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Damian Cowell Bypasses the Algorithm to Bring You 'Only the Shit You Love'

Emerging with his most ambitious project to date, Damian Cowell and his Disco Machine unveil a nostalgic piece of forward-thinking brilliance.

This time last year, Damian Cowell found himself in the somewhat unenviable position of launching a crowdfunding campaign for his newest project in the midst of a pandemic. Aware of the potential disaster such a request could be in a year like 2020, Cowell was undeniably stunned to see that his campaign not only reached its $20,000 goal, but went over by a further $9,450. Now, the former TISM founder had to actually bring his most ambitious project to date to fruition.

That, of course, was no mean feat, with Only the Shit You Love described as something of a mixed media behemoth. It wasn’t just a new album (Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine‘s first since February of 2017), it was also an animated web series, a graphic novel, and a podcast.

Speaking to Rolling Stone Australia last year, Cowell recognised just how immense the task that he had set for himself was. “It might just blow up in my face, it might be the biggest failure of my career, but you know, you’ve got to give it a shot,” he explained.

But now, one year, four lockdowns, and countless bouts of uncertainty later, Cowell is unveiling the full breadth of latest efforts. Having somewhat drip-fed his Only the Shit You Love web-series by way of a series of weekly viewing parties, the full project has been released onto YouTube, while his podcast of the same name – which spans almost 20 hours in length – has seen him go deep into his own life, tying up loose ends as he lets listeners in on the more esoteric parts of his existence.

Now, on Thursday, December 2nd, his Only the Shit You Love album officially releases, featuring appearances from musicians such as Patience Hodgson (The Grates) and Liz Stringer, and comedians such as Judith Lucy, Aunty Donna, Shaun Micallef, and frequent collaborator Tony Martin.

With the new record almost out on the world, and Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine launching the album with a (rather early) Christmas show at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel on Friday night, Cowell spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about the project’s creation, the desire of nostalgia, the pitfalls of social media algorithms, and the pros and cons of concept albums.

It’s been about a year since we last spoke, back when you were launching the crowdfunding campaign for this new project. Have you been getting through 2021 relatively unscathed?

Yeah, I mean, thank God I had this project to work on, I suppose. And a full-time job, so I don’t think lockdown affected me nearly as badly as it would’ve affected other people. It still has a bit of a weird psychological effect on you, but in general, I was just lucky that, while this wasn’t a lockdown project – it had started a long time before it – it was ideal for being stuck in the house for lengthy periods. But yeah, I’ve done so much, it’s really been two, almost three, years that I’ve been working on this thing.

At the moment I’m just feeling this sense of, “Thank fucking Christ I’ve done it! It’s over!” [This week was] the last episode of the web series, the last episode of the podcast, the album comes out, and apart from doing a gig, I’m looking forward to the simple joys of life for a while, like television and engaging with your life partner. Some of those sort of things.

But yeah, it’s been quite a year; quite a four years. I reckon I don’t have a sense of it at the moment, it’s one of those things where I might look back at it in five years and have an idea of whether it was any good. But when I was talking to you [last year], I was barely three quarters of the way through finishing it, even though I’d had the crowdfunding thing.

So even the idea of, “Am I going to even finish this thing?” was still up in the air. So it’s pretty amazing to me that I’ve finished it. But, have I made even the slightest dent in the grand public consciousness? Who knows, but at least I’ll be able to say, “I did that.”

“Even the idea of, ‘Am I going to even finish this thing?’ was still up in the air.”

When we spoke last, you were unsure if launching a crowdfunding campaign in a year such as 2020 would be successful, for obvious reasons. On the contrary, it raised nine-and-a-half thousand more than the 20k you’d asked for. That must have given you a bit of confidence that the public has faith in you.

Oh yeah, you’re dead right. I wasn’t sure I could even scrape enough money to make a full double album and a full 19 episode thing when I started the crowdfunding. So that was not only a financial shot in the arm, but as you suggest, a psychological shot in the arm that the response indicated there were a lot of people [interested].

