Their first album in six years sees the duo pushing into new territory while still doing what they do best.
Six years ago, it seemed believable that maybe The Presets had mellowed, gone soft, slowed and settled down.
When the Sydney duo – singer/keyboardist Julian Hamilton and drummer/beatmaker Kim Moyes – followed the fiery, number-one smash, ARIA Award-winning Apocalypso with the less-banging, more melodic Pacifica, it seemed to signal a (new) lifestyle choice.
At the time, Hamilton and Moyes had both become new parents, had moved into their late-30s and come off the road exhausted after crunching heads with the Apocalypso tour. Maybe playing those high-energy songs on the road for so long had taken its toll. Maybe they weren't feeling as aggressive musically as they used to. Maybe the birth of children led to the need for a bit more quiet.
I foolishly followed this line of thinking down the rabbit hole with Hamilton in an interview back then, on the eve of Pacifica's release. The amiable singer assured me that this was just the type of music they felt like making at the time. Nothing had changed.
"We might make an album in three years' time that's the most aggressive, head-smashing thing you've ever heard," he said at the time. "I don't want the impression to go out that we're getting old and we're turning our backs on dance music and clubs."
This line of questioning now seems utterly redundant with the release of their up-tempo and very contemporary new album Hi Viz.
When I sit down to chat with Hamilton and Moyes in the South Melbourne office of their record label, they look fit, relaxed and happy.
Having known each other more than 20 years – they met at the Sydney Conservatorium in the mid-'90s and formed The Presets in 2003 – the pair have the easy interaction and the sharp humour of long-term friends.
Though they've not had an album out in six years, the duo will begin their Australian tour next week match fit. They blew the cobwebs out with some Australian festival shows late last year, have played a handful of gigs in the USA in March, and some secret shows in Sydney last month.
"More than 50 per cent of our new live show is Hi Viz," says Moyes. "We've actually just spent the last couple of months reworking all the older stuff. When we started putting new songs into the set at the end of last year, it really started to show up some of the older stuff, which was a first! Up until recently, all the stuff from Apocalypso was probably the best sounding, but now it's definitely this (new) stuff."
In the downtime between albums, Moyes produced music for Kirin J Callinan, Jack Ladder and DMAs, as well as launching a record label, Here to Hell, with Melbourne techno DJ Mike Callander.
Hamilton, meanwhile, composed music for the theatre shows of his choreographer brother Antony.
In 2014, they released two stand-alone Presets singles, Goodbye Future and No Fun, and also spent six months working with the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the Vivid Sydney show Timeline. That ambitious performance documented 40,000 years of music, traversing everything from Haydn to Bach through the Velvet Underground and right up to Daft Punk and Justin Bieber.
"Kim and I had been making these mega-mixes of the '80s and '90s, and pop music in general, during the planning of those shows," recalls Hamilton. "Each song on the mega-mix would get like one second, the tracks stacked one upon each other. It felt really good hearing all this music fly by. You'd hear one bar of Billie Jean or one bar of Prince and you'd be in the moment of the song without having to hear the entire thing."
Album opener Knuckles is their version of trap, with a tough rap from Hamilton and blaring horns. The strutting Martini is stripped-back tech-house, reminiscent of Canadian DJ-producer Tiga, an acknowledged influence. Tools Down is like the buff soundtrack to a homoerotic gym. 14U+14ME has a churning, teeth-grinding synth riff that could cut through metal.
The Presets have never made an album like Hi Viz – full throttle from go to whoa. It's their best, and strangest album. Many of the tracks seem constructed like club music, with Hamilton's voice (often processed, like a phone call down a bad line) left to find its place or dutifully serve the sleek, electronic set pieces as another instrument.
"Personally, I wasn't particularly interested in writing complete pop songs this time around," the singer explains. "We were trying to cook it all down, write pop music with very minimal pieces."
"A vocal is just a function on this record, as opposed to it being front and centre," agrees Moyes. "These songs don't rely on the vocal for you to connect with them. Like in Downtown Shutdown, in that moment when the bass and drum groove comes in, you just want to start moving."
The album's latest single, Downtown Shutdown is a Chic update and the funkiest thing the Presets have ever done. They travelled to far-flung Shepparton in rural Victoria to record the local St Paul's Lutheran Church Choir, comprised of African refugees and young people.
"We've tried to do that sort of uplifting, happy vibe so many times and we really find it hard to pull off," says Moyes. "We can't do it, we're just naturally sad, dark people! So to be able to pull off that kind of 'up' energy that still has that Presets aggressiveness, without being too hard or dark, was a good challenge."
Perhaps most telling of the bravery and lack of ego exhibited on this album, though, was the fact Hamilton handed over lead vocals to other singers for the first time. DMAs' Tommy O'Dell and LA-based, Sydney DJ-producer Alison Wonderland helm Are You Here and Out of Your Mind respectively, while Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears contributes to Tools Out.
"We're always trying to do something different, at least within what we feel is the Presets," Moyes says. "We were really just trying to get back to fun. The whole message of the record is inclusiveness, and it's a party, with an open invitation."
Hi Viz is out through EMI. The Presets play live around Australia throughout June. Details: thepresets.com
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