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When Bryget Chrisfield Zooms Johnny Siera, they discuss the genesis of The Death Set’s new album How To Tune A Parrot, various “life situations” that caused delays along the way and the burgeoning Baltimore band scene they arrived in after relocating to the States.
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“The record actually got inspired because Dan [Walker, The Death Set’s other half] is a producer and he was doing these producer packs,” The Death Set’s Johnny Siera says of their latest album How To Tune A Parrot’s genesis. “One of the big companies is called Loopmasters and they were like, ‘Well do you wanna do a Death Set sample pack?’–you know, they sell it and give you royalties and stuff. And so we were like, ‘Sure, I dunno. Why not? Okay.’”
“So we got in the studio and, I mean, the amount of work that it takes–they literally ask for thousands of samples and so we were cranking out these samples and we were like, ‘Oh, man, faaaaarrrrrrrrk this! Let’s just write another record!’ So we started crafting all these samples into songs. So actually making all those weird sounds, like the airhorns or the synth sounds–it was actually a good creative process. Because it wasn’t like you’re sitting down to write a song, you’re actually just sitting down to make sounds; no expectation or no deadline or no deliverable. And that kind of just made the creative juices turn again.
“And then it just naturally fell into songs. I mean, when I say naturally–it takes a while with us; you know, it probably took a year of Saturdays to write it and then another year to mix it and then another year to put it out. And then Covid,” he recollects of this album’s extended gestation period. “So, yeah! It’s been a minute … It’s just been a fucking mission getting this record out.”
So when was it that Siera and Walker first entered the studio to work on the sample pack that would become How To Tune A Parrot? “I think Dan said that the first sessions were in, like, 2016,” he details. “But, I mean, I was running a bar in New York City, Dan was a full-time studio engineer and, like, we were getting fucked-up. And then we also got sober. And then I had a baby. And then I moved. So there was a whole big bunch of life situations that had to happen parallel with making this record. And that’s just kind of the way it is for us when we don’t have a deadline,” he shares.
My Mum wasn’t that stoked when people would always be like, ‘Muthafucking Death Set,’ and she’d be like, ‘Does it have to include that word
[ Johnny Siera ]
To this set of ears, The Death Set’s beats call to mind the Generation X-spawned British electronic-punk outfit Sigue Sigue Sputnik (remember Love Missile F1-11?) –music you’d put on to terrify your parents, basically. Agreeing that The Death Set don’t exactly appeal to norms, Siera reflects, “We’ve always been in that weird middle ground of, ‘What the fuck is this?’ sort of thing,” before adding, “My Mum wasn’t that stoked when people would always be like, ‘Muthafucking Death Set,’ and she’d be like, ‘Does it have to include that word?’,” he laughs.
When asked whether there’s a story behind their new album’s title, How To Tune A Parrot, Siera admits, “I would like to say that it’s this deep, meaningful comment on something, but it’s really just an inside joke. I mean, me and Dan–when we get in the studio we just make each other laugh and we’re telling each other stupid inside jokes, getting very little done. So every time I get in the vocal booth, my voice–it’s just fucking horrific and I put Dan through it every single time. And it takes, like, half an hour for my voice to warm up. I’m just like [makes noises that sound like a husky parrot’s squawks] and he’s just like, ‘Alright one more take’–he’s very calm and very gentle. And so How To Tune A Parrot is basically just our inside joke about me putting him through hell in the vocal booth, ‘cause I do it every single time. You would think after 15 years he’d be like, ‘Go and just do some warm-up exercises for half an hour,’ but …”
There’s some trippy lyrics throughout How To Tune A Parrot (eg. Elephant: “I’ve got a catwalk full of dachshunds/And a skatepark full of implants …”) and Siera tells, “I definitely have a penchant for the really stream-of-consciousness, absurdist style of songwriting; that’s something that I enjoy.”
But the record also contains “songs that have a little bit more of a deeper meaning” once you “scratch the surface”, Siera reveals. “I think that Dan and I have gone through a bunch of shit since the last record, you know? We’ve both gotten sober, and kind of bottomed out, and done what we had to do to get there. We both have a big meditation practice, and a spiritual practice, and a lot of the songs are kind of dealing with that: how do we fit in the world as a piece of shit trying to do the best that we can?” Siera cracks up laughing. “Like, the piece of shit in the middle of the universe mentality, you know? It’s easy to fall into that and a lot of the songs are about trying to break out of that mentality.”
Siera is Zooming in from Western Massachusetts (“I moved out here literally right before the pandemic”) and his wife gave birth to a baby on April 15th, 2020, during COVID-19’s first wave (“If we had’ve been in the city, she might’ve given birth on one of the Red Cross [hospital] ships that were brought in–it was just crazy!”).
