Where West Auckland meets Midwest Emo: An interview with Melanie
By Reece Skelley (he/him)
Self-proclaimed semi-professional music guy Reece Skelley trekked to Morningside to have a chat with three-quarters of the boys from “Mid-West-Auckland Emo” trailblazers Melanie - specifically, Robin Davey Lusk (guitars), and brothers James (guitars/lead vocals) and William Dentice (bass/ backing vocals). This interview doubled as a special occasion, since it lines up with the second anniversary of their debut album ‘42 Losers’. DoBros were drunk and yarns were had for a good half-hour - here’s an abridged transcription of that exchange.
Reece: We’ll get a bit of basic band history down first; you guys met at SAE?
James: Robin and I met at SAE with our first drummer De Stevens. In November 2017, Robin wanted to do a late 90s/early 2000s themed birthday party, and he wanted a band to play a whole bunch of shitty pop-punk covers… So you can imagine, like Elemeno P, we played ‘Basket Case’...
William: Didn’t you guys play ‘The Anthem’?
J: ‘The Anthem’, ‘The Sweater Song’, just lots of great singalongs… Robin: ‘Stacy’s Mum’! J: Stacy’s Mum! Max’s Mum!
And Max’s mum’s name is Melanie?
R: That's the one!
The band’s lineup shuffled a little; while Jordan Randall-Whiu was in the party lineup, Will came into the fold when the boys were asked to open for Lookin’ Up at Whammy. Later on, De also eventually made way for current drummer Joe Gasparich.
J: We didn’t have any songs for the gig! We didn’t have anything sussed, and it was in two weeks, so we went to my mum’s garage - R: and we got about 15 minutes of material (2018’s Melon EP) and yeah, it was sweet.
And now you’ve got way more! You’ve got 42 Losers, you’ve got the ABCD EP, they both absolutely slap.
J/R/W: Thank you, man.
What’s the challenge of making midwest emo in midwest Auckland?
W: It’s very American, I think we’re just very super inspired by that kind of stuff. We blend the pop-punky side and also some of the “sad boi” stuff, but not too much. J: I’d like to think if we were over there, that’s the scene we’d fit into comfortably. And it’s hard to “genre-fy” a punk band these days.
R: So many niches.
J: But as soon as you get past the two-factor “emo or pop-punk” it starts getting really wanky and you gotta slap the vague “punk” label on it. Like, I tell work mates I’m in a pop-punk band and they go “wow, I was really expecting like, bubblegum, Blink-182” kinda things.
I can see the Remo Drive LP on the shelf, so definitely not bubblegum!
R: The challenge is there’s not really a midwest scene here.
J: And it’s hard to do it without sounding super derivative of what’s going on over there, there’s a lot of cliches you can fall into making that kind of music, and we try our best not to fall into a lot of them. It’s tricky to do in that genre.
W: Well James is the main songwriter and I think he’s doing a pretty good job of not falling into that.
Are there any musical influences that would surprise your listeners?
J: I listen to a lot of hip-hop, probably more than I do poppunk these days. Just from a lyrical standpoint and coming up with, you know, a verse that flows really nicely… I talk a lot in metaphor and I think I get a lot of that from hip-hop. But I can’t name someone off the top of my head. It’s tricky when you say it like that!
R: Like yeah, let me get out my phone, check my Spotify.
After finishing recording, James did figure out a name: Beastie Boys.
W: As a whole, it’s very surface level, like Remo Drive. Personally in terms of where I’m inspired with my bass parts, it’s very Joy Division, it’s The Cure, I think their bassists have a very distinct style. Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr.) is one of my favourite bassists of all time, it’s kinda like a blend of everything.
You guys single-handedly redeemed the “bukha” drum beat for me. (For those uninitiated: referring to the drums on ‘Cold Feet’ off the ABCD EP)
J: I think we did that for me as well! (laughs) R: It was contentious - it was scrapped first! I don’t think you guys were very big fans of it, and Joe and I were quite big fans.
W: We just kept working on it, and eventually came back to it.
J: And then we had a cool song, short and sharp, with a ripping solo, and going really hard into it. And I think Joe’s ability… he’s a fucking machine on songs like that. He’s a natural, he’s got this really robotic but super expressive hit - he pulls it off so well.
I was gonna ask if there are any pop-punk tropes that you’re not keen on, but I think the “bukha” beat being contentious answers the question!
J: Yeah, like we were saying we’re not trying to fall into those tropes.
W: We don't wanna write a kitschy little pop-punk song, I really don’t wanna do that.
J: I definitely try not to say “again” or “tonight” in my lyrics (laughs)
The boys start riffing on a fake song, going like “leaving this town tonight… again… because we hate this town”
R: We’re very patriotic West Aucklanders. There you go! That’s the opposite of a pop-punk trope, we love our hometown.
With most of you going to SAE, do you think having that knowledge makes it easier to record? Or do you get stuck on ideas?
R: I find that’s just an artistic/creative thing. You can have all the gear, all the know-how, but it’s still about whether you’re happy with it. Nothing’s ever finished, but it helps speed up recording for sure.
