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Black Angus McDonald on Sneaky’s return and the start of a never-ending summer

House | Tuesday 17th May 2016 | Christina

With a triple platinum debut album, club hit after club hit, and incredibly popular Sneaky Sundays party residencies, it’s fair to say Australian dance group Sneaky Sound System have been very successful. Now four years since their last proper release, Connie Mitchell and Black Angus McDonald are back with a bang, with new single ‘I Ain’t Over You’ taking over the airwaves and album number four coming later this year. We caught up with Angus to chat about pop music, psychedelic videos and partying in Mykonos.

Hey Angus how are you?
Very well thank you.

Whereabouts are you right now?
I’m in Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia.

So jealous! How’s the weather been over there?
It’s been amazing, still like late 20s up to 30 degrees you know in the middle of autumn, so it’s amazing. Sorry to rub it in!

So let’s just clarify before we get into the questions, are you going by Sneaky rather than Sneaky Sound System now?
Ah look, people have always referred to us as Sneaky. Our records have come out under Sneaky Sound System and we’ll always be Sneaky Sound System but I think colloquially people refer to ourselves so much as that, we’ve tended to follow suit. It’s no biggie, no giant change.

The group walks the line between dance and pop – is that how you see yourself genre-wise or do you not pay to much attention to that kind of categorisation?
We definitely don’t. We just make music that falls out of us. We don’t ever try to copy anything, we don’t use samples, it just happens. Obviously what happened with us, we came very much from a dance music background, playing house records and putting on parties, and our first record just happened to be really commercially successful in Australia and it all of a sudden thrust us into the pop world. So that kind of happened after but our roots are very much heavily in dance music. We write songs, so I guess you could say as soon as you do that, you kind of push into the pop world. They’re other people’s words really, we just try to make good music.

But you don’t mind being called pop? Sometimes people see that as a negative label.
Not at all. I mean what are we gonna do? Have no vocals when we’ve got a singer? No I don’t care. Pop is just something that usually means popular, some people try to be unpopular, I don’t know why they do that, whatever. We don’t try to make big pop songs and make the top of the charts, it just happens. We all know that it’s cyclical and you never know, sometimes you’re in favour and sometimes you’re out, so stay true to what you’re about and see what happens.

Connie is the vocalist but how do you work together? Do you both write the songs or is there quite a clear split between production and lyrics?
I do the production but I do most of the writing to start with and then Connie comes in to the point where she likes stuff, and then we collaborate. Sometimes I’ve got formed lyrics, other times it’s partially done, and then we get together and rework. Sometimes we use all of mine, sometimes we use all hers, sometimes it’s a combination. There’s no set rule except that I usually do the production, then we collaborate more in the finishing stages and certainly the lyrics. It’s very collaborative. I sing when I do the demos but when she comes in, she makes me look pretty bad. She’s got a wonderful voice. There’s usually a lot of changes.

Is it quite easy to make those changes? Do you agree or are there arguments about what goes in?
You never fight for your idea, you just fight for what works best. Every time you get stuck on something, you’re usually wrong so you’ve just gotta let the best idea win and not be stubborn about it. We’ve been through it enough. Of course, you can’t help but be stubborn every now and again but it usually comes back and bites you, so we try to be adults about it.

Your new single ‘I Ain’t Over You’ is out now, tell me the inspiration behind the track and how it came together.
We got a big grand piano at our house and it was just one of those, hammering away at the piano one day and that song just fell out, the chorus did. We went upstairs and recorded it, it happens very quickly, and then it had that feeling of singing from the mountaintop, like a classic early 80s, big American radio song kinda vibe. I don’t know how that happened but that’s what it felt like to us. Then we went over to London and worked with Mark Ralph, he suggested we tweak the verses so we re-wrote those, he helped with some of the production and hey presto. The song was born.

You’ve got remixes by Doorly and Nicky Night Time on the EP package as well, how did they come about? Do you ask them or do they come to you?
Yeah well Nicky is a very, very close friend of ours so we wanted him to do one. Doorly, we’ve just been a big fan of Doorly’s for the last several years, he’s pumping out bomb after bomb, so we very much asked him if he would jump on board, thankfully he said yes. We are very happy about it. They both did bomb jobs.