If you need to brush up on your Death Set history, Siera’s got you: “Beau [Velasco] started a band on the Gold Coast called Black Panda. It was a four-piece and Dan had actually played drums in it at a different time, but then he left to go to the UK to DJ, essentially, ‘cause he’s a producer and a DJ as well. And then I joined the band and then kinda just–you know, the Gold Coast is awesome, but it’s the fucking Gold Coast. It’s a retiree surfer town, really; you’re very limited with what you can do with something that’s a little bit experimental or weird or whatever.”
When Velasco organised for The Death Set to support a “very, very inspirational” Brooklyn band called Japanther, on one of their first Australian tours, Siera acknowledges, “It was really the first firsthand experience I’d had with a DIY band in the sense of putting out your own records, recording your own records, doing your own artwork, organising your own tours, finding places to stay–just everything, you know? Not waiting for permission, just doing it.”
Following the Japanther tour, The Death Set “filtered down to a two-piece and just moved to Sydney”. “We literally put a New York subway map on the wall and it was like, ‘We’re gonna move there’,” Siera recounts. “And so within eight, nine months we had moved there. We moved to the city pretty broke and, you know, moving to New York is just fucking hard; it’s awesome, it’s amazing, but it’s hard. And we were sometimes sleeping on trains–all that sorta stuff.”
After toughing it out in NYC for a few months, The Death Set moved to Baltimore where their next-door neighbour from Sydney connected them with a record label contact. “Baltimore is a really fucking intense town. I dunno if you’ve seen The Wire? I used to live, like, three blocks from the low-rises from the first season. It’s kind of a few blocks of okay then really, like, World War III on either side. I mean, it’s not that bad if you’re not selling drugs, right?” he cheekily adds.
“Anyway, so we moved into this artist warehouse space and there was a really burgeoning band scene. So we played our first show with the Daggerhearts–who are actually Beach House, who went on to big things–my next-door neighbour was Dan Deacon, who went on to big things, Ponytail was my roommate–oh, I lived with Will [Cashion, guitarist] from Future Islands, he was my roommate. And it was just this crazy scene of all these really fucking talented bands that just hadn’t put out their first big records. Everyone was really touring super-crazy, but they just hadn’t blown up.
I’m always stoked when bands cross over, you know? Like, they’re still doing what they did and then they happen to cross over–that’s fucking awesome! … I love seeing bands that we put on shows for–or played with for, like, 20 people–[blowing up]. I remember playing with Violent Soho in Canada to, like, 15 people.
[ Johnny Siera ]
“There’s, like, an art school near cheap warehouses and bands that haven’t blown up yet, but are super-talented, and I think that recipe makes a good scene. It was labelled Rolling Stone’s ‘Scene Of The Year’ or something and, of course, if Rolling Stone says it’s Scene Of The Year then it’s already done, because everyone’s records have blown up and the’ve gone on tour, and then it kind of fizzles. But that was the scene that we arrived in; we were really fucking lucky. It was just serendipitous that we arrived in that scene and, yeah! I mean, I think comparable would be, like, Lightning Bolt and Black Dice and all those bands in RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], which is the art school in Providence, which has that recipe of art school, cheap warehouses, good bands …
“So those were the bands that we came up with in Baltimore. And, I mean, look at Future Islands now! They’re almost, like–can you get a bigger indie band!?
“I’m always stoked when bands cross over, you know? Like, they’re still doing what they did and then they happen to cross over–that’s fucking awesome! … I love seeing bands that we put on shows for–or played with for, like, 20 people–[blowing up]. I remember playing with Violent Soho in Canada to, like, 15 people. I think they’d just put out that record on Ecstatic Peace [2010’s Violent Soho] and, fuck! I can’t even remember, I think it was a show in, like, Nova Scotia, Canada or something … And when I look at their shows now–I only watch it on YouTube or whatever–it seems like they’re playing to 5,000 people or something!”
So how often did The Death Set actually turn up to play a gig back in the day with no idea where they’d be crashing that night? “I was speaking to Dan about this the other day. When we were touring hardcore, I would say that 97% of all the shows we had no [pre-arranged] place to stay. And we would find a place to stay every single time. I mean, we were obviously just partying and drinking and hanging out with people and meeting people, and it almost always worked out.
“You can’t be a DIY band and then spot hotels for three of four people every night, it doesn’t work; unless you are independently rich or very successful, and most of these bands were not that,” he clarifies, laughing. “You know, they were fucking awesome but they weren’t selling out thousand-cap venues.
“When I was living in Baltimore, I lived in a warehouse and whenever bands would come through there they would stay with me, and I would put a show on for them in the warehouse. So it was very much about contributing to the DIY network that was helping us as well; it was just the way we did it.”