There are some bands that make you question the very nature of your own identity. Masses are one such outfit.
Building dense and biting soundscapes that comment on the current state of Australia’s – and other developed countries – social make-up and the idea of ‘individuality,’ this Melbourne five-piece have operated in a constant state of flux since they formed in 2013. Borne from an affection for early dark anarcho punk, with a dash of goth and post-punk for measure, a revolving door of line-up changes has seen the band appear in many formations in their short time together.
Drawing members from acts like Nuclear Flowers, Havittajat, Putkah, Gentlemen, Stations and Permaculture, Masses released their debut EP, Horde Mentality, early last year before heading off on their first national tour down under. Recorded in a church with Phill Calvert from The Birthday Party on producing duties, the result delves deep into the heart of the ever-present discussion about asylum seekers on Australian soil.
I caught up with vocalist James and bassist Tessa shortly after they made an appearance at Nevermind The Punk Fest in New Zealand…
Photo: Sam Chumz
Can you give me a bit of a rundown about each of the band members’ backgrounds?
Tessa: James, Tom, Nellie and myself are all firmly rooted in the punk scene and have been for years. Sam (guitarist) comes from more of a rock’n’roll background and is just an all around music whiz. I play bass in a band called Putkah – male and female vocals, powerviolence kinda stuff. Tom has been playing in punk bands in Melbourne for years, but currently is drumming for Gentlemen and, more recently, Stations. Nellie is originally from New Zealand and played in hardcore bands in Wellington back in the day, but has been living in Australia for years now and is our most recent addition to Masses on synth and vocals.
Photo: Sam Chumz
How did you all come together to form Masses?
James: This is actually a pretty long story, but I’ll keep it as short as possible. At the time we formed the band, Ryan and myself were in a band called Nuclear Flowers, which was more influenced by Swedish and Japanese punk. Though, the band was pretty dysfunctional and we never got around to recording anything. Ryan was also in a Finnish hardcore-influenced band called Havittajat. But we wanted to start a band that drew more influences from our shared love of early 80’s English anarcho punk. We made a demo as a two-piece, but we weren’t happy with the sound. At this point, a friend of ours, Christie, joined us on synth. We were set to record a couple of weeks later, but on the day we were to hit the recording room, Christie was in an accident where she broke both her legs. While she was recovering in hospital, I ran into Tessa, who was keen to be involved in the band on bass.
Tessa: By “keen to be involved,” he means I hassled him till he gave in and I joined (laughs).
James: I think a turning point in the band was when Ryan suddenly picked up and moved indefinitely to Europe, just before the EP came out right at the end of 2013. It was the beginning of lots of line-up changes. Simultaneously, we had a falling out with Christie – who more or less stopped showing up to rehearsal. After a small panic and almost cancelling our Australian tour in February last year, we found Tom and Stacey to fill in over different points of the tour. After tour, Tom stayed on to drum permanently. Our friend from the USA, Jen, who was previously in Permaculture and Nuclear Family in Boston, took over synth and vocal duties. While we were finding new members, we got Sam to jump on guitar instead of me. So I was freed up to perform more on the tour, which worked out, so we stuck with it. We kept that line-up right up until around mid-2014, when Jen had to very suddenly return to the States. Our talented mutual friend Nellie stepped up as the third synth/vox member for Masses in six months. That pretty much brings us up to speed.
Photo: Stella Gardiner
How did you settle on the band name Masses?
Tessa: Before I joined, when it was just Ryan and James bashing away at their anarcho thing, they had the name Improvident Mass – a nod to Rudimentary Peni, I think. After me and Christie joined, it was a completely different sound. Also, I thought the original name was to damn long. So I just cut it down to Masses. Masses of people, masses at a church; take your pick.
What vision did you have for the band’s sound originally?
James: Originally, Ryan and I wanted to draw from early 80’s gloomy anarcho punk, which is exactly what our first recording sounded like. Raw and angry. While we were writing our next batch of songs, we had a few new ideas of how to go about it. We wanted more of a despondent sound that still had teeth. A focus on more sharp, dissident, chorus-drenched guitar riffs picked fast, but which had more of a bitter, somber feel that was lacking in our earlier efforts.
Did you draw from any specific influences?
James: Specifically, I’d have to say Rudimentary Peni, Part 1, Killing Joke, Antisect, The Mob, Vex, Flux of Pink Indians and Chumbawamba. I also think that Only Theatre of Pain by Christian Death needs a special mention.
Tessa: All I was listening to when I joined was Masses was Spectres’ Last Days LP. The album was amazing and influenced myself, Ryan and James a lot at the time I think.
What was the creative process like for your debut EP, Horde Mentality?
