First published in Munster 23.
Damian Cowell has gone under many names, and masks in his time in music. Now he goes under his real name and wearing a nice suit and brings his brilliant anthems to dystopia as he calls them, to the sounds of disco.
Damian: Im on my lunch break at work, I work a 9 to 5 week like most people in rock n roll.
Munster: Tell us how Disco Machine come about.
DC: Well id been mucking round for nearly a decade since that famous group I was in, before I figured out what I was best at, dance music without the coolness, so I hit upon the word disco, I mean what id disco? Disco used to mean a place where people spun records, so it has many meaning, I try to claim it means non threating dance music, by non threating I mean your not under threat of being called out for being called out for being uncool. It has different meanings in different eras it can mean Kylie Minogue or the Bee Gees or LCD Soundsystem. Actually there cool so they probably don’t count. But when people hear disco I see them relax, they think this isn’t going to challenge my intellectual score board. But really it’s the same old thing I do all the time. My anthems to dystopia, but in a sing a long way.
Munster: And with dancing
DC: Yeah, ive come to realise that you get some degree of self-awareness when you come to my age, but I release all these years ive been fighting, or trying to justify why i liked dance music, but I think its some kind of chemical it’s the same chemical that make people who are really into reggae, it gives them the vibe to tell the difference between each song, one reggae track to the next, or metal music, and metal is such a weird rabbit hole, but people who like that kind of music, they didn’t choose it by choose, or by logic, it was a chemical in their brain that makes them feel happy and I think that’s what dance music does to me. I have a proud history of trying to force people ive been in a band with to lay dance music using a way of persuasive arguments, when really, its like i happen to like of the Arnett’s assorted creams, I like the Monte Carlow that’s all it is really. Can’t explain it, its not because of the combination of fake jam and cream, its just cause I like it
Munster: im a Delta Creams man myself
Munster: and I cant explain that either. Now you mentioned you were in a very successful band, but since then you were a country singer…..
Munster: do you find this the continued evolution of reinventing yourself
DC: I laughed because I felt like i was pretending to be a country singer in a way but what I did there was I tried to distance myself as far as possible from what I was doing in the past, I didn’t want to rise on the coattails of my previous band or try and invite comparisons. I didn’t pick country music randomly, I liked that band and liked the songs but I felt i was in my trainer wheels faze, and I was partly in costume, I wore a cowboy hat and posed with a half pseudonym. When you look at it it was an obvious thing but it wasn’t at the time, I hadn’t come out the closet and said my name is Damian Cowell and I like disco music, so here it is im finally at that point three bands on. Im here now very comfortable in my old age up there, mind you I do surround myself with beautiful people Matt that is no coincidence
Munster: And you also surround yourself with famous people, Tim Rogers, Tony Martin, John Safran, Liz Stringer, are these people you know, do you just text them and say come to the Corner on this date or did you meet these people for the first time when you worked with them?
DC: Mixture of both, Tony Martin is definitely a friend, I picked people who I thought they wouldn’t think I was shit. But in a lot of cases they were people I never met before. I never met Tim Rogers and that was a shoot in the dark I was surprised he liked my stuff, some people it was grab a phone number and call them, it was like being in year 10 and asking a girl to Chadstone Bowl and that same sort of terrified, will she pick on me for my pants, type of scenario. I was amazed at all the people who didn’t think I was shit, I was more emboldened as I went along, it was a small list and it just kept growing.
Munster: You know I remember when Johnny Cash tried to get cool and reinvent himself he enlisted Rick Rubin to produce his LP, with you when it came to reinventing yourself you just became yourself and used your real name.
DC: Yeah I guess ive stopped trying to be cool which is where im most comfortable, im sort of out on my own kind of ploughing my own little furrow I don’t think im making a great tend on popular consciousness but id like to think how surprised new people are when they come along and there like “oh shit that’s actually better than I expected it to be”. That’s kind of my aim.
Munster: The band you have on stage is great it is a great disco band, who did you find them?