Maybe the timing was actually better than before COVID happened, who knows? Maybe people were desperate for entertainment? But it definitely was a boost, just that feeling of having all these people out there wanting to invest in me. I can’t overstate how important that is, even though I just sort of prattle on and do my own thing, I couldn’t do it without these people.

Anyone like me who is a performer in any kind of showbiz-y thing, we do crave public adulation, y’know? That’s what it’s all about. Whether we admit to it or not. So it’s a fabulous thing, and I headed off, I commenced on [the journey], but at least there were people out there who want me to do this.

And I was sort of hiding behind the couch for the first three episodes waiting for the backlash of people going, “This isn’t very good,” or “This isn’t as good as what I was expecting”. But because that never happened – thank Christ – I was able to keep going to the end.

I remember that first viewing party and I can only imagine that it must have been a little daunting for yourself to basically say, “Stay tuned for the next 18 weeks, this is the culmination of years of hard work presented in so many different media forms. Enjoy.” It would’ve been quite a nerve-wracking experience to present something so large across such a large period of time.

I wasn’t sure – and I’m still not sure – whether it was a good idea to make such a long thing. The viewing numbers have gone a bit [up and down], there’s been a general tapering off, and you just feel like the more peripheral fans might have dropped off. It’s hard to sustain their interest in the same story for effectively four months. So there was a bit of that, and I went into it knowing that it could quite possibly be me and the sound of crickets by the end.

I don’t know, I just had to see it through to its conclusion and do the whole great 19-episode shebang. But the other thing I noticed was that when we were having these viewing parties every week, Tuesday at 6pm, they became like this weird sort of encounter group; encounter session. Everyone kept saying to Anthea [Cohen, manager] that they were really looking forward to the 6pm timeslot each week. So I guess just having that little regular bit of me, and a nice small digestible chunk of me, because you don’t want to have too much of me at once. It did seem to suit people.

There was one guy there who I used to engage with all the time, Daniel, from Wales. And that was hilarious because he’d be sitting there in his dressing gown, having just gotten out of bed. I shudder to think what time in the morning it was. But the rest of us had just finished work or whatever, and he’s there about to start his day. So it was lovely to talk to him and talk about Welsh music. The little of it I know. I’m a big fan of Super Furry Animals, so [that was about it].

“I kind of feel like I’ve closed off quite a few chapters in my career.”

So that was the Tuesday afternoon thing, and then there was the podcast as well, which took on a life of its own completely. I promised in the crowdfunding – it was one of those promise you think later, “[shudders] Did I really promise that?” – that I would do a podcast without really knowing what it was about. I started out thinking, “I suppose I could do a podcast about the episode”, but there really wasn’t a lot to say. I didn’t want to really elaborate or explain what the episode meant because it then sort of irons it all out flat and makes it boring.

So it ended up becoming this weird memoirs sort of thing, where I talked about my pre-fame years. And I actually had quite a lot of fun doing it. It was completely self-indulgent of course, but I made myself feel okay about it because people weren’t actually paying for this; “they don’t have to listen to this”. So yeah, I was talking about all those little desperate bands I was in, and my teenage years, and the sort of psychological context from which I emerged. I’m hoping it sort of explains why I am the fucked-up person I am.

I didn’t have a traumatic childhood, I’m not saying that. Some people have terrible trauma and they have to deal with it, but I am not saying I had in any way a bad childhood. But I grew up in nowheres land. Not inner-city, not regional, just in a blah outer suburb. And when I was young – pre-internet – getting sophistication in your cultural tastes was really difficult when you couldn’t Google shit.

So it was kind of a wasteland, and I really enjoyed going back and talking about what life was like when you’re an outsider and you don’t fit in with what would come to be known as ‘bogans’, and you don’t fit in with the cool people. So that was a big job, but it was a lot of fun. I kind of feel like I’ve closed off quite a few chapters in my career.

You mentioned it was self-indulgent by definition. Was that a bit difficult to put yourself front and centre and step back from the art from the change, and instead focus on the artist?

That’s a good question, because that is central to my persona, which is that I put on this self-deprecating act, but it is also because – despite my advanced years – I’ve never quite been able to get over myself, and constantly self-conscious about… I have this terrible low-tolerance for anything I think is ‘wank’. And the voice in my head is always on, going, “You’re going too far, here! People don’t want to hear this; you’re boring them!”

