Disasteradio, aka Luke Rowell, discusses the particulars of his new synth album Visions with Hutt Valley compatriot from way back, BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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Disasteradio: Visions

TURNS OUT I went to primary school with Disasteradio (or Luke Rowell as I knew him back then). My Mum remembers that he had very curly hair. His Mum also gave me books when I was in hospital at the age of eight. This rather unnecessary opening about the villageness of the Hutt Valley doesn’t mean much when you consider that Disasteradio’s recently released seventh album Visions, cut at the still tender age of 24, is pretty damn good. One of the more enjoyable albums in recent times, it’s also musically complex, thrilling in its synth pop and camp party lyrics.

Rowell started off via the guitar, and paradoxically that’s the way he got into electronic music too. “I had another guitar teacher between when I was fourteen and sixteen, and he did a lot of poking around on midi sequencing and stuff like that. I’d turn up for a guitar lesson and we might not even touch a guitar.” Rather than provoking a Fair Trading Act lawsuit for misleading teaching, these synth-lessons helped pique Rowell’s interest in computer music. Changing technology also helped make this much more accessible to a kid hanging out in his bedroom in the Hutt Valley. “He basically gave me a lot of electronic programmes on freeware, so I kind of ended up growing up with the whole digital audio thing becoming a big thing. Before I started out, you basically couldn’t record to a computer unless you had tens of thousands of dollars, now in the space of ten years, it’s been totally blown up.”

He soon found himself listening to some of the key synth pop music from the eighties. “I didn’t get into the ‘82-‘86 sort of golden years of drum machines until I was older. I think the whole fascination with me in synths and drum machines is through television because it was kinda the weapon of corporate culture, you know Pepsi advertisements etc. I did watch a whole lot of television when I was a kid. I think music always needed an escapist sort of element, and I think I had chosen television references that way.” Rowell mentions to me (remembering that I was a Macguyver fan as a child) the Macguyver theme and the Unsolved Mysteries as theme songs as examples of things “kind of the back of our generation’s mind a little bit. I’m trying to reference that sort of stuff not ironically, but kind of pastiche-y. I’m not going ‘woah ho, what a funny time to grow up in ha-ha’, I’m not necessarily nostalgiac. I do take the mickey, but there’s a real serious element to what I’m doing.”

Rowell is certainly a playful artist, where elements such as camp science and party lyrics freely mix (he’s a fan of Man or Astro-man? and Devo for example) However, his album is a bit more serious than his playful reputation would suggest. However, Rowell admits “I don’t think I’m in a joke band, but I’m not in a totally serious band.” However his jokiness is particularly well epitomised in his ‘Awesome Feelings’ video which he made with Simon Ward, (youtube.com/watch?v=KFoTFXxcrrw), a video that is hilarious in its mix of sci-fi, crazy animation and freak-dancing. It was also made in four days, and allowed Rowell the opportunity to go totally overboard on the editing tools (eg lightning effects) in After-Effects, probably much to the chagrin of film editors worldwide. “I guess the idea we had early on is that there are not too many bands in New Zealand who’ll take the piss this much. You’ve got to be very genuine the whole time, everyone’s obsessed with ‘we’re as good as America’ which you don’t have to be. It’s weird, we’ve got this we have to be different to everyone else but musically we have to be as good as America. That was why we ended up animating such ridiculous stuff.”

The song itself had its genesis from a rather unconventional show Rowell witnessed in a cheap bar in Thailand. “Usually a drummer will play with a metronome in their headphones, but this band, they had a cowbell going through the PA the whole time.” After the song ended, the cowbell would keep going, and simply slow down for the slower song that would come up next.

It may be surprising that Disasteradio was picked up into the “indie” scene, rather than moving into the electronic one. However Rowell says he never really felt a part of that scene finding the culture a little “vacuous”, despite there being some “totally awesome” people. He also suggests his sound “wouldn’t work playing keyboards for an hour and a half”. Rowell instead started out his live music career playing alongside his brother (who was in a couple of punk bands) at punk and hardcore gigs, something which a rite of passage for many a Hutt music enthusiast. Despite his sound probably being the total opposite of many in the punk’s scene’s musical taste, he generally found support. “There was a lot of antagonism early on, everyone was totally cool except for a few bad eggs – you know getting yelled at Punkfest to get off the stage by a number of people.” However it was Blink (AKA Ian Jorgenson) who helped Disasteradio in the so called indie scene in Wellington. “Blink was at the first show I played and I pretty much got hooked up for these gigs with these rock n roll bands, these guitar pop bands. It was kind of weird seeing, not how the other half live, but I didn’t know there were a bunch of musicians who were a bit more into what I was doing.”

