Demob Happy Interview
In a freezing upstairs greenroom at Gulliver’s, beside a window looking out at the watery Friday night lights of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, I sat down with Demob Happy’s Matt Marcantonio and his glass of red wine. Lead vocalist, bassist, lyricist and willing spokesman for the band, I was totally won over by Marcantonio’s expressiveness, his sharply active sociological mind and cool but resolute sense of purpose.
Now and then impulsively smoothing his impossibly frontman-worthy hair behind his ear, Marcantonio appeared totally comfortable for the interview, and for going onstage as he was about to (in approximately an hour), like someone who has been preparing for these moments since before they can remember. Far from being clichéd or over-rehearsed, it seems he and the rest of his band have been sticking to their creative guns, playing the long game, and it’s finally paying off.
Marcantonio is acutely aware of his roles at this moment in time; son, grandson, boyfriend, musician, songwriter, music industry pawn – each duty taken seriously and sitting heavy on his mind. He is the first to admit to over-thinking, but that’s not to say that there aren’t moments of humour and elation. He is self-effacing but fully in control of his contexts, a likeable, modish and intriguing character at the helm of one of this year’s best breakthrough bands.
I spoke to him about Demob Happy’s debut album Dream Soda, impending social apocalypse and only ever listening to John Lennon lyrics:
SPL: Demob Happy: “Feeling elated because one is about to leave a responsible job or situation”. Is that how you feel about being in a band?
MM: The name came about by accident. We’ve been a band for seven years and I was trying to start bands since the age of about 13. I’m 26 now, so thirteen years ago. I can’t remember how it came about but it was just kind of suggested to me by a relative, I think it was my Mum.
When we started the band and got together seven years ago in our current line-up, we didn’t ever really question [the name], abstract to any of its actual meaning. But then it has weirdly come to represent us. I think as the kind of things that I write about, it represents that society is on the verge of change and for us it represents that the current status quo isn’t going to last that much longer, there’s a weird sort of positivity in that. Things feel like they’re going to fall apart but they’re going to have to de-structure then restructure themselves.
It sounds apocalyptic but I think there’s a positivity and that kind of reflects what we do. We’re a little bit like “shake the foundations!” as a band.
SPL: You talk about ‘Dream Soda’ being something we’re fed, we consume and keeps the status quo, is that something you’re trying to exorcise?
MM: When we came up with the title it applied to all of the songs that were on the album. Suddenly with that title there was a weird concept to the whole thing.
No one ever asks me about the quote on the back of the album, which I thought perfectly summed up Dream Soda in what it was meant to do. It was from this guy called Michael Tsarion [prominent figure of the New Age and Truth movements] – I can’t really do the quote justice but it’s generally about the subversive use of mental and psychology manipulation in advertising in order to sway people to buy product (on the base level) but really when you get to the nitty gritty of it, it’s selling people ideology and swaying who they really are as a human. And then decisions that they make are based on these things that they’ve been fed and I think we’re a massive product of that and we really don’t, it’s not our fault, we’ve all bought into it and not consciously. So it’s there; an omnipotence.
So for me the whole [album’s] about; once people illuminate themselves to the techniques that are used to manipulate them then they’ll have a better chance of seeing through it all and get some power back, and be less affected by these people who really don’t mean them any good.
SPL: What you write about and the concept of the album comes from a very deep thinking place, you’ve spent a lot of time...
MM: Probably too much... [laughing]
SPL: ... having never seen you live, how does that translate into the live environment? How do you get that across in a live show?
MM: I don’t know that we ever particularly try to. It’s my task to do the lyrics, and what we do as a band is purely about the music.
When the task befell me to write lyrics I went through trying to write lyrics that I thought people wanted to hear, then eventually I was like fuck it, I’m interested in the psychological manipulation of humankind and aliens and shit so why not just write about that because that’s the only thing I can truly passionately write about. Because that’s what I’m interested in, that’s what I read about so anything else wouldn’t be a true representation.
It makes me cringe when bands are too preachy and the fucking lead singer takes half an hour to do a preach to the band, it sucks man, it’s so lame. I never would ever try and do anything like that. If people pick up on it then they do and the only times I ever really try and talk about it would be in an interview when you’ve asked the questions, and in the lyrics.
