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‘Taste is subjective’: Fascinator talks image and culture

Dan Webb
Johnny Mackay is the former frontman of Melbourne rock outfit Children Collide. Since 2012 he’s been making psychedelic electronic music under the moniker Fascinator. His second full-length solo album, Water Sign was released in May 2018.

You’ve picked five songs to accompany this article. Would you like to say anything about your choices?
Click here to read Johnny’s responses.

[powerkit_row cols_nr=”2″][powerkit_col size=”7″]I’d like to discuss things in somewhat chronological order, starting with your time in Children Collide. Your debut album was produced by super-producer Dave Sardy (Oasis, The Dandy Warhols, Wolfmother, Jet). I’ve read that he likes to record band members in isolation, which has led to claims that he deliberately sows dissonance within the band dynamic to encourage the best potential output from individual members. From your experience working with him, is there any truth to these claims?
Ha! Who said that? That’s amazing, I would love to know who said that… I don’t reckon you’ve got to try very hard to sow dissonance between band members. If you’ve got to the point where you’re recording with Dave Sardy, most likely you’ve been together for a while, you’ve had somewhat success or some kind of, you know, there’s a reason he’s found out about you.

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You know, being in a band is like being married to a bunch of people you’re not attracted to. So the dissonance is always there, and I’d say you wouldn’t have to try. In my experience he didn’t do that with us. We definitely recorded in isolation, we were a three piece, you know, you get in together and you get the drums down, the drummers start, and then the bass player gets their thing done and then yeah, for a lot of it it was just me and the other guys were out kind of, cruising around L.A. And I was just sitting there every day, trying different guitars and trying different things, and I definitely didn’t feel any kind of weird negative manipulative shit going on. But then again, we were pretty green then. We’d never done a record. I’d made records, but nothing on that level. So if he did that, I didn’t notice (laughs). Ha, I don’t know, we always had a bunch of tension between us anyway, so I don’t think he would have had to try very hard (laughs).

Being in a band is like being married to a bunch of people you’re not attracted to.

Your second album, Theory of Everything, was produced by Rob Schnapf, who’s perhaps best known for his work with Elliott Smith. What was that experience like and how did it compare to the first album?
Well, I don’t think we ever really talked about this to the press but that album was recorded twice. And that was the second time. The first time was with this producer called Youth, and he took us to this beautiful villa in the south of Spain. And you know, we’d sort of, we’d record all day, and then a chef would come and make us a three course meal at night. And we’d smoke hash and drink red wine and then go and jam into the late hours. And then we went from there to Pink Floyd’s old studio in London, just to sort of finish it off. And I got to play the Hammond Leslie from Dark Side of the Moon, and our song “Jellylegs” was nine minutes long. And of course the label and management and everyone hated the record. Just one by one convinced everyone to trash it. And then we went to L.A. and did a much snappier record. Or, Schnapf-ier record, with Rob. And both experiences were amazing. And I love Rob, and his, the guy I worked with, Doug. That was a great experience, just funny to do it twice, and you know, it turns out maybe they were right. That album did really well. Did better than any of our records, I think. But it was weird for me to let go of the other one. And then go straight into recording this second version of an album we’d just done (laughs).

That particular album reached #5 on the Australian ARIA charts. How did that feel?
I don’t really talk to many people that’ve done more than one project and gone through this, this sort of stuff more than once. But I think you don’t really think about it at the time. You’re just looking to the next thing, and you’re probably – I don’t remember really basking in the moment at all. And since then, with Fascinator, I’ve really made sure I kinda stop and enjoy the good things that happen. Because I don’t think with Children Collide, I just think we were in such a rush to get it all going, and to continue it that we didn’t really sit and enjoy little milestones like that.

Did you notice any change in the public perception towards your band around that time?
No, the biggest moment I remember with public perception was probably more living in Melbourne, earlier on, and when we went away, I think we went away to South by Southwest or maybe it was when we’d recorded our first record, I can’t remember where, but we’d just started getting played with Triple J a bunch. And I remember coming back to Melbourne, and certain people that had been our friends just sort of stopped talking to us (laughs). I mean I think we were still working in pubs and stuff, but, there was that weird tall poppy syndrome that I hadn’t realised existed until then. And it’s only, no one cool ever does it, just people you wouldn’t wanna be friends with anyway, but that was like the only time I ever noticed any public perception thing, it was really early on (laughs). Australians are pretty kinda low-key about everything I reckon.

I was just taking the piss out of this guy that said Triple J ruined his career, I just sorta thought it was funny.

