It’s an overcast February day in Melbourne as DMA’S guitarist Johnny Took speaks from across the table of a Brunswick pub, only a few blocks away from where he now resides. The group, which he helped co-found alongside vocalist Tommy O’Dell and guitarist Matt Mason back in 2012, had just wrapped up touring as part of the 2020 Laneway Festival found themselves looking ahead to what would become a brief visit to the UK and the release of their third album, THE GLOW.
A powerful new record, THE GLOW showcases a continuing evolution in the band’s already-acclaimed sound, serving as the next logical step in a career that has seen them ever so slowly climb the charts thanks to albums boasting the indie-rock style that put them on the map to begin with. This latest release sees the band expanding their sonic palette somewhat, working with producer Stuart Price (New Order, Pet Shop Boys) to craft a collection of songs to properly exhibit their pop sensibilities.
“Working with Stuart Price was definitely a big change for us,” Took explains, recalling the production of 2016’s For Now in the process. “Initially, Kim [Moyes, The Presets] was just going to jump onboard to help with some drum engineering, but after listening to the demos, he pitched to us that he would like to produce the whole record.
“Working with a producer from the get-go and even just having the chance to experiment with some producers…” he trails off happily. “We did the first single [“Silver”] with Scott Horscroft, who was amazing to work with. Then, working with Stuart Price came up. We were intrigued what it would be like – because DMA’S has always been a pop band. To take it to a big studio and use a producer with that kind of experience could really take the jangly pop songs that we have to the next level.
“We could have made THE GLOW pretty much sound like [debut album] Hills End if we wanted to. We could have used all those songs and done them in that kind of jangly, not quite lo-fi, poppy kind of vibe. I guess we just didn’t want to make that record anymore.”
The result was an album that saw the band achieve a sound they truly wanted to make. It featured more experimentation and traditional pop sounds than previously seen.
“[Price] definitely helped us channel that sort of thing. It’s sonically a lot lusher; there’s stuff that when we were making Hill’s End I probably would have told you I’d never put on a record – pop techniques, or mixing techniques we probably would never have done. But at the same time, I feel this is the sort of album for us to try shit like that. We wanted to make a pop record.
“We love pop music, and I guess there’s a sort of sensibility when it comes to that, so I guess we were sort of learning – being in a big studio like that – how to do that.”
Recorded in LA, THE GLOW was originally set to arrive almost two years to the date after their last record, For Now. Even the recording sessions alone saw the group expanding their sights. While their 2016 debut was recorded across Coogee and Newtown, their follow-up saw DMA’S working out of The Grove Studios in Somersby. This time around, grander and more expensive scenery helped the group focus their outlook somewhat.
“I guess we just didn’t want to make that record anymore.”
“If you were recording at home, you could experiment for months and not pay a cent,” Took explains. “But Stuart also made a comment that he believes sometimes coming into those big studios with all the best gear can be inspiring, just being around so much amazing stuff that you feel like you have to step up as well.
“You could take the album to your home studio and work on it for months and months. And there are facets of the album, or aspects of songs, where I feel like I could’ve done that still. Having those money and time restrictions, creatively, it’s probably a good thing. Or else we could’ve been making this record for almost three years.”
Though initial singles such as “Silver” and “Life is a Game of Changing” proved to fans that even three records in, DMA’S are still at the top of their creative game, Took notes the band’s creative process is quite disjointed to what some may expect, and rarely features the outfit sitting down with a cohesive musical plan in mind.
“Lots of musicians are pretty awkward people,” he says with a wry smile while leaning across the table to pour a glass of water. “And coming up with ideas on the spot; it’s quite a bit of pressure. Mason and I do most of the production work in the band, we’re constantly working on ideas, going back and forth; we call it Frankensteining.
“Not every song is like that. Some songs, someone will write 80-90% of one, and then another will see a one-off voice memo that Tommy has made put into the middle eight, but other times it’s more dramatic. When we started the band, we were writing for a couple of years and so we’ve always been ahead of the curve with songs. I thought we’d be running pretty low by this third record, but we’re doing alright. I think we had a list of 35 songs to pick, and we culled that down to about 11.”
Back in their early days, DMA’S were noted for being somewhat unenthusiastic when it came to their success and plans for the future. While their debut EP was recorded in Took’s old bedroom in Newtown, he explained back in 2015 that their apprehension towards signing with a label might have resulted in them being forced to abandon their humble digs and set their sights for a studio.
Their EP contained tracks like “Delete” which not only saw them burst onto the mainstream, but also caught the attention of luminaries such as Blur drummer and XFM radio DJ Dave Rowntree. Eventually signing to I OH YOU in 2014, few could have predicted what the ensuing years would hold. As Took notes though, while the vast majority of the new record feels fresh and adventurous, one of its songs actually dates back to these early days.
“One song called ‘Criminals’, Mason kind of pieced together with Tommy only a couple of months before we recorded it,” Took says. “But then there’s one song called ‘Cobracaine’ which Mason wrote the week after he wrote ‘Delete’.”
Many of these songs that didn’t make the cut for THE GLOW are still on track to see the light of day. In fact, the presence of a producer of Price’s calibre inspired DMA’S to be a little choosier with their work, playing to Price’s strengths so he could help them create the “dancier, poppier” record they had in mind.
