a bit scared" of calling Tim Rogers, "but he was marvellous. He came round to my house, took a photo with my dog … Shaun Micallef came to my house! It was all really surreal. I open the door and there's the television. That's the power of disco."
It can only escalate when a good six or eight of his new dancing partners, including Tony Martin and the Bedroom Philosopher, take to the virtual under-lit dance floor to launch the album next week.
"Apparently they've got a huge mirror ball at the Arts Centre," Cowell muses. "I'd love to get my hands on that."
Feb 12 2015
LIKE ALL ROCK BAND BIOS, THE DC3 IS BULLSHIT >
‘DC’ doesn’t mean anything, and there’s not really 3 of them. Sometimes it’s 4. Sometimes 6. Sometimes some of them don’t even play instruments. The DC3’s singer is Damian Cowell. He was once the creator of TISM. He says things like nobody else does. Here’s some:
‘There’s suicide bombs and pogroms, ethnic cleansing, Richard Wilkins.’
‘Life is to live but we entomb it, in tiny incremental movement, to ignominious denouement. It’s called Continuous Improvement.’
‘Honore De Balzac said envy is the most stupid of vices. I wish I was him.’
The DC3’s guitarist is Henri Grawe. Expat German. Builder by day. Deconstructionist by night. The DC3’s bassist is Douglas Lee Robertson. Once glacially cool in The Ice-Cream Hands. Sometimes The DC3 are joined by a drummer. Sometimes by a team of carpenters. The DC3 began when Damian Cowell was commissioned to create a body of work for the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in 2011. The work - ‘Vs Art’ - is available at MONA. The members of The DC3 had formerly played in an alt-country group called ‘ROOT!’ That’s the sort of thing that’s acceptable and expected from your more mature musician. The DC3 is not like that at all.
The DC3 play a kind of throbbing motorik punk rock Eurodisco. And Damian Cowell rants. Impassioned then impertinent. Seething then silly. Lowbrow then literate. He might walk through the crowd. Crawl on the floor. Stop a song. Then carpenters might build an installation. Then the audience might find themselves singing “I may contain traces of nut.”
The DC3 released their debut album ‘The Future Sound of Nostalgia’ in 2011. It featured ‘Henry Fucking Wagons’ and ‘I Was The Guy In TISM’. They are currently working on their second album. In the meantime, they are recording over 20 songs that won’t be on the DC3 album. They call them ‘Songs That Won’t Be On The DC3 Album.’ The DC3 are putting them on you tube for free. Because it’s pointless.
The DC3 have a cult following. This might be because their live shows are always riveting. It might also be because they have Damian Cowell - like Mark E. Smith, Aphex Twin, Anton Newcombe, E, and Robert Pollard, we too have our maverick legends.
Told you it was bullshit.
- Damian Cowell - 20 September 2010
WHAT IS ALL THIS SOLO ALBUM SHIT? >
I hang around after gigs in the vain hope that girls will ask me to sign God’s Own Curves with a permanent marker. This never happens, of course, but you do meet some rather interesting people. And that’s hard earned praise from a hit-and-misanthrope like me. In Hobart I met this bloke called David Walsh. Assumed he was just another drunk. He had a proposal for me, which usually means someone wants me to play a benefit gig for The Society for Proselytizing Against Reiki Denial. But this David Walsh seemed different – everyone appeared to know him, in fact, someone had already whispered to me that I should meet him. Like he was some Russian gangster who owned the town. Maybe not so far off. He is a kind of gangster, well, not in the underpant-showing-wannabe-from-Cranbourne sense, I’m trying to conjure up an earlier, more romantic image of a Baudelairean maverick type, riding his tricycle outside the dotted lines of life’s traffic school. His thing is art. He is like this auteur of public enlightenment, bringing to his home town of Hobart – whether they want it or not – a shitload of art – concerts, exhibitions, festivals, architecture, a winery, a restaurant, a brewery, and, in January 2011, MONA – the Museum of Old And New Art – featuring all the big todgers of art like Whiteley and Nolan and Boyd, plus all this other weird shit that horrifies old ladies. But the art is only part of the museum’s cachet – in and of itself, it’s a complete fuck-off architectural synapse-exploder, 70-odd million bucks worth of conceptual doosra, apparently to rival the fucken Guggenheim. In Hobart. The town that has a station called “Ho FM” that doesn’t play hip-hop.
