After some initial discussion on Melbourne’s ongoing changes, and moving between north and south, i’m speaking to an articulate Dan Kelly about his writing process. It’s the middle of winter so luckily we find a heater and some wine and get chatting. Dan is amusing, reflecting his outlook on influences, old style 4 tracking, layers in songs and travelling to Greece. While still portraying his uniquely comedic and lyrical style, his 2015 album ‘Leisure Panic’ has struck me as having a change in sound from earlier recordings – I’m keen to investigate how the songs originated and how much came along later with production.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I sort of divide that into two first songs I ever wrote. I tried writing songs when I was a teenager in Brisbane, but don’t think I ever finished them. Then I joined band which was a classic 17 year old Gold Coast band call Liquid Meat – teenage boy type of thing. Really intelligent guys, it was like Mud Honey. I wrote some stuff for those guys, but it was often to their music. Then I moved to Elwood (Melbourne), was living in a house opposite Elwood High, 4 tracking a lot. I’d make up Ween like songs – not necessarily just like Ween, but fun 4 track things I didn’t finish. But my mate who was the bartender at the Greyhound hotel, said ‘I booked you a gig, you can come and play open mic night’ and I was like ‘f**k I have to finish something’, so I finished 4 songs. I had a song called ‘Pickin Hay’ which was about selling speed to some school kids, and a song called ‘Puff Daddy goes to Thailand’, and two others. They weren’t that good – I sort of work on 1000 shit songs theory, I reckon I wrote 1000 shit half songs before I came up with a good one. It’s almost like I didn’t let myself say it was finished until I was happy with one, you know?
Was that in your early 20s?
I moved to Melbourne when I was 21, and it was probably around early 20s yeah. I was always doing it early, but I didn’t really put myself out publicly as someone who wrote songs until I was forced into it, I think 27 actually. Saturn Returns was a big hippy thing in the 90’s and I was like ‘i’m just gonna say i’m a musician, and then I am’. There’s something to be said for positive visualisation, because I was so self effacing ‘Ah i’m just doing this thing’ but eventually I was like ‘ok im a musician’. So somewhere around then, 1999, 2000.
So there was 4 songs at the start – do you remember what they were about?
Well ‘Puff Daddy goes to Thailand’ was kind of a post modernist mish mash.
Yeah sorta stoner but really not that different from any songs I still write now. I write comedic songs which are kind of about me but kind of not, that take in the world behind me, and that’s never changed in a way. ‘Counter Meal Kim’ which was the single off my first EP was another one, sounds a bit like Custard, when I look back – but then a lot of my early songs did. Everyone sort of starts with a vibe, but other people reacted too – you go ok, this actually lives as a song, not in my projection or imagination. It was a quixotic song, a song about an adventure. And for better or worse I still do that, but I think it’s more sophisticated now. I didn’t get into a confessional style of songwriting, talking about my feelings. I’d tell a short story where stuff happens and the characters might be real or not but generally my story would be kind of hidden in that. And that way I think you can get some feelings into it, and it’s not just pastiche.
There’s a narrative.
Yeah a narrative. But you sort of get an idea of whoever this person is writing the song, what they’re thinking about.
Do you think partly setting you off on that style, was things happening at the time? There’s a couple of songs that remind me of Beck or similar artists from around then.
Oh definitely, when I was on a 4 track in Brisbane, it was Mudhoney and I loved Nirvana but it wasn’t like the key band, more into stuff bit before that and a bit after that, and Butthole Surfers. Often quite funny but quite intense. Then you had people coming through like Beck and Ween, and Pavement which was a huge thing for me, which probably keyed into stuff I was more into as a kid. I was into English TV, my parents were playing ABC and the Goodies, there was a sense of humour to it, and that suited me. I kinda combine that American guitar bands, getting a sense of humour, with stuff that I was learning about, Queensland bands which was like Robert Forster from the Go Betweens, and Custard – people who were writing about suburban, dry situations.
There was a real scene then too.
Yeah I wasn’t part of the scene, but I watched it. And I had no idea that it would hit me, because it wasn’t until years later when I got to Melbourne I actually found myself more attracted to where I came from, than trying to be whatever was happening in Melbourne at the time.
I was in Melbourne and I was into the Brisbane thing when I was teenager.
Yeah well it was dry and funny and sub tropical, those kind of things had a bit more pathos – it’s not like a big fist in the air kind of stuff.
Not taking yourself so seriously?
Yeah, but not trying to be a joke musician. Beck was always good at not being a joke musician, until he freaked out about being a joke musician, and then I got bored. But I thought he had the balance straight away.
I’d heard your earlier songs, but didn’t listen to your last record Leisure Panic until recently. The production seems different, particularly the guitars. Is production something you think about while writing songs?