“We haven’t decided how we’re going to do it, but with the next record, we’ve already got about eight or nine songs which are pretty upbeat, guitar-driven, noisy… kind of like our old-school stuff but maybe a bit thrashier,” he explains. “And we’re thinking, ‘Why don’t we do a harder EP or album next time around?’
“We have talked about doing an EP or an album or a mini-album or something of just harder, punkier style, heavier – like, for us – style for release. But I guess we’ll see where we’re at.
“That’s one thing I would like for DMA’S; to be the kind of band where we say, ‘Yes, we have made an album like THE GLOW, which is a big pop record, but why can’t we shift as we go along?’ It’s not like you’ve made a pop record and now every record you have to make is a big LA studio pop album that I feel a lot of bands feel the pressure to do.”
For a band like DMA’S – who rose to fame due to their catchy, Britpop-inspired vocals atop indie-rock instrumentals – to change up their sound and deliver a record that unashamedly takes influences from groups like Underworld and The Chemical Brothers on some songs, it could be seen as something of a gamble. For Took though, he concedes that while it might not please everyone, the desire to continuously adapt their sound comes not only from a creative mindset, but a personal one.
“We wanted to evolve,” Took says. “Some people might be content with just releasing the same record or the same sounding record again and again, and to be honest lots of fans might be content with hearing the same album again and again.
“I think there’s a lot of room for that, and I think as an artist, and for me personally, you’ve got to keep moving. Otherwise I’d go crazy.”
“I think you just have to be proud of it yourself. Just throw it out in the ether and see how it goes.”
Despite a desire to keep moving forward, evolving, and proving that – to paraphrase one of their songs – music itself is a game of changing, this decision is not without potential backlash from fans.
“DMA’S have had upbeat rock’n’roll tunes, singalong ballady vibes, and one aspect of our live set we were missing was dancey numbers.
“I knew a lot of fans probably weren’t going to like a lot of the dancier songs on the record, or the pop elements to it, which is fair enough, but you can’t please everyone. So I think you just have to be proud of it yourself; just throw it out in the ether and see how it goes.
“There was definitely a lot more conversation over this record than there was with any other DMA’S album. I don’t know if it’s ‘cause the stakes are maybe a bit higher, or if it’s ‘cause you’ve done it before and you know what things you liked or haven’t liked, or maybe just because people care more, or a bit of everything. It’s definitely been the most polarising – even just on little topics – in the camp between us, but I think that just shows that we all still care.”
Though it’s been two years since fans last received a new record from DMA’S, they’ve not been sitting on their hands – rather, they’ve been busier than ever. Having toured relentlessly since the release of For Now in 2018, the band found time to not only take part in a majestic live set for MTV Unplugged, but also tour the UK alongside none other than Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher. As Took explains, this unrelenting grind is a necessary evil for any band to continue doing what they love the most.
“We haven’t really stopped as a band,” he explains. “The way that the industry is these days is that you don’t really make any money off CDs, so you kind of need to just keep fucking touring – which is hectic.
“Believe me, I would love to take like three years off and make a record. People still do it; if this one goes well, maybe I could do it. But we’re on a two-year cycle at the moment, and it works for us. To be fair, before ‘Silver’ and ‘Life is a Game of Changing’ was released, it did feel like things were slowing down, so it felt like a good time to get something new and fresh sounding out there.
“We’re a six-piece touring band. Financially, it’s fucking insane. So I guess for us, being able to focus on the UK, and if things get bigger there, hopefully it can spread onto other territories. One step at a time.”
In the age of social media, it can be easy for a hyped band’s career to embark on the standard route of form, flight, flounder, and finally, forgotten. However, it speaks volumes about the quality of an artist when they break this cycle and not only continue, but reach dizzying heights of well-deserved success. Took admits that he’s aware the group’s achievements have defied the expectations of many, but chalks it up to their continued desire to better themselves.
“I guess as an outsider, it would’ve been easy to see DMA’S as a flash in the pan kind of band, but we’re working on our skills and continuously trying to learn and just be better at music, and listen to music and be inspired by different things. So I think we’ve done a lot of growing, but I think there’s still a lot of growing yet to be done, which is exciting.”
“We wanted to start being one of those major bands on the touring circuit in the UK festival run. It’s turning out that way.”
The release of THE GLOW is undoubtedly the culmination of close to a decade of hard work for DMA’S. With yet another strong record to their name and global tours under their belt and on the cards, Took looks back to the band’s goals when they first started, and how things have turned out.
“To be honest, we wanted to get over to the UK,” Took remembers. “Living in my apartment in inner west Sydney, and Tommy and I in particular, we thought these songs were good, and we want to get over to the UK and we want to hit this market. We wanted to start being one of those major bands on the touring circuit in the UK festival run. It’s turning out that way, which is good.
“At the moment for me, I just want to keep releasing records that we’re proud of, I want to keep changing them up sonically – at least enough for us so it doesn’t feel like we’re regurgitating the same shit.
“Like anything in life, The journey is always the best part; when you get there you always want to move on to something else, or keep moving. So even though I feel blessed and privileged that we are at that stage now, I feel like there’s bigger steps to be done for us again.”