Whether you knew it or not, Damian Cowell has spent much of the last four decades as one of the most iconic names in the world of Australian music. Co-founding Melbourne’s masked outfit TISM in the early ’80s, Cowell served as vocalist Humphrey B. Flaubert until their silent split in 2004.
Since then, he’s focused his efforts on a number of outfits, including the country-themed Root!, and The DC3, before the eponymous Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine appeared in the middle of the last decade. After a self-titled debut in 2015, 2017’s Get Your Dag On! continued a theme of delivering unabashed disco music, complete with his famed delivery, often sardonic lyrics, and the inclusion of an extremely talented backing band (which includes comedy legend, and TISM tragic, Tony Martin).
Now, after three years, Cowell has returned with what might just be the most “stupidly ambitious project” of his career to date. Dubbed Only the Shit You Love, the new record is a double album whose seeds of inspiration were first sown as the Disco Machine’s last album wrapped up.
“Three years ago, songs started appearing in my brain like spam in a junk folder – but this time I thought I’d try something a little harder than a straightforward album,” Cowell explained in a statement. “Why not sauce them up with an overarching concept? Someone should have stopped me there… but no – vaulting ambition o’er leapt itself: it became 20 little vignettes, joined together by four sub plots, umbrella-d over by one big story.”
While some of these songs have managed to appear on the setlist of the Disco Machine’s live shows in recent years, their delayed arrival has been in part due to Cowell’s continued work on the larger body of work that ties it all together. Describing the entire project as “a double concept album/animated graphic novel/musical/Youtube series”, the album comes paired with a visual accompaniment that sees Cowell contextualising the tracks – as you may have guessed – as an animated graphic novel which will be shared on YouTube.
Ambitious, intriguing, and as downright unique as you might expect something bearing the Damian Cowell trademark to be, its creator has today officially launched the project, with a Pozible campaign going live to help fund its completion. Following on from previous successful campaigns, Cowell has read the room this year, and is asking for less than he has previously (and less than he actually needs) in hopes of getting charitable fans onboard.
With a number of rewards available to those who support the campaign as well, Cowell spoke to Rolling Stone about the album, the Pozible campaign that hopes to make its release a reality, and explains just how it came to be, what is still to come, and just what the hell he was thinking.
Let’s begin with the somewhat obvious question – when did you first get the idea for everything here? When did the songs start coming to you, and how did it evolve into what it is today?
Well, it’s been three years, so it’s a tremendous relief to be able to actually come out of the closet and say that I’ve got this project, because I sort of haven’t really told anybody [about it] until now – except my friends. I guess that’s mainly because it’s such a ridiculous idea that I didn’t know for a lot of the past three years whether I was going to be able to pull it off. But it’s just me and being the ridiculous person I am, I started out writing songs with no particular plan other than I’d finished an album and we’d done some gigs.
Songs started… I fucking hate it when people say this, but “songs happen to me”, like when I’m walking the dog. They’re not divine interventions or anything, but I started getting ideas for songs, and they kept coming and coming, and I seemed to have this ridiculous fallow period. Then there was this sort of ‘theme’ coming out of it, so I guess it sort of developed from that.
It wasn’t really a plan, it was just like it kept growing and growing and growing. I had more and more and more songs, and there seemed to be these ‘themes’ going through it, and then rather than cutting it down to ten and making an album, I just had this moment where I went, “Even making an album now is so fucking ridiculous, no one gives a shit about albums anymore, why don’t I just go the other way and make a concept album? Something so ridiculous and overblown, and out of fashion as that?”
From there, I started to write – in my head – a story which linked the songs, and it was like, How do I link the songs? How do I express that? Is it going to be liner notes on a CD – something as boring as that? So y’know, this is the sort of the process of it tumbling in forward momentum into something as ridiculous as where I am now, which is an animated graphic novel YouTube series, by process of this sort of continual thing.
“Everything I say, it just – to me – sounds ridiculous, but I’ve actually got to the point where I reckon I can do it.”
People were saying to me, “You could do a musical”, which is absurd because you would need a million bucks to do a musical properly, I would imagine, but also because I don’t feel like – in any way – I would know where to start. But when I hit upon the idea of a comic book… A comic book is sort of, y’know, “juvie”? It’s got that juvenility about it, which sort of suits me. So I sort of went down that path, but a graphic novel in itself would not be enough. So that’s when I came upon the idea of animating it.
