X backstage: The Presets

Although the term "classically trained" gets thrown around more than bikes at Best Whip these days, The Presets -- who will headline the X Games MUSIC showcase at L.A. LIVE's Club Nokia on Aug. 2 -- are just that. Julian Hamilton (vocals/keyboards) and Kim Moyes (drums/keyboards) met at Australia's Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and they've been redefining electronic music ever since.

The Presets’ signature sound -- snake-like synths that slither around devilish kick drums and bottom-feeding bass lines -- doesn’t miss a beat (pun intended). Their last album, "Pacifica," is an excellent follow-up to the chart-topping "Apocalypso," which was the first dance record to win an album of the year award in Australia.

The versatility and brilliance of the band has to do with their deep knowledge of music, their creativity and their ability to translate classical brilliance to new instruments.

"I still think of big synth pads as string sections, stabbing synths as horns and thinner arpeggios as woodwinds," explains Hamilton.

"My percussion teacher taught me the importance of finding your individual creative voice early on," adds Moyes. "Since finishing music school, Julian and I have ventured down our own path of discovery instead by teaching ourselves how to write pop songs, produce electronic music and record and engineer. It’s a far cry from sitting in the back of an orchestra, counting hundreds of bars and waiting for that one moment to hit the triangle."

We chatted with Hamilton about the similarities of studying music at the college level and listening to music in a pub, as well as how the X Games show will be different than their other concerts. We also got a little sentimental with him about the early '90s, record stores and the music-geek life, pre-Interwebs. (But we didn’t mention the "warmth" of vinyl even once.)

We've gotten nerdy again. We can't help ourselves.
Julian Hamilton

XGames.com: The two of you met at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. How long was it until you started to collaborate?
Julian Hamilton: Pretty much as soon as we met ... back in the mid-'90s, now, or late '90s. And we sort of became friends and started playing music together pretty much from that time as well. Kim had a little three-piece percussion band that he used to play in and I found an old synthesizer under my dad's bed at his house. [Kim] said to me, "You know? Why don't you bring down the synthesizer one day and we can have a jam." And the rest is history.

As far as classical music goes, is that still a part of your life?
I still listen to it, for sure ... along with dub and jazz and hip-hop, and all sorts of music. It was a really good training for both of us. And I guess that sort of classical stuff kind of hangs around in your head. It's kind of hard to shake.

But I guess you learn just as much from a band at a pub or going to a club and listening to a DJ. You know what I mean? There are lots of different ways to learn about music, and learning classical piano at university is one of them.

What was the music scene in Sydney like back in the mid-'90s?
It was so different than what it is now. I mean, I think the whole world seems like a really small place now, with the Internet and people being able to share their music so easily around the world ... But back in the '90s Sydney really felt like its own little community ... There were little electronic music scenes and fledglings of the hip-hop scenes, and there was a little jazz scene ... It was a really, really cool vibe back then. I guess now we have so many international bands touring here -- I mean, there's still a great local scene, but it just seems [like it's] a lot more part of a world scene now, if that makes any sense.

Back in the early and mid-'90s, in the U.S., you had to be down with the local record shop if you wanted to find cutting-edge music, because those shop employees could turn you onto the latest and greatest. It took a while to cultivate those relationships.
Isn't that interesting? And now [we're] looking at the demise of record stores completely, whereas that used to be the place you'd have to go if you wanted to check stuff out. Or you'd read magazines or you'd get magazines delivered from overseas, like "The Wire" ... You'd see all these artists being written about, but you had no way of hearing their music, and you had to go and order CDs, even, from overseas and wait six weeks before you could even hear the thing. And now you can hear anything you want within seconds. Things have certainly changed, haven't they?

They sure have. It was so cool once you were in the know and you got stuff that didn't even hit the racks. They just kind of saved it for you. It was magical to have those relationships.
Didn't you find that also you used to get into things a lot harder? Like if someone gave you a type of something called "hip-hop" or whatever, you'd listen to it a lot. You'd really learn every line and every beat and every song. Now we're spread so thin, so wide. We might listen to 100 different things in a week, but we only check them out once.

