EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: DEAD LETTER CIRCUS VOCALIST KIM BENZIE
Let it be said that metalheads cannot thrive on metal alone.
As avid fans of all things chunky and technical we need a break every now and then, you know, just to keep us sharp. A demand for intelligent, intense music that isn’t necessarily “heavy” has surfaced in the metal community, and even readers on this site have come to embrace a number of acts that are hardly BR00TAL. Porcupine Tree, Karnivool, Fair to Midland, and Dredg have all shared the stage with heavier acts and received acclaim from even the most opinionated and stubborn metal snobs. This year Sumerian Records have apparently taken notice, adding Brisbane’s Dead Letter Circus to their once very homogenous roster.
The signing of these left-of-center alt rockers and the recent American release of their debut album This is the Warning marks the label’s first true departure from their infamous Sumeriancore stigma. Stirring a lively dose of surround-sound ambience and percussive programming into their quality brand of Aussie alternative, Dead Letter Circus has continually won favor in progressive and extreme metal circles (the group is currently touring with Animals as Leaders, Intronaut, and Last Chance to Reason).
Playing no small role in the group’s universal appeal is Kim Benzie’s powerhouse tenor that drives the group’s music through numerous emotional twists and turns. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him on the road about how a rock band attracts a metal label, why the Australian music scene differs from our own, and, you guessed it, NICKELBACK!
I want to congratulate you and Dead Letter Circus on the American release of This is the Warning. It’s a really tight album, and I’m really digging it right now. This has obviously been a pretty big year for your band. Can you speak a little on that?
Thanks, man. I appreciate it. We released it a year ago in Australia and somehow we debuted at #2 on the charts just behind Justin Bieber and in front of Lady Gaga. It really surprised us. We [quickly] went to headlining venues where we saw some of our heroes. It’s a pretty amazing journey doing Big Day Out Festival on the main stage. Sumerian was interested in putting out the record in the U.S., and they’re some of the nicest and positive people we’ve come across in the industry.
Excellent, that was the next point that I was going to hit on: you’re currently signed to Sumerian, as we all know — a label with enough of its own signature sound to warrant what I guess is a satirical anti-genre that’s come along with it, Sumeriancore. You’re very clearly a rock band at heart. There’s no screaming, there are no 7-string guitars, there’s no weedily-weedily guitar parts, and you have a drummer who actually plays his own studio parts. How did you guys wind up on Sumerian?
In Australia, we’re on a major label with Warner. We looked into our options with the rest of the world. We had a feeling with these guys from the e-mailing and the contact with them that being on a major label over here in the U.S., we’d be a very small fish with the big pop acts. We wanted to find a really killer independent label. I’d rather share the fruits of our labor with a bunch of people that I know than with a big corporation. The Sumerian guys blew us away with their enthusiasm and ideas. They’re a bunch of really good people. That just won us across. We go where our heart tells us to go. Everything down to the name of the record company was like a sign that we’re supposed to do business with these people and get out there and work hard and do touring and stuff and not rely on video clips with fucking Dr. Dre popping up in them. The guys are really nice guys.
Very cool. On a similar note, the tour that you’re currently on, given your style of music, is also pretty interesting: Animals as Leaders, Intronaut, Last Chance to Reason. In that sense, you are the standalone rockers on a tour with a slew of tech-savvy metal bands. How has that been working out for you so far?
Generally there will be a slightly generous applause mixed with confusion.
By the end of the set, everyone has their hands in the air and is loving it. I think we’re intense without being heavy. And all those people who love metal, it can’t be for 24 hours. I’m sure they like something that’s less “ahhh”. We’re coined the heavy band that the girlfriend likes so the guys can spend some quality time with the band that’s just as intense but without listening to three hour solo.
Yeah, definitely a step up from that.
A good friend of mine caught your gig at the Crazy Donkey [in Long Island, NY]. I was very lucky and got stuck at work. I really wanted to go to that. But the one thing that he said was that a handful of songs on This is the Warning were omitted from the set. He spoke to you after and said that you were having some logistical difficulties as far as equipment that kept you from playing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We are part of a six band package. There is only 15 minutes to change over and we have a lot of gear. We do our electronic stuff live, so a quarter of the drum kit is actually an electronic kit and one of the guitarists plays keyboard as well. We had to face the fact that we have to play songs with less electronic stuff in them. There’s actually a beauty to it because the set that we’re playing is the set that we played before we released This is the Warning. We’re playing a bunch of songs from our debut EP. It’s kind of like us giving a true history of the band like we’re coming out and just playing a set in Australia where we just chopped the set and went back to the start where you get to witness how it begun. The next level is when we come back in November and we do play the rest of the songs, there’s going to be a massive revolution in the people going “holy shit, the electronic stuff sounds massive and jaw shattering.” It’ll make sense. A quarter of the band’s gear is in the car. We’re not supposed to be a rock band. We’re more like a cyborg. We’ve got a half electric / half metallic thing.