Because it’s never come that easy for me, often my songwriting will be mixed up with having a band or recording ideas – it all cascades over. I might’ve recorded a song for the first record on four track, that didn’t have a chorus. I was playing with this band – essentially it was me with The Drones, so you’ve got this sound, and you’re like ‘Ok this chorus is gonna work with this sound’. I wasn’t like Neil Young or someone – just pump out a song in the afternoon and go with a feeling. I take months thinking about it, that’s why all the songs are multi layered and have a long journey. A lot of the best songs come out naturally, but not in my case – its built in with my life, who im playing with and what im doing. First record, I was living with Gaz of the Drones and Aaron who’s produced quite a lot of my records, he did the last one. We bought an 8 track tape recorder – this was 2001 – we were like ‘f**k, this is huge’ (laughs). Its changed so much – definitely influenced by who I was playing with, what I could record on. But the first one was more elemental because I had this rock band, I could actually give them good songs, and I didn’t need to add a lot of fancy shit.
So did the recent record happen the same way?
Sort of, the first record was quite intensely guitar-y and also that was of the time. I wanted to sound like Pavement – but not exactly, and the second one we were into Pro-tools and multi track recording was really huge, so we made this huge sparkly sounding record. The third Aaron and I went into a room and I started trying to make a minimal record and it ended up being a huge colour painting. The fourth record I was like ‘I cannot do that any more’, cos it’s so hard to do live and also you get a bit lost in it. On the last record, I was trying to get the songs ready to go, do them with the band, not add too much. So in my band there’s my vocal, electric guitar, there’s drums, a keyboard player and a bass player, and my two cousins Maddy and Memphis singing. It’s still not like a live indie record (with) everyone in a room but its not as cluttered, and because of that, not so compressed. If you’ve got 25 tracks it’s like sculpting, or painting, if there’s less you’ve gotta concentrate on the guts of it. The rhythm’s good and songs are good and it’s me and the girls back and forth, simple non harmonic vocals. I wanted to do a minimal record from the start but it took me four records to do that.
‘On the Run’ the first song, I really like how it goes into a jam.
Yeah and there’s no vocals after a while.
I was thinking today- it’s not really a comedy song either, and It feels like it just flowed out.
I wrote it fairly simply and didn’t finish it, it was just like a beat and some lyrics. I played it to the band and they were good, saying let’s do a more kraut rock beat from the 70’s, a driving thing. We were in a really cheap studio at the time that was an experimental ‘we might do a record, we might not, lets just go in’ and it was one of the rare times of my recorded thing where it was four guys in a room going ‘ok, were just listening to each other’. It’s two takes.
That’s the recording on the album?
Well it’s actually like Cortez The Killer by Neil Young, it’s two takes spliced together. Cortez the Killer stopped because they had an earthquake in the middle and the studio shut down, so they had to record a second part. But it’s two takes, that’s why it’s actually a bit longer.
It’s really cool that it opens as the first song, it might get missed more if it was towards the end?
Exactly. I’ve usually put my long jam songs, like ‘Poisoned Estuary Jam’ which I really like – that was the last song on ‘Dan Kelly’s Dream,’ and people really liked that song but it’s after 48 mins of quite intense media, just everything going on. And it’s (Leisure Panic) a road trip record, and that sounds like a drive.
Like a drive out of town.
Yeah and the lyrics are about heading out.
I have to ask about ‘Hydra Ferry’, because I went to Greece last year. I know that ferry, and it’s a cool idea. How did that song come about and do you love adding to the creative history of that area?
I had a break. I’d been on tour playing with someone else and my ex girlfriend was going. She’s super smart and literary and she was across all that stuff, and she said lets go to Hydra, that’s Leonard Cohens island. I’d subsequently read all those Charmian Clift books, and I toured with Leonard Cohen with Paul Kelly, so I was pretty excited by going there. Then it was great, just had a great time, spent two weeks there, swam every day. So that song is about our relationship in a roundabout way – going there, leaving there going to Santorini, but I invoked the spirit of Leonard Cohen, I met him and we had some pretzels.
Oh is that what that line is!
Yeah he said ‘Do you want some pretzels’ (Laughs). That’s what you do in songs, you invoke another thing, sex or religion or death – there’s often a higher power or some other force hanging in the background and Leonard Cohen was a good one to use for that because – it’s Leonard Cohen.
Amazing place, just the feel. First night we were there was a thunderstorm, all the shutters were banging and you see mostly sky from anywhere you are, because it’s all built up.
Have you read those books? You should read Peel Me A Lotus and A Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift. They were the Australians who went there in the 50s – (Charmian and) George Johnson. They went to Kalimnos, wrote a book about the sponge divers which is fantastic, then they moved to Hydra. They established that original literary ex pat scene. Its great to write about, and I like nautical songs. It’s woozy – hung-over on a ferry.
Obviously you tour and travel a lot, do you write while travelling, does it influence you?
I write really slowly. This year i’ve played with Paul Kelly, Lindy and Amanda from the Go Betweens doing 16 Lovers Lane, with Neil Finn. Haven’t done any of my own stuff. I teach music a bit as well. And then I go – It’s been a couple years, let’s make something. Someone like Tim Rogers, who’s wonderful, he’s compelled to write. I’m someone like – just look at the world. I’m not cynical but bombarded by songs and media the whole time, (and) i’m not that competitive. I don’t think im lazy but i’m not compelled to always write.
