Australian Transplant Death Set Goes Spastic in its New Hometown
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The Death Set’s origin story is just your average punk-rock fairy tale. It began a little over a year ago, at a random show held in the sleepy resort town of Gold Coast, Australia. As part of the experimental-rock outfit Black Panda, Beau Velasco—a soft-spoken, modest boffin who rocks a white-boy ’fro and homemade coke-bottle glasses—plugged in his microphone and guitar and proceeded to flail around the room. It was a convulsive, hyperactive performance that caught the attention of one Johnny Siera, a skinny, baby-faced punk playboy with a penchant for tight jeans and drum machines.
“When I go and see a band, I want to see them going apeshit spastic,” Siera explains. “I’d try to do that in my old bands, but the other guys were just standing there. Beau was the first person I’d ever seen in our small scene that was going absolutely apeshit. I remember him picking up his amp and smashing it against things, and I just made a decision that I was going to play music with that guy. I didn’t know how or why, I just knew that I wanted to.”
Velasco felt the same spark. Disillusioned with the Gold Coast’s dying rock scene, he approached Siera with the idea of forming a two-piece. They talked about touring Australia, then moving to the United States. They talked about touring with the New York rock band Japanther, which Velasco had met during an earlier trip to the city. Cutting a record. Touring Japan.
“It all happened in, like, five minutes,” Velasco recalls, cradling a cup of tea in the duo’s Copy Cat building rehearsal/living space. “I asked Johnny what he was doing next year, and he said he was thinking about touring around Australia. I said, ‘That’s cool, call me when you want to do something good.’ And we ended up deciding everything right there.”
On a tip from Annapolis-to-Australia expat Dan Morris, the newly minted Death Set made the move first to Sydney, sharing a tiny room owned by a friendly stained-glass artist/bondage practitioner who didn’t mind hearing them mash together drum-machine tracks, tinny guitar solos, screeching vocals, and samples from hip-hop songs and anti-drug videos. Then, as now, both men shared programming, guitar, keyboard, and sampling duties. It was a sweet yet strange arrangement—Siera once found himself waking up next to a half-empty four-liter bottle of medical lube, courtesy of their landlord.
“Johnny and I went from never spending any time together to such an intense situation,” Velasco says. “But we just laugh all the time. Ninety-nine percent of our time is spent laughing, and 1 percent is being serious and knuckling down, getting things done.”
A gifted MacGyver-type, Velasco jury-rigged a pair of microphones out of old harmonica microphones, telephone earpieces, and electrical tape. They recorded a demo, To, and caught the ear of Morphius Records’ Emily McDonough, a childhood friend of Morris. On the strength of friendships forged through the modern magic of the internet, Siera and Velasco hopped a plane to the U.S. last September, spent a few months trying to establish themselves in New York, and then settled in Baltimore. Since arriving, they’ve released a re-mastered version of To on McDonough’s brand-new Rabbit Foot imprint, attracted attention from MICA kids and jaded scenesters with their sweat- and saliva-soaked live shows, and organized a U.S. tour with the Texas-based duo Best Fwends. The Death Set boys are aware that this is more than what most DIY bands accomplish, well, ever—but they’re honestly not all that surprised.
“There’s that saying about how when you’re really fully dedicated to something, a million unseen forces come to your aid,” Velasco says. “This whole year has been an exercise in being positive and just allowing things to happen, watching things unfold. And everything is unfolding, crazily.”
“If you really decide to do something, there’s not much stopping you,” Siera agrees, uncharacteristically quiet during the interview thanks to scrapes sustained after face-planting off his bike. “When you decide not to do anything but what you really want, it’s not that hard.”
To, the tangible souvenir of the Death Set’s globetrotting birth, is a breathless 13-minute punk romp, equal parts eardrum-grinding abrasion, lo-fi drum-machine beats, and wheedling guitar lines that bounce along like happy puppies. Standout track “Negative Thinking” is a fist-pumping anthem about the dangers of getting down on yourself, with the unforgettable chorus, “In hindsight, I don’t want to be like the people I’ve liked.” The Death Set sound is undeniably punk. But there’s a tongue-in-cheek cheerfulness to the pair’s sneering dual lead vocals and an underlying message of defiant self-reliance, particularly on the EP’s closer, “Around the World,” where they shout, “We go around the world and we do what must be done/ It’s a top-secret mission and our enemies are wishin’ that they had a bigger gun.”
The Death Set’s main strength is the strange alchemy that occurs when both members sing simultaneously, Velasco’s slightly throaty snarl undercutting Siera’s high-pitched Pete Shelley-esque shriek. Processed through their homemade mics, the two distinct voices fuse into one, breaking stride only to trade Beastie Boys-style shout-outs.
“We’re finding now, more and more, that the combination of our voices is quite unique,” Velasco says. “I think it sounds weak as shit when we sing on our own, but when we come together, it’s like a laser beam, like a Death Star sort of thing.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Death Set is that, even after a whirlwind year of touring and recording, it shows no signs of slowing down. It recorded a split single with Best Fwends while on the road, and plans are in place to finish a full-length album by the fall, with an eye on touring Europe.
“There are little punk-rock kids all over the world,” Siera says. “It’s just about connecting with that network. Once that’s in place, you’re good, it’s doable, it’s fun. You’re playing to, like, 30 punk kids who are going apeshit, and those are the best shows ever.”
“We’re being influenced a lot by being in the States, hearing club music, and just the sound and energy here,” Velasco says. “We’ve got a lot of fuel right now. We’re looking to have a whole bunch of new songs, go to Europe, and, as soon as we get some solid contacts in Japan, go there, then go back to Australia—and New Zealand as well, Johnny just said that today.”
“Papua New Guinea!” Siera suggests.
“Sure,” Velasco laughs. “Why not?”