SPL: I guess it’s testament to how long you’ve been together as a band that the lyrics become part of the whole.
I came to you through Huw Stephens on Radio 1. What’s that kind of support been like for you this year?
MM: It’s good man. There’s a few DJs who’ve been really kind like Huw and John Kennedy from XFM and Phil Taggart on Radio 1. There are bands out there who have a huge amount of money who can buy that influence, they get those spots because the influence is there but for a band like us who are at a much smaller level, that kind of stuff is like gold dust. These people, rightfully so, have gained enough respect where they can shed light on anything they want to really.
SPL: They can just play something once and immediately people like me are going to listen... When Huw Stephens plays your song once, twice, three times, that’s a great place to be at.
MM: Yeah totally, it’s amazing. There’s so much competition, so it’s amazing. Great, we love it. Why would we not.
SPL: What has been your highlight of this year?
MM: I think the highlight has got to be releasing the album. Seeing it, holding the album and the vinyl for the first time, it’s a dream I’ve had since trying to start bands when I was thirteen years old, thirteen years later finally like, YES! Finally had it, like thank fuck for that, [I can] actually move on with other goals now. That’s got to be the one.
SPL: Speaking of the album. Is it fair to say that the song Underneath Your Tree is almost like a Heart-Shaped Box of our generation? That’s how I hear it. I mean no-one knows what Kurt was thinking when he wrote it, it’s ambiguous. But to me the song seems to have the same kind of sentiment.
MM: What do you think he was thinking? Beause that would help me. I like Nirvana, but I certainly haven’t listened to them enough in order to get into their lyrics. There’s only a couple of people – I mean I know John Lennon’s lyrics and that’s about it. So what do you think it means and then I can tell you.
SPL: I feel that it’s about going back to the womb, somewhere you feel really nurtured and safe and somewhere you can renew yourself. I hear “mother nature” in Underneath Your Tree, things like that, so... am I in the right ball park?
MM: I think so yeah. When we did an album track-by-track - which our PR company wanted us to do so journalists have a little insight into each song - that was the one that I couldn’t write anything for, because there’s a certain amount of double meaning, double entendres to everything else but that was the most honest that I was...
SPL: So it’s personal?
MM: It’s a funny one to talk about because I can wrap up all the other songs in metaphors and hide behind a certain wall of ambiguity. But with that one, for me at least it seems kind of, really ‘heart on the sleeve’ which was kind of difficult for me to do. Because it really was the only time.
You’re right in that it’s about a certain sort of a search for naivety again. To be honest, it’s for my family and my friends. And that’s why it was hard. Because everything I write about is always outward. That was the only song on the album – and it’s really cool that you picked up on that and asked me about it, because it’s the only song on the album that was inward.
It’s about my loved ones, it’s about my grandma, it’s about my girlfriend, it’s about my mother. It’s about the changes that I see coming in society. It’s almost quite literal in that sense, genuinely feeling like ‘what are these people gonna do when that comes?’
I think there are big changes that need to happen and it will be weird for my grandma to adjust to that. It’s about the old that you want to protect, but knowing that things have to change. She lives in a certain world and I wouldn’t ever really want to upset that, but the things that we’re doing and writing about on the rest of the album are to try to debase that world. So for me it’s a meeting of two worlds where there’s a home and a search for naivety again, of being... not young, but happily dumb.
And it’s happening right now with Syria and everything – all of this stuff. The government in no way represent us anymore. It’s clear this is the nail in the coffin. Everyone knew it after the election because no one wanted that result and then it happened. Then even more people didn’t want this to happen and it’s happened, people don’t want this and things are being done that they don’t want. There’s going to have to be some changes in that sense.
SPL: You said holding the album in your hand was the best feeling, are you keen to get back to that straight away or are you happy going out and reaching people with your live shows?
MM: I think I want to give this album the chance that it deserves. We’re busy bees really so we’ll always be writing and coming up with stuff. It’s never really going to be difficult for us to write albums.
