It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; that there is absolutely no harm in wearing your influences on your sleeve. Professing fandom for those who came before you through your music and bringing a sound you love to a new audience or generation is a regular occurrence, and when done by the right people, it can still manage to make an intoxicating impression. If you’ve read any press around Australian synth-pop newcomers U-Bahn, the music press seem to have a hard time not drawing comparisons with fore-bearers of this sound, near constant comparisons to Devo amongst others a regular occurrence since the group’s emergence. It’s a fair comment to say that there is more than just a subtle admiration shown from one to the other, but scratching further beneath a cursory listen reveals that U-Bahn are far more than revivalists or imitators.
Hailing from Melbourne, the source of much of Australia’s current musical buzz, U-Bahn are carrying the torch for their art-punk ancestors into 2020, and while sonically they borrow heavily from past trends, nothing about them exactly seems out of place in today’s musical landscape. Their debut album, released last year, darts between jerky and off-kilter ideas whilst occasionally slowing down to offer a helping of woozy synths, and the live show is an even slicker presentation of these attributes, only delivered considerably faster and perhaps with an even more stern focus. It’s clear from listening to the band that they have a very distinctive vision for where they want to take their sound and image, and the way in which they approach this is with an incredible work ethic (they’re already working hard on their second album only two years into their existence). The band also have an ever-changing image, remaining consistently striking in their appearance with one-eyed sunglasses, brightly-coloured beehive wigs and heavily-blushed glam make-up all having adorned the band at various points. With U-Bahn, it’s clear that constant progress and development are crucial to their being, and that these are what sustains them.
Talking with vocalist/keyboard player Lachlan Kenny, guitarist Leland Buckle and drummer Mitch Campleman, we grilled the band on other influences of theirs, their origins from Kenny’s bedroom demos, and impressing crowds on their first tour of Europe.
You’ve only been going for around two years but have already managed to expand the line-up, put out a full-length record and had it re-issued – does this feel like a rapid progression or has this all felt natural to you?
Lachlan Kenny: I feel like it has been both rapid and natural at the same time, we definitely haven’t forced ourselves or tried to rush into anything. We’ve been very blessed to have a lot of great opportunities come our way and we’ve seized ones that are worthwhile.
Leland Buckle: We had a run of playing a lot in Melbourne the year before last – almost every single weekend. We got a lot of momentum from that and were able to pull a good work ethic and put together a good live interpretation which has been really helpful for us.
It’s been noted that Lachlan and Zoe [Monk, synths] met through a Gumtree advertisement for a drum machine; was there already a working relationship between any of the other members? Did you know each other well before forming?
LK: I didn’t know any of them before, but the rest knew each other through various places.
Mitch Campleman: [Leland and I] went to high school together. I’ve only been in the band for a year though, there was a previous drummer that I took over from.
LB: I went to university with Zoe, and then when she met Lachlan they started trading demos. She then passed those on to me and I was really blown away by it, so that’s how I got involved. Jordan [Oakley, bass] is a really good friend of Zoe’s too and has always been pretty active in the Melbourne music scene, he plays in another really great band called Pinch Points and hosts a radio show there too. Mitch and I were in a band together around six years ago, and then Zoe and I were in another band together around three years ago. There’s some connections, for sure.
So do you feel that the chemistry was pretty natural too when you came together as U-Bahn?
LB: It kind of feels like we all discovered Lachlan living out in the suburbs, in his bedroom concocting all of these songs by himself. So we kind of just grabbed him and pulled him into the music scene a little bit.
LK: Yeah, and I’m very grateful for that because otherwise I’d probably still be doing that. I’m a lot younger than everyone else in the group by maybe about five years or so.
LB: Lachlan is 21, Mitch is 26 and I’m 29, so there’s a bit of a gap going on. We’ve all been around in the music scene a bit longer but for Lachlan this is sort of his first big project and step forward into it.
LK: The first LP was just demos of stuff I had recorded, half of them prior to meeting Zoe and Leland. From there they really encouraged me to remix them and rework them, sort of clean them up a bit. That’s what ended up being our first LP. They definitely helped in terms of breaking out of just recording things in a bedroom, because I don’t think that music was originally ever intended to be released or anything. It was all personal stuff for myself.
Seeing as you’d written the majority of it by yourself, did that contribute to it being possible to get an album released so quickly as a group?
LK: I guess so, we did flirt with the idea of releasing it as a couple of EPs, but there was about 12 songs there and we decided to cut one of them so it would fit onto an LP – we figured “why not be a bit ambitious?”. A lot of bands throw away money releasing EPs because so much has to be invested into that, but if you’ve got enough songs you might as well just go straight into an album.
MC: It’s just so much more worth it.
LB: It’d be difficult getting a label to show interest in a whole album from a band that nobody’s heard of so we put it out ourselves first.
LK: We’ve been very fortunate to have people though.
LB: Totally, a lot of people have taken interest in it. We did the first run of it ourselves, and then Future Folklore, which is a French label, they printed it for us again in Europe. Then lastly Melodic released it again, that’s a label from Manchester.
Considering how you initially self-released the record and also self-produced it, do you feel like you fit in with the DIY scene – is it something that appeals to you and do you agree with the ethos in general?
LK: I guess we were doing our own thing and it just so happened that it turned out to be DIY. I guess the label kind of comes with a lot of that grimy, punky or rough around the edges sound, but when we’ve been recording and producing stuff recently, there’s a lot of more of a meticulous focus on the editing. We do the majority of stuff ourselves, but I guess it doesn’t have the DIY feel to it in that we’re always striving to get things to be better in terms of playing and performing.