DC: Yeah it’s a big band it does come with its challenges, getting rehearsals is hard, it does have its challenges, and also the fact I can put that band together is a probably a comment on the depressing state of things for young musicians in this country, all these talented people are available and there not saying talk to my agent. They are a fine band and lot of fun and nice people im very blessed to have them, their youthful enthusiasm which has given me a fabulous kick up the arse to keep going really, the delight they experience in playing these songs live really puts lead in the pencil, I can’t praise them highly enough they are underrated and should be famous in their own right, they all ave their own bands all amongst the hundreds of other people trying to pin their own slice of the pie, its very difficult. Im very fortunate to have a very loyal audience that has stuck with me, whenever I turn up every now and again they show up and im very lucky for that.
Munster: Which instruments do you play?
DC: Well Matt of course the advances in modern technology allows someone who is this kind of werido auteur, autodidact that cant’ play any instrument, can actually play and write a whole song. I can’t play guitar I can play basic keyboard and that gets me through the song writing process. I can figure out a few chords but if you asked me to perform solo playing piano it would be a complete failure. Thats the gist, I can sit in my little studio at home and construct these songs then give it to people who actually ave talent and they make it sound fantastic. That’s sort of how its works. It’s a far cry from my more successful days when we wrote songs by committee system, with all it challenges and all its moments of acceleration and depression. No wonder bands break up, its like going into business with your friends, its not a smart move, its like rooting someone in your office you know its going to come back to bite you, that’s what being in a band is about, a democratic band anyway. Good luck to anyone who tries that, im too old and crusty to do that shit anymore.
Munster: you mentioned playing sol, I saw you do your show at the comedy festival a few years back, how did that shows come about, with the monologues and songs from all over your past?
DC: Yeah it was an interesting one Matt, I had done a comedy festival show a few years ago with the DC3, but the monologue parts where a bit longer, so that gave me the confidence to do a full almost monologue show intersperse with songs. Im not sure im going to run back to do it again, its kind of a lonely experience in a way, id do this show the crowd would applauded then I scalp back to the change room get out of my suit and had no one to talk to, just anonymously puff off into the darkness. It was something I wanted to do and see what it was like, and I wanted to do a run of shows, that’s fun when you get a whole two weeks night after night, you get past that stage when it feels like an exam and your trying to remember your lines you go past that state and what you get into is a really fun thing as you get a scenes of what the audience is doing and you change things on the fly so I enjoyed that. But my problem is I don’t fit in anywhere Matt im sort of, rock music is so incredibly Ernest and po faced, and im a bit silly for that, but I don’t reckon im a comedian either so im gonna stick to rock type gigs and be funny on the side.
Munster: Tony Martin said you should be a comedian, he’s now a member of Disco Machine, how did you two hook up?
DC: I used to work at Ozstereo when Tony was on air with Martin Molloy and were on top of the charts, and I was a humble copywriter in the office downstairs. Tony tells the story I did an interview on Martin Molloy as a member of TISM and I would run out and get changed and did the interview then went back to work. I was a huge fan of Martin Molloy, all day in-between Nickelback eight times a day and summer of 69 I would hear all these awful comedy teams and Martin Molloy stood out just so far removed from all the crap that was on commercial radio, and still is, I had huge admiration for those goes. One day I approached him, Tony does a great John Howard impression so I needed an intro tape for a TISM gig, and I wanted John Howard to intro TISM and I got John Howard to say all these horrible things about the Aborigines. It was fantastic, so I revealed myself and we got on like a house on fire. We’ve been friendly for a few years. He guested on the first record but he’s kinda now a member of the band. I can tell he really enjoys it its so different to his normal world. He brings this fabulous left field approach. He’s entertaining 24 hours a day so he’s a joy to ave him in the band, he’s very busy so we work around his schedule, he’s got a book coming out, he’s very thoughtful about his craft and has a very interesting take on things, which is good for me as I tend to hide underneath my shell and its good to get intelligent feedback, long may it continue.
