Ahead of four New Zealand dates this April, Sneaky Sound System’s co-founder Angus McDonald tells BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about the ups and downs of success.

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THE MIXING of pop music, dance music and clubbing is generating some international waves for a number of Australian musicians. Bands such as Cut Copy and Sneaky Sound System (they’re also claiming Ladyhawke) are playing to big crowds and critical success in places such as the United States and England. Sneaky Sound System have found themselves playing with pop megastars Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Robbie Williams, breaking chart records in Australia, and winning both underground and mainstream success. The band are heading down to New Zealand for four shows in late April, and their down-scaling their show which has been winning fans like a rabid dog over in London to get back to their club roots.

Angus McDonald says their shows in London have been going “amazingly well. We’ve sold out everywhere in the UK and Ireland. The gig we did in London was probably the best show we’ve ever done in our whole career. It was one of those magic moments where it was packed and it went crazy.” Not a bad outcome for a band which was formed by “Black Angus” McDonald and MC Daimon “Double D” Downey meeting at a “Cowboys and Indians party” in 2000.

Brisbane-raised McDonald had always been into electro, well before joining Sydney-sider Downey in the band. “I didn’t choose, it chose me. From a young age, the electro that was out in the 80s and all that pop that was out in the 80s, I was hooked. Even though my background was much more into playing in bands, when I finally headed off into London, it was all about dance music and became a DJ and continued from there. After a few years of working as duo, the band added in vocalist Connie Mitchell (formerly of Primary) who contributed to a number of the tracks on the first album. However she soon became an integral member of the band. “We were missing a singer. We miraculously appeared on her path one day, and she had this friend playing a guitar and we started chatting and one thing led to another and we started recording together.”

The band’s self-titled album came out in 2006, after a number of notable singles. The album was a large success, settling onto the charts like a barnacle. After receiving a couple of ARIAs, the album reached number five on the Australian charts. And with it came fame and celebrity attention. “It’s like a roller-coaster. It really is. When you’re going up that first really big hill, things are really busy, you don’t really know what’s happening, and then all of a sudden you get there, it’s kinda exciting. But it’s very surreal, it’s a different experience, when you all of a sudden have a bit of success. Then expectation goes up, so the way you operate changes slightly, because everybody around you is talking differently. It’s tricky, but it’s one of the things you learn to deal with as quickly as possible. You try not to let it interfere with the creative process.” Their single ‘I Love It’ broke the record for the longest stay on the ARIA charts (seventy weeks). McDonald admits “I think there was a point where we were ‘Jesus, can please stop playing it on the radio, you’re driving us crazy.’ All of our songs got flogged. But you soon find out if they don’t play your songs, you’d rather they’re playing it all the time than not at all. I think the only people that don’t mind hearing their songs all the time on the radio, are the people who actually wrote the songs or perform the songs. It’s not a bad place to be.” However, McDonald says the conservatism of radio contributed to that. “I think radio these days is pretty fucked up – they play a handful of songs a million times a day and then they drop it and forget about everything else. I don’t think it’s that healthy.”

The second album (entitled 2) topped the ARIA charts upon release in 2008. Given the success of the first album, it’d be fair to say that 2 came with a bit of expectation. “We didn’t [feel pressure] while we were making it, because to be honest we were doing it while everything else was happening. We went in to start recording it the day after the ARIAs. No-one knew we were doing it. It wasn’t until we started doing interviews and announced it that we sensed the pressure. It was good that we were able to bypass all of that. The expectations were high, but we had a good run. We were very lucky.” McDonald says 2 “was much more influenced by how we were performing live. Beforehand, we produced the album in our own tiny studio and worked out how to play it live later. This time around we tried a few songs out and we tried to harness the energy of the live shows a bit more. Connie was on all the songs this time and we only met her halfway through the other one. We had a bit more unity I think.”

There has been some good international success from Australia, and McDonald suggests that Sneaky Sound System have benefited from the collegiality of the scene. “I think it’s this whole community-fest to be honest. All those other guys and girls, we’re all friends. I think what happens is we all start small, and help each other out and look out for each other. It starts getting momentum. We got lucky, and we broke through well. And then all the other bands were right behind us and prepared, and they had good songs and then the time had come for commercial radio and people to accept this other sort of music, this electro-pop sort of music. It’s been a bit of a purple patch at the moment. The interesting thing is for the first time for a long time, a lot of these acts seem to be translating, or most of them, internationally as well. It’s not just something that’s made in Australia and has stayed there which has happened a lot in the past.”

Their success has also found them having some unlikely collaborations. “I was at a dinner with Kanye West. A friend of ours was trying to do some fashion deal and they invited us along. I ended up sitting next to him and chatting about music for a while and suggest he get Connie in, and I helped him get a studio. We went down the next day and introduced Connie to Kanye and he was really impressed. It just went from there, it was quite natural. And the Snoop Dogg thing – we were touring with him on the Good Vibrations tour, and we were in his orbit. He took a shine to Connie as well, and he just asked to come and sing on his song. I think the song by Kanye was a little better…” That said, McDonald suggests they didn’t pick too many style tips from two of the decade’s most influential pop culture figures. “From Snoop, no… A slightly different vibe going on. Kanye, he’s got a pretty good vibe going on. But not really, no.”

They also ended up playing to fifty thousand people, opening for Robbie Williams. “It was the first time we had played as a band to a big crowd – there were fifty thousand people plus each night. When we started sounding good there, we realised these songs are probably bigger than what we thought they were. That was a really special moment when you go ‘shit this stuff works’”. However, they’re jumping down to smaller venues for their upcoming Australian and New Zealand tours. “We jump continuously all the time between playing huge audiences with a band, and getting back to our club roots. We’ve been doing this tour all around Australia and New Zealand with this precise objective of getting back into clubs and playing different versions of the tracks. It’s a different show, we wanted to get back to doing that.”

The band has also proved a tonic in these supposedly dark economic times overseas. While typically grunge and punk have dominated in times of recession (at least in critical opinion – the reality is that the Bee-Gees sold far more than the Sex Pistols ever did), Sneaky Sound System’s success suggests ‘up’ music has its place. “With all the doom and gloom floating around, I think the last thing people want to do is get further down. A little bit of pretend utopia might be the way forward. Who knows, I think ultimately, there’s a reason why Lionel Richie responded to ‘why are you still so popular?’ with ‘because everyone falls in love.’ That’s where he comes in. I think everyone wants to have a good time a lot of the time, and that’s where we come in.”