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The Death Set's "Negative Thinking"

On Baltimore, positivity and getting out of Australia



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Digital Hardcore, a term coined by Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire, failed to scratch the substratum of popular music during its 15 minutes in the early '90s, but its waves continue to reverberate. Acts like Digitalism and, here, The Death Set, blend dance and punk, suggesting that a similar tide's rising.

And what better than an Oi!-worthy dance-punk shout-along to celebrate the power of attitude over reality? "Negative Thinking" opens with a wonderful sample that sets the tone as a woman cautions, "I'm not trying to be unfair." Like kryptonite, the sense of optimism renders nearby hipsters more indolent than usual. To cynicism, it offers a frank, "Fuck that! I feel better knowing I decided not to." An acknowledged fan of Empire, the Death Set's Johnny Siera pens a track with gabber intensity and enough positivity to dwarf Richard Simmons.

Indeed, the whole atmosphere emanates a honest, ramshackle charm, like The Rescuers in their own "Muskrat Love" story. Beats clatter like tumbling trash cans. The analog synth pumps from way on high. A simple, heavily distorted guitar riff churns, tilling the rumble for the rambunctious vocals to skate over. The grimy, lo-fi hum is populist in its DIY mess. The rejection of heroes ("I don't want to be like the people I liked") taps punk's intent to overthrow all idols, bridging the distance from the crowd to the stage. It's the kind of song that makes you want to get up and do something, written by guys who did.

We found Siera en route from Dallas, Texas to Baton Rouge, La.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How do you stave of cynicism?

JOHNNY SIERA: I read this book, Mind Power, which is about training your mind with affirmations, and visualization. I try to do that every day. I started off by doing it in the shower, because it was something that I would hope to do every day. [Laughs.] I'm definitely wary of what my mind does and what I'm thinking. Even when I'm bummed out, I'm definitely trying to train my mind toward what I'm trying to do. I do believe in that whole process of positive thinking and that what you're thinking manifests into reality.

It's been a really crazy adventure to watch it all unfold, how insane it is us coming from a small Australian town to touring like my peer. It seemed so unattainable, [yet] when I thought about it and worked towards it, I focused my thoughts on making it a reality and it was quite insane. It was one of those things where you actually commit 100 percent. and a million unseen little forces come to your aid. It's amazing to witness.

I liked the line about discontentment—"I decided not to"—because it's less a bash than a statement of personal responsibility.

I think the essence of that song was being really psyched about doing a project. What the song is actually about is this other guy, who was in a Gold Coast band, one of my peers growing up, an amazing band, and he was just being a downer. I guess he was a little jaded. His band was really great, and then they just stopped. And he was being a downer on us, while we were 100 percent committed to this.

It was like, "I could join this dude and feel shitty, but fuck that. I'm going to go for this 100 percent," and it was a lesson, that in hindsight, I don't want to be like these people. You did this amazing stuff and you were awesome and you were inspirational, but that doesn't mean I have to listen to you or follow when you're hating and being negative on this project.

When did you write "Negative Thinking"?

It was written on the Gold Coast of Australia, where we're from. That one is my song, and was actually one of the first songs written, even before we moved to Sydney, during the very first stage of the band, about three months before our first show. It was like early 2005.

What lead you to leave Sydney for America?

We wanted to be a touring band from the get-go. Reading stories, reading books, living in the antipode of Australia, looking at bands in the states playing 30 or so shows. It's only really possible in the States or maybe Europe.

I wanted to be in a band where the touring affected the music, rather than the opposite way around. Instead of making a studio album and then going on tour, I wanted it to be the other way around. Bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen were inspirational.

We went on an Australian tour, but that was pretty much just 4 or 5 shows. We went on tour with Japanther from Brooklyn, and they were pretty much doing it. It was pretty inspirational to see it first hand. Like you read about it, but when you actually see a band doing it, touring DIY, you experience it first hand. It was pretty much, "that's what I want to do."

It was just a no-doubt sort of thing, just coming from the Gold Coast, and putting a picture of Manhattan on the wall. It all happened in 6 months. I guess the lyrics reflect the whole process of getting to America. It was no doubt a lesson in positivity.

You mentioned not only having to put the band together but also get used to living and working together?

It was pretty much easier because we had these goals. We were working toward this end goal, and I think when you haven't got anything in your life except working toward this goal, it's actually easier to live and work together. I mean we were living in very bad boroughs. I was living on this disgusting mattress on the floor, subletting from this flaming gay glass artist. It was a ghetto set-up, and it was rad because we would get up and write tunes and it didn't really matter a whole lot what we were doing. We were really working toward this goal of writing songs, getting a show together and moving to the States. It was difficult in a sense, being extremely poor and living not well, but it was a really great time because there wasn't anything else to do but work toward this goal. It was a special time.

What are your musical backgrounds and how does that express itself in Death Set?

In Australia, I used to listen to a lot of electronic music, even going to dance parties and all-night raves. That was a pretty big influence. When I was a kid I was always listening to punk rock music and hip-hop. Then I got right into electronic music and DJ culture. And [bandmate] Beau [Vesco], as well, started out writing electronic drum beats, whereas I started out in punk rock bands, and moved into electronic beats, so we kind of got into the same music but started at opposite ends and met in the middle.

How much of an inspiration is the Baltimore scene?

It was a weird because I think from the outside a lot of bands in Baltimore sound similar. We wrote these tracks before Baltimore, but sonically they're somewhat similar, which is a real weird coincidence. It's quite strange because we actually moved in next door to Dan Deacon, and never had heard of him before. It was just a weird coincidence. But I think more so than sonically, aesthetically the whole Baltimore scene was really influential. You're pretty much thinking about writing, or the aesthetic is from the view of how can I make these sweaty 100 guys spazz in a basement rather than playing on a big stage and being sonically perfect or something. I think the Baltimore scene has been very influenced by the whole Providence scene of Lightning Bolt and Black Dice, and kids in warehouses rather than good haircuts in good clubs. Aesthetically it was very influential and was really rad because the bands from Baltimore are so eclectic. It was never really a competitive thing. It was a really supportive thing and most of the people in the bands were living in spaces where we could put on our own shows. It was a great and special time.

There's so much to do. Like Baltimore, the whole city is just so fucked, and there's nothing really there except for what the kids are making and doing themselves. It was rad, a really awesome DIY-positive community. And a lot of that has changed because the city clamped down on a lot of the stages and shut down a lot of the spaces, which sucked. But whatever. It's one of those things that lasts for a year or two, and all the media catch up to it a year or two later, and so when people ask what's Baltimore like, we're like "It's rad, but it was kind of radder a year or two ago."

The Death Set play with Bonde Do Role and Diamond Studs Saturday, May 10, at Local 506. Tickets are $10 for a 9 p.m. start.

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