I like that. You’ll have to send me that date soon so I can give my boss some major notice on that.
We should know in the next 2 weeks. The interest has been spilling in for some tours. It’s exactly how we started in Australia — it happened very fast there. I can see the same enthusiasm. People have been driving like three, four or six hours every night to see us and catch multiple shows. We’re going to put the effort back in. It’s a massive financial commitment and time commitment to come to such a big country. We’ve been here for 30 days and been to about two cities a day basically. We haven’t even done half the country. It’s phenomenal.
Awesome. Australian alternative isn’t like anything over here. Alt rock here is indie pretty much. It’s interesting how the Australian rock scene is just so different from really anywhere else.
I think I have an answer for you for that one. In America rock got divided into two: it either got really heavy with the hardcore kids and the metal scene or it went to outback hick with stuff like Nickelback or Three Doors Down. What happened in Australia is that we didn’t have any bands like that at all. Nu metal kind of got uncool there. Nickelback is uncool as a general rule. We didn’t have anything like that. What we did have was a new ground for people who were into Tool and the Deftones. All the singers stopped screaming and started singing. We all just started pushing each other to get better and better. We knew that we were onto something. We were starting to pull as many people to the shows as hip hop crowds were. Suddenly we were doing major slots on the big festivals and we had this scene that spun into itself and it was ours. All we had was each other and so we kept trying to get better and better. So we’re just waiting for the rest of the world to catch on.
Is there something about Australia that produces singers that can hit much higher notes than Americans? It’s remarkable the caliber of the vocal talent there – especially on your stuff as well. Just listening to the transitions on “Here We Divide” between the really high falsettos and the really high chest notes are just, like, wow. I don’t know where you get the breath for that.
There’s a lot of gasping for air. We don’t really cut any corners. It’s like “alright, where are we going to put the breath?” It’s a lot of circular breathing.
Circular breathing. You’re currently pushing “One Step” on the radio. What made that the track?
It was purely Sumerian’s choice. It was the song that got us our record deal in Australia. It’s the song that resonates with the masses. It wasn’t intentional. It surprises me how much it means to people. It’s one of those magical songs that you hope you get to write once in your life.
It definitely has one of the biggest choruses that I think I’ve heard this year.
Yeah. On that album in Australia, we had six songs make it to the radio out of the twelve. I think anything on the radio in America… like the same thing on every radio station, to get the chance to get on the air is amazing.
Another single you had in Australia was the “Space on the Wall.” That had the really cool music video to it. It was just your drummer playing along to the song in the studio and what he was using as sticks kept changing. How did you come up with the idea for that? It’s such an interesting way to make a low budget video that looks good and conveys the concept well in a very interesting way.
We were sent in there to make a viral video and they wanted us all playing in the same space that we were playing in, and they were going to cut it in a Brady Bunch style. so you’ll be watching four screens at once. We got there and Rob, our guitarist, got this idea. We had 50 bucks between us, so we got a bottle of vodka, some bread sticks and some vegetables and sausages and we edited it together ourselves. So yeah, it was the genius of Rob. We didn’t show it to the record company. They didn’t even send anyone up to monitor what was going on. They just put us in there with a cameraman. They put it online and everyone loved it.
It was a refreshing change of pace from the edgy alternative rock band that records every video in a warehouse. What’s next for Dead Letter Circus? You mentioned that you were coming back in November.
We’re trying to secure another tour. Probably a slightly different genre because nobody sounds like us here; we’ll create our crowd. We’re going to do another five week tour in Australia and we’ve just been writing. We have the seeds for the next album already, because we want to have another album out next year. We’ll be writing, touring, and we’ll pop over here again next year as well. And we’ll just be creating an awareness for the next album coming out. We’re trying to capture the times that we’re in. We’re living in pretty intense times at the moment with the impending collapse of capitalism. I think it’s a really important time to have music as a positive beacon because it’ll be very easy to lean towards the negative in these times that are coming. Music is an escape for people and it should be a confirmation of feelings. We really feel like we’re in a position to document what’s coming with the songs that we’re writing, with the honesty we have as people. There are some pretty big changes.
Very cool. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
Thanks a lot.
For more info and music, visit Dead Letter Circus on MySpace.