I certainly hide behind my art, in a way. I’ve always hid behind a persona. In that former band of mine it was a very clearly cut persona, but even now in the Disco Machine I am a bit of a construct, because the real me is a little bit bumbling and flawed and shithouse.

Oh, we’re all that way beneath the surface, aren’t we?

Yeah, we all put on masks, don’t we? But for me to actually go, “Yeah, okay, I’m just going to talk about me,”, I had to learn to do it in a way [befitting of myself], and of course I had my creative life coach Tony Martin constantly telling me… I think he’s so fantastic because he just ringing me up every week and going, “We were cacking ourselves. We were listening to the podcast in the car and you describing the bit about Huge Race… we were just cacking ourselves.”

So he kind of helped me to get over that, “Oh God, I’m turning into one of those wankers that writes their autobiography.” I mean, there’s so many autobiographies now. That’s one of the other blights of COVID is that there’s all these showbiz people who had a lot of time on their hands. So we now have a tsunami of children’s books and autobiographies by people who’ve only been in showbiz for one year. So I always think, “Am I just another one of them now?” But anyway, a few people have liked, so that’s good.

It’s funny you mention other artists, because we’ve recently had that Who is Daniel Johns? podcast. While that is about 12 hours shorter than your own, it goes to show how much you get from a comparatively esoteric topic.

I’d like to think that my podcast is about stuff that could happen to anybody; it’s just anybody’s life. Nothing dramatic has happened in my life. The most dramatic thing that happens to me anywhere in these 19 episodes is when Anna Block refused to dance with me at the ballroom dancing because I had cold hands. So this is the pathetic story of any person you could pluck off the street from that era. I imagine Daniel Johns has had a far more exciting life than I’ve had. So yeah, that’s my point of difference, is that it’s really just me talking about getting invited to a party with private school kids.

“[The podcast is] really just me talking about getting invited to a party with private school kids.”

Did you find yourself looking toward any other podcasts in terms of inspiration? Obviously this is no Tony Martin’s Sizzletown, but did you sort of look around for an idea of what to do, or did you just go into it with the intent of forging your own path?

I totally did not, because –and this is just typical of me – if I had listened to other podcasts, I would’ve lost confidence. I would’ve thought, “That’s a bit good, maybe I shouldn’t do this…” I just went, “Y’know what? I’m going to fucking do this. I’ll play a couple of snippets of songs…” I suppose I was hiding behind the fact that, as a podcast, it wasn’t the project, it was just a ‘bonus track’ for the actual web series or the album. So that made me feel okay about just doing it.

I often do a lot of my work in isolation. The moment you start listening to what else is out there, I find it harder to maintain your resolve, to keep doing what you were going to do. You can really go down the bad rabbit hole, there. It’s a bit like technical expertise. I’ve come to realise that – and this is coming out of having done a web series and done animation, graphic art, and video editing as part of this – all of these skills I have mastered to the most minimal degree. I’m hanging on with bleeding fingernails to this ability. And that was kind of scary, but I have learnt that I am glad I did it that way because I do feel that technical expertise – like, truly advanced technical ability – is often the enemy of great art.

The more you become really specialised as a fabulous animator, the harder it is – this is all me fucking making it up, by the way – for you to concentrate on the thing you’re doing. “What is this thing? What is this story that you’re telling?” Rather than, “Look at the way I can make that eyelid flicker in a believable way!” At least that’s my self-justification for the fact that I am the ultimate jack-of-all trades and master of none.

Going off that, you’d mentioned last year that you were definitely feeling a bit apprehensive compared to seeing the likes of Spider-Man and seeing what a team of animators could do. How did your own animating skills sort of evolve over time?

Well, they continue to evolve. I got training from a skilled animator for two days; paid training, and that got me over the line with the basics. Then, a lot of Googling and a lot of trial and error. By the time I’d got to the last episode – I didn’t actually do the episodes completely in order, but to a degree – I was starting to feel like, “Oh, this is okay! It’s looking alright! If I could start now I’d make it much better looking.” But it was definitely trial and error, mainly, and my initial attempts – which were right back at the beginning of the four-year period when I was writing the songs very early on – were shithouse. Thank God I moved on from that.