Does the instant YouTube upload thing affect the way you guys play? I talked to some other artists who say they don’t bring out songs until they're almost 100 percent ready, because once you play them, they're recorded for posterity.
Well, yes, certainly ... Obviously there are still the kids in the front row doing their little 12-second recording, jumping up and down in the mosh pit; the sound is terrible and [it] looks crappy. But, often now, there are real geeks sitting near the mixing desk, getting really good recordings of pretty much the entire shows.

Jordan Graham

The Presets will headline the Aug. 2 X Games MUSIC showcase at L.A. LIVE's Club Nokia.

Yeah, it is different. We probably wouldn't test out things live anymore until we're ready to release them. I mean, that's the thing: We grew up in a time where putting out your album or releasing a single was the way to release your music ... or premiering it on an FM radio station.

But now you can put out a new track on Facebook or on SoundCloud or on YouTube or a crappy a capella version of this or an acoustic version of that ... The ways of putting music out there [are] so much quicker and faster and easier. Maybe premiering a song live and having the world find out about it on YouTube is a valid way to release music these days.

I'd like to fast forward a little bit to the latest record, "Pacifica." It came out last year, in September. What have you guys been up to since then?
We're doing a whole bunch of touring. It's probably to be expected, as usual. But we're already working on new stuff. I think when we used to make [music] five years ago, we'd put out a record and then we'd tour a lot, and then we'd be exhausted and we'd need a break, and then we'd start making a record again. And there was all this clear-cut sort of sections of the year: tourings, holiday or rest. Recording, producing, touring. And it would be in big cycles. But now it's more of a case of we're touring all the time and we're making music all the time, and there's no real sort of clear definitions between the parts of the cycle ...

We'll play shows and kids will jump around to the music and we'll have fun on tour and then it's cool; we can go straight back home to the studio and immediately be making music, and we feel like we're actually a bit more immersed in the culture that we work in, rather than locking ourselves away for six months and making a record.

The show at X Games is being billed as a techno set. How will it be different than other shows by The Presets?
Well, we have two shows that we sort of tour around ... [O]ne's a show with the band, with a lot of drums and the live keyboards ... And then the techno set is more of a laptop thing ... [I]t's fun because we get to present a lot of different remixes and different versions of the songs that perhaps the fans haven't heard before ...

You can hear every Presets track that's ever been released and every remix that's ever been released. The days we remember of hunting down some rare little seven-inch remix and owning one of 100 copies around the world -- those days are kind of over. Every [piece of] music we've ever really written and released is out there to be heard instantly if you want to. So we sort of figured it would be nice to do a bunch of remixes that we haven't released, but we just play live as part of this stripped-back, sort of techno show. Hopefully the fans can enjoy hearing some music and some new sort of configurations.

Can you give me a quick background on the name of your band?
We called it The Presets because we wanted it to be really easy, like a preset sound you would find on a keyboard or a preset on your car radio. You don't want to dial around and change things and get too clever. You wanted to just use the quickest sounds you can, use the presets. And that was where the name came from. And ironically, now, years later, now we don't use any presets. We've gotten nerdy again. We can't help ourselves.

Critics have raved about your live shows. What's the best part about playing live for you?
It's just a natural home for the music. We sit in our studios in our pajamas with cups of tea, making these beats and things and tracks. But really they come alive when you take them out on the road and people are hearing them. People are dancing and people are jumping around this sweaty kind of nightclub ... [T]hat's where [these songs] belong. They sound fine in our studios, but they really don't make any sense until they're out there.

You guys have remixed a bunch of tracks for Kings of Leon, Silverchair and Lenny Kravitz. What's that process like? Is there any interaction at all with recording artists, or do you just go down into your studio and see what comes out?
It's definitely the latter. We'll get the tracks. We'll get the stems or the parts from the artist ... the vocal part and the bass part and the guitar part and whatever. And then really it's just up to us to chop and play with it the way we like. And then we sort of put it together in a new way and remix it, and then we send it back. They're either happy or they're not happy, and they can choose to release it or not. But there's not really any real interaction between the artist and the remixer.

It's the same when we get remixes done. We'll choose a bunch of guys that we really like and we ask them if they'd like to remix us, and sometimes they say yes. And we give them our parts and they do a mix completely on their own. Then they send it back to us and we either love it or we don't love it. It's there, but there's never really any interaction. It's a very sort of clear-cut kind of thing: "Here are the parts. Do your thing with it, and then send it back to us." That's the way we like it.

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