Johnny Siera and Dan Walker, two-thirds of prankster punk band the Death Set, are visiting friends and family in Australia post-tour; drummer Jahphet Landis is in Brooklyn, the band’s current ground zero. It’s 3 a.m. in Melbourne—a time of their choosing—when they cheerfully ring CMJ via Skype.
Originally a band that just wanted to tour incessantly, Siera and founding member Beau Velasco up and moved from Australia’s Gold Coast to the United States. They spent the first night in the States at the home of Spank Rock’s XXXchange (a friend of friend Emily Rabbit) but from there the band moved around vagabond-style, making its temporary home very briefly in New York, then in Baltimore, Philly and now New York once more, getting deeply entrenched in each city’s scene with every stop. During all of the travels, the band only had one goal in mind: “All we wanted was to make music.”
“Baltimore was fucking rad,” Siera says of the place where “the motherfuckin’ Death Set” first found its feet. The community aspect of the local scene was ideal with a core group of artists living in warehouses, making music and booking illegal shows. “And all of a sudden all of these bands got signed and went on tour. So the people putting on the shows were on tour and the scene kinda fell flat.” Still, it gave the band a jumping-off point for its now self-realized goal of spending years on the road and, eventually, intercontinental tours.
A fun, if not charmed, life of touring came to a halt in September 2009 when Velasco was found dead from an overdose. “It was obviously the gnarliest thing we’ve all been through. So what the fuck do you say?” Siera says.
He pauses. “I guess there was a bunch of times where we didn’t know if we could do it still. But we had two options. One option was to finish the Death Set, this project we spent a lot of our lives working toward, and leave it in that sense of sadness or keep going.” And so the Death Set hunkered forward, the duo now a threesome with the addition of Walker and Landis. They all, including Velasco, wanted Michel Poiccard (Counter), the Death Set’s just-released second album, to happen.
And it happened. The trio made sure to include Velasco’s recordings in the album—“finding files of old Pro Tools sessions with Beau or guitar licks where it will be the start of the song and finish the song”—however it could. Velasco wrote the very un-spazzy track “7 p.m. Woke Up An Hour Ago;” that’s his crackling voice first thing on the album—“I wanna take this tape and blow up ya fuckin’ stereo.” Apropos, really, as the record, a bit expressionist-chic but significantly badass, is named after a characteristically un-static and tragic character from Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film.
Siera acknowledges that the band’s 2008 debut, Worldwide, was an experiment in lo-fi punk. And it worked; it was the ideal record to perform in the warehouses, basements and grubby bars sticky with week-old spilled beer that shaped the Death Set’s early days. But the sound couldn’t sustain forever. “We wanted to stay clear of that lo-fi stigma and wanted to step up the production,” he says, “and not be grouped in to that new wave of lo-fi.”
Adding to Michel Poiccard’s fluency are long-time producer pals Spank Rock and Diplo, who incidentally thought Siera had punched in him in the face during South By Southwest (the real culprit was a friend of the band). “I’m not sure if he came over to the house to fight us or not,” he laughs. “He was like, [copping an American accent] ‘Johnny why did you punch me in my face?’ And I was like, ‘Dude, it wasn’t me!’ But Diplo’s cool; Mad Decent had been awesome to us, the whole crew.”
True to his words, the record follows suit; in one quick explosion it introduces a new iteration of the Death Set. Worldwide was heavy with drum-machine beats and irreverent screams; Michel Poiccard is smoothly produced (courtesy of XXXchange) and features more melodic songs of personal strife and loss than the always fun but loosely scraped together sleepless, booze-fueled party anthems. “It’s a funny thing with the sophomore record,” Siera tells CMJ. “You don’t want to leave the people who liked the last record behind, but you still want to move forward.”