“I reckon I’m just about a beginner level animator now. I’m pretty proud of myself; I’ve got my L plates now.”

At one point, because the workload stuck me as so massive – the whole idea of doing a comic book-style thing and the amount of detail that needs to go into every background or character – that Anthea and I hit upon the idea of using one of those outsourcing websites where you pay people to do work for you. So we dipped our toes in the water and got someone to do some drawings for me. Not because I couldn’t do them, but because I thought, “Well, if I give them rough sketches, scan them, and I get them to digitally draw them, that’ll leave me free time to get more animation going.” It actually cost me time because the results weren’t good enough and I had to completely redo them all. So I learnt that, “You’re just going to have to do this yourself.”

I reckon I got from ‘hopeless’ to ‘training wheels’, to ‘just about at beginner level’. I reckon I’m just about a beginner level animator now. I’m pretty proud of myself; I’ve got my L plates now.

I suppose we should also look at album as well. As you said, it’s an ambitious project, so for those sort of unaware of the concept, theme, or narrative behind the album, what’s the elevator pitch that you’d give someone if prompted?

There’s the web series and there’s the album. The web series had a definite concept, while the album is more a series of images or ideas which seemed occasionally to revert to similar topics. It’s hard to actually find a word that doesn’t sound pompous to describe that. Is it a song cycle? I don’t know. It’s certainly not as coherent as a concept album, even though I’ve been tagging it as that. So there are simply just these recurring themes and some of them are around the past and what the past means. The past means different things to different people. Some people want to cancel the past; some people want to erase the crimes of the past. Some people want to bring the past back because that’s when they think they were happiest.

I am quite a nostalgist, even though I fight the urge to become a nostalgia act, but I do love nostalgia myself, and the past is a very enticing drug. So I was kind of interested in that idea. There’s also a song about a person, the song “Whatever Happened to Jessie’s Girl?” is my kind of bizarre way of looking at a person who cannot escape their past, they want to move on with their life. Again, the past can mean lots of different things to lots of people, and there are many reasons why it’s so intoxicating –  especially in the last couple of years when we’ve all been feeling a little bit shaky and weird. Sometimes you just want to eat comfort food.

So that’s probably the most consistent theme, but there’s also other themes like my usual ranting about the modern world. But that’s also a theme that kind of runs through it at all. That’s also the title of the album, Only the Shit You Love is kind of about where we find ourselves now in the age of the algorithm. Where we’re being pigeonholed bases on our habits, whether it’s our shopping habits or viewing and listening habits. Supposedly, it’s an advantage to people, like us, living in this fast-paced world where we don’t have the time to go on a journey of discovery. We can get given only the shit we love, and we don’t have to fuck around with all that stuff we don’t like.

“We can get given only the shit we love, and we don’t have to fuck around with all that stuff we don’t like.”

To me, part of the danger of this is that it’s a diminution of the richness of life. The richness of life is that you have bad experiences or you encounter things you don’t like and it helps to form your personality. But now, because there’s so much information, we get this thing. We get this narrow channel, an algorithm tells us we would like this, and we’re kind of missing out. So that’s the other kind of wider theme. I don’t mean it to be some kind of fucking conspiracy argument about the insidious nature of Google and all that, because who wants to be attached to that kind of bullshit?

But it is a bit of sadness about the narrowing down of our lives, and it’s quite symbolic in our use of language. I love language and I do my best to write lyrics that read okay as words on a page as well as just sung. And I succeed sometimes and sometimes I fail, but I’m a real fan of it. Like the music I like; Elvis Costello, for instance. He was a huge influence on me because he was the stand-out person in terms of the beauty of words and the way they go with each other. And I reckon symbolic of this narrowing in our lives is the way that a lot of us – all of us – fall into using a very short selection of phrases, which everybody uses for every situation.