I wanted to talk about difficulties that up and coming acts from Australia face when trying to break out of the country and tour the rest of the world – how do you feel about having to approach that considering this is your first time coming to Europe?
LB: I would almost disagree in as much as these days, with YouTube and Spotify, it’s easier than ever to reach audiences outside of your community.
LB: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of buzz around Australia at the moment. The other factor is that we’ve always liked having a very strong visual element to us, so how we look when we play and in our videos. That has probably made us a bit more eye-catching to people.
LK: I also think having that arty or visual approach to music, or music with a little bit more of a strange edge is very suited to European audiences. In places like France and Germany, I feel like they really appreciate the effort of the artistry a little bit more, not that they don’t in Australia. We had about four or five dates in Germany and only one in France which we were a little bummed about because I’d have loved to have done more there – we’ll definitely be back there in the future. I really loved the French audience, they were incredible.
In terms of the financial aspect, it must be difficult to come over to Europe and the US though – is that something you’re comfortable doing and do you see it as a necessary risk you have to take?
LB: So the state government of Victoria funded a huge part of this tour and without that it might not have been possible.
MC: The grant that we got for around $13,000 helped a lot
LK: I think a lot of it is just down to luck, we’ve been so lucky to just be contacted by our booking agency in Europe and Kirmes, our agent who we’ve worked with. I think we’re just very fortunate to have such a terrific team of people who have your best intentions in mind. So many small bands go through so much bullshit, and we’ve definitely had a lot of bullshit along the way but I feel the good stuff has far outweighed that.
LB: Absolutely, the music scene in Europe has been so accommodating of us so during our time here, we’ve just been so gracious. It’s not been a horrible trouble for us at all. In Australia, it’s different too, because if you play a show and you’re from overseas, you’re probably not going to be given a meal or accommodation or anything like that so Europe is very different in that way.
LK: And then when you’re touring Australia, you’ll be driving 12 hours just to get from Melbourne to Sydney, and that’s only a third of the way up the country or something ridiculous…
LB: There’s challenges everywhere (laughs).
It seems that the way you approach topics such as challenging gender norms and modern dating is very much in a surreal or tongue-in-cheek way. Do you feel that having a humorous element to lyrics is something you consciously think about?
LK: I was actually talking to Jordan about this recently, and he asked me about some of the lyrics that are going to be on our second album. We were talking about how with a lot of the lyrics on the first album, I hadn’t intended for them to ever get heard so some of them are very personal, which can put you in a bit of a vulnerable position. Masking that with a sense of humour or irony is definitely a kind of defence mechanism, but a lot of the time I like having a sense of image in mind but not so much having a narrative. It’s often having words that feel rhythmic, and some of it is real tongue-twister things, but in terms of content it just paints a general picture rather than telling a coherent story I guess. I think Frank Zappa’s lyrics were a big influence on the first album because I like how crass and ironic they were.
It gets mentioned in every interview, but there’s obvious influence from bands such as Devo – how much do you feel they have had an effect on you?
LK: A lot of the stuff that was written on that record was done when I was about 19 years old, so a lot of those songs are two or three years old now. Around that time I was listening to so much of bands like Devo and Talking Heads, a lot of things like Oingo Boingo as well. It was a lot of wacky synth-punk really, and because I hadn’t had years and years of playing in bands and it was my first real attempt at writing music, a lot of the time it was just imitating what I saw other people doing. It definitely has its own originality to it, but it’s evident that it is very Devo.
Was the way you combined lyrics with songs down to a lot of trial and error at this point?
LK: Yeah, at the time I was just listening to lots of things with synths and a lot of post-punk and I really wanted to incorporate humour and irony into it, which is basically just describing Devo. As much as it’s been a huge influence on all of us in terms of our musical appreciation, I think the stuff we’ve written in the past year or so is vastly different because it isn’t coming from just one person’s perspective. It’s now a case of multiple people having their own input in the songs.
You said you like the idea of being striking as it catches the eye of the audience more, what was the general inspiration behind your on-stage appearance and general aesthetic?
LB: We’ve gone through a few phases of looks, actually. I think at the start we had a lot of conversations that looked either cool or kitsch, and for myself it was things like the B-52s and their visual approach with the whole ‘atom age’ thing they had. So for a while we were wearing these cyclops sunglasses, lots of fishnets, jewellery and wigs. I guess there wasn’t necessarily a coherent philosophy behind that but it was a case of just experimenting and not wanting to do the ‘punk’ thing of rocking up and just playing in your jeans and t-shirt. It’s taken another turn, and for the second album we thought it’d be cool to have a more reserved approach – whatever that means.
LK: We were just kind of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. I think we definitely had to compensate in our infancy with the live show not being as tight and not having as good gear as we have now. There’s definitely been a progression in that since because when we first started playing we played some great venues, but they were a lot smaller and didn’t have the greatest sound systems, so we almost had to compensate for that by wearing really insane stuff and grabbing people’s attention by creating a more intense visual element. I think we still have that now, but it’s a lot more concise and reserved.
LB: I definitely think in the whole art rock and glam rock explosion of the 70s, the music and the visual aspects were a lot more connected, and that’s something we’ve talked about a lot – for photographs, album covers and clothes to look a certain way – it definitely affects the way you experience the music.
What’s next for U-Bahn?
LK: We’ve been recording pretty intensely, way back in May of last year was when we recorded the drum tracks for the second LP, so sporadically since then we’ve been recording all of the instrumentation. Hopefully we can release that later this year, it’s a case of how much we want to be perfectionists about it because that can be quite time consuming. We’re potentially coming back to Europe later in the year so that should coincide with the release if we can do it around that time. I feel like this year is going to be busy for us, which is a very good thing.
Words: Reuben Cross Photography: Aidan Stojsavljevic