YELLOW BRICK ROAD
Words: James Frostick
James Wright and Dominic Haddad from Millions talk about the success they’ve gained over the past year and what it takes to separate from the pack.
The path to notoriety and longevity in the music ‘biz’ is hard to navigate. It is divergent; deviations and loops abound, with pitfalls and snares along the way for many imprudent travellers. At the end of the path stands success – adoration, appreciation, respect and possibly monetary gain. Most musicians follow this path (with many trying to forge new innovative routes) to roughly the same destination. In the end, few bands or artists successfully reach the pinnacle, the peak. Most, if not all, encounter setbacks, some are just happy to reach halfway. This is how the business has always been and will continue to be.
I can’t say from experience, but there must be some level of jealousy towards those who are more adept at this form of orienteering. Some bands get lucky, some bands don’t. Some bands are good at making music, some aren’t. It takes time to get it right.
Which brings us to Millions; they are one of those bands that others might be jealous of.
I first encountered Millions a little more than a year ago. It was at Splendour in the Grass 2011, the group were up first on the amphitheatre stage after winning the triple j Unearthed slot.
Although the band was barely six months old at the time, the group still managed to attract a thick crowd to the stage front. First impressions were positive, their brand of infectious and impossibly cool jams won over the crowd easily. I haven’t been impressed with Unearthed selections in the past but triple j picked well here. For a band in its infancy, they sounded pretty damn mature.
In the year since, Millions have seemingly exploded across Australia and have begun a rapid ascent to the top of the current crop of Brisbane’s indie-rock newcomers. Over the past year, tracks like ‘Those Girls’, ‘Guru’ and ‘Slow Burner’ have wormed their way into the minds of listeners around Australia and have stayed there. The catchy blend of 50’s and 60’s influences and modern rock inflections are a winning combination so far. It seems like Millions are pretty adept at following the metaphorical path.
Recently, I spoke to two members of Millions – James Wright and Dominic Haddad at BIGSOUND 2012. They’ve come a long way since Splendour, but even though their ascent has been rapid, both members were genuinely modest about their achievement, honest about their thoughts on their success so far and what it is that sets them apart from others. The past year in particular has been a determinative experience for them
“(The past year) has been pretty busy, it has gone pretty quickly,” says Dom. “I think we have gone from not taking ourselves very seriously to having to take ourselves seriously to keep it going. It’s been pretty fun, we’ve been touring a lot, meeting a lot of people; it’s all an adventure, as lame as that sounds.”
Since their Splendour appearance a year ago, the band has been hard at work keeping the ball rolling. Two EP’s and a string of appealing singles – all thanks to a kick start on a stage at Woodford.
“That was obviously a really big opportunity for us,” says James.
“Unexpected,” adds Dom. “To go from playing on a floor to playing on a stage where there is all this distance between us, we literally did not know what to do. It was such a weird experience.”
“When you are faced with something like that, the opportunity to do what you want to do or at least have some ease in doing it, for it to be less tough than expected, it’s nice,” says James. “The year since then has been really busy, we haven’t stopped touring for more than a few weeks at a time and there has been more recording, just moving around doing all sorts of stuff. So we have smashed out almost two EP’s and we have a record next year, so it has been a busy but productive year since then I think.”
Busy is an understatement – but what is remarkable to note about Millions and their success to date is not how seemingly easy and effortless it has been (even though it seems that way) but rather how hard they have actually worked over the past year since their break to capitalise on every opportunity.
Before I go into that though, it should be noted that one could argue that the members of Millions aren’t really that new to music and one would be right, they aren’t. But that doesn’t really matter, bands that sound that good that fast deserve to get noticed.
Dom, James and the other two members of Millions, Ted Tilbrook and Campbell Smith have played in other bands. Stature:Stature, Moonfleet and Comic Sans were all bands that featured a member or two of Millions before Millions formed. Each ranged in popularity and longevity but regardless, all members were somewhat experienced musicians prior to joining forces; maybe this gave them a head start in working together to find a sound that worked.
“If my memory serves correctly it was quite easy,” says James. “We were more or less on the same page.”
“We weren’t really trying to start a band,” adds Dom. “When Ted and Campbell’s band broke up they were sort of jamming, James and I were in other bands. Then Ted, Campbell and I started jamming and we needed a drummer and James said that he’d play. James was in, like, half a dozen bands at the time. We just wrote a couple of songs and realised it was working pretty easily, so we kept it going and eventually became something we took more seriously. I guess it was pretty easy.”
So perhaps this was actually the very first stroke of luck for Millions. Being able to put aside habits and ideas from the previous projects and then start again from a completely new state is probably one of the hardest parts of forming a new band. The conscious decision to find a common ground to start from led each musician to their shared enthusiasm for solid rock and pop songs. Throwback influences aside, the core of each Millions song consists of strong rhythms and catchy melodies – undeniably infectious and attention grabbing characteristics. A strong base to start from, obviously, but also fortunate because it was something immediately agreed upon.
“It was probably a middle-ground from all our tastes,” admits Dom. “I think the main thing with us is that we do pop music and take everything else out we listen to and meet in the middle. It’s not that weird that our music is different to our other bands.”
“There was no way it was going to sound like the others,” adds James.