Everything I say, it just – to me – sounds ridiculous, but I’ve actually got to the point where I reckon I can do it. But it just kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and so this is the way, I think, I can actually make it happen. It’s a bunch of songs – first and foremost it’s bunch of songs – but the way I’ve decided to tell the story is via this animated graphic novel thing [laughs].
I would assume some of these songs have been in the works for quite a while then? One song referenced in the campaign trailer is “Greta the Garbo”, I recall being played at the Northcote Social Club back as far back as April of 2019.
That’s right. As I’m writing songs, I like to get them in the set. I just get excited about them. That’s the main reason, but also it helps me to write a song sometimes, to actually play it live and realise it’s not obvious enough, [or] it doesn’t really hit the mark. So it’s making the audience a bit of a guinea pig, I must admit. So it’s not really fair of me, but it’s a really great way to test a song.
So yeah, quite a few of these songs have been… As I say, they were started three years ago, and then once I got the idea that I might link… It’s like the story is sort of this poncho over the leisure suit of songs. The story ties them together, and once I had this idea for the poncho, I had to rewrite the leisure suit a bit so that they kind of fit.
I hope that people will like them as songs, and as individual songs each one of them has a distinct thing that it’s about – a story it’s telling, or it’s got something to say, or whatever. You can hopefully like them on that level, and then the umbrella puts them all together into one big story.
Well that’s how some of the best concept albums have worked in the past – the accessibility of being able to experience them both as a whole and as singular tracks.
Well, yeah, but it doesn’t always. I don’t know the difference between a ‘rock opera’ and a ‘musical’ and a ‘song cycle’ and a ‘concept album’, but I think the most obvious example, the grandaddy of them all, is Tommy [The Who, 1969]; Pete Townshend called it a “proto-opera”. In there, they’ve got linking tracks which completely service the plot. There’s that one, it’s like a 30-second track, where it goes “Read all about it, the Pinball Wizard with a miracle cure” or something. That’s purely a device to service the plot.
That doesn’t happen in these, so if you [only] listen to the songs, you wouldn’t actually know what the story is. The songs sound like distinct ideas, so the story links them, and that’s why I had this thing of, “How am I going to tell the story I need the visuals to sell the overall story?”
With that in mind, are you a particular fan of concept albums at all, or more for the way in which a story can be told?
Well, I grew up in the era of prog-rock, so I was a devourer of concept albums with the best of them. I don’t particularly go for musicals. I find musicals always strike me as being like the school production, or something, so I’ve never been able to… I don’t know, maybe it’s this inherited snobbishness I have, but I always used to think that musicals never sound like they were written by proper musicians. They always sounded like they were written by hacks, to me.
So the term ‘musical’ sort of makes me get a rash, but concept albums, I love that idea of there being a bit more to think about. You can just kind of listen to it on a superficial level, and let’s face it, we’re talking about me here, so this is the most kind of superficial kind of music. If these songs don’t work in a superficial way, then I’m a fucking failure, because that’s my number one aim: to make people want to dance and sing something stupid.
But I do like that idea of, “You can maybe sit and think about this”, or you might be craning your ear to hear the next lyric because you’re trying to… Y’know, that sort of overblown pretentiousness really appeals to me. I’ve had a crack at it before in Root!, but this one, I’ve obviously taken far longer with it, and it’s far more complicated and hopefully better. But we’ll see.
“That’s my number one aim: to make people want to dance and sing something stupid.”
Then of course there’s this whole visual aspect of it. We’re talking about the music here, but the visual aspect is also why it’s been taking me three years. That was a big challenge. I remember early on in the thing, I went to the pictures with Tony Martin, and we went to see that Spider-Man movie [Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming], the animated Spider-Man in the… something universe. I’d hatched this idea that I was going to somehow do some kind of animated thing for these songs, and afterwards I came out and said, “Fuck, I’m fucked! What am I doing?”
The animation on that movie was just mind-blowing, and of course, Tony, with his great wisdom, said to me, “Yeah, but hang on a minute, have a look at the credits at the end of the movie. The list of animators keeps scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, and y’know, all of these people are highly-skilled, full-time animators who have done course after course, so of course it’s going to look like that.”
