Interview with Kim Benzie of Dead Letter Circus
Posted on August 10, 2011 - by Scott Sugarman
Though you might not have heard of them if you're from the States, Dead Letter Circus have gained tremendous popularity in their home country of Australia over the past few years. The band’s 2010 debut ‘This is the Warning’ introduced their dynamic fusion of progressive hard rock and pulsing electronic music, bursting onto the Australian charts at #2. Rob Maric's echoing guitar lines and Kim Benzie's high flying vocal delivery set the band apart from legions of similarly successful yet generic radio rockers. With 'This is the Warning' now released in the US via Sumerian Records and the band coming off of their first-ever North American tour supporting Animals as Leaders, Dead Letter Circus' fanbase is about to get even bigger.
Kim was kind enough to chat with Rock Edition over the phone before the band's Oklahoma City show. Check out what he had to say about the tour, the concept behind 'This is the Warning,' and the creation of the album's artwork.
How are you doing?
You guys are just about wrapping up your tour with Animals as Leaders, right?
Yeah, we're getting close to the end.
How has that been?
It's been amazing, man. It's been absolutely incredible. All the bands are really super tight. They're pretty inspirational.
Now that the tour's almost over, what have been your overall impressions from playing all these shows in North America?
Of the people or the music scene?
I guess that my overall impression would be that it's not that dissimilar to Australia here. It seems like the people that like non-mainstream music of a heavier nature are kind of like a tribe all around the world. When we were in the UK, it was the same, regardless if people were speaking Australian, American, or British. It's just like a tribe of people. I guess if we were playing India, it would be different.
It's awesome, man; it's a really big country. It's a similar land mass to us, but we've got a massive amount of arid land that you can't live on. It's just incredible; I can't get over how many people there are.
Were there any places in particular that you enjoyed in the US?
Oh god, I need to look at my tour pass now... I'd say LA, Florida Springs, Memphis. Memphis is pretty popping, actually. Long Island.
Let's talk a bit about your music. What are your favorite songs to sing live?
I really like "This is the Warning," the title track. I just love the energy of it. We do a group drumming thing where all the bands we're touring with get up with us to do a group drumming part on that. That's generally massive. "Next in Line" -- I really enjoy singing that as well; it has a really great energy. I think it connects quite well with the heavier folk coming to these shows.
Yeah, definitely. On this tour, a lot of the other bands are really heavy. How do you fit into that dynamic?
Well, I've figured it out because no one's been throwing anything at us, and we've survived 27 shows or whatever. I think because we're quite intense -- melodically and rhythmically intense -- there's a middle ground for those guys that really like the metal stuff. But I've got this other theory that girls that like heavy music tend to like our band because of the lack of screaming. So I think what's going to happen is that the metal guys of America are going to realize that it's an opportunity to meet women and to have some interaction.
I do notice that there's a very high sausage count at these shows. We've got a dudeapalooza or a sausage fest at our shows. I think what's going to happen is that they're still going to want to go to heavy shows, but they're going to want to take a girl or meet a girl, so they're going to basically use us to meet women.
Well, that definitely sounds cool.
Yeah, I can handle that.
[laughs] You guys have said that you're influenced by both rock and electronic music, and the album features a lot of programmed textures. Do you think that you ever might move your sound in an even more electronic direction?
Yeah, I think we're kind of in a cyborg half-human, half-robot stage at the moment. Yeah, I definitely think we could. We're leaning toward a bigger, fatter sound, rather than just the guitars. I'd say that you're on to us.
You've also said that the album's focus is about realizing that there are these constructs that control us and about trying to hold on to our individuality. What kind of structures are you singing about -- are they social, political, or media related?
I think they're all related, like social media. There's definitely this kind of infrastructure that we're expected to live within, so we can be controlled and contained. It's actually what's keeping us separate -- this massive distraction that surrounds us with the media. It actually keeps you separate -- less of a community and more of these individual cells. What humanity needs to get back to is actually unity and togetherness, communities where everybody knows who their neighbors are. Not this competition to see who can have the best car. People aren't helping each other out. It's just a byproduct of the capitalist system that we've lived in. We've got margins between people who've got things and people who don't, and sharing becomes less [important].