Munster: You and Tony gave me a lot of joy when you teamed up for the Arseless chaps on RRR a few summer back, any chance that will return?
DC: I think we did four shows and it took hours and hours of preparation, it was great fun, I loved doing a one hour show that was like going off into another universe, I really enjoyed it. RRR asked us back but Tony was too busy. It something we’ll consider if our diaries are free and we can fit it in. I just like the idea of playing KISS on the wrong speed, any opportunity I’ll do it again.
Munster: you wrote a song about Waleed Aly and its about hero’s letting you down, which hero save let you down in the past?
DC: Actually in the song I mention a few, Garry Glitter was one that let me down, I remember seeing what happened to the Models. When the Models first happened on the Melbourne music scene I was a naïve young man, and I thought they were the most interesting and original thing in the Melbourne music scene, then they morphed into Out of Mine Out of Sight. One of the terrible things, I understand people in bands need to make a living, I understand the concept of needing money for your next meal. And although its never a clear black and white decision, I don’t think people say I hate this song but im going to play it cause I need to eat I think its more complex than that, to see a band that was so original and became so bland is a terrible thing, generally specking your idols disappoint. I hate it when they interview football players, I suspend my disbelieve when I watch my football team, its something I was brought up with and runs in my family and I cant really reconcile the fact a lot of these guys playing are the sort of fuckwits I hated at school. But there’s disappointment left and right Matt you got to keep the blinkers on pick out the sultana from the brain in life.
Munster: going back to the Arseless Chaps, every episode Tony would play a song from you past, and one project I didn’t know til I heard the show was Damian Cowell vs Art, is that only available at MONA?
DC: Well that’s quite a story. ROOT did a gig in Hobart and this guy came up to me and started ranting on saying he was going to make a museum and I thought christ who is this person I thought he was a pissed fan, but I noticed the girls behind the bar where pointed silently saying yes go for it. Then I found out he was the famous David Walsh, this eccentric gazillion figure who was in fact building a museum. He asked me to do something for it but he wasn’t being specific what he wanted I think he thought I might right some things for it, so I said I would. And he was fabulous. HE showed me his art and I just wrote whatever I wanted. Having said that he was an intimidating person to impress he is super intelligent and is very blunt he says exactly whats on his mind. It was a weird experience and ive never written anything to impress anyone, it was like having a patron and ive never been there. But I maintained from the beginning and he was aware, cause he was a fan of my work so he knew what he was dealing with, so I said you know im not necessarily going to write nice things about the art world, or say anything about the art world, im going to ignore or detract, and he was totally happy. MONA didn’t exist it was just a construction site, he took me to this storage space and just saw all this art. His collection is mind blowing, he’s got coins worth a million dollars, he’s got a mummy still in a coffin, so beyond any suburban experience in my life. That album is only available at MONA, it was part of the first caterloge they released, I think you can still get that book with that CD in it. I was very proud to be part of that amazing museum, I still see David he comes to our gigs, hes a fascinating man to know, finally someone with bags of money doing something great with it, as opposed to paying someone to help him avoiding paying tax
Munster: now like yourself I grew up in Melbournes south east first in Keysborough and then Dingley
DC: Really? I used to work at the Keysborough Hotel bottle shop on a Saturday night. The cars used to snake on to Cheltenham Road for a mile and I used to crate my way through a dusty hot January Saturday night past car after car of violent bogans hiding a shotgun under a rug in their seat, as I told them we’ve run out of VB and all we had was Carlton Light. Im warming to you immediately Matt go on.
Munster: well I was gonna say TISM made references to Springvale, Moorabbin, Mordialloc and Dandenong and Keysy and Dingley were next door, any reason why there was never any references to those places?