James: We always have lots of ideas, it’s just taking the time to separate the ones that work from the ones that don’t that’s time consuming. Most of the early stuff from the band was a collaborative effort between me and Ryan, who would swap ideas back and forth until we finished a song. Nowadays, I usually come up with rough song ideas and take them to the band. I don’t play drums though, which I feel is a pretty integral part of our sound. At the moment, the song writing dynamic is I write riffs and lyrics, Tom writes the drum parts.
You guys hit up Phill Calvert from The Birthday Party on producing duties. How’d that come about?
James: Well, I’ve known Phill since I was a kid, he’s a friend of the family. Shortly after we recorded a demo, we got to talking about working together. Since then, we’ve recorded the EP and a few other tracks for upcoming releases together. Phill has a very professional attitude about recording and has been very easy to work with for us punks. Also, he lives in an old Baptist church in Port Melbourne where he lets us record. What’s not to like? It’s an incredibly beautiful building with his little studio and all the trimmings tucked away in the back.
Photo: Stella Gardiner
Tell me more about the recording process…
Tessa: I don’t know about the other guys, but I was incredibly nervous. This was my first time recording for vinyl and Ryan and myself had practiced everyday for two weeks just drums and bass to make sure the rhythm section was absolutely perfect. Recording at Phill’s church is surprisingly relaxing. He is an incredibly cool guy and super professional, without being uptight. I recorded on Phill’s short scale Mustang and fell in love. After recording, as soon as I could afford it, I went and bought a short scale Musicmaster – the only bass I use for Masses now.
What’s become your favourite song off this release and why?
James: Broken; it’s a melancholy banger that people will dance to.
Tessa: Intolerance; I love Ryan’s powerful drum intro on the toms.[audio:http://www.cvltnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Intolerance.mp3|titles=MASSES – Intolerance] [audio:http://www.cvltnation.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Intolerance.mp3|titles=MASSES – Intolerance]
Lyrically, would you consider Horde Mentality to be a concept-driven EP, or does it take a different path?
James: Most of the influences on the lyrics in Masses come from what I perceive to be the fugue state many people in Australia and other developed countries are in. The lyrics in Horde Mentality are specifically relating to my experiences with asylum seekers, who are kept in deplorable conditions because of a popular ideology that’s pitted against them.
Where does the title for this EP stem from?
Tessa: I picked the EP’s title out of James’s lyrics – specifically, a line from Intolerance. Considering his lyrical content relates heavily to the stagnation and apathy that horde mentality has brought upon Australia in relation to some really important topics – James mentioned above the deplorable treatment of asylum seekers – it seemed a fitting title for the EP.
Photo: Kelly Leech
The stark artwork is also a standout. Who designed and developed this piece?
James: The artwork for Masses is done by Melbourne local DIY outsider artist Stewart Cole.
Tessa: He doesn’t have much of an online presence, but is incredibly talented and very active in the DIY punk scene. He’s also done artwork for other local hardcore bands like Scab Eater, Ross, Asbestosis and the Such is Life Festival.
James: Stu’s brand of dark pen and ink has a distinct morbidness I’ve always appreciated. I feel that his nihilistic, apocalyptic visions reflect the anxieties rooted in the band’s style.
The band did a national tour in support of the EP in early 2014 and have just finished touring New Zealand for the first time. Any plans for other tours soon?
James: I am very keen to tour the US and Europe, when the time is right.
Tessa: We planned on going to South East Asia in the middle of last year, but the only time we could arrange clashed with the Indonesian general elections and Ramadan – which would have been too difficult and chaotic to organize around. We have some good friends in Singapore, and there are a lot of bands I would like to see and play with there. I hope Masses can make it out there soon.
Can you share one of your most interesting tour experiences to date?
Tessa: I wish we had some debauched, crazy tour stories to tell, but other than all of us stupidly skinny dipping on a beach in a very strong rip tide in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere between Brisbane and Sydney, I can’t tell you much more. Touring New Zealand was a story in itself. Not a whole lot of bands, Australian or international, make it out there – but we had the best time ever. I was unsure of what to expect, especially because we booked the tour through specifically punk contacts. So we didn’t know whether people would like our style or if anyone would even show up. But every show was fantastic. Particularly in Christchurch at Nevermind the Punkfest, playing in a hard-out old biker “trike” club with some of the rowdiest – but also nicest – people I’ve ever met. Would highly recommend New Zealand to tour.
Any plans for some new material soon?
James: We just finished recording for a split release with Crimson Scarlet and we’re looking to start work on a full length over the coming new year.
Photo: Sam Chumz
If you want to keep up-to-date with all things MASSES or get hold of the Horde Mentality EP, head to their bandcamp page to find out more.