Not to get to the top of the charts.
Ah id love to (laughs) but obviously not enough.
Do you have any songwriting routines? For example some people might have a coffee before they write, or might be better writers at night, than at 10 in the morning.
I don’t think I do, because I break it up too much, I can’t remember the routine. But definitely a lot has to do with just looking at whatever I’ve recorded on my iPhone or something and then sitting down and adding a bit more. Like when you get close to a record and you’re starting to write, often you’ll bust out a few more songs, because your muscle is happening. Swimming is good for me. If I do have a good idea, sometimes I can go and do one repetitive activity.
There’s two kinds of people, there’s a certain person who’ll wake up with insomnia and go ‘right im gonna pin that down’. And there’s people like me who go’ oh f**k, i’ll have a camomile tea, why can’t I go back to bed’ – and I might hum it into a phone and forget about it for 6 months (laughs)
There’s a routine.
I know but it’s annoying. I’m not very good at finishing stuff.
Have you done much co-writing?
Not really, bit with Paul Kelly, but that’s cos we’ve often lived together or we play together so we’ll just make up stuff in sound check and he’ll go and finish it (laughs)
Yeah I’ll come up with a bit, and he’s like ‘Hey i’ve written this song’ and im like ‘yeah i’m a genius’. A bit with Greg Walker from Machine Translations, who’s fantastic. We got put together through a couple of songwriter things Mushroom did. I get a bit nervy writing with other people – lyrics can be a bit shit if two people are trying to negotiate them. My stuff’s idiosyncratic. It’s me, so I have to do it myself. If you’re writing a Take That song or something, then sure, get together and just pump it out. You’re gonna be way more successful than I am.
Everyone i’ve interviewed so far has said interesting things along those lines about co-writing.
I write with Aaron from my band quite well, he joined on the second record and he’s also really good at engineering. Just like i’ve got an idea or a song and he’s recording it , its almost in the process of him technically engineering what I do, then adding ideas that make a song. That’s probably the most relaxed combination i’ve ever had. He sort of gets me. I don’t think there’s that much to get, but partnerships formed when you’re young are quite important and its harder to get when you’re older. Same goes with relationships too, there some sort of lack of cynicism or boundaries that happens when you’re younger. It’s harder to open yourself up to someone when you’re 40, as opposed to then.
Another song ‘A Classical Song at Dandenong Station’. There’s so much in that song, the chords and the builds. I don’t even know what the lyrics are but it doesn’t matter because there’s so many layers. I could hear influences of 90s bands.
Yeah probably Custard, Jonathan Richman, Pere Ubu, just more vaguely artsy approaches to pop music, Reckless Eric. That song was from the fact they play classical music at Dandenong station because people were stabbing each other so I got into this whole idea of being the DJ to stop everyone from being a f***er, but then being co-opted by all the ice freaks, you know cos everyone gets sucked into the dark side at times. It’s a meta fantasy, that’s kinda what I do – but I like that one, it was a hard song to pull off.
It stood out as a bit different, maybe from the layering.
Yeah, its almost more like a piece, or a bit like a rock opera, it’s not really a groove song. It’s kinda smart arse. I was trying to draw a line between smartarse and real feelings in life, you don’t always pull it off but it’s worth a crack.
‘Drunk on Election night’ – did you think it’d be a political song?
I just came up with that chorus and I wrote it fairly quickly about feeling quite apathetic – it’s not kind of a fist in the air political song, it’s that resigned feeling you would’ve felt that when Trump won, ‘I don’t know what to do’.
Was it still quite literal, because it’s quite visual being on election night.
I completely made that up. I took ecstacy and went bogey boarding.
You thought you were at an election party?
No not at all, (and) I don’t know anyone stupid enough to go in the surf on ecstacy – think it was 20 years ago. It was this beautiful day, these beautiful waves, we’d just had a great day playing scrabble- the scene was perfect – we got out of the water and this chorus popped into my head and I was like ‘that’s the weirdest chorus’. That’s why it kinda sounds slippery, resigned and happy and then I just wrote it really quickly from that, made up the rest – it was based on that feeling, wasn’t like I hadn’t experienced that, but that’s what you do – you can still make things up that are real.
How do you know when a song is finished.
When it’s on the radio (laughs)
So does it get to the studio and you’re still doing stuff?
Yeah, all the time. There’s a great quote ‘you don’t finish a song you just abandon it’. If you read enough you get to a point, like you how recognise when there’s a closed conversation. It’s like that with a song too, all of a sudden no other parts stand out as being clunky, there’s nothing forced about the language – it can take a long time. You’ve gotta go over and over it, it’s like picking weeds out of a field. You’ve gotta base it on what you think is good on your own gauge, and people you trust.