Taking stock with Disasteradio

Part one : Disasteradio vs The Music Industry

by James Robinson
Images by Austen Kingsbury (TatiousMarie)

Disasteradio (or “Luke Rowell” as some may refer to him) is a modern subversion of the singer-songwriter – one man and a computer, not a guitar. While firmly in the underground camp he’s a wellknown name to most clubbers in his hometown, Wellington – or to anyone with a knowledge of the A Low Hum golden age, circa 2004-2007.

He pushed himself to the fringes of popular acknowledgement with his 2007 CD, Visions. He has since leapt head-first into the struggle for global domination – or sort of, by spending months trawling the USA and Europe. One man, a computer, a niche and a boundless energy – to “just be good”.

With nothing to peddle, and an afternoon to kill, we did a freewheeling 100 minute stock-take of the bigger picture, ten years on from the inception of Disasteradio. A man not really on a collision course for the pop-charts and stashed down-under in little ol’ New Zealand, he has developed his own perspective, from the outside in. Rowell is pleasant, intelligent and talkative, observant, not bitter – and not limited by his place on the music industry spectrum.

Robinson : You were up in Auckland playing shows around the time of the New Zealand music awards.

Rowell : It was cool that Pip won [Pip Brown, Ladyhawke] It was like Flight of the Conchords. “We’re really sorry, but now that you’re back let us give you some stuff.” I guess she hasn’t been here for a while, but it was comical.

Someone like Ladyhawke, she did well off her own back.

She was going to go on tour with Two Lane Blacktop and she used that ticket to go to Melbourne, and just do it.

Which is sort of interesting because she comes back and we give her a bunch of awards and we pull her into the NZ On Air thing.

She goes from being in the B team and one of us, to being in the A team. It is a real weird dichotomy, because there is the B team, which is us, and the A team, but it is such a small country so there is a lot of crossover, and I don’t think you’d get that in any other country.

We seem to have a certain fixation in this country with bands making it big overseas.

It is like we are constantly trying to reassure ourselves that making music in this country is worth doing. I think that nowadays you can do tours anywhere you want and have a really great time, like our tour. This past four month tour, we, we didn’t really make a dent in Europe at all. At a point the focus changes, you just have a really great time and we can do it again whenever we want. You have dark moments on tour. You get a bit bummed out, and you have to think – “what do you want? What is success for you?”

When you look at the music industry in New Zealand, are there things that could be being done smarter?

I think there are some things we could do better in this country. Instead of funding bands to take a trip overseas, Ian’s (Jorgensen, aka Blink ) idea was to have someone based in London with a flat and a car, and that would be a million times more effective. You get to London and you have nowhere to stay and everything is so expensive, if you had a guy who could drive you around and do a handful of tours a month; someone in a paid position, learning things themselves. It would be so much more effective.

We seem to love this showcase mentality and thinking that if you just put it on display in the right way, the rest will take care of itself.

The money would go a lot further if they were smarter. There is no substitute to improving by going out and just touring. But if you can’t hold someone accountable, then it is hard. People want to see evidence; it is hard to guarantee that it won’t be scammed.

It becomes all radio-play and quota.

And who listens to the radio, aside from bNets and National Radio? The crappy bands get funding, and you’re competing with bands who get funding and so get on the TV. Then an unfunded video is not going to get played. Which is okay, you’ve got to be pragmatic, and say that it works like this. There are trade-offs, I know. But it is still hard. You see some funded video, that gets two hundred views on YouTube, and something good done in a lounge could get thousands.

Do you try and tap into that NZ on Air slush fund?

We got video funding. But I see myself as more Creative NZ material. As I get older I see more allegiance with National Radio as opposed to the bNets, in terms of attitude, in terms of recording, it is definitely like I’m trying to be more cultural. I’m definitely going to apply for funding for my next album. It is just too hard otherwise.

Is that something you’re working on at the moment?

I started trying to work on the next record, and I started stressing out. By the time I finished Visions I lost so much perspective, and you start trying to retrace your steps and do it the way you did it before and suddenly nothing comes. You make this box, and then you want to get in the box, but you can’t, but then you’ve got to tell yourself that there is no box.

Especially when it is you and you started 10 years ago, and that progression changes things.

I’m afraid of the music industry model, it ruins bands. Bands that have started 10 years ago, that are still making music, there is a drop off. The last two Devo albums were terrible. Was it an attitude thing, or was it technological? You can’t really figure it out. I’m trying to make a conscious decision to be unsuccessful and write music and not really worry about it. Maybe even just get a job and tour about less.

How do you get in the position to tread the international path at the same time as thinking smaller?

It is way easier than you think. It has been down to Ian Jorgensen and A Low Hum. He can see something and just do it. I’m not so good at that. I’m creative, but I’m not logistic. All he does is email venues, and if he doesn’t get a response he will just try the next one and the next one. If you can book all the festivals, and book the big shows, you plan the route and just fill in, play for free, play for no money, play wherever you can, play for accommodation or a meal to keep things going along. Because touring, there are the big expenses, but the day-to-day living will kill you. We managed to live off five euro a day.