DC: Yeah well Keysborough is like Springvale without the glamor I never had much of an opinion of Dingley, one of the members of TISM came from Dingle, I never got much of a handle on Dingley except for the famously named Dingley International Hotel. I don’t think ive ever seen it but I can imagine it being like that fake balsawood hotel that’s on the side of Eastlink. I was talking to Geraldine Quinn who is in Tony Martins play, she grew up in Nobel Park, so we were discussing all these beautiful places. She said something interesting she said all the parks in Nobel Park in that general area THERE JUSt PURLEY FUNCTIONAL, ITS LIKE NO ONE GIVES A SHIT BOUT MAKING THEM LOOK GOOD. Its just a reserve, a fucking reserve its not some live riching experience like when you got to a park in the city, it’s a fucking reserve mate and I think that sums up life its out there, functional and we don’t give a shit if it looks any good. Its no wonder a band like TISM emerged from there you go the schools, im sure its better now but in my youth it was like no one gave a fuck about them for the last twenty years. I think its good for you to grow up in an area like that, you experience more..its like when you taste your first delta cream you can appreciate the finer things in life when you come from a tundra of mediocrity. And im not knocking the people it’s the environment that you ave to live in. The Princess Highway Sandown Park, from Nobel Park to Dandenong, what a horrible view that is as you prowl through. Of course I don’t live there anymore, im deeply middle class but its still stuck with me.
Munster: well in my last zine I mentioned the Waltzing Matilda on Heatherton Road, any memory’s of that place.
DC: Yeah, I used to go there a little bit, although not as much as the Sandown Park Hotel, I used to work at the Dogs on a Thursday, after work I used to go with another guy from the dogs and there was a disco, and the DJ would turn down the music and talk, and it would really bring the vibe down. I would love to see that today in the uber clubs a DJ doing that when it comes to the chores hear this guy going ladies hey. They used to ave good bands there too and the not infrequent possibility of overweight people aving a fist fight which ended with a glass of beer going through the window out the front. I urge you Matt once you enjoyed the Wally go to the Sandown Park then Fosters in Dandenong which TISM wrote a song about the carpark. There all such enriching places, what looks like a B grade supermarket which is actually a hotel, a far cry from the trendy laneways in the city.
Munster: Les Murry sadly passed away recently, he had a small yet memorable role in the TISM story, what are your memories of the great man?
DC: IM A BIG soccer fan, my formative years was watching world soccer so that’s how it happened. I wrote that song years before it came out. We found out that Les is a rock guy and he had is own covers band called the rubber band. He loved it. The idea a rock band wrote a song about him was, he was right in this element. We invited him when we played in Sydney a few times. One of my most cherished pieces of memorabilia is a team photo of us backstage in out costumes and in the middle, like where the ball is meant to be is Les. He was the last man standing in the bandroom drinking the rider and chatting up the girls long after we had gone home to suburbia. So Les was right into it, may he rest in peace, one of my fondest memories.
Munster: So where coming to an ened and the last question I ask everyone is what is your favourite Fall LP
DC: You don’t really ask everyone that?
Munster: Yes I do.
DC: Wow id love to hear Tina Area ask that. . Grotesque is my favourite. Hes at his most fluidly literate weird writing stuff, no matter how many times I tried I could never try and write that stuff. Most people listen to that and think what the fuck is wrong with this band. Mark E Smith, is, or was a genuine one off. Its a shame as he has stepped over the line into being that bloke you run into the pub that is on a disability pension. It took me quite a while to figure it out. I think the penny dropped, this is a rather long answer to your question, I saw the Fall in 1982 at the Crystal Ballroom which was a uber ground zero of the Melbourne Art movement, the homes of your Nick Caves and so and so. So the place was packed with people with mowhawaks and white out on their face. And here comes the Fall and they all missed the memo on fashion, they had bad haircuts and ill-fitting jeans, Mark E Smith had a jumper and shoes that look like shoes your mum brought you in Primary school like barter scouts. He had this piece of paper in his back pocket and just kept referring to that. He rarely faced the audience and just never gave a fuck. I think at that point I thought there has to be more to this guy hes on to something. So a bit if road to Damascus moment for me, this guys doesn’t need to be cool maybe there is life beyond call, so there you go.
Damian Cowells Dicso Machine Plays at Reservoir Stomp at the Preston-Reservoir Bowls club on Sunday October 22.