INTERVIEW: Dan Kelly

FEATURES-Dan-Kelly

Hippie Days Are Here Again

Dan Kelly thought he was going to write and record and quick follow-up to his 2010 album Dan Kelly’s Dream but instead songs were scrapped and re-written, countries were explored and finally, after unexpectedly meeting an old friend in the main street of Nimbin the seed for Leisure Panic was planted, as Kelly explains to Chris Familton.

That jump-off point where a musician realises they’ve found the starting point for a new album can often be a difficult one to find. For some it’s a moving target, for others it’s a spark that keeps disappearing and reappearing in another form. For Dan Kelly it involved a scrapped album and a return to the drawing board before a chance meeting set him on course toward what would become his new album, four and a half years later than he expected.

“I wrote a song called Baby Bonus when I was minding a friend’s place up in the hills behind Nimbin and it was the first song where I thought I might base the record around a series of stories set in that region. I’ve gone to Northern NSW since I was a kid. Once I’d written that one I went back to a few other ones and adjusted the lyrics a bit. I often have placebo lyrics in place until I can come up with an interesting story. After that I ended up framing it with that and a bit about my travels in a meta-narrative, not exactly what happened to me. It’s written between the lines, in the lemon juice. The lateral life I’ve lived which has involved a bit of searching and all that. That song set it off, with a chance meeting with a friend in the main street of Nimbin who had just had a baby and I took on the role of a hippie woman in the song. Then I recorded some songs in a mud brick studio in Brunswick which is a cold-climate hippie kind of vibe. There’s a bit of hippie stuff to the record,” admits Kelly.

One recurring tool in Kelly’s songwriting style is the use of place names which give his songs geographical context. On Leisure Panic a list of native Australian birds is also recited and it transpires that Kelly has a fascination for landmarks and the natural world.

It is something I do and maybe it’s something I’ve inherited from playing a lot of Paul Kelly shows. I’m fascinated by beaches and mountains, I studied environmental science when I was a youngster and I like the way they translate into sounds. There’s a bit of synaesthesia like where you see colours as sounds. I do tend to place songs. I probably do tend to always write the same kind of song, hopefully improving it and giving it variation. It’s like some kind of mystical Japanese art where I’m incrementally delving into and expanding this one style I’ve been doing for a long time. I change the musical styles a lot but I do work variations on a theme which often involves naming a town or a spot. I do make things up though, there is a reference on the album to Strawberry City, fuck knows what that is, it just sounds good! The real and the unreal is all kind of interwoven, I really enjoy that. Most of the place names are real, places I’ve been and where stuff has happened.”

Each Dan Kelly album takes a different tact to those that preceded it. Even if his compositional style riffs on the same theme he places the songs in different musical worlds, from his early solo work with The Alpha Males through to the dreamier soulful drones of his latest album.

“The first record was influenced by things like Pavement and the more aggressive music I grew up listening to like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Jesus Lizard. I was living with The Drones and we were all getting into music together and they played in the band so I was really keen to do that stuff. We reformed recently and it was super energetic and lots of fun. I do find it hard to sing over that stuff though as I don’t have a mega rock voice and those guys were rocking. The next record delved into this tropicalia clean tone, more clangy Sonic Youth adventure music. The third one I wanted to do a Dylanesque surrealistic ramble of words. This one I wanted to be more meditative even though live it is still a bit crazed and spastic rock. It’s more soundscape-based. I definitely wasn’t in a rush to make another punk record though the next one might be. One of the challenges this was to play less and make it sound bigger.”

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