With the North American release last year of an electronic-rock tour de force called Beams, the Presets almost immediately became a favorite of indie-dance fans. The Australian duo — Julian Hamilton covers vocals and keyboards, Kimberley Moyes handles drumming and programming duties, and they share production responsibilities — earned accolades for Beams, which even found a home on various best-of lists. But they may be even more impressive onstage: The Presets sound like a roomful of manic (in the best possible way) musicians, proving to naysayers that live electro doesn’t have to be boring or lethargic.
The Presets’ recent North American tour took them from Texas to Toronto and most points in between, and the guys seem upbeat about how they were received. “It was our first headline tour here, and it turned out to be really great,” says Moyes. “The response has been really good at most of the shows, even the smaller ones.”
Hamilton agrees: “It’s been getting easier and easier and bigger and bigger every time we come here. We’ve had our first sold-out shows — it’s been awesome.”
Live, Moyes and Hamilton share the stage equally. In New York City, perhaps fueled by the attendance of close friends Cut Copy (also from Australia) and the jam-packed room of sweaty hipsters at Hiro Ballroom (the bill also featured Ed Banger), the Presets put on an electrifying show that highlights the showmanship they are capable of.
Less overtly sexual on stage than their songs would suggest (see “Kitty in the Middle” and “Down Down Down,” for example), the two are in constant motion, treating the audience to most of Beams as well as some of the highlights from their first EP, 2003’s Blow Up. A few songs get switched up, and some lose their vocals.
The decision for both of them to act as frontmen was a conscious one — “I find when I get tired on stage, he starts jumping around like mad and takes over hyping the crowd,” Hamilton says — as was the choice to tour as a two-piece. “We used to have a drummer on tour with us and also a bass player, but we realized that we were the only ones who truly understood what we wanted our live show to be, since we are the Presets.”
The set list includes examples of the band’s brand of electro-tinged rock that range from aggressively frenzied dance-floor shakers (“I Go Hard I Go Home”) to lovely, melancholic, down-tempo melodies (“The Girl and the Sea”) to moody, beat-driven instrumentals (“Steamworks”). They admit that about 80 percent of the set is prerecorded, but “we have to do a lot of preproduction stuff to get it happening,” says Moyes.
Hamilton explains: “Since there are only two of us, we can’t do it all at one time. I guess we try to make it so we’re always doing something with our hands” — including, yes, shaking maracas.
In the studio, they at times bring in fellow musicians (including Daniel Johns of Silverchair) to collaborate, but even then Hamilton and Moyes prefer to keep it between the two of them. “I don’t really think we could afford to [bring in another member],” says Julian. “Music is just one side of being in a band; there’s a relationship, too. I think we work well together and we’re friends. . . . I don’t know, if we had new members they might bring some new music with them, but then we’d have to deal with them as well!”
Moyes says that because the two have been friends for so long — they met more than a decade ago at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, where Hamilton studied piano and Moyes percussion — that there’s a “huge area of instinctual similarities.”
“At the same time, we’re different people — sometimes we might have to explain stuff that one of us isn’t getting — but other times we just knowingly do something without having to explain it to the other,” he says. “There’s also a lot of chemistry that rubs the wrong way, which makes it interesting. It’s just like any relationship.”
Brought together by a mutual passion for classical music and contemporary alternative pop, they began their musical career together playing in the avant-garde experimental/instrumental band Prop. After experimenting with a remix of a Prop track, they decided to put together a demo that showcased their new harder, electronic alter ego. That demo got them signed to Modular in 2003, the label they’re still working with.
Their shared passion for classical and dance music still runs deep. “Obviously they don’t sound anything alike, but I think emotionally classical music and dance music have a lot in common,” Hamilton says. “When you go to a rave and listen to some deejay’s three-hour set with its peaks and troughs, it’s really moving in the way that an opera or Wagner or Rachmaninoff [piece] is a rollercoaster of emotions, in the way that a three-minute rock song can’t be.”
In fact, Hamilton says that aside from the music he hears at clubs, he doesn’t really listen to a lot of new music. “There’s a lot of good new music out there, but nothing that really blows me away,” he says. “There’s so much music we grew up on: classical, jazz, techno, pop. There are only a few artists, like Bjork and Air, that actually are really amazing.”
A reflection of their influences is also offered up in their live set, which includes some lip-service moments that pay homage to Daft Punk and the Pet Shop Boys (“It’s a Sin,” no less) in the form of full-on song snippets carefully segued into their own songs. “They’re really our most important two influences,” Hamilton says. “It’s funny: At some gigs when that Daft Punk bit comes on, the crowd really starts to go wild. We think, Hold on a minute, that’s the one bit that we didn’t write!” he says, laughing.
The band does show an appreciation for some additional contemporary artists through Resets, a limited-edition eight-track bonus disc packaged with certain copies of Beams (and now available on iTunes). The collection of Beams remixes includes reworkings by the Juan MacLean, Simian Mobile Disco, and Digitalism.
With the recent onslaught of electronic talent coming out of Australia — Cut Copy, Midnight Juggernauts, and Van She, to name a few — you might expect heavy competition and rivalry between the bands. Instead, says, Moyes, there’s a “real family sort of vibe.” The Presets have collaborated with many of the aforementioned groups in various ways, and the first twelve-inch from Moyes’s current electro-centric side project (simply named KIM) was the premiere release from Cut Copy’s Cutters imprint. And Australia seems to have a healthy appreciation for electronic music — the Presets often play to crowds of twenty thousand there.
This may be why Hamilton and Moyes are less than enthralled by the U.S. electro scene. “It’s pretty cheeky, but I think the people here need to take some more ecstasy,” says Moyes. “It’s not as serious [in Australia]. Some of the guys here are really serious about promoting their parties, and it’s not very fun. Every party [here], it’s always the same songs. . . . Nothing really distinguishes any party in the whole country.”
The Presets will spend a few months performing in Europe before this tour’s over, at which point they’ll go back to Australia to work on the follow-up to Beams. “We’re really keen to get home and work on this next one,” Hamilton says. “Beams came out the year before last in Australia, and we finished it six to eight months before that, so we’re bored shitless of this record. We’d love to have something out by October of this year.” It seems it won’t be long until the Presets get us back out on the dance floor.