The album's basically a document of the awakening, realizing that there is this structure and not being a part of it. We don't really exist in that world, within the band. We haven't watched television for five years. You can't avoid it, obviously, but we've been so busy doing this thing. With the internet, we started to inform ourselves a long time ago. That became our news media. You get an ear for what's the truth. It was really wild -- doing the end of the album, I basically spent about two months on my own, by myself in a very, very small room with nothing but the microphone and the computer and occasional contact with the producer. It was really, really unplugged from everything. We've spent all our Christmases and Thanksgivings and all that stuff on our own for years.
It was like the veil was really lifted. I was walking down the street, and it was almost like I felt like I was in The Matrix or The Truman Show or something like that. Just looking around, going, "Fuck it." How many steps were people taking that they were taking on their own? It just felt like everything was so guided. It was bizarre; it was very, very movie-esque. Yeah, so the album's about that. Most of the next one's going to be a bit of the after-effect: How can you combat things like that? How can small people deceive world bankers? The answer will actually be everyone -- what everyone does within their individual bubble, how we choose to act, and if that will butterfly effect out.
Did any specific events inspire the lyrics on the album?
Yeah. War over oil fields and stuff like that. The disgrace of certain governments. Everyone can probably guess which governments we're talking about. The larger Western world. The way that they go about obtaining what they need from the poor countries, everything from Iraq to Africa. You kill many people so you can run an oil pipeline through their country. 9/11 -- that whole time was so surreal. It really shaped our world.
What's good about touring America is contrary to the international image of Americans, you guys are not, 100 percent are not, your government. Everyone we've met have been just fucking beautiful, amazing, quite awake people. We're looking forward to telling people back in Australia. It's like having a tribe of brothers and sisters over here stuck behind a horrible corporate system.
Well, I'm glad that you found that the people of America to be more agreeable than our government.
Oh, there's a massive division. Having witnessed the Bible Belt, we can actually see that it's just really evident in the bombardment in the media and the morals. We've been taking photos of your billboards; it's like taking a photo of a strange animal so we can show our friends at home. It's just bizarre.
Yeah, I bet. I really like the music video for "Big." What's the concept behind that one?
Basically, I met this artist online who ended up creating a piece of art for every song on the album.
That's Cameron Gray, right?
Yeah. We just had this idea of trying to bring some of the pieces to life, so we just selected a couple of the pieces of art on there to try to join together as a story. It was quite an experience. I had to go and put on the animation -- the suit with the balls, you know what I mean? The tracking animation thing. It was kind of like our first film clip that we had done. I was also extremely nervous; it wasn't like me rocking out with the guys in the room. It was me standing in this weird box with all these people around me going, "Now you're singing. Now you're flying." Yeah, it was great. I would definitely say it didn't turn out 100 percent how we wanted it to. We didn't have a lot of people, and we probably would've wanted to include more pieces of art. It was a very interesting experience.
That sounds pretty cool.
If it had been up to us, we would've layered it with a lot more textures and meanings, but it was the first single off the album, so we didn't have a massive budget. We would definitely like to do another animated one because the possibilities are endless with animation, and it's such an important medium. We'd have loved to put a lot more into it than we got to do.
Do you think you guys will be making some more videos any time soon? I know you released two more from that album, after "Big."
We've done all the ones we want to off of 'This is the Warning' now; it'll be on the next album. We shot a video for "Cage" and "Reaction" already, so that could be new for people here.
Going back to Cameron Gray's artwork, how would you say that it relates to your music?
I really liked him when I found him online. I'd actually been searching all these artists, and I was looking at this surrealist stuff, I think it was, artists in his style, and I just looked at his stuff and felt this real connection. Everything he does is very first person, and all our songs are generally from the first person [perspective]. How we did it is basically I would send him the song and the lyrics, and then he'd send something back and go, "Is this what you mean?" But like any conversation, it was pretty easy to misunderstand each other, so if he didn't get it right the first time, or if he missed the meanings of the songs, which is also very easy to do, I would send him back a two page rant about whatever the song was about. He'd generally get it right the next time he sent it through. I think we did like 24 pieces of art for the 12 songs and a couple extras, as well, that we kept for posters and stuff.
That's cool. I feel like a lot of the time, bands looking for album art see a piece of art that's already been made and use it for their own purposes. You guys sort of flipped around that process.
Yeah, it was very interesting. He's very fast, as well. I don't think he sleeps. I would send him a thing, there would be a gap of six hours, and then there'd be one of these amazing digital art pieces there. It sort of freaked me out. I think I even asked him once, going, "Do you just have a back catalog of stuff you're sending me, or are you actually doing this?" He's just really on the money. He's amazing.
