The name ‘Damian Cowell’ may be more familiarly lodged in your memory as one of his more well-known aliases; the more recent, before his born name, being DC Root, frontman for now defunct ROOT!; the other being Humphrey B. Flaubert, one cog of the weird and wonderful machine we knew as Aussie garage-punk electro band TISM. Ring any bells? Brrring! Brrring!
Lisa Dib spoke to Cowell in the midst of a turnover point for Springvale’s John Cooper Clarke; ROOT! is now The DC3. DC Root is now Damian Cowell. Some of the members have changed, the sound most certainly has. Why now?
As Lewis Carroll more or less put it, let us “start at the beginning”. I ask Cowell about his creative process as a writer, as a frontman, as a muso, as a man. “My “workspace” is a cubby hole shared with garden tools and a bike, freezing in winter and boiling in summer, with the heady waft of dynamic lifter providing the hallucinogens” he answers, with the self-deprecating charm that makes him the cult golden boy he is. “So, not surprisingly, if I plonk myself down and stare at the fibro cement wall six inches from my face, ain’t nuthin’ gonna materialise. I also have a job, and all the little time pressures and incremental vice tightenings of life that collude to make you into a wage-generating automaton. And I’m proud of it. But it means my time spent in my “studio” is so incredibly rigidly defined that I have to hit the keyboard running, so to speak”
“Fortunately, I am a hopeless daydreamer. This makes me a useless partner, a shit handyman, a scattershot parent, boring dinner company and an organisational car crash. But it also means that I hear songs in my head. Am I suggesting that couplets and melody lines burst forth and I am just a conduit…? Reprehensible. I’ll be quoting Jesus next. No, it’s not quite that bad. It would be a brazen-faced lie to suggest I can’t manipulate the process; make it possible for ideas to happen. Reading the papers, or hearing music I like, or hearing something I despise booming out of the TV, that usually gets the wheels oiled. Oh, and did I mention beer? Beer makes me happier. It’s better when I’m happy. That’s the so called creative process…then comes the other ninety-nine point nine recurring percent.”
The question remains, like a sword of Damacles over our pretty heads: Who are you writing for, Damo? And for what purpose? A “the world needs me” sense of duty? Working class boredom? Cathartic unleashing of inner demons?
“Fuck, I dunno. If I ever stopped to think about that sort of stuff, I’d probably never write a thing. When I write a song, I imagine that a secret sect of smart, bookishly beautiful women listen and swoon lasciviously. If I pondered for too long that, in fact, it’s really being listened to by a pot-bellied bloke who didn’t fit in at school, I might as well take up golf”
“I reckon I’m trying to provide an alternative; an alternative to the continents, planets, solar systems of shit that pass for popular music lyric. I don’t mean your ‘ya ya romana’ Lady Gagas of this world – at least that doesn’t pass itself off as “deep”. I’m talking about shitheads with year ten-standard observational skills wasting everybody’s time, including their own, wasting a really valuable opportunity that could be used by someone who has got something to say, by stringing together a bunch of unoriginal phrases that purport to tell a story only they know about, all excused by the heinous rock song get-out-clause: if you don’t know what it’s about it must be “poetic”.”
“They can fuck off” Cowell continues, a man possessed. “Rock is mainly played by dumbheads, with precious few exceptions, and that’s why it’s incredibly easy to be even a tiny bit different. It’s also why a lot of mainstream music journalists really don’t like types like me coming along and playing the smartarse. That’s their job, and they want their rock stars in nice, easy-to-patronise packages: nice dumb fuckwits like Kiss who they can like because it’s kitsch-ly “daggy”, or smart guys who play dumb like the Ramones…I’m not really answering the question, am I? My inner demons? You’ll have to get me drunk”
Being the lyrical lothario you are, a man with more than a pen cap full to say, who do you most admire in that particular field?
“I have to mention PG Wodehouse – not because of his stories, per se; it’s this whole fabulously anachronistic, hilarious world he creates through the minute details of his prose, I just sit there smiling the whole time. Mark E. Smith, who, describing the constantly shifting nature of his band’s personnel, said: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall”. He is the exception that proves the rule I alluded to previously, the “what the fuck was THAT all about?” rule. His lyrics are like coded messages, like short hand scribbling in a secret agent’s log, full of abbreviations and cul de sacs, and grimy unromantic details, all delivered with seething venom like he is two inches from your face”
“Ray Davies is a far more conventional choice. His subject matter, his ability to make the mundane romantic, that’s obviously up my alley. Elvis Costello I used to like, but he’s been on two slabs-a-day of cleverness for thirty years and it’s turned him into a monster. I quite like Luke Haines, formerly of The Auteurs. He can really write, plus there’s this fabulous bitter humour under the surface. Howard Devoto, once of Magazine, could sound a bit arty-pretentious, but if you can get over that, they really roll off the tongue: “Keep your silence to yourself” – that type of thing”
“Morrissey, despite his maudlin tendencies and the terrible legacy of self-pity he fostered, will throw a really funny line like a cherry bomb into the middle of a melodramatic moment, I love that. Jarvis Cocker’s been good. They’re all fucking English, aren’t they? Robert Pollard, ex- Guided By Voices, is certainly out there. Craig Finn of The Hold Steady has a great narrative style, and manages to overcome my aversion to “cool” topics like drug-taking. I’ve always admired Coxy of the Fauves, he’s got that unpretentious flair for minutiae, and back on the Yanks, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem has clear ability, although he doesn’t always seem arsed enough to use it”
As you may have discovered, now or many years ago, Cowell is one of few men whose opinions cannot be watered down to neutral; as part of Melbourne mischief-makers TISM, Cowell was part of a multi-legged “fuck you” machine that often spoke for the masses, somehow whilst speaking against them. What band do you know whose frontman (Ron Hitler Barassi) recited the following in a beat soliloquy against then Premier Jeff Kennett…?
“Some people fuck animals/ But if you’re kinky, why wait? / Come on down to Victoria: see one man fuck a state”
From music journos to bogans, government officials and other musicians- no-one was safe from TISM’s lampoon harpoon. In ROOT!, too, Cowell didn’t shy from unleashing his oft-barbed tongue in songs, with songs like “Pauline Hanson Says There’s Christian Muslims Too” and “Spring Me Out of Caroline Springs” (which features the great lyrics: “Come rescue me/ I’m only twenty minutes from the CBD….if you drive at two-fifty”.)
Even after the words he has penned, the question lingers: with the benefit of some life experience after heady TISM days, does Cowell ever worry now about offending people?
“Contrary to how it must seem, I don’t make fun of everything. I generally go with what moves me to ire, and if there’s any recurring theme, it’s misplaced or over-inflated reverence that gets me going, deserved or otherwise. I have a terrible urge to not act my age when I’m around “coolness””
“I once went to a party where they were playing vinyl, and everyone was terribly cool, and I found a floorboard a whole room away where, if I stomped on it just so, I could make the record skip without anyone being near the turntable. So I kept doing it, at well-timed intervals, until someone twigged and got really fucked off with me…ah well. The only thing that censors me is somebody saying “you should write a song about X” – guaranteed to put me off immediately”
Head to http://www.thedc3.com.au/ to keep updated on all things DC3.