You’ve been working on musical output under your Fascinator moniker following the band’s breakup in 2012. In 2014 you penned an article in which you claimed that you created Fascinator after a secret meeting in 2012 between yourself, Triple J management and two high profile comedians, in which they promised you “quadruple high rotation”. Was this an ill-informed joke on your part or is there any truth to these claims?
Oh, it was clearly a joke. It was a response to this other guy that had written this, like, letter saying Triple J ruined his career, cos they – I won’t say who it was, but he was like in a band that they used to play. And they just didn’t play his band later on. And I just thought it was stupid to place your entire career on the shoulders of some radio station. And my article was very clearly satire. And since then, music journalists have quoted me from it, like I was telling the truth. When if when you read the article I said there was like, a cat in the meeting, and fucking Russell Brand and all this stupid shit. So I wouldn’t call it ill-informed. I’d call it not informed at all. It was just a joke. Me, I was in my apartment, I think, in New York, when I read that, and just went, ‘what the fuck’? And then just like wrote it in a second, and I think I send it to Darren (Levin) at FasterLouder or something like that. And then it ended up being like one of their most viewed articles ever. I didn’t mean for it to be sort of so ubiquitous at the time. And then I certainly didn’t mean for anyone to take it seriously, I was just taking the piss out of this guy that said Triple J ruined his career, I just sorta thought it was funny.

Have you ever had any dealings with Richard Kingsmill or Triple J management?
Yeah! Uh, they’re cool, I mean they’re just doing their job. We used to do lotsa stuff with Triple J. They were always very kind to Children Collide, and you know, I’ve been here and there since, but yeah.

There’s very clearly a culture of fear and suppression of dissenting voices at the station – many artists are afraid to speak out publicly, for fear of retaliation. Are you prepared to weigh in on the matter?
I, uh, in what way could there be retaliation? I don’t really – Fascinator doesn’t really get played on there anyway, so I’m not, I wouldn’t be worried. But I actually don’t necessarily agree with that. It’s just a radio station.

What I will say is that Australia does have a problem creatively where it prizes emulation over innovation.

Wouldn’t you agree that they sort of have a monopoly over what gets exposed in the country?
What I will say is that Australia does have a problem creatively where it prizes emulation over innovation. And I think that permeates through all creative industries. So I’ll speak broadly to an entire industry of which Triple J would be a part of. And that’s my statement (laughs). But I think Australia, if it could focus on the opposite, we would progress a lot more. If we focused on innovation, not emulation, and we promoted that.

Critics might describe tracks of yours such as “Oh Bukkake” as distasteful. What’s your response?
Ah, y’know, that was just a joke between me and this guy. He choreographed the dance, actually. Um, yeah, I mean, it was just – imagine if that was just a swear word, that was all it was (laughs). It was like, whatever. Distasteful? I guess, yes, it’s all distasteful, but taste is subjective. I think Maroon 5 is distasteful, but millions of people love them.

Distasteful? I guess, yes, it’s all distasteful, but taste is subjective. I think Maroon 5 is distasteful, but millions of people love them.

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You have quite a distinct aesthetic. How much time do you put into your image as compared your music?
(Laughs) Uh, how much time do I put in it? Well actually I feel like I put in much less time now, cos I just ended up deciding that we all wear white all the time. So it doesn’t take much time at all, but it used to take a lot more time. Because when we first started I was really annoyed about the cult of personality going on in music, and how I’d hear music and think it was really boring, and I’d realise it was just because the person was very likeable or charismatic or interesting and I get it, but I think I wanted to strip the identity out of my music so I’d wear a mask. And everyone on stage would just be in a mask. And then eventually my manager convinced me not to do that, and just kind of engage with the audience a little more. And I do like not having the mask now, but um…

You were going for a bit of a Daft Punk sort of vibe?
Uh, I guess. I have a fantasy about Daft Punk that they’ve never left their villa in Switzerland or whatever. And they just send out other people dressed in robots and, y’know, I definitely have had a fantasy once or twice of doing that with Fascinator, if it ever got to that point. Yeah, I can’t say I put that much time into it. But it does evolve over time. And I do think putting on a show is important… I think to be too understated, it wouldn’t be, kinda, getting the point across.

I’ve got one last question for you. It’s probably the most challenging question of them all.
More challenging than the Triple J and the Dave Sardy questions? Alright, come on! (laughs)

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Jesus Christ, that’s like something I’d need some time to come up with… I’d make a film with Alejandro Jodorowsky. He made Holy Mountain.