Rowell is especially grateful for the support and work done by Blink, and it was Blink’s label A Low Hum which released this album. “I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for him. He basically takes care of all of the stuff that I’d rather not do. I’ve never had to organise a show which has been brilliant.” His support was also invaluable after his early performances. “I was so dreading my first two shows that I was like ‘I’m not going to play again, I’m just going to put the CD out on computers or something.’ He ended up taking me on tour in 2004. It’s been really good – I’ve been trying to help him out as much as he’s been helping me out, but I never will be able to.” And it’s possible that Blink may go down like Roger Shepherd, or Bruce Russell in the annals of New Zealand music history. “I hope it’s one of those legendary times that is talked about that seems way better and way more fun than it was. It genuinely seems like it will be something like that – hopefully he’ll be still here making a lot of money.

It’s amazing to think that Rowell has already made seven albums. Some of them for were made specifically to be played on mp3.com, a site which Rowell suggests “If mp3.com allowed people to put profiles up of their own shit, they would have had MySpace in like, 1997.” His dabbling with computers got him into contact with guys who were making freeware software on which people were able to make music. “I started out putting stuff on MP3 because it was the only way the other musicians I was in contact with could listen. They were in Europe, the States, some guys in Asia, Australia.” Rowell often put up his entire albums on MP3 format, and his current album is on sale for ten dollars via the internet.

Having made so many albums by such a young age would also guarantee some valuable musical training and experience. Rowell says that now “I know what I’m getting at most of the time, the other times I would be shooting in the dark and just churning it out. Now I’m kinda conscious about certain stuff about songs. I didn’t ever hold back. I was listening to Joanna Newsom, that whole style of music is the antithesis of what I was doing, but just her ability to hold back, and build stuff up was awesome.” Visions certainly is the output of a mature musician, and someone who does seem to know what he’s doing.

His approach to album making is also fascinating. He studied composition for two years at varsity (which also gave him a healthy love of things classical), but he still admits to not knowing much about chord structures etc. Rather “I just doodle, more or less.” He’d sit around and play around with a few ideas, often resulting in songs totally different to the original idea he was messing around with. “I do labour over things quite hardcore. One thing that I always do is leave a song on loop and then walk around my house and then go grab a coffee and have a cigarette and then come back. I was living in a flat in Petone, and it was only two bedrooms and there was a hole above the rooms so you could listen to music throughout the whole house. I’ll end up listening to four bars for half an hour just trying to figure it out. My girlfriend hates it.”

Visions sounds best on a ghetto blaster, sounding warmer, and there will be people who will view this in relation to the eighties. Rowell admits “I mixed it on a ghetto blaster pretty much” which he got from the Sallies. But he’s far from a guy simply holding onto the 1980s. “I’m definitely not a revivalist. There are some shitty aspect to the eighties. You had the whole AIDS thing come in early on, some pretty shitty wars. I certainly don’t think music was better back then. I think there is certainly a trend for referentialism in everything these days. I even find it a little bit imprisoning sometimes. You watch everything, and everything seems to be haunted by these concepts.”

Rowell’s about to go on tour with Supergroove and the Mint Chicks, guaranteeing a wider audience for his live show. He’d already played a few shows with Supergroove and found it slightly different from the everybody-knows-everybody scene in Wellington – “Supergroove was cool, I don’t know whether they were laughing at me or with me, it must have been these people’s one gig they go to a year. There were eight hundred people over two nights, and I only knew three people, and two of them were from Radio New Zealand. A totally different world.”. Visions is an immensely enjoyable album, and grabs your ears while getting you to dance like a sledgehammer. “Synth pop is a good way to be optimistic without being preachy. You’ve got to reference the whole utopia element of the party without feeling like you’re ramming an idea down someone’s throat.”