How does that work?

The one euro menu at McDonalds. I was away four-months, eating nothing but cheeseburgers and I lost six kilos. I think it is because I wasn’t eating fries and I wasn’t drinking coke. I haven’t seen Supersize Me, but he has got some talking to do.

What does the scene become like, when you’ve got a group of you on the road ?

It was me and Ian, his girl, my girl, who I married in Las Vegas on the second night, my video guy Simon and his girl. It was this Brady Bunch couple thing.

You got married in Vegas!

The guy we had was this cheesy pastor, with massive sideburns. The pastor found out we were from New Zealand. He was obsessed with Flight Of The Conchords, he was about to play the music at the start of it, and he was like “I can’t believe they are not doing another season” and we were like “come on guy!” We just wanted to get the thing on the road.

It sounds surreal.

You go there and you expect to see this cheesy stuff, and you think it can’t be that extreme and you get there and it is like a hyperbole of what you imagined. One of the things that troubled me about the USA is that. We were driving through Illinois, tiny American flags on every second lawn, big barns, Amish people, we played a frat town, with all this cheesy stuff happening in two days. It was mind blowing, perfect, cheese. People rolling kegs up their steps and barbecuing on the front lawn with the Greek letters on the front of the house. It was absolutely mental, and the show that night was so cool, but really quite strange. It was like crawling in your TV and it being twice what you expected.

How did they get in to your music? Is there a different reaction to it?

It was really nice, the more switched on towns, Olympia Washington, and Baltimore where there is some weird stuff going on in the scene. Playing to that crowd, people are used to seeing that sort of thing and it is not weird.

They get a bit more of the art behind it?

Totally. You see the polar opposites. I played a drop in centre behind a church in Chicago to guys who looked like crackheads, and youth workers, and it was really strange. Or this little cafe in Jamestown, New York and it is kind of obvious that people hadn’t seen any sort of electronic stuff before. People come out to those shows, and they start talking about records, and they’re on the same level. They want to know what you think of this record or that record. But some people are so blown away, and they approach you with “what do you call that? What sort of music do you call that?” And you can’t really answer it.

Do you think on this next Europe tour, your goals are different, as you get more realistic about what you’re trying to achieve?

You remove the pretext of selling a million records and it seems a lot more achievable.

So what is your goal? What do you want to look back on and say that you’ve achieved?

I don’t know. I’m never satisfied. To get on an overseas label would be amazing – it all becomes so much easier, you can then sell CDs. But then that whole model is falling apart. It is hard to go, “I want to play to a million people all around Europe”. Because there is no logical way, there used to be, if you got on a label and spent a whole lot of someone else’s money.

Would the romance in someone’s head when they think about traveling around the world playing music match up to reality?

Yes. For me it does. Totally. There is the agony and the ecstasy. Spending 20 hours out of 24 driving, then playing three shows in a row. But then you get back and you think, “we did that!” It is quite empowering. When we got back this time, I got cheekier, and you feel like you’re the master of your own destiny a bit. We got up every day and did it on no sleep. We drove 30,000 kilometers. We drove three-quarters of the way around the equator.

You are constantly comparing yourself to your peers. I imagined So So Modern doing their tour, and I think, three months into it “I bet this is nothing like they had to deal with” and you talk to them, and it is exactly what they had to deal with. And you get this idealised view in your head. As a band I expect them to be more successful than me, the music is better and they are better looking on stage and they play so well. You start comparing yourself to other people, the whole success thing. You realise you are in exactly the same position as your peers, constantly undervaluing yourself. Pip Brown (Ladyhawke) does the international thing, and you think the odds of me being successful lessen because she’s done it and you think, “should I bother?” But, wait, why not? It spurs me on to be cheeky, and after this touring it seems easier to get what you want.

Have you seen any buzz or community built around your name?

The plan for the next tour was to go back where we had hits. I think there are a lot of bands touring. Partly because of the Internet there are a lot of bands, and a lot more bigger bands to choose from and you have to bubble up some other way. Nantes in France, about eight or ten shows into the last tour – it was the first town I had come back to and I’d played to 350 people last time. And this time there were about ten people there and most of them were with me, or bar staff. It didn’t really happen! I think, there are so many million ways to do it. And you could probably tour just Poland for a month with the right hook ups. And there are a million paths to go. It is impossible to know how to do it.
If nothing else what a great way to see the world.

To go to Paris and get paid to be in Paris. Wow.


To be continued. Next month ; Disasteradio vs Music Appreciation –
Wellington! A Low Hum! The internet! Writing music! Irony v Pastiche! Indie music! His future ! The future of CDs! The future of music!