So I guess my solution was to put my limitations front and centre, and make that the whole point of it. So I hit upon the idea of it being… The Spider-Man movie, you could argue, is an animated graphic novel in that it is cartoon characters being animated. Mine is actually like you’re looking at a comic book, and the panels in the comic book are alive like how the paintings in the Harry Potter movies come alive.
I’m hoping that the audience can actually still enjoy it, but I’m putting this front and centre and saying, “I’m a shithouse animator, I’m not an animator’s arse, but if you’re prepared to suspend your disbelief on this…” I looked it up, and I’m using what has been described as ‘limited motion’ animation, which I reckon sums me up very neatly.
But I’m thinking of these cartoon series which used to run in the late ’60s and early ’70s… You probably wouldn’t know them, but there was one called Clutch Cargo and one called Space Angel, and they used limited motion animation, which is basically 2D images which go across the screen. And then they used this other technique called Syncro-Vox which is this weird thing of superimposing a real person’s mouth onto a cartoon.
Well I’m not doing Syncro-Vox, but I am using that sort of 2D animation. I guess what I’m hoping is that what you’re doing here is that you’re tuning in and really enjoying the song, and the visuals kind of help to make it fun. But if I was to be judged as ‘This is an animated series’, I would be in jail for my shithouse-ness on this.
I’m actually surprised that I am actually across Clutch Cargo somewhat. However, Space Angel isn’t on my radar.
There was also a Marvel superhero cartoon series when I was little, and that had lip-synching mouths that you get in normal cartoons, but none of the movement that you’d expect, even in the most basic cartoons of that era. So again, it was like 2D images and they’d sort of have a bit of this [Cowell makes some explanatory hand gestures], and a bit of eye movement, but really basic. So they were my inspirations to showcase my incredibly limited motion animation skills as well.
I feel some folks might be taken aback by this project in a sense, but at the same time, your work has always been quite visual. People just need to look at the Disco Machine show shows for proof of this, or even back to live shows with TISM as an example of how visuals have served an integral part of your work. So in a way, this does almost feel like something of a natural progression.
Well I hope you’re right. I’d never considered it as being a continuum of a theme that I’ve been doing, but you’re right, I’ve certainly been big on the visuals. A Disco Machine gig, for me, is a culmination of what I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I’ve ever been on stage with a band, which is to make it a total stimulus on every level. I like the idea that it’s visually stimulating, and that’s partly also because I like the idea where you don’t have to figure out what the lyrics are – you can actually see the lyrics while we’re playing.
So that’s certainly always been really important to me, but I guess I just love graphic novel art. I always find with graphic novels that the scripts are terribly disappointing. But let’s face it, it inhabits that weird world of kids’ entertainment somehow transported into the adult world, so what do you expect? But I love the comic book art, so I was always going to lean towards doing something like this. I’m always trying to improve my cartoon skills.
I’ve done pretty much every album cover since TISM – [they’ve] featured some kind of cartoon art. So I’m pretty happy with that side of it. Some of it looks really great. It’s going to make a fantastic t-shirt. That’s all I really get out of it, one fucking hell of a t-shirt [laughs].
You mention that you’ve been across the art for quite a while, but I’m assuming that venturing into the world of animation would’ve been a completely new experience?
Oh yeah. I’m something of an autodidact, I think is the word, so I’ve pretty much taught myself to write music, and it’s pretty much the same with graphic art and animation. It’s possible nowadays for a jerk-off like me to be able to do this thanks to the availability of software you can use, and with all the info on Google and whatever. So I have had a little bit of formal training, and I had a mentor who helped me a bit, and I’m going to get some more, I think, because I’m still at the subterranean level of skill.
“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, so here I am.”
But yeah, it was pretty much new, and it’s been a long three years at times, I have to say. That’s why I haven’t felt gutsy enough to own up to doing it in public yet, because I was so scared that I would get to the point where I would go, “I’m not going to be able to do this, and I’ve told all these people…” But I have now, so I sort of feel that… 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, so here I am.
Was there any point when you putting this together that you just looked at it all and thought, “I might have bitten off a bit more than I can chew?”
[Laughs] Absolutely. On a weekly basis I’ve had that fear, and I still have it because I haven’t finished yet. And now the clock is ticking because I’m launching a crowdfunding campaign and there’s sort of a vague timeline associated with it. So yeah, certainly there were periods where I thought I wouldn’t quite be able to do it, but you do build up a bit of momentum, and once I got a few bits done I realised, “Yeah, I can sort of see it happening.”