W: James and Joe are the two engineers, De still masters pretty much everything we do, Jordan does the music videos.
R: So it's all technically still DIY, within the band.
J: It makes the ideas come a little easier, because I’m generally coming up with the bones of the song, and after a few hours I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s gonna be. And then we can take a full demo to the band and jam that, so it definitely helps.
Do you have any perfectionist tendencies?
J: For sure.
R: You listen to it five months later, and you’re listening back to it like “Ah, I don’t like that guitar tone.”
J: But I feel like at the end of the process we’re pretty stoked with how it is. It’s as scrutinised as it can be without sounding too squeaky clean, we know where to leave those cool little imperfections.
Because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and this is a uni magazine with a lot of pandemic-affected students, you get pandemic-related questions!
Nervous laughter ensues.
You guys dropped 42 Losers right in the middle of the first lockdown, which is a risky move! To have your first album out right at the start of NZ Music Month, and not be able to play shows immediately.
R: We played a month or maybe two months after it came out, so not too long!
J: We just wanted it out! We’d been sitting on it for so long, we’d gotten sick of it. We didn’t expect the kind of response it got, and you do have to think “what if we had waited a little longer”, but I think at the time we were super proud of what we had, and we just wanted our friends to hear it.
When I look at the Auckland scene, I don’t see it as “these people are going 100%”. Like, the reality is you have to have a day job, you need that support. Does that affect how you approach Melanie?
R: I think it’s limiting in the fact that living in Aotearoa, when we’re booking a tour, you’re only playing a few shows in the major cities over a couple weekends, and you call THAT a tour. Whereas if you’re in a bigger country, even just going to Australia, you can commit to music a bit more, because there’s more places for you to go. The income aspect’s not really sustainable, but that’s the reality of it.
It’s not like everyone can be Carnivorous Plant Society, where you hit every town imaginable, set up shop in a library, and just play.
R: And heaps of bands used to do that 20, 30 years ago. DARTZ did a tour like that recently.
J: It’d be fun, it’s just tricky. You can’t be so certain of what’s gonna happen in the next six months, so hopefully this is the last big hurdle/uncertain period. You have to book shows, if you’re booking somewhere like Valhalla, a year ahead in some cases, so it’s a massive gamble.
I know that in spite of all your shit going on, you guys are consistently playing, which is impressive! So I reckon the forward momentum should take care of itself eventually.
W: Yeah, we don’t really say no to a gig unless we’ve got something going on.
J: Whenever we’re not locked down, for the past two years, we’ve been playing every weekend we can. As soon as we came out of the first lockdown, we played six weekends straight, two shows a weekend sometimes. Which is nice, so it’s nice to know when everything opens up again, we can hopefully get back into that.
I’m gonna rapid fire some names and you tell me what you think. Goodnight Nurse?
R: Hometown heroes.
J: Yeah, man.
Joel Little’s opening that new studio/venue!
R: Just down the road! And we moved in here a month ago, so that’s really good timing. That’d be sick.
J: After that first album I think the magic was -
R: Greatest Hits really was their greatest hits.
J: It was kinda gutting, I really liked the singles from that second album though.
Might be easier to answer for Robin, since you’ve seen them more… Ripship?
R: I’m trying to think of a good word! I respect them, because they’re all DIY as well and their sound is really unique. Nice people. West Auckland represent.
J: There’s always that kind of camaraderie.
Sell me on Title Fight.
R: They’re one of my favourites for sure. When Joe and I were trying to push the “bukha” into the band, Title Fight was one of the leading influences.
W: I wasn’t super keen, I thought they were kind of too poppunky for me at the time? But I like them more now.
J: I think I was just trying to push Joe’s buttons, I was saying “this album’s just Blink-182”, being a dick about it. But they were definitely my most listened to band last year. And their live shows are something to marvel at.
On the more twinkly side of things, American Football?
R: That first album holds a special place in my heart.
J: I think that was the first band I got into when I was like, 15, where I thought “woah this is beautiful”... the gateway for finding all these other emo bands.
W: It’s always a special moment when you hear one of those albums like American Football, hearing Loveless for the first time…and then Neutral Milk Hotel, for me.
J: Those are like the three pillars of alternative.
W: But American Football was the pinnacle of that kind of thing.
I’ve finished this DoBro, so I obviously gotta finish with what the people wanna know: how’s progress with Album #2?
J: It’s well underway, we’re well into demoing. We’ve been saying, nothing serious yet, how at the end of the year we’ll start getting the ball rolling. I think we were talking about not doing it all ourselves. W: I think sound-wise it’s quite different as well, I feel like it won’t be 42 Losers 2, you know.
Or 43 Losers.
J: But it’s still distinctly Melanie. I think it’s a comfortable progression, quite cohesive. We want to have a proper album cycle as well, not as messy as our last couple releases… we want to go through the hard mahi and make something really cool.
Well you’ve got me excited! Thanks for having me, boys!
You can stream Melanie’s music on Spotify, Apple, or Youtube Music or do them a big solid and purchase their music from their official Bandcamp page - Melanie for fun.