The Presets’ “20 Years, 20 Nights” celebratory DJ tour – can you believe everyone’s favourite twisted dance duo has been dropping bangers for two decades now!? – is currently in full swing. Bryget Chrisfield checks in with the band’s vocalist/keyboardist Julian Hamilton to discuss the underage club nights and mixtape culture of his formative years, forming The Presets, signing with Modular, writing Apocalypso in Berlin, ‘accosting’ Peter Hook for a happy snap at Miami’s Winter Music Conference and so much more.
Sydney’s legendary 0055 raves
Julian Hamilton (The Presets): “It was very covert and very underground and, yeah, super-fun; that’s how all the parties were in Sydney at that time – this is, like, 1993, ‘94. You’d buy a ticket to the party during the week at the local record store, then you’d always have to call a 0055 hotline – after 8pm – on the night and it would give you the secret location of the gig, and often it was, like, two or three hours out of town. There would be a party out in a warehouse, in the outer suburbs, or down the freeway in the bush or in a field somewhere, on a farm – it was sometimes a bit of a hectic drive.
“You’d drive out to the bush somewhere and then you’d go to the meeting spot, and someone would jump out of the bushes – who was hiding there – and tell you where the next rendezvous point was. But often the police would call the number and try and shut down the party, so the recon people would have to hide and if the police turned up they wouldn’t come out.”
“Happy hardcore was my jam”
“We used to tear around going to raves and doof parties in that Ford Laser, yeah, that was a trusty little car. Me and my mates would’ve put some big stereo in there to listen to rave music: breakbeat and hardcore, and definitely a lot of happy hardcore – that was my jam back then, for sure [laughs].”
When dance music went mainstream
“There might’ve been a couple of crossover hits – ravey, dance things that hit the charts – like Technotronic or C+C Music Factory. A lot of that hip-house stuff was in the charts at the time and I really liked that sort of music.”
Underage club nights and mixtape culture
“I guess I was around 16, 17 at the time and they’d started having underage club nights in the school holidays, at nightclubs in the city, and you’d go and see DJs play. Then mixtape culture became the big thing back then: you’d go to the record stores and you’d buy these mixtapes – like, actual cassette tapes – that DJs put out and you’d buy them for, you know, ten or 20 bucks and you’d just sort of learn about music that way.
“And then you’d hear music in the clubs, or at raves, and there’d be tracks you’d really like and you didn’t know what they were called. But then you’d hear them on the local indie radio stations, or you’d hear them on a mixtape, and you’d go to record stores and ask the guy behind the counter, like, ‘What’s this song?’ And they’d point you to the vinyl. It was definitely a different age to Instagram and Spotify and SoundCloud, definitely very tactile; you really did have to work for it.”
“There was no cult of personality”
“A lot of this music that I loved at that time didn’t have a face, you know, it wasn’t made by a band or there was never a photo of the person making it. It was all very obscure and it had these obscure names of these obscure producers from Europe, you know? And that’s part of the thing I loved about it and I loved the raves, too. There’d be this DJ hiding up in the corner playing records, but no one necessarily faced the DJ – it wasn’t that kind of DJ-worship culture that they have now, everyone was there just kinda dancing and having a good time. I really liked the anonymity of it all and just that cool, underground lack of – there was no cult of personality back then. I really loved that vibe. It just felt very different to going to see a band or a pop artist perform, you know? It was really so much fun.”
Julian’s fave DJs back in the day
“There were a few favourite DJs that put out mixtapes that I liked back then. I remember there was Peewee Ferris and then there were guys from Europe, too, that would tour, big names like Sven Väth and always these hardcore DJs from Holland and Rotterdam: Mental Theo and Charly Lownoise were two guys I really liked, DJ Slipmatt was another guy I really liked – he did more breakbeat stuff.
“Every weekend there was some European DJ coming out here and playing raves at, like, these warehouse parties – not in clubs, ‘cause I was only sort of 16 or 17 and couldn’t get into clubs yet so, yeah! A rave promoter would bring them out especially for the rave. And I remember at the time Australian promoters would bring out special laser systems imported from Europe – you know, they were on the flyer: ‘New Laser System’ [laughs]. And these lasers were stupid – you could probably buy them at Bunnings or Kmart now, they were nothing compared to what we have today. But back then it was the latest technology and the latest sound system and the latest laser, and then some big DJ from Holland would come out. It was such a fun period. Yeah, it was good. A fun time.”
