From the release of their first EP back in 2014, DMA’S started to build a solid fan base with their particular brand of ‘Madchester’ music – the kind of Britpop-esque sound that saw them open for self-confessed fan Liam Gallagher and headline to 10,000 fans at London’s Alexandra Palace while the pandemic was still dicey at best.
Their last full-length studio album, THE GLOW, brought the band mainstream attention and roaring chart success when it was released in 2020: a number two ARIA chart debut and album of the year nomination, as well as a chart peak of number four in the UK.
The band released an EP, I Love You Unconditionally, Sure Am Going to Miss You, in mid-2021, which the band’s Johnny Took describes almost as a way to blow out the cobwebs and clear the path for their new album.
“There’s definitely a high-fidelity kind of sentiment to THE GLOW, and I think we kind of knew that if we were going to make another full-length record that we still sonically had things that we wanted to do in that kind of pop realm,” he says. “But then at our core we still love the noisy, almost shoegaze style jangly guitar thing, and I think we had to get that out of our system a bit.”
The release of How Many Dreams? this week is a welcome relief for the trio from Sydney, who call this their most challenging record to make.
“Other records we’ve pretty much gone into the studio and two weeks later there’s been an album that’s come out of it,” Took explains. “But this wasn’t the case with this one – it was a little more tedious but a lot more rewarding as well.”
Took and his bandmates – Tommy O’Dell and Matt Mason – spent three weeks in London working with two producers, Stuart Price and Rich Costey, who produced a perfectly good rock’n’roll record. But, as Took insists, it didn’t fit with the trajectory the band was taking into a more modern sound.
“We got back to Sydney and we listened to the album, and there was a lot of great stuff structurally and we kind of pieced together a lot of facets of the record, but sonically it sounded too much like just a rock band in the room,” he says. “We went into the studio with Konstantin Kersting and we cut the record up a bit: instead of using the full live drum take we’d use eight bars, and then we’d put samples underneath and we added all the synths and got to refine lyrics.”
Given the additional time bought by the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which was making releasing and touring a record an unrealistic prospect at the time, the band used the extra time and space to shape How Many Dreams? into something different.
“I know our management and our label wouldn’t want to do that again, but in hindsight it was actually kind of cool that we got to sit on the record and really listen to it and work out what kind of album we wanted to make,” Took laughs. “We were already opening up I guess the gates to incorporating more drum machines and program stuff and sampling, but prior to THE GLOW we’d kind of just been a couple of lads with guitars… But that two years when we weren’t touring we really got to experiment with different forms of production and stuff like that.”
Took takes a philosophical approach to the pressure to produce a follow-up worthy of THE GLOW’s success.
“I guess when things start getting a bit bigger there is a little more pressure, but I think at the end of the day I know that the only thing I can really control is the songs that I write,” he says. “My goal now is to remember how it felt when I was 15 and 16 years old and I first fell in love with the magic of song writing, and the power of lyrics and chord changes and their relationship with each other – when I go into the studio it’s to find that feeling again, and the rest of it’s a bonus.”
Not that Took’s younger self would have likely listened to DMA’S music: teenage Took was into bluegrass, folk, and country more than synthesisers and dance tracks.
“I think he would be impressed… I think he would be going, ‘How the fuck did you pull that out of your arse?’” he laughs. “Back from when I only used to write folk songs and country songs, to seeing something like “I Don’t Need to Hide” or “De Carle” – I couldn’t imagine a dance track like that ever being released by DMA’S, let alone by me.”
“De Carle” was, in fact, one of the first tracks the band started experimenting with during lockdown, when Took and Mason first began exploring the harder dance elements.
Known for their live performances, DMA’S had already begun changing the infrastructure of their live show at the start of their tour for THE GLOW, because there are elements of electronic sounds that are impossible to replicate on stage – even with a six-piece live band.
