SUGARLOAF ROCK - The Dead Letter Circus Interview

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A highlight of the stacked lineup of the inaugural Sugarloaf Rock festival are Brisbane kings Dead Letter Circus. One of Australia's most beloved bands, for a decade DLC have made heavy music accessible to people of just about every taste in music. Based on an unshakable foundation of mateship, and fuelled by a perpetual love of music, Dead Letter Circus have earned their lofty status through talent, hard work and a dedication to the craft.

Emerging in 2004 with the now-iconic Disconnect And Apply, DLC have worked like pit horses – writing, recording and touring near non-stop. For over 10 years straight they dedicated every ounce of energy and every waking thought to the band, and the results speak for themselves... legions of fans at home and abroad, one of the best live shows on the planet, and a catalogue of recorded music that will be heralded and referenced for decades to come.

Currently writing their next album, the band's approach to their career has evolved somewhat these past few years, as members have started families and moved away from their Queensland home. These changes have only served to strengthen their love for the band however, and DLC are more eager and more grateful than ever.

Hanging out in Bunbury while gearing up for DLC's set at Sugarloaf Rock, frontman extraordinaire (and absolutely top-notch bloke) Kim Benzie opened up about family and band life, in between sets of tennis with his son. It seems that he has it all... he is a consummate rock star by night, and a blissfully happy family man by day. Alongside his best mates Luke Williams, Stewart Hill, Clint Vincent and Luke Palmer, he has carved a legacy that is already legendary, yet promising the best is still to come.

First things first, what was your favourite music of 2019?

I'd have to say it was a really late bloomer but there's a band called Thornhill from Melbourne that I heard on Triple J, and I literally pulled over my car and went “what is this?” It was amazing. Really good. It was a mixture of everything I like about heavy rock. It was so sick. I sent them a little message saying “guys I'm loving this!”

That's awesome. Are they a band you might tour with?

Oh absolutely, yeah. We're doing Download with them, so we'll take it from there.

How do you guys go at festivals compared to your own shows, which do you prefer?

They're really different animals. I really love sweaty club shows where you're right there... whereas at some festivals you can be 5 metres from people, which is quite a different experience. When the connection happens at your own show it's kind of one and all, but you can't really go past the thickness of the roar of a big crowd, you know? A festival crowd is so thick... that roar that happens after a song is probably the main difference.

Does it depend on where you are placed on the lineup?

Well at Sugarloaf we are playing the sunset spot which is a killer time because you get lights. We've played a lot of middle-of-the-day ones at Big Day Out and things like that, and they were savagely hot, but amazing. But for bands like Grinners, where you are headlining at night time, that would be pretty fucking spectacular I imagine.

The sunset spot is the best of both worlds, really.

Yeah, it's cooling down and that bit of respite, and it's the first time of the day when you get to see lights. It's gonna be killer. I am so pumped.

How many shows are on your summer tour this year?

We're doing it really sporadically. For whatever reason we are keeping out of things this year, and just writing and planning our next move in the background. So we're playing Download, Sugarloaf and our show at the Newport, and that's pretty much us for the immediate future.

How far into the writing process are you?

Not as far as we normally are by this time, compared to previous albums. We've had a bit of a slower start but I'm pretty pumped about inevitable new music coming out. We've done a few albums, and it's a very exciting time. I love going to the studio, and I love that full creation... expanding on what you've done before... broadening your horizons. It's fuckin' awesome.

Has the songwriting process changed from album to album?

With the last two albums we really fell into our groove of how to write. So it hasn't changed much since then. We do a ton of jamming. Some songs we jam on for days... hours... whatever it takes. Making sure you are chasing an idea to its full potential.

How do you decide when something is finished, is it instinct or is there a discussion?

We just know by now. You just get a vibe. Some of those songs would have been jammed for a week, some for a day. You just know. That's part of getting better at your craft, I think; knowing when to sign off. Maybe they are not ever truly finished and you just convince yourself they are, but there is always a start and an end. We actually really respond well to deadlines, so that really helps. For us, having an unending deadline is just a waste of time. It doesn't work.

That's the opposite of most bands. Most bands most bands are terrible with deadlines. Do you play songs live much before you record them to allow them to transform?

Nah, we're pretty confident when we're doing it. I know bands like to road-test songs, especially in our genre, but we prefer it to be more of a surprise... 'check out what we've been doing'. We did that once – where we played all the songs live before the CD came out – but we found that pretty overwhelming. Dead Letter might seem simple to some people that like really heavy music, but having it so the songs can get inside people's heads is very beneficial for us... especially when you put new songs next to your iconic songs where everybody is screaming every word. Otherwise it can make us feel a little bit weird, because nobody is screaming the new songs because they are hearing them for the first time.

Once you've written a song that's gone over really well and that people love, there must be a temptation to go 'let's just write 10 more of them'?