Identifying choons pre-Shazam
“I remember going to raves in the early ‘90s and there was this one track I used to hear that DJs would play, and I thought it was so cool and I didn’t know what it was. And then you’d hear it again at a party a coupla weeks later and you’d be like, ‘Oh, man! There’s that track again; that’s so good!’ And, you know, you couldn’t Shazam it and there were certainly no iPhones back then; I don’t think you could even get the little Nokias and stuff – it was pre-phone days.
“Then you’d hear it at another party and you’d think, ‘What is this track?’ Then you’d buy a mixtape from a DJ and you’d hear the track on there, so you’d get your little earpiece and give it to the guy behind the desk and say, ‘Hey, what’s this track here on the B-side of this rave tape?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s this one over here. Here’s the vinyl.’
“There was one track, it was by this band called Force Mass Motion and it was called Panic. It was kinda like the happy-hardcore instrumental thing; God, it was so cool! I’ve still got it on vinyl, it’s such a great track. So I was always discovering music in that way and, like I said, it’s a very different world today where you can just sorta Shazam and stream and search but, yeah! There was something fun in the hunt back then.”
The Presets’ first-ever show at Bang Gang
“It’s crazy, yeah! That was a real special relic that we had lying around that we could use and, yeah! The show has certainly – hopefully! [laughs] – developed a bit since those days. I was so lucky, my brother [Antony] had this DV camera and he used to come to some shows and film for us, bless him.”
Signing with Modular
“Kim [Moyes] – my partner in the band – bless him, he was always a bit of a mover and shaker, you know, hanging around in the city at clubs and then meeting people. So Kim and I were working on this music together and making this little demo CD and he had met this guy Steve Pavlovic, who was running a label called Modular and, yeah! Steve spoke to Kim and said he really liked what we were doing and he wanted to sign us. And really it was only him [Steve] and I think there was one other label that might have been vaguely interested, but a couple of labels passed on us – they didn’t really get it, they couldn’t really see what it was. But Pav, bless him, he really saw something exciting in what we were doing and gave us the time and the space and the money to pursue it and see if we could make something out of it so, yeah! We signed to his label and we were really grateful that he could help us out.
“He could do no wrong for a while there, signing some great bands, and it was a magic time – you know, playing shows with all those guys like Cut Copy and Van She and The Avalanches – and, yeah, there were some amazing acts on that [Modular] roster. And then Wolfmother came along and it got really huge, and then Tame Impala – God, yeah, it was a great label and they were awesome times.”
“I never really had ideas or designs to be a lead singer in a band”
“I mean, look, I never really had ideas or designs to be a lead singer in a band but, yeah! I just kind of sang songs as we were writing them – just to get the lyrics down – and then along the way Pav [Steve Pavlovic, Modular Recordings label founder] suggested, ‘Why don’t you just sing them and become more of a band?’ And, yeah, it was a good call.
“It’s hard for electronic music to stand out from the crowd and sometimes it’s hard to recognise a lot of electronic music without a singer, so I guess that did sort of help us forge a bit of an identity that people could latch onto.
“I was used to being a keyboard player and sitting up the back playing keyboards for other bands, kinda hiding, so it was a bit weird being a frontman and it did take me a little while to work that out, to sorta feel comfortable in those shoes.”
The Presets feat. Jimmy Barnes?
“I remember at one point we were maybe thinking Jimmy Barnes might be someone we could ask [to supply guest vocals]. [We were] just trying to find big rockin’ voices to sing over these rockin’ electro tracks and in the end it just became me doing it [singing The Presets’ vocals].”
Developing “kinda crazy” stage personas
“I think we really enjoyed the masks in the early days, because it allowed us to become characters. And even though we didn’t wear the masks on stage, we were able to create these characters, I guess, when we were performing that were a little bit bigger than our real-life selves. And certainly the persona that I would take onstage, especially in the early years of The Presets, was a lot bigger and wilder: this kinda crazy character, quite different to the person that I really was at home.”
“I remember when Kim and I were at university it was all about moving to London, you know, ‘You’ve gotta move to London, man. There’s work happening; everyone’s moving to London.’ And then we sorta started what we were doing, and we were doing it all at home in Sydney, and then there was a bit of a push, I remember, from the label at one point saying, ‘You guys should move to London for a year.’ But we never did and we never really wanted to.
“I mean, we did spend extended periods in Europe – over a summer we might base ourselves in Berlin for two months whilst we were touring around Europe doing festival season – but, no, we never really made the move like they did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. So, yeah, I’m happy we never had to do that.”