“That’s the beauty of electronic music; you’re twisting knobs until you get a weird little accident, then you sample that and you put it on a loop, then you put the four-on-the-floor to it and it sounds amazing,” Took laughs. “On THE GLOW, there’s a song called “Life Is a Game of Changing” and it has an arpeggio kind of synth trance-y riff, so you all need to be playing to a click track to have the pulsing rhythms and stuff to be perfectly in time, so it’s really opened up another world for us to be able to use samplers and drum machines, but just at a flick of a switch we can also go back to rock band very easily.
Imagining what tracks would sound like performed live played heavily into the decisions made during the production of this album.
“”Fading Like a Picture” opens up with that guitar riff – and we thought about how that song would be to play live, and for the guitar heads that like our music, would want to hear that riff twice, so we put it in twice,” Took says. “We weren’t trying to cut it down or anything for a radio edit – the first edit only went for three and a half minutes, and we’re like, ‘What the fuck? This is a dance song,’ and my favourite dance songs go for, like, five to seven minutes. So we extended it.”
Took says he wrote “How Many Dreams?” specifically thinking of it being an opener for a live album as well as a live show.
“I definitely think about that a lot more now, like when I’m writing in the studio I think about how it’s going to be done live,” he explains. “And I can see that song being a great opener for the live show. I think it’s cool when we open the live show with songs that open the album, it’s almost like you’re putting on the record.”
Took admits he is very impressionable – almost embarrassingly so – which means his songwriting can easily be influenced by what else he is listening to at the time.
“I’ve worked out sometimes if I become really obsessed with a band or like the style of music of someone, I can kind of listen to it and then be so influenced by it that I kind of almost try and write my version of it,” he says. “But just because I’m not that person, it never really sounds like them; it’s just something new for me.”
Certain influences have crept in to How Many Dreams? in this way, including Sonic Youth, Groove Armada, and The Verve.
“When we were making the album, I was just listening to Groove Armada’s White Light record, and literally I’d go to the gym and I’d just put it on, and it was the only thing I was listening to,” Took says. “It’s got a really good mix between the rock drums but guitars and the dance element. I’m not saying this album sounds like Groove Armada, but there are elements of certain pulsating rhythms and distorted synthesisers and stuff like that which are definitely in there.”
The post-pandemic DMA’S are different to the pre-pandemic DMA’S, and not just in their sonic evolution. O’Dell became a father and Took wed his sweetheart, Hayley Mary, who lent her expertise to some of the tracks on the record like “Dear Future”, which was inspired by a friend who had recently gone through a breakup.
“I remember actually when I wrote it, I got up in the middle of the night because I was feeling a little bit unsatisfied with where my song writing was at, and I was thinking about my friend and yeah, then wrote it really quickly,” Took says. “And then my wife Hayley actually helped a bit pulling it together, because she heard me playing it in the living room, and she was like, ‘Oh what about this part?’ and we tweaked a few things together as well.”
The band as a whole is older and wiser now, and Took says with 20/20 hindsight, the great “pandemic pause” has given DMA’S more than it took away.
“The thing with the pandemic is you couldn’t take it too personally, because there was a lot of people whose careers got put on hold,” he says. “Things were really popping off for us in the UK – because we barely got to tour the globe properly – but at the same time, songs like “De Carle” and “How Many Dreams?” wouldn’t have been written if we didn’t have that time to actually sit at home on the laptop and spend more time in the studio, because we were such a big touring band – we pretty much hadn’t stopped touring for six years up until the pandemic. Like, almost non-stop. And by the time we stopped touring we’d make another record.”
DMA’S also recently announced a 18-date Australian tour – their biggest local tour to date – giving them the opportunity to take in some regional shows, which they’ve never had the opportunity to do outside Groovin The Moo.
“(The) good thing about maturing as a band and getting on to your fourth album, is you can keep refining the set,” Took says. “There’s just a really good dynamic to the set, and we’re playing better than we’ve ever played, and the show’s got more energy than it’s ever had -and that’s something that you can only learn and get from playing in a band for 10 years and doing your time on the road.”