Good, fine, great, but back on planet naturestrip, what’s it got to do with me? This David Walsh asks me to make an album for MONA. Not just any old album, but an album about the art in the museum. Songs about art. Mini-golfing about dancing about architecture. To be heard in the museum. There you are, looking at art inside a giant work of art, staring in abject mystification at some unfathomable ‘installation’ whilst simultaneously listening to me singing a song about it. My reaction was not unexpected. A binge-drunk backwash of reservation surged to my lips. Was I perhaps not quite the right person for the gig? You know, wouldn’t this better suit some earnest vowel-murdering chick with an acoustic guitar? Or that bloke in Grinderman who I’m sure I saw outside my office building swaying on the spot and asking for loose change? These are the kind of people who use ‘art’ and themselves in the same sentence without feeling like they should do eight hours of community service by way of reparation. Would I not be likely to gumboot into his beautiful garden reeking of 2-stroke and unwittingly ringbark the creative vibe with my whippersnipper worldview? Well, see, this David Walsh, he knew all of above, and yet here he was asking specifically for it. Instead of Cave, Cage, Cale, he gets Cowell. No brief, mind. Just write. About the art. Despite the art. Praise, criticise, deconstruct, trivialise, even completely distract from the art. Well, be careful what you wish for unless what you wish for is what you wish for. So I did it. I made an album. It’s called ‘Vs Art’. What the fucken hell some art lover who’s flown all the way from Zurich will make of it is anyone’s guess. It’s meant to work as an album, without knowing anything at all about its background – or, you could stand there looking at the art and listen to the song and see the connection. Who knows if I pulled it off, but let’s face it, I am the king of irrelevance – just ask any of the poor bastards who have tried to interview me over the years.
So I serve up a tour de force of topic evasion. Confronted by a giant installation that creates constantly morphing phrases out of a waterfall, I end up singing about a party where you come dressed as a no longer popular Google search word. Or a canvas blackened by squashed insects, where I sing about cynicism on trial. Or ‘Fat Car’ by the deliciously named Irwin Wurm (Dr. Wurm, perhaps?) – an actual real life red Porsche, only it looks overweight – where I sing about doomed ambition. This is the kind of anorexic relevance-purging you’re dealing with here. I wrote the songs, I got out the laptop, I called my friends Henri and Douglas Lee, and ‘Vs. Art’ happened. But other things happened too. I decided to call myself ‘Damian Cowell.’ I changed my mind about a lot of things. My former group ended. We plotted a new one. This is the DC3. Push button. Receive bacon. A group conceived out of songs conceived out of art. Sounds worthy, lofty, glossy mag credible. The DC3 will give the lie to this. The DC3 will make our first public appearance at the opening of MONA in January 2011. We’ll play some of the selected red herrings from ‘Vs. Art’ and some of our newest collaborations, Ballardian collisions of cheap machines, my raving and the lascivious cavorting of my two tall comrades. Audiences will get to see proper art like Phillip Glass, Health, and a host of others – and then, they’ll see us. If we don’t get lynched, I’ll be hanging around afterwards with my permanent marker. You never know what I’ll get to sign.
- Damian Cowell. Apr 18, 2011
IN 2007, A COUNTRY BAND STARTED PLAYING AROUND THE TRAPS IN MELBOURNE >
It soon became common knowledge that their frontman DC Root (Damian Cowell to the taxman) was indeed the former creative lynchpin of TISM.
