It’s a late January afternoon and there’s a storm brewing over Sydney; one of those fuck-everything-in-its-path storms that springs from nowhere to mock a morning that was all clear skies and sunshine. As a huge peal of thunder rolls over the city, DMA’S guitarist and songwriter Matt Mason looks across the empty top-floor bar of a laid-back inner-Sydney hotel and says, “I forgot to shut my window, man – I am fucked.”
As the big rain begins to fall and everyone turns back to their drinks, it’s obvious that Mason and mates Tommy O’Dell and Johnny Took are not what you’d expect from a band that has been tagged, since day one, as “hype”. After their debut EP landed just outside iTunes’ Top Ten in 2014, the trio have weathered a storm every bit as chaotic as the one rattling the pub’s windows. From overnight sensations scoring record deals around the world to jibes from Noel Gallagher to the gruelling reality of long international tours, O’Dell, Took and Mason have already endured all manner of bastardy – long before releasing their first album.
“Sure, we’ve had some stuff said,” shrugs Mason. “Like I read that someone thought we were just put together by a record label!”
“I take that as a compliment,” laughs Took.
“Yeah, but they could have found better looking dudes,” points out O’Dell. “What, was the record company guy blind?”
It’s not quite water off a duck’s back, but for the trio it’s also all part of the job. And following the release of that long awaited first album, Hills End, three good friends with their feet firmly on the ground are able to keep the whole thing in perspective.
“Before we had much stuff out, people could either talk about [first single] ‘Delete’, or they could talk about how we dress or how we sound like Oasis or how they hate us,” states Mason. “But now there’s a lot more stuff to talk about, so they don’t have to make all that shit up anymore.”
Unlike the band’s explosive start – which all three guys admit was pretty incredible – the “stuff” that’s happened since “Delete” turned heads across the globe hasn’t been instant or glamorous. It’s been hard graft.
“We’ve been touring the EP all around the world,” explains O’Dell. “Laying the ground work … It’s been hard but fun, but still working, working hard. And it’s pretty unglamorous. I’ve had to share a bed with our tour manager for pretty much the whole of the last tour, four months. That’s pretty heavy.”
Like almost all overnight sensations, Took, O’Dell and Mason have been banging their heads against the proverbial wall since their teens. Three Sydney natives – Took grew up in Ashfield, O’Dell in Balgowlah and Mason in Bondi – they have been in countless bands, with and without each other. Among other things, Took and Mason have a history together in a bluegrass outfit; O’Dell and Took toured relentlessly together in a psych-rock band; Mason even still fronts another band, which has been put on hiatus while DMA’S take priority.
In short, the success the trio found together didn’t just fall into their lap – but it did come in a different fashion. “Maybe we’d thought in the back of our minds that we’d like to bypass some of the channels that we’d already struggled with in the past,” admits O’Dell. “Like driving to Melbourne 20 times a year and playing to one person.”
With a smile, Took agrees. “One time we went to Ballarat with the psych band Tommy and I were in and we actually played a really good show, but we literally played in front of the bartender, the sound guy and the door chick.”
Without becoming too disheartened by, or disenchanted with, that traditional approach, Mason, O’Dell and Took fell – almost accidentally – into another way of doing things when they started the project that would eventually become DMA’S.
“It was just the three of us, and we were all playing in other bands and getting that live fix, so we were happy with just recording,” says O’Dell. With no preconceptions, the project could grow organically: Mason and Took began writing and producing, and O’Dell – previously a drummer – unexpectedly fell into the role of vocalist.
“We were doing a lot of demoing at Johnny’s house,” recalls Mason, “and Tommy would be working, painting, during the day. We’d do demos, and me and Johnny would sing on the demo so we could just get everything in place and be working on it all day saying, ‘Fuck, I can’t wait until Tommy finishes work!'”
“And then he’d get there,” continues Took, “and have a shower and get all the paint off his hands, and come and sing and suddenly it would be like the songs went from a four to an eight, instantly.”
“I read that someone thought we were just put together by a record label!”
While it wasn’t something he’d ever considered a goal in life, O’Dell quickly settled into the singer slot. “I never found it that hard going from drumming to singing,” he says matter-of-factly. “And I’m not being a wanker about that – I just didn’t find the transition that hectic. I actually find singing easier than drumming. Learning how to use a mic live, that was probably the biggest thing, but once you get used to having your voice blaring back at you, it’s OK.”
O’Dell wasn’t the only one who had to figure out the band’s live format. As an outfit with no intentions beyond recording at home, the first hints of success also brought with them the unexpected challenge of moving from the lounge room to the stage. Online attention led to a record offer from hip Sydney indie label I Oh You, but first the trio had to prove they could make their virtual sounds a reality.
“We formed a band of people around the area,” explains Mason, “but members would leave and others would join and so we figured it was better to keep the three of us the core of it, because people were coming and going all the time.”
Far from seeing that revolving door as a problem, DMA’S view their fluid band as a blessing. A little like Bob Dylan has been able to work with everyone from Mike Bloomfield to Robbie Robertson, Mark Knopfler and Charlie Sexton, DMA’S have found that not insisting on a stable band has meant they can entice the best players around to get involved, even if only short-term.
“If you want the best musicians that you know to play with you,” says Mason, “if they’re really good, the best, then they’re also going to want to do their own thing, so they’ll do just one tour and then they’ll fuck off. You can’t blame them when they say, ‘I gotta go’.”
Now, after more than a year working venues all over the world with those “best musicians”, DMA’S are ready for the next chapter. For the trio, their debut long player, Hills End, is a turning point. Recorded at home, DIY, much like their EP, the difference with the album is that it was refined by Spike Stent – a heavyweight mixer who has worked with “everyone from Depeche Mode to the Spice Girls”, as Took puts it. It’s the same combination of “big melodies and noisy guitars” – Took’s words again – but this time it’s something more: a chance to be, rather than just potentially be.
Still, they’re not getting ahead of themselves. “It started quickly, but since then it’s been growing slowly, organically,” Took concludes. “And well, the record hasn’t even come out yet, and people are only just discovering the band now, so there’s still a lot more to do.”
From issue #773, available now.