The very psychedelic video is your first proper one in four years, what was it like to get back into that whole side of things? That is quite a long time.
Making a video, I’ve heard people refer to it as like making a sausage or a pie, you know the end result might look good but if you saw what went into it you’d steer clear. Sometimes you have the best intentions or what seem to be the best ideas and then all of a sudden everything goes to shit in no time. So this time round, because we’re doing it via our own label, we were very conscious about making sure it was a decent idea. We were working with George Barnes, a graphic artist, creating a lot of patterns and designs that we are using for our live show, and we thought why don’t we try to incorporate those designs into one music video, so it started telling a bit of a story. Yeah, that was the idea. This guy is very psychedelic, we sort of had to pull him back a bit!

So you’re not really one to enjoy making the videos? You hear some artists really like doing it and some artists really find it like pulling teeth, so it’s interesting to see where you fall in that.
The ones we’ve had control over I’ve really enjoyed but there’s just so many people who’ve got their own agendas, all of a sudden the ideas turn into something else, that’s when it really sucks. We’ve done about 20 music videos so I think probably most of them have gone ok. It’s just a frustrating process because it’s not a huge amount of money involved a lot of the time, and there’s always deadlines, and when you’re working with a label everyone’s got different ideas. They’re the times it’s not so fun, when you’ve got too many people wanting too many things.

The track has got festival written all over it. Are you gonna be hitting a lot of festivals this year? Or have you done loads already as you’ve had your summer?
We run a night called Sneaky Sundays, a club night, and we’re doing that in Bondi Beach. We’re about to do another season of that in Mykonos. We’re talking about something in Ibiza as well. Yes we’re just about to get back on that horse. We’ve got a few more tracks coming out, an album we’re looking to release later in the year, so certainly bring on the festivals!

Sneaky Sundays is still going strong then?
It’s killing it at the moment actually! So we started it up back in Bondi at Christmas time. I don’t know if you know but the licensing laws have really come down hard on Sydney and a lot of venues have closed, so it was a bit of a struggle for people putting on fun nights here, so we just put it on for the summer, but it’s had such a great reaction that we’ve continued it through the autumn as well. It’s been so much fun just playing good house music by the water.

I wanted to as you about what’s been going on in Australia. I’m not up to scratch with it but I’m aware that there’s been some licensing law issues in Sydney. What is exactly happening and how is that affecting artists and DJs in the dance scene?
It’s a disaster really. We’ve had, tragically, a couple of incidents where a couple of young fellows were killed, single punches. It’s been happening for years all around the world and all of a sudden the media got hold of it, and the government just came in very quickly and were very harsh on Kings Cross, the area where it happened. They imposed all these incredibly restrictive laws on venues and all these lockouts. You’d be able to go out until five, six in the morning in Sydney and then all of a sudden there’s a 1.30 lockout. Bottle shops, which would be open until midnight, would close at ten. It’s just affected so many venues, and Kings Cross effectively has shut down, they’ve lost eight venues. No one really kicked up much of a fuss about it at first but there’s been rallies and protests, and it’s being reviewed right now. It’s just taken the heat out of Sydney, that’s what it feels like. People are really fighting back, everyone’s hopeful they’ll be relaxed, these laws, and Sydney’s nightlife will start kicking again. Obviously it’s had a very negative impact on music because venues are closing down and artists aren’t getting the opportunities to perform, there’s a drain.

Is it happening in other cities or confined mainly to Sydney?
In Queensland they’re looking to bring in similar measures, not quite as harsh, in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, whereas Melbourne is going the exact opposite way, almost trying to go 24 hours. It’s not a national narrative, it’s these conservative governments behaving like fascist pigs.

The same thing’s been happening here, it felt like in the space of a couple of months last year a lot of venues started to close, and a lot of others came under threat and had their licenses reviewed, it really felt like an attack on the club culture here. And then we look at places like Amsterdam where it’s gone the other way and have got clubs opening 24 hours, they’ve got a night mayor, they really support their nightlife industry.
From the other side that’s what they’re trying to focus on is Amsterdam and what is happening there as a way we should be going. I heard Boris called for an enquiry into the night-time economy so fingers crossed London doesn’t shut down because that would be a disaster!