That the initial idea of Root! was a country punk band with lyrical barbs and songs like I Wish I Was Tex Perkins was no accident. “When you get on the twilight side of thirty and look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘who do you think you are getting up on stage with all these young people’ I figured, erroneously, that I needed a prop or crutch to lever me from the world of lawn-edging and tracksuit pants,’ he says sincerely. ‘I’m not afraid of what I’m doing, but it’s very difficult to disassociate being young and sexy with being intelligent in this incredibly superficial arse-end of showbiz that is rock, everyone loves to hear from an angry young man, but an angry old man is just bitter. I was overly conscious of the fact that I didn’t look right, that I needed a look.”
Age is clearly not dulling the pen of Cowell who is still full of opinion (‘obviously Sting is a hateful individual who needs a Bic ballpoint pen through his eyeball’), and creativity. “I’ve always managed to not write songs about death, addiction and all those melodramatic things that only happen to people who go to private school,” says Cowell humbly. “I’m fully aware I live a double life because my parents programmed me that if you didn’t have a decent job you’re a loser, and I freely admit to living in a suburban box and it’s great. You can crap on like Pete Doherty but you catch that 7:15 stopping all stations every morning and then tell me about pain.”
- Excerpt by Andy Hazel September 2010
THE PHANTOM MENACE >
By Michael Dwyer - The Age
TISM's rare media encounters are infamous. One reporter had to forward questions in advance, then lie in a pitch-dark flotation tank while Humphrey B. Flaubert and Ron Hitler-Barassi piped in their answers. Another guy donned complete scuba gear for the privilege of interviewing the pair in a Fitzroy Street pizzeria.
So it's a long walk up the corridor of the band's smashing new corporate home in Collingwood. Behind the end door, Flaubert and Hitler-Barassi are doing last checks on The White Albun, TISM's audacious new three-disc CD-DVD package. As the handle turns, I'm preparing to be dakked and toothpasted at the very least.
"The thing about unmasking," a surprisingly affable Flaubert volunteers early in our meeting, "is that no one cares." Contrary to rumours about renowned musicians, even public officials, under the masks, they're "actually not famous", he insists. "We're just boring guys."
The six-pack of VB and bowl of Minties on the table support this suggestion. But the fact that he and Hitler-Barassi are decked out in custom-made tasselled silver spacesuits, with matching balaclavas and lower sleeves flaring into bulbous beanbags, makes a mockery of his modesty.
It's an extremely impressive and disconcerting sight. It always is, when TISM perform. For about 20 years, these uber-cynical rock'n'roll ratbags have concealed their identities in a range of impractical ensembles, while maintaining a fearsomely committed fan base and eluding litigation with some of the most scathing satire this country has heard.
More on this remarkable trinity - the anonymity, the brutal satire, the scary fanaticism - later.
Right now, though, I'm compelled to come clean on the subject of their music. I can't stand it, I tell them. I've always been thrilled by their iconoclastic daring and wide-screen performance-art vision, but I can only manage their shows and records in small doses.
It's weird. I would never give any other artist I dislike such a frank personal assessment, especially this early in an interview. But I feel like I can cut to the chase with impunity here. Flaubert seems to know what I mean too well.
"It's not what journalists say about TISM that's galling," says the more soft-spoken half of the band's core duo. "It's what they don't say about every single body else that shits me. They somehow feel we're fair game; it's like a sport to pick our many peccadilloes.
"But tell me," he inquires, leaning on rustling vinyl and polystyrene elbows. "When you go and interview the boys from Jet, are you sitting there and going, 'Well, they're nice guys, they're not that smart, I can't really get out the rapier wit here, so I'll just peddle the usual record company line?'."
Before I can answer, Hitler-Barassi launches into one of his trademark belligerent rants. "'They drove a f---ing forklift truck,' " he scoffs, quoting a common media-bite about Jet's gritty working-class roots. "Of course they did - their dad owned the f---in' factory! You can drive a forklift truck any time you like! 'Dad! Dad! I wanna go on the forklift,' " he whines.
"I'm happy for people to say our music is bad," Flaubert continues, "but I turn the pages of these magazines every day waiting to read these other bands slagged off, and they never are. Now, why is that?" he asks.
"Yeah, answer that, Mister Rock Journalist," Hitler-Barassi spits, crossing beanbag arms with results more comical than threatening.