“No one was filming themselves or taking selfies, none of that”
“I can remember – I’m sounding like an old fart now – playing shows at the Big Day Out or festivals or whatever and you’d drag a bunch of people up on stage, and everyone would jump around and have a good time. And no one was filming themselves or taking selfies, none of that; it was just people dancing and having a good time so, yeah! I do miss those days, for sure.”
‘Accosting’ Peter Hook for a happy snap
“There’s a thing called the Winter Music Conference and it’s a huge dance music get-together, talkfest, schmooze-fest kinda industry event that happens down there [in Miami] every year – you know, lots of different venues, lots of different shows; it’s kinda like South by Southwest but for club music and, yeah! We went there a couple of years in a row and there were always parties and people hanging around, and we saw Peter Hook at one of these parties so we thought, ‘Oh, gosh, we better go and get a photo of that guy, ‘cause he’s a legend!’ And, yeah, I mean obviously we’ve loved New Order since forever. But, of course, in the photo we couldn’t help clowning around and being gooses and pretending to hold bass guitars and sort of taking the piss.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say we met him, I think we probably more accosted him that night, just for a quick photo, in the early days of digital cameras. But we didn’t really hang out with him or have too much of a long conversation with him, it was more just a quick happy-snap opportunity.”
Partying at Berghain and writing Apocalypso
“We did go [to Berghain, legendary Berlin nightclub] once and it was as mad as everyone imagines. I wanna say we were [in Berlin] in 2007, ‘cause one of our records got licensed to this cool German techno label there. So we went [to Berlin] and they managed to hook us up with all these amazing festivals over there around Europe. That was a really fun summer and that’s when we were writing a lot of the music for Apocalypso. I remember being in our little apartment in Berlin writing all the synth parts for My People [laughs]. We were just working so hard and so fast back then, trying to finish that album in between flying all over Europe for festivals and, yeah! It was a crazy time, but so much fun.”
Those Romance Was Born-designed costumes!
“[The costumes The Presets wore during their 2008 ARIA performance] were actually designed by a really amazing Australian fashion label called Romance Was Born. And they were a bit more in their early days back then; we just knew them through mutual friends. Those outfits were so crazy and, yeah! They were so much fun. I think they’re now in a museum in Melbourne, those outfits, in some kind of vault, locked away with Kylie Minogue’s gold hot pants and a few other things like that [laughs]. They’re sitting in a vault somewhere, maybe they’ll go on display sometime?”
Why celebrate 20 years as a band with DJ sets?
“We wanted to do something unique. I mean, we thought about just doing a string of bigger shows – you know, the usual thing – but then we thought it might be more fun to do a lot more shows but have them be much smaller and present a bit more of a party in a much more intimate kind of explosive atmosphere so, yeah! We’re really really looking forward to it.”
“We don’t have to carry around crates of records anymore!”
“The vinyl days are kind of past us, thank goodness; we don’t have to carry around crates of records anymore! [laughs] So it’s more of a USB-type situation, just USBs filled with tunes and some kind of vague idea about what we’re gonna play. But often we’ll start with a few tracks and then sorta see how the night unfolds in front of us – we don’t like to plan our sets too heavily, we like to just go with the flow and see what the crowd is responding to.
“So we’re really looking forward to [the 20 Years, 20 Nights DJ tour] and it’s a good opportunity for us to play some of our music, and play some of our favourite remixes of our music from over the years that don’t normally get an outing at our shows… I mean, we’ve had so many [remixes] done over the years it’s kinda hard to keep track of them all and a lot of them don’t exist on streaming services anymore as well so, yeah! I have found a few and dusted off a few weird, rare ones that I’m really looking forward to throwing down at the shows.
“We also play a lot of music from other artists and producers that we love. So it’s almost like a house party of our tracks and our favourite tracks by other people.”
“Who knows what might make its way into the set?”
“I was thinking about that, actually. I have got a few bits and bobs we’re working on. Yeah, maybe I’ll try some instrumentals out, hard to know; I might put some on the USB and I’ll see if I feel game. We’re not planning on premiering anything officially, but who knows what might make its way into the set?”
What’s next for The Presets?
“We’ve slowed down a little just in terms of the output. I mean, when we were young we were just broke and hungry and had a fire to work hard and work fast and, you know, like I was saying before, we were travelling around Europe and then on the days off in between we’d be madly writing and producing stuff in our hotel rooms.
“Now we take things a little bit more slowly and luxuriously. We’ve both got kids in school, and football and Saturday sport and stuff like that. So life has changed a bit for us on the outside but, yeah! We’re still making tunes and it’s lovely to look back at all this old footage and all the old photos, and I’m really proud of where we came from. It’s nice to look back at the memories and see how it all kind of unfolded for us.”