We also have a problem here with a lot of clubs getting taken over for property space, is that happening in Sydney?
It’s the same thing. Developers coming in and trying to turn these areas to work to their advantage. It’s the same story everywhere, it’s just money.

Does that make it harder then for Australian artists to break out or become international if you can’t really get a foothold in the big cities?
I don’t know, there’s so many artists out there right now fighting for space after this EDM boom. It’s really hard for everyone, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. Where there’s a will there’s always a way, you just have to get creative about it.

What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?
We’ve held back while this EDM craze swept the world, which we didn’t really feel like we fitted into, so it’s exciting that there’s a bit more room for more musicality, so we’re looking forward to releasing a lot of material we’ve been writing over the past few years and maybe dropping an album later in the year. That’s the plan. And just getting out there and playing a lot more shows on the back of that. And doing our second season at Scorpios in Mykonos, we had such a blast last year, so we’re looking forward to a never-ending summer.

I hear Mykonos is a lot of fun.
We have a great time. It’s got something magical about it that it feels like Ibiza’s lost a little you know. I hate to say it but that’s the truth really.

You used to do stuff in Ibiza before?
Yeah we did Pacha for a few years, we were going there regularly for eight years so it’s quite noticeable how the money has really affected things there. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of money in Mykonos but it doesn’t feel overdone, overcooked, overdeveloped.

Since Sneaky started, what has been your highlight or proudest moment?
The fact that we’re still doing what we love doing to be honest. It’s hard to sustain a decent career but we’re still having fun, making music we want to make. Obviously we were so lucky to have a record that broke through when no one expected to, and just being able to travel the world, playing all these wonderful festivals and party places around the world. It’s been a never-ending circus.

And what’s been the biggest challenge or the most difficult moment for you?
I think there’s a series of those. Following up on a lot of unexpected success. Doing international record deals is very difficult, dealing with different expectations from different territories and different people involved. We had an original member who left seven years ago, that was a bit weird. You go through these shifts in music tastes; EDM popped up out of the blue and has gone mental. I think what we’ve learnt is to stick with what we do and what we believe in. Everything is cyclical and if you stay true to yourself, you feel happy with what you’re doing.

Just going back to the EDM thing, is that still going strong in Australia or do you think it’s starting to fall down the other side of the cliff?
Big time. You just don’t hear any of it on the radio. House is really kicking in here, big time. It had to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti it, just a lot of it was the same old shit over and over again. People aren’t stupid, so it just had to come to an end. Onwards and upwards.

So can you tell me one song or piece of music that changed your life?
When I was very young, I’m talking before I was ten, the song by Howard Jones – ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’, bizarrely seemed to have a big effect on me. I think because it was so synth-driven. It really got me into synthesizers. And then after that, much cooler people like New Order. But I have to put my hand up and say “thank you Howard Jones”.

What are you most in love with right now?
Just house music, it doesn’t stop! There’s so much good stuff out there at the moment. I love techno and house music, and at the moment, that bridge between house and techno I just love. We’ve been playing a lot of really long sets at our Sneaky Sundays nights so we get to explore all the nooks and crannies, and there’s such an array of quality music out there. Because of that I can’t pick one artist, it’s more across a range, that general vibe. Not that I ever lost a love of house, I just seem to love it more than ever.

If you could fill a swimming pool with anything in the world, what would it be and why?
Fill it with anything? I guess money! Why not? And then when I have the money, I can fill it with anything I wanted. I get two bites of the cherry.

I see! In all the times I’ve asked that question, no one’s ever said that. They’ve said money but not taken it to the next level, which actually makes a lot of sense. So my final question, what would you do to change the world? If you could do one thing.
One thing? I’d put Bernie Sanders as president of America. Then hopefully many things would change and this world wouldn’t be so greedy and fucked up. Getting all political on you!

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