the unstoppable evolution of dma's
Guitarist Johnny Took talks about honest songs, fashion faux pas and the sometimes grim realities of touring.
L-R: Matthew Mason, Johnny Took and Tommy O'Dell. Photography Jesse Lizotte
For this interview we asked MOSSY to speak with DMA's guitarist Johnny Took. They're old friends so things got personal — in a good way.
Somewhere on the other side of the world, the phone of DMA’s guitarist and co-songwriter Johnny Took is ringing. I'm calling him from my balcony, in the freezing cold of Melbourne, because it's the only place I ever get any damned phone reception. I'm casting my mind back to the first time I met the endlessly charming and endearing musician. I was in my early 20s and working at one of Sydney's former live music institutions, The Annandale Hotel. It was late at night and we were having one of our regular, debauched staff lock-ins, where Johnny was a recurring character. I remember one night in particular, he told me that he and some friends had started a new side-thing and that I should come over and play some keys with them. I liked the idea but it never happened for one reason or another. Little did we know at the time that we would one day end up signed to the same record label, I Oh You.
As the phone continues to ring I get to imagining what life may have looked like had I taken him up on his offer. Would I have ended up in DMA's? Maybe! What might we have sounded like had I been the fourth member? For all we know, I may have grown to be a powerful and influential figure within the band and ended up firing Johnny from his own proj-...
Johnny, it’s Mossy, hi! Where are you right now?
Johnny: On tour in London. The bus leaves at 2AM each morning after the show and then it drives straight to the next venue. I went to sleep in Newcastle last night and woke up this morning in Kentish Town for our London show.
From what I saw on your Instagram story it all looks pretty comfortable. Do you manage to get any alone time on the bus?
Well, there's six of us, so it’s hard. Yesterday Crandles (bass), Tommy (vox), Joel (guitar) and myself were couped up and watched Cape Fear together.
Yeah. Mason (guitar) was catching up with a mate in Newcastle and Leesbo (drums) was having a nap or whatever. There's heaps of us but I guess we can kinda fuck off and do our own thing if we want.
So your new album, For Now, is out. Congratulations! It must feel incredible to have it out finally?
Oh man, I'm really... It's so nice. It's kinda like... I played it the other day on Spotify... It sounds so different now that it's out!
You've released your baby into the world. Now it becomes a new thing and it's no longer yours to worry about.
Yeah, and there's no going back, you know! There's a song on the record called Tape Deck Sick, which was written in the same year as Mason wrote Delete. So that's like nine or ten years ago now — he was 18 or 19 when he wrote that song. So there are old tracks like that, then The End, for example, is only a year and a half old.
I've noticed in a lot of interviews you describe your approach to songwriting as 'honest' and you’ve said that you try to write honest songs. What exactly does honesty mean in that context?
I guess it mainly relates to when you're writing lyrics and... you know how sometimes people or artists put on a facade and they try to keep up the facade and it's a part of the show, right? And I think it's healthy to have a bit of that, for sure. But there are also moments when it's time to drop it and show your vulnerabilities. I think you need a bit of both. And I think that's why people do relate to our tunes cos there's a healthy mix of those two elements.
That’s a good point. I also wanted to talk to you a bit about mental health. Touring is intense and it's well known that musicians can be prone to bouts of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Are there any kind of measures that you put into place to protect yourself from these things?
Yeah, I guess. I mean it has been pretty hard for males to discuss this kind of stuff historically. Me personally? I dunno. It's easier said than done. You try to pick your nights where you're going to celebrate and you're going to party but if it starts happening every night, you know... It's one of the few jobs where every time you rock up to work there's two cases of beer, two bottles of spirits and two bottles of wine waiting for you. Every night. When you play 26 shows in a month it can start to catch up with you real quick.
So choosing your battles helps. Are there any other routines or structures that you try to put into your day to ground yourself?
Calling home is a good one, I reckon. If you're calling mates or family who have more routined lifestyles than you, it can be helpful. It's nice to just ask all the normal, every day questions because it gives you a bit of perspective again. To be honest though, it feels kind of weird to be seeming to complain about it. It's just that people see a few pictures and it always looks heaps nicer than it actually is. They're only seeing the real good times, the highlights. And so I feel like they're thinking: “Well, what the fuck are you whinging about?”
How about you Johnny, as an artist in your own right. When you're at home, what does your work day look like?
Inspiration comes in droves but most of the time I'm just writing anyway. I think of writing more like a day job. I know not all artists can work like that. A lot of people need to wait to be inspired. But I don't really like to work like that because I think there's lots of stuff that can come out of being uninspired. [Laughs.] When you're feeling fucked and a bit uninspired it's probably a good time to start working hard so you can start feeling better about yourself!
From early on in your career you've stressed the importance of writing a high volume of material.
Absolutely. It's the 10,000 hours thing. And it's like – I'm not a very good runner or very fit, but if I did it everyday, I'd start getting pretty good at it. It's the same with songwriting. It's not something you notice in two days. I think it takes a while. But it just starts getting easier the more you do it.
I always admired your attitude and approach to your work, Johnny. It's inspiring. You're a positive guy and you're not afraid to do well, when a lot of people are scared to — you know they want to play everything down...
It's a really big thing in Australia in general. It's like it's not cool to do well. So now instead of doing well and being cut down by others, people are anticipating the cut down and thinking: “Well I'm gonna beat them to it.” There's a certain element of it that I respect, to be honest but I think some people are pressured into that mindset and it's not their natural response. There's no right or wrong answer. If everyone was trying to do the same fuckin' thing, the world would be a very boring place.
Wouldn't it just? So, Joanna Frank designed the cover art for For Now using one of McLean Stephenson's photographs. What was it that attracted you to working with Joanna?
Joanna had done some merch and posters for us before. All her work is really classy. I bought one of her paintings a while back and it's hanging in my room. She's an amazing artist. A great musician as well. It's always good working with a Sydney artist.
It fits very well into the DMA's world and aesthetic. How important a role does fashion play in DMA's?
Um... I dunno. For me with fashion, I go from caring to really not caring.
All of you guys dress well. You all have your own individual sense of style and you compliment each other to create what seems like a well put together image. I just wonder how much you guys enjoy fashion on a conscious level, and what it means to you as a band, if anything?
We always try to look good but the problem is that we think we look good, then all these reviews come out in England and they say: “Yeah, the music is great but they look like shit”. So I dunno, to be honest. I'm kinda confused about it. It doesn't seem to be working well at all. [Laughs] It’s kinda frustrating.
Well, I think you look fresh.
Thank you, Mossy.
So what is the feeling amongst the three central members of DMA's in regards to the future of the band?
I think we always come and go with like, backing our own art or creative output. Right now, three days into the album being out and playing these gigs and seeing the work we've done in the last four years — in the UK particularly — pay off, it feels like we've really built a strong foundation, which I'm really happy with. And it wasn't like we just had one song that went crazy ballistic on mainstream radio, you know? It feels really organic and that feels good. Also, I think we're excited because we've stepped up the production and there's a depth and a warmth to it. But I'm excited for the future because I feel like with the next one we could do... whatever the fuck we want now, you know?