Mildlife: Möbius strip funk conjurers dream in the face of tech dystopia

The Melbourne band’s new album ‘Automatic’ should have marked a triumphant return to the world’s dancefloors. But in lockdown, its deeper messages have been reinforced

Back in June, Mildlife took the stage at Carlton nightclub Colour. But instead of playing to its usual transfixed crowd, there were just five technical staff trying to dodge camera sight lines, muffle coughs and resist foot taps – essentially, doing everything they could to do nothing, in the hopes of capturing a perfect livestream. COVID-19 was in full swing and what is arguably Melbourne’s best dance band was previewing its new album, ‘Automatic’, to an empty room.

“That whole tension of everyone around us trying not to do things is basically the opposite of what we want in our live shows. We want everybody to lose themselves, lose their heads in some way, lose their bodies, not care what’s going on around them, just, you know, go on this journey,” says Mildlife bassist Tom Shanahan, who’s speaking to NME over Zoom along with synth player and singer Kevin McDowell. “That livestream was the opposite to that because everyone’s trying so hard not to go on a journey.”

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Having to debut their new album online feels particularly devastating for a band like Mildlife, who were making headway internationally following the release of their debut album ‘Phase’. The four-piece had caught the attention of groove connoisseurs like Gilles Peterson, who helped the band break into Europe, and had built a dedicated crossover audience between Melbourne’s indie, jazz and electronic scenes.

Even the studio in which the band recorded ‘Automatic’, which is out this Friday, speaks volumes about the way Mildlife intermingles with Melbourne’s electronic dance scene. As they laid down squiggly analogue synths and loping basslines, their studio neighbours – electronic dance music producers Sleep D and Andras – were creating tracks likely to be played by DJs following a Mildlife live show.

It’s unsurprising that a crate-digger like Peterson would champion the band. They’re record collectors themselves who pull from a heady brew of Krautrock, psych and the trippier end of synthesised disco, all of which they layer over their own compositions. You can think of Mildlife’s sound as Möbius strip funk, constantly curving and twisting back through decades in figure-eight grooves and references. The challenge for the band is recombining and recontextualising those sounds into something new.

“I don’t want to say that musical innovation is dead because it’s not, but it’s sort of diminishing in its advancement of new sonic areas to go in,” says McDowell, referring to the cul-de-sacs created by the infinite possibilities of production software today. “It becomes a bit postmodern in the fact that you take collages of different areas and put them together to recontextualise stuff.”

Broadly, ‘Automatic’ is structured around three movements exploring various forms of natural and technological automation. Its opening tracks ‘Rare Air’ and ‘Vapour’ examine interior worlds and body awareness; its middle section features 12-string guitars and gentle nods to the blue-eyed, Californian soul of Ned Doheny on the tracks ‘Downstream’ and ‘Citations’ – tracks that focus on exterior influences like patterns in nature or supernatural notions of destiny.

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“Those two songs still talk about some element of automation but perhaps more in a natural kind of way. The album’s not just about robots coming to take over the world,” says McDowell. “We’ve always fought against automatic forces out of our control.”

Both Shanahan and McDowell stress that the album’s philosophical themes are neither didactic nor premeditated. Rather, they developed organically over the course of its recording.

“We’re not really ones to make grand gestures on the current landscape of society. And we’re not ones to say, you know, ‘we’re all slaves, man’. It’s very much more about creating a musical soundscape,” says Shanahan.

“We like the music to take us somewhere and it to be a world that the listener builds in their head and interprets in their own way,” says McDowell.

“The album’s not just about robots coming to take over the world. We’ve always fought against automatic forces out of our control” – Kevin McDowell

Both band members are self-deprecating about their thoughtfulness, but as our conversation unfolds they admit anxieties about the ways algorithms, tech companies and online culture intrude into our lives. It’s in the last third of ‘Automatic’ that the band’s examination of technological posthumanism kicks in.

“Last night I was on Facebook – I have an account that I use for Marketplace – and I accidentally scrolled over to the videos. It just started spitting at me all these absolute garbage pages of content,” says McDowell. “And I was just thinking like, the way the internet’s been hijacked to sell stuff just as an advertising thing is so depressing.”

“I feel like [these tech companies have] sucked up so much intellectual and creative talent of almost a whole generation. Really smart people are working on things that try to make a company be more successful than the other company, just so they can keep you on the platform to sell you more stuff,” continues McDowell. “Maybe back in the ’60s and ’70s those really smart people were working at NASA or at, like, innovative things that actually tried to develop humankind in a sort of more inspiring way.”

McDowell’s nostalgia is rooted in the same hopes that inspired some of the band’s sonic forebears in the short-lived, cosmic disco scene of 1970s France. Bands like Quartz, Space, Universal Energy and Milkways would have as kids watched Neil Armstrong take humanity’s first steps on the moon, witnessing a pivotal moment of exploration and technological achievement that manifested itself in those bands’ propulsive electronics, celestial synths and bubbling optimism.

Once you embrace those