I think we’ll start recording sometime next year, I don’t know when we’ll release it but I want to do this album justice first. To be honest I don’t really know what the next album would be about. A lot of that stuff on the first album was anger and frustration that I felt for a whole bunch of time, for the last few years. It was such an outpouring. Even in the last few months, society and people are changing. And you can tell in the last couple of months people are starting to get way more active.
Even on fucking Facebook, people are talking about stuff. On one hand it’s fucking amazing because people are talking about stuff but on the other hand it doesn’t actually achieve anything. If they can turn that online into offline proactivity we will be on to a winner. Things are heating up and I think things are going to get more intense with the massive reaction against this war that we’re going to.
So I think once there’s a clear vision, something that I seek to think about, then it will be easy. But right now I’m like ‘hmm, I don’t quite know where my quarrels lie. Where’s the fight?’
SPL: Is that what your song writing is about then? You’re fighting for something, or for your voice to be heard?
MM: To an extent. As I said it’s always wrapped up in little silly – not silly, but metaphors, things that amuse me. And it’s never blatant because I don’t ever like to be obvious with stuff.
SPL: Yeah, it’s not interesting if it’s blatant. It doesn’t intrigue people if meanings are obvious.
MM: Exactly. And people have got such a high aversion to anything that comes close to preachy stuff, or punk; ‘fuck the man’. People have probably been manipulated into not digging that stuff. There was a certain message to it, probably more so with the hippies, but people shy away so much from anything that’s even close to protest songs now. I do massively, because I think it’s proper cringey, I hate it. So what I tried to do really was dance a fine line in between something that I care about and also just making it work as a song, something people can sing along to and actually enjoy.
I think the most important thing is educating people. If there’s anything that I would try and do, for people to go ‘what does he mean by that?’ and perhaps look it up – that’s probably wishful thinking because it’s all pretty abstract, just me in my head. But I think if there’s anything, for people to look it up in an encyclopaedia or on the internet and go ‘oh, shit’ and then educate themselves, because then you’ve got them. You’ve got people thinking. And that’s it, it’s about trying to make people think.
SPL: I feel like you’ve just described poetry - what a poet’s trying to do. It’s not always black and white what they’re trying to say, sometimes it’s ambiguous and you have to interpret it for yourself, so I guess maybe you’re a poet and you don’t know it.
MM: [Laughing] Maybe so. I don’t know, I would never think so.
SPL: Maybe. It certainly works for me. This album is one of my favourites of this year. From hearing Wash It Down on Huw Stephens - it must have been in August/September, I thought: right, I’m going to follow these guys and wait for the album to come out and I was so excited when it did. I can’t wait to hear you live, I’m really looking forward to it.
MM: Thank you very much, that’s really sweet, thank you. I really appreciate that.
I’m looking forward to it. The band that are on tour with us, Yonaka, these guys are amazing you should check them out. They do some good stuff, they’re friends of ours from Brighton. Barry from the band lives with one of them. We took them on tour with us because they’re perfect for it really. They’re not too brash, it’s kind of different to our stuff because you don’t want to tire people out. They’re fucking great.
[On getting the opportunity to speak to journalists]
I don’t really feel anybody’s really saying... when it actually comes down to it, everyone kind of ends at the cul-de-sac of politics, you know what I mean? There’s bigger things afoot than just what David Cameron said in parliament, that’s all just a phoney parade of bullshit and everyone can fucking see it.
I think you have to earn the right in peoples’ eyes in order to say anything. I’ll listen to John Lennon because he had the right idea and because he is who he is. And there are certain people who have learnt the right in this day and age who probably don’t.
So my thought this year was, look, the time is nigh, you can’t be too afraid to actually say stuff because I am a little bit but I’ve kind of had to ‘ah, fuck it’ and speak my mind really. I’m hoping it will be backed up by people actually just liking the music. Because you’re right, if the music’s not there it doesn’t mean anything anyway. So it’s a bit of minefield.
SPL: I’m sure you’ll navigate it with ease!
MM: [Laughing] Yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see. I’ll probably rub up some people the wrong way.
SPL: No I don’t know, you’re not saying anything offensive are you. If it’s the truth then people will listen.
MM: Hopefully, and at the end of the day, it’s only half of the story for me anyway. Because I fucking love playing music!
Words & interview: Scarlett Pares Landells