Yeah, but we just can't do it. There are a couple of songs that our die-hard fans would want us to do that with, but it's just not in our nature. We're always on a journey. We would just get bored if it's the same trick over and over again. I find it confusing when I hear bands that do that, and they become the biggest bands in the world. They don't change or evolve, they just stick to their guns. It seems to be a more superior model of doing it, because if you think about it you're keeping those initial fans all the way through, and it does seem to work for some bands. It is pretty evident the bands that choose to do that and kill it... but we don't have the attention span to be able to do that.

It's definitely hit-and-miss though. A band like AC/DC for instance, no one wants them to change or experiment, but with other bands people get bored if they do the same thing.

Yeah, and when you think of why that is, everyone has their reasons. It could be micro differences within the band. We are pretty wary. We're all too fussy to do that to ourselves... and if we have done it's been like: “Man, really? Didn't we already write that song before?” “Yes we did.” “OK, scrap it.”

Are there any songs you've written and you've loved that you don't play live anymore because they just didn't go over very well?

Yeah. When coming up with a set you only have a certain amount of time, so you have to put a certain amount of thought into what you're going to play. We put a lot of effort into every song, whether it's going to be track 9 or track 3. When it's a song you've got to take out of your set you're like “Well we can't play that song. Fuck, I love that song.” Playing an hour-long set... with all those albums... we have enough radio songs to play an hour-long set of radio songs.

With crowds and fans, it must be tempting to play an hour of radio songs just knowing that everyone is gonna go mental for them?

Yeah, well that's kind of what the festival model is for a lot of bands when you get there. There are a lot of people that have peripherally heard you as well... not necessarily just your die-hard fans. So I wouldn't be surprised if the other guys on the lineup are going to stick to their guns on that, and play their big radio songs.

For something like this festival, how far in advance do you write your setlist?

For Sugarloaf, because we are all scattered all over the world and we probably won't rehearse, I'd say we'll be writing it about three days before. Quite often it will just be the morning of, or when someone goes “what setlist are we doing?”

When you say you're not going to rehearse, how long has it been since your last rehearsal?

It's been a few months actually.

And you can still pull it out after that long?

We've got a show the night before Sugarloaf, at the Newport, so we will come together there and that will be our practice. As well as that we will practice individually.

What about you personally? Is there any change in your voice between the start of a tour and the end of the tour?

Yeah, my voice gets better as it goes along, is the general vibe. I need to blow the cobwebs out. Like, I love those American tours where we get to do heaps and heaps of shows. For this festival, I have a studio at home so I will run through all of my favourite DLC songs as practice.

To that end, how many of your favourite songs will end up on this festival setlist?

At least half.

For those people at the festival you were talking about before – who aren't your die-hard fans – what's the basic origin story of DLC?

We all met in Brissy in a rehearsal room. We were all in other bands, kind of cheating on our other bands with each other as a fun thing, and then it kicked off. We sent a song called Disconnect And Apply into Triple J when we were unknown and not playing to anyone, and it just happened to take off and it really changed our lives.

How fundamental has Triple J been for DLC?

Oh, well I can’t say nothing would have happened without it, but for us it absolutely changed our lives. I had to get the sack from my day job because we toured for basically a whole year, straight away. So yeah, it definitely changed our lives. That song wasn't even going to make the EP. Someone said “Let me send that song in to Triple J and see what they say,” and they loved it and gave us a spin.

Have you found any equivalent of Triple J in the US or Europe?

Nothing. It's a bit harder to break through as independent artist in the US. Triple J can change your life over here but it's a lot harder over there. It is a lot more of a pay-to-play scenario over there. It is very hard to get on the radar... you can't get a publicist on board without a certain amount of money.

So then how much of a priority is the States for you guys?

Not that much anymore. We've toured the States six or seven times. We have an amazing time when we go over there, but it's also time away from our families as well, so we're not too fussed.

How much does the family stuff change the way you work as a band?

Well we could be in the States for nine months of the year, which is how you make that work. You've gotta do that 'death by a thousand cuts' without radio saturation. Most of our friends over there tour nine months of the year. They constantly tour because there's so many markets... you're doing headline tours, you're doing support tours. It's like you conquer by a thousand cuts. Win over your audience one fan at a time.

So can you guys essentially just sustain yourselves career-wise focusing mostly on Australia?

Yeah. Until just recently that's what we did for 10 years... but we are all experiencing different forms of life now... different avenues... but that's pretty much what we did for 10 years: absolute blind dedication. Now we're sort of experiencing life in few different lights as well, so it's quite interesting. It makes you appreciate what a gift it is to be in a band and getting to play that role. It is such an amazing experience, and not that any of us took it for granted, but it shined a light on just how amazing it is.

So basically even though the family thing has changed it a little bit you can essentially keep doing the band forever, you've just gotta change the game a little?

Yeah, definitely. I still can't imagine the day we go 'that is our last show'. That feels like a million years away. We all still love it so much.

How do you keep a band together for that long? Most bands implode before they've reached that mark.

We are just good friends. We hang out on weekends. We are our small circle. There's no weak links. No one's become a dick... so we genuinely appreciate each other.