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Friday 8th October, 2010 11:10AM

We catch up with Luke Rowell, the man behind Wellington's Disasteradio on the eve of releasing his new album Charisma.

Firstly, tell me why you are so damn obsessed with technology, and what technology particularly are you so obsessed with?

I think I finally have an answer for the beginning of all of this - as a 3rd child my parents let me watch as much television as I’d liked. My mum let me basically fall asleep in front of the TV and would carry me to bed after that. So years of Quantum Leap, Streethawk, Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond 2000, MacGuyver and the like definitely sowed the seeds for an obsession with imaginative popular culture.

In creative terms I think this manifested itself in this kind of escapism I had in my teens through my PC. My real bug has always been for software - that we have a creative / imaginative escape through this interface. I began writing with freeware music software and I find democratic & participatory aspects of software really exciting. There are so many technological and societal blocks to music-making, and computers are a really enabling force against that. There are thousands of kids around the world writing weird symphonies in Garageband as we speak.

I remember the first time we talked was for the ‘Chaos Rests’ issue of Fluro Magazine. I am once again obsessed with how taking technically, pre-determined technology and creating something entirely unique can progress the realms of our understanding. What do you think about the idea of creating unique content from very specific, technological objects?

Speaking on the enabling aspects of technology in the previous question, I think I might have extrapolated a lot of the toy keyboard / old computer philosophy into a much more honest form. As I began to concentrate intensely on songwriting and musical aspects (ahead of sonics) I found a really interesting approach with things like factory presets and sample banks - If you can pick up a dinky late 80s digital casio and use the sounds as “found sound” then it follows you can do the same thing with the presets that someone has made for a plugin. It was funny to reach a point of becoming so familiar with programming sounds where you just don’t care any more.

Contextually one thing about synthpop that I think we might miss as music writers is that sure, it’s inextricably linked with the sounds and imagery of the mid 1980s but I’ve tried to explore what those songs addressed in the first place - specifically a kind of playful futurism.

I’m sure we’re in an age of equal or greater technological and social flux which is why I think the messages explored in the genre are worth kinda restating. At least those thoughts were in the back of my head when writing “Drop The Bomb” - I mean even though the cold war is over it’s important for a synthpop act to have a bomb song (a la OMD’s “Enola Gay”, Nena’s “99 Luftballons” etc).

Tell me about your latest offering Charisma.

Influence-wise since Visions I’ve been getting waay more into really dancable stuff, especially Patrick Cowley’s stuff, and all kinds of italo-disco and freestyle so there is a big focus on kickdrums and big snares with dance beats. Slotting the awesomeness of synth disco stuff into what I’ve been doing this year has been really refreshing and it hopefully adds a different kind of fun into the cauldron.

Mix-wise I explored digital mixing philosophies as they are in the machine - perhaps the legacy practices from working with audio in the analog domain need a bit of re-thinking. That is to say analog overdrive and use of vintage tech, that began as a corruption of established practices in audio, is somehow now a coveted, mystical thing - But applying the same thing to digital clipping and using tons of maximiser plugins, excitation, autotune and chopping/compositing is frowned upon.

What I mean is I’ve found value in exploring a detournement of digital processes, making stuff sound super loud and hyperelectronic and computery in a fun way.

What can we expect? How is it new D-rad, how is it old D-rad?

When I was starting to get together ideas for the album it seemed like the songs all followed a number of strains I have been working with since I began releasing CD-rs. There’s some “weird” songs in there but hopefully they’re weirder, and some dancey synthpoppy tunes and hopefully they’re dancier and poppier. I concentrated on seeing what each song’s job was to me and exemplifying that.

The new stuff is I’ve been exploring a lot more musical stuff in there (Tetrachords and counterpoint oh my!) - The arrangements and mixes get much more symphonic and richer than anything on Visions. Also I found a cool way to make saw waves from synthesizers sound like guitars so there’s some fun punky / new-wave tunes in there too.

Tell me about the production and the technical aspects of getting Charisma off the ground. Who did you collaborate with to make it happen?

I wrote the bulk of the songs in the last three months, and while it was winter I tried to go to summer in my head when I was writing.. haha though some songs and melodies date back to at least 2006 - I have at least 400 more sessions still on the go at the moment, ARGH!

I wrote and mastered the whole thing myself - except for the lyrics of “No Pulse” which were co-written with my lovely wife Christina (and a bottle of cheap champagne) in one night.

The mix stage on a lot of tunes was done with tons of advice from Whanganui wunderkind Leno Lovecraft (whose presence in Wellington makes me so glad) - as well as my rad gmail support group of blink from A Low Hum, as well as Golden Axe & Frase / Secrets.

My uberflatmates and music lovers Simon Ward ( and Don Brooker ( only heard it through the wall until the last week, I had to play cat-and-mouse with them so they didn’t get sick of it and could give me some honest fresh insight into the mixes / music at the final stage, which was so so valuable.