Once the first batch of songs we fully formed, it didn’t take long people to stop and listen. Call it luck, or claim that it was because they were reasonably experienced musicians, the result is the same. They were being noticed, and fast. At BIGSOUND, I asked Dom and James if there was any pressure to deliver the goods quickly from the get go.
“I don’t think there was any pressure,” says Dom. “I think we were lucky – not just to be in the right place at the right time – but for the music to fall into the right ears in the right place. Obviously the fact that James and Campbell and Ted had been playing for a while and they knew people definitely helped to get the music heard. To have it listened to by the right ears.”
“I think once we discovered that we had something that we liked and that people should hear it, we definitely took it a lot more seriously and started thinking that ‘we have to plan it this way, we have to play these shows and not those shows’, something like that,” says James.
At that early stage of their career, things were going pretty easy for Millions. The music was well received, the Splendour opportunity arrived and with it the further exposure to interstate audiences. Any band would be foolish to squander these opportunities, and rightly so. Millions were no exception, but their carefree attitude to the band so far had to change.
While Dom and James modestly admit that they were fortunate that early circumstances went their way and that their prior experience had benefits- they were appreciative of every bit of success they gained. When ‘shit got real’ they knew they couldn’t expect more success to be handed to them. Things had to get serious or they would see these opportunities wasted. The attitude changed from easy going to motivated and it has stayed that way ever since.
“A lot of Brisbane bands end up playing here too often and we realised that we didn’t want to just play here every week of the month, because my friends don’t want to come and watch me that often,” says Dom, light-heartedly.
“We didn’t want to become old really quickly like a lot of other bands sometimes do. We wanted to go to Sydney, go to Melbourne and start trying to expose ourselves as quick as possible. “
“I think what sets us apart is, due to the nature of how we came together and so on, we don’t take opportunities lightly,” says James. “We try to make everything work as best as we possibly can to get the most out of what we are doing. We do work hard, we do tour pretty incessantly. I guess you can see us and hear us everywhere – there is stuff that we are working on always so it doesn’t really stop. That’s true of a lot of other bands too.”
And that brings us to this point in time, a new song has been released and another release is on the horizon. This record might be the biggest indicator of Millions’ trajectory in the future, so it will be interesting to see if the hard work pays off. If the songs are good then obviously they don’t need to worry; but for a band that has drawn influences from bands from previous generations in an age where the old school sound is popular, how do they set themselves apart? Garage rock with that “golden age vibe” is reaching a zenith in Brisbane, what can they do to push past other climbers?
“I think we are still trying to work out what it is that makes us different from the rest,” admits Dom. “We are still trying to figure out what it is, there are so many genres that we listen to and take influences from; we are still trying to find something that makes us who we are. Even if we might like a song that we have written I don’t think we have found our place, so to speak. But it is something we are conscious of and something we think of and try to improve all the time.”
“All four of us individually I don’t think are that strong as songwriters,” adds James. “But, I think we are getting a lot better at working together with that and learning the value and placement of notes – ways to make things tasteful and interesting to bring out the best of the band. It’s become more important to be more careful with how we approach that and how we look and what we say.”
“The things that make other bands good is that they are doing music in a way thats honest to themselves and they are all trying to write good music,” says Dom. “I think x-factor is a lame term to use, but there is something about those bands that makes them special.”
On the topic of special, or more specifically, specialities – writing good music seems to come naturally to these guys. At least, the songs they have released so far are pretty darn good. After the incessant tours, the high-profile supports, the string of successful hits and national exposure – surely the pressure to write more hits must be on now.
“I think the more forced it is the harder it becomes and the bitchier we get,” says Dom. “Because we don’t have a lot of time when we come back home, it is hard to find the balance between saving up for when we go away again and finding time to write; but I think it works best when we jam out an idea and if we vibe it we keep pushing it.”
If my understanding is correct, the peak isn’t the motivation for Millions although it is a common goal. The journey is the best part, as wanky as that sounds (perhaps the whole mountain path metaphor is wanky, oh well). Millions are a young band that are determined to write music that suits them, motivated to spread it as far as they can and hopefully stick around long enough to keep doing it.
Keep in mind, this band is just over 18 months old. They aren’t in any hurry to peak yet. Talent and luck aside, these guys don’t see themselves as a fully formed outfit musically. They have more to learn and that is what makes their rapid rise so scary – they ain’t even close to finished. They have a pretty grounded idea of what they’d like though.
“Monetary success is not something you can be in a band and expect,” says Dom. “If you think like that you are going to be writing the shittest music – the stuff that people who actually appreciate music will be disgusted at. If we did this for ten years that would be more than success, if we are still doing this in five years that would be success. Longevity in music is success.”
“The whole past 18 months have been the steepest learning curve, learning everything about how music works and a business and everything. Being in a band I think you constantly learn throughout your whole career in a band or as a musician. You are constantly exposed to new things, new people, new phases. I’ve learned a lot since joining this band, and hopefully we’ll be getting better.”
“At the same time, if we broke up next week – not that we will – I would be able to look back on the past couple of years and even from a year ago and be ok with it all,” says James. “That is what success is – being able to keep having that experience and enjoy it, obviously. That’s the biggest indicator of success, being able to have fun while doing it.”
Rest assured, these guys are having fun at any stage of the climb. I wouldn’t expect these guys to slow down any time soon – but don’t think that it’s been all luck. Millions are putting in the hard work – sometimes the quickest way to the top.