We’re all saying, “Let’s do this”. We’re all saying, “I’ve got this”. We’re all saying, “Reach out” instead of “email me”. I guess it’s because of social media, or whatever. I’m doing it unconsciously myself. I’m using popular, meme-culture, borrowed phrases but I fucking hate it when I hear it.

You did say it’s not a concept album per se, but previously you’d mentioned that you came up in the era of prog-rock. As a result, had you ever thought of doing an album with this sort of overarching theme previously? TISM had the rather lengthy “2 Pot Screama” two decades ago, but that was undeniably more of a self-described ‘rock opera’ than a concept album.

Not really. In my first band, Root!, we did an album called Surface Paradise which was supposedly thematically unified, same kind of thing. But I’d never done anything that attempts to – in audio form – tell a story. I just reckon you end up with songs that are only there for the purpose of exposition, of continuing the narrative.

My favourite is [The Who’s] Tommy, which is obviously the kind of iconic rock opera thing, and Tommy’s got some of – in my humble opinions – the greatest classic rock moments in the history of classic rock. But it’s also got, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Miracle cure,” or whatever – these little bits, and even then I think the critics pointed out at the time that Tommy didn’t make any sense, so I don’t know if he achieved that [goal].

But that’s what stops me from trying to write a coherent musical story, because I think it tends to result in songs that you wouldn’t ever consider by itself. And I suppose I kind of like songs that stand alone, and that you can take them out of that concept part and they still work. The concept part is really just an afterthought where I – and you mentioned prog, and I suppose it comes from my upbringing – feel that everything should have a grand icing on the cake. So I’m always thinking in that sort of way: “How can I make this more grandiose?”

So I can tell you I’m certainly never going to attempt something as ambitious as this again, not for a while, and I don’t think I would do a rock opera or a musical. I don’t even know what the difference is. I’m not sure how a musical is different from a rock opera. No, if I do something next, I’m sure it’ll be much more humble and modest.

“I can tell you I’m certainly never going to attempt something as ambitious as this again.”

You mentioned on how it’s difficult for songs to stand alone, that’s a reason why I personally have steered away from concept albums, historically. There’s a lot of great stuff on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but there’s a lot of expositional filler which just doesn’t cut it outside of its context.

Whereas Dark Side of The Moon is also of a concept but it’s not quite such an overbearing concept. It sounds like – I could be wrong – they didn’t think of the concept first. It was like they kind of wrote the songs and tried to put them together in a sequence that kind of it made it feel like that. Whereas The Wall, you think that was a concept and then the songs followed.

This week also sees a live return for the Disco Machine at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel. It’s been a while, so how does it feel to finally be getting back on the tools after so long?

Pretty weird, I tell you. I was more than content to contemplate not playing live during the lockdown. It felt like perfect timing because this whole project I’ve been doing was just so massive that I had no mental space. Originally, when I started out on it, it was pre-lockdown. So by nature, I would’ve had to have culminated in a show – even something quite ambitious like trying to play the album live. And for me, I was like, “I can’t even think about that. That’s just too much to think about it.”

So it was fabulous to not have to think about. Then all of a sudden – we’re coming up to not much more than a month or two months ago – when things started to open up, and we had the offer of the show, and Anthea said to me, “Do you want to do this?” And all of a sudden, it was – “Fuck!” – on.

It was a little daunting, but I’m really loving it now. I’ve been having some rehearsals with the guys in the band. Y’know, I get in my car, I drive to some other location. These minor things, these tiny things, just make me feel like I’m engaging with the world again. So I’m actually quite excited about performing.

But mind you, there are some thing I’d completely forgotten about, like how fucking loud a drum kit is. I haven’t been in the same room as a drum kit in two years, and we had our first full-band rehearsal recently, and where I stand on stage, I’ve got two cymbals about a foot behind my head. Fuck, those fuckers are loud.

Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine’s Only the Shit You Love is released on Thursday, December 2nd, with physical copies available via Bandcamp. The band also launches the album with a Christmas show in Melbourne on December 3rd, with full details available below. Main photo by Jacqueline Berthaume.

Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine – Xmas Show

Featuring Tony Martin

Friday, December 3rd
Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Tickets: Oztix