Wow, six hours?
Yeah, that was one of the timelines. Literally, in six hours, I had something in my inbox. I was like, "Are you serious?"
That's crazy. How are you liking working with Sumerian Records?
Man, they have been absolutely amazing. We've got a good perspective on them being an independent label; in Australia, we're actually on a major label with Warner Brothers. The guys' enthusiasm feels very real. Sometimes with larger labels, those guys are saying, "You're an alternative rock band. You're a small fish." But the Sumerian guys just won us over with their enthusiasm. We like the ethos of being an independent band rather than giving up a certain percent of our money to some faceless corporation where you don't know anyone. We know everyone who's a part of Sumerian. Who knows where your money's going when you're part of those bigger things? Yeah man, they're just amazing. They're real go-getters; they're unrelenting in their promotion of the record. [laughs]
What's the meaning behind your band's name?
We've actually got a 5-year pact that comes to an end in about 14 months. It's actually about 18 months until we reveal it. It sounds like a bit of a silly name, but it's actually got a deep, spiritual meaning. We picked the timeline based on where we're at. When we started off, we took the songwriting seriously, but with everything else around it, we were just party animals, crazy people. We picked a future when we felt like it wouldn't discredit the name or the music. We've grown up with it, and we've really taken things a bit more seriously. It's really good. We feel like we could reveal it now, but we have actually made the pact to stick it out a little bit longer. It definitely ties into everything we sing about, and you can be the first to know when it's time.
[laughs] So you four guys are the only people who know the meaning?
Yeah. We've got a new member now, so we've told the fifth guy. We actually haven't even told the people who manage the band or anything like that. It's literally just the band members. There's always speculation going around, just silly stuff which we do entertain. We let people make it up, and some times we'll say, "Oh yeah, yeah, you've got it, man. You've got it." But no one's actually gotten close to it yet. We weren't ready a year ago to tell people.
'This is the Warning' originally came out over a year ago in Australia. Have you guys been working on any new material since then?
Yeah, we got started straight away. We don't ever write whole songs before we go into the studio. We generally take the seeds of songs. For example, "The Space on the Wall" was only the verse and a chorus that got scrapped. We just lied to the record company when they said, "We need you guys to record a single." We went, "Oh, cool. We've got a song; just put us in there." They basically just trusted us based on our track record of writing good songs. We went in there and just freaked out for three days and came out with the song. Now, we're confident in that procedure. We're just creating the seeds. When we go in there, if we can talk our way into it again, we'll have to finish demos and that kind of stuff. It'll be great. The plan would be to have it out one year from its release date in America. We'll be trying to do a worldwide release next time, so it'll be Australia, America, and the world at the same time, rather than just Australia.
That would be cool. So you're saying that you guys generally have a pretty spontaneous songwriting style?
Yeah. Myself and Tom [Skerlj] not included, the guys are very much improvisational players. If we have a basic structure, what we do generally is Rob and I create the seeds [of the songs], and we'll take them with the band into the studio and just jam around it -- record everything and then have a listen and then put the bits together. We developed this knack of finding out which songs are flowing. I don't know if you've noticed on the record, but we've mastered the art of not repeating ourselves too many times. I put it down to the guys being really great players. We've always gone to lengths to take the ego out of it. When you get to a certain level of playing, if you're walking around with your ego after progress, it can hold you back. You have to make up something awesome, but don't emotionally invest in it so much that if it doesn't make it, you get upset. You have to accept criticism as positive. If we've got a song, and we've got ten seconds that's holding the whole thing back from being awesome, we have to cut it. It's got to be all killer, no filler.
I know that bands like you guys and Karnivool are getting more exposure in the US these days, can you recommend any other Australian bands that are coming up now to American fans?
Yeah. Unfortunately, there have been a couple of bands that have come and gone that definitely were part of the worldwide musical spectrum. The band Cog -- they're kind of where our whole scene started. After Tool's 'Ænima' and 'Lateralus' and Deftones' 'White Pony,' there was just this period where the musical spectrum went to Limp Bizkit and got that kind of heavy vibe. [Cog] were the first Australian band that extended world class. Another band: The Butterfly Effect. Sleep Parade. Another band was MM9; they're broken up as well. Yeah, definitely check them out. They're awesome.
Pick up Dead Letter Circus' new album, This is the Warning.
For the band's upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.