The whole thing was a big exercise in “Fast, Cheap, Good: Choose only *two*” and I am a bit opposed to paying for a studio (financially and ethically) and it had to be good (obviously) so I ended up working on the album and a couple of other projects for like 3 months straight.. plenty of 12-14 hour days working stuff out and gettin’ a bit WEIRD!

Will we dance as much to tracks on Charisma as we did to Digital Pop?

MORE MORE MORE. There’s only one song without a 4/4 bassdrum and hopefully that one semi-closing track that will be so tear-jerkingly sublime you’ll be dancing with all your complicated emotions and memories, like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey but sprinkled with candy and way more star babies.

Are there any themes running through Charisma that we should know about?

I guess the weird thing is that I feel like I’m really reaching into this (ugh) diegesis that I’vecreated in my head - It’s like Luke Rowell is here somewhere on earth but Disasteradio is this kind of other guy, and I really explored who that other guy is. I have always wanted to make video games (too technically rigid) or like, write science fiction (not a long enough attention span) but I’ve only recently realised that you can express imagination in the same way through music. The new theme attached to this, which the title expresses, is (weirdly enough, the title of the new Secret Knives record) attraction - At least three songs on the album fall under the “Weird Love Song” category.

As a title “Charisma” also expresses a kind of love of self, which is what we can use music to cultivate - going into the end of my twenties I have been thinking about growing up and realising that being OK with who you are is so important - that ended up as a song “Computer Whiz” that’s loosely about leading a digital double life growing up in Lower Hutt.

I see this on your facebook: **NEW ALBUM on the 15th OCTOBER! Free, or $1,000,000, pay whatever you want, and it's for you and called CHARISMA** Are you really doing this? The Radiohead way? Why are you offering your new album to people at whatever price? Do you think this strategy will work? Is it a long term solution to the music-internet conundrum?

The “Radiohead way” is a conundrum in and of itself because they (as well as other bands touted in the same way, ie Nine Inch Nails) are still coming off the back of major label middlemen and marketing campaigns that began decades ago. There is a thought in the back of my head, wondering whether any bands will “break” this way in the magnitude of a major label sense - or perhaps the horses of niche have already bolted and music consumption is now like the weirdest most confusing buffet lunch ever (which beats the hell out of it being a McDonalds, I guess).

Anyway I think it’s important in 2010 to call it like it is and release music in the most direct, honest way. Selling a CD for 30-something dollars at a shop in this day and age seems a bit backward. CD releases carry their own risks - aside from being locked into a physical supply problem, artists run the risk of “death by obscurity” - to get stupidly idealistic, the idea that I could give away a million copies of an album from my bedroom is really really exciting, and I’m totally happy to take that risk. We’re going to release on Bandcamp which has a good infrastructure and cool philosophy.

You have some child-influencing robots on your latest video clip. Tell me about making these visuals? Did you make them?

When I was writing the tune (Kids Of 99) I was really concentrating on this kind of optimistic, utopian scene in my head - and I realised that the girl being pushed on the swing on the intro to Beyond 2000 was the exact sort of image I was thinking of - to the point where I was looping this scene on Youtube when I was working on the song itself.

My flatmate and best buddy video whiz Simon Ward put together the loop - The idea was to work with a kind of “animated gif /” approach to visual repetition but in an emotive, hypnotic way. Incidentally this song was the most expensive to produce (50 cents) as I had to buy a soda cup from Embassy Theatre to make a shaker. Me, Simon and Don are working on a fantastical new video for Gravy Rainbow that’ll be out really soon!

You make most of the visual compliment to your work, or at least have a hand in it. Tell me what the visual D-rad aesthetic is like?

I think I have a musical form of multiple personality disorder, and the back catalogue of videos that me, Simon and Don have put together reflects that. It seems we all have a love of imagery that’s well-crafted and referential to some degree, but perhaps in tone or mood rather than in strict terms of content. Our most recent no-budget space epic video project Visions was a great example of that. (

For my part it’s somewhat ANSI art, part raytracing, part GeoCities, part lo-res JPEG artifacts and generally an iron-fisted commitment to the ersatz. I love stupid imagery that makes you fist-pump with one hand and face-palm with the other.

You have done heaps of touring in the last year or two. How are the internationals responding to the D-rad sound? Do you have a favourite place to play?

Out of everywhere I have the most consistently awesome fun and weird shows in central Europe - there’s something about the dude from the squat in Ljubljana, Slovenia doing maths in their head to see whether there’s enough diesel to run the power for the show, and then crawling into a bed somewhere after too much Serbian moonshine before the power goes out. Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia were all totally totally amazing too. Oh and playing awesome house parties and cafes across the USA last year was a real treat.

Tell me about your future plans!

I have a super-secret 5-track EP of covers that we should get out in November (I followed through on an awesome stupid idea) and I’m heading back to US / Europe next year to dodge the winter and have RAD TIMES.

Courtney Sanders

"Kids of 99"

Photo by Pixie Moon


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