I think the pandemic has sort of helped me in that it’s bought me time. I haven’t really been able to work any more than I would normally, because I obviously juggle this with full-time employment. I have no idea when I’m going to retire into nostalgia but that will be a lovely when I actually know what people are talking about when they say, “Haven’t you seen The Simpsons?” But yeah, I think the pandemic probably helped me because I felt like no one was sitting there, tapping their foot, going, “You haven’t done a gig for six months!”
So that definitely gave me a bit more patience to sort of keep going at it. But there’s still obviously no plans to perform it. That may happen down the track, but at least I’m focused now on finishing it and getting [it out there]. Providing I reach the target of crowdfunding. That’s the next challenge.
This isn’t the first crowdfunding campaign you’ve run in the past. Your 2017 campaign brought in just under $20,000, and the one before that was around $25,000. Obviously there’s freedom involved in something like this, but there must be apprehension in launching a crowdfunding campaign, especially in a year like this?
Well, I can’t complain – crowdfunding is probably the reason why I’ve managed to sustain a career. In the sort of post-record company world, getting the money up front to even record albums would even be difficult without crowdfunding and without the support of the people who have stuck around and been faithful to me.
So it’s fantastic for me, but yeah, it’s scary as fuck because the total always creeps up, and the way I do it through Pozible is that you have a target, and if you don’t hit the target you don’t get a cent. So that’s always a bit scary, and also you’ve got to actually provide rewards for people, and some of the rewards actually take a fair bit of time.
“If you like what I do, this is going to be, in my humble opinion, the best thing that I’ve done.”
So I’m hoping with this project that the rewards are sort of things I would’ve been doing anyway, and are not necessarily going to take me away from finishing the project itself. One of the rewards I have put up is that I’m going to do podcast, a regular podcast with each episode. That’s going to take a fair bit of time, because I will sort of prepare for that. I won’t just turn the mic on like some people seem to in their podcasts [laughs]. That’s going to be an undertaking, so I may yet find I have bitten off more than I can chew. But I’ve got to, and I really need the crowdfunding just to kind of get this going.
Of course, I don’t know if this is a bad time to be coming cap in hand to people again. They might think I’m a total cunt for even asking for money, so I don’t know. I’m asking for less than I need, and I’m hoping I reach the target and keep going so that I can actually do it properly. I might have to cut corners if I can’t. But anyway, it’s sort of the best I can hope for with this.
On the topic of rewards, I went through some of the old campaigns, and there were rewards that included you even writing songs for people. I can imagine at the end of it there was a sigh of relief where you just said, “Boy, am I glad no one picked that one.”
“Thank Christ!” [laughs]. There was an even better one, it was I think in DC3, we were going to come around and do your garden for you. It was one of those ones where I went, “Fucking hell, why did we even come up with that idea? Thank Christ…” So, yes, writing a song for someone did take a bit of time, and I’m not writing a song for anyone this time, but I am offering that you can be in the series.
So for one of the pricer ones, it’s like you give me a photo of you and record you saying a couple of words and I’ll turn you into a picture and animate you and put you into the series. But hopefully that’s something I would’ve done anyway. If I wasn’t animating Joe Bloggs, I would be animating somebody, so fingers crossed I’m not actually creating more work for myself. But y’know, we’ll see.
Speaking directly to the fans, you’ve laid it all out, but is there anything you want to say that might help convince the as-yet undecided Pozible pledger?
If you like what I do, this is going to be, in my humble opinion, the best thing that I’ve done. Not just because it’s got an added element, but because having three years to tinker with these songs has made them better. So this is, by my modest standard, it is going to be a cracker. But I can’t do it unless you help me.
So it’s down to you, and I know that obviously it’s not a very pleasant time for some people who might be out of work and stuff, so whatever you can would be fabulous. Let’s face it, if you’ve taken to eating donuts to get yourself over the depression of the pandemic, then just consider me as one particularly exotic flavour [laughs].
Damian Cowell’s new Pozible campaign for his forthcoming “double concept album/animated graphic novel/musical/Youtube series” is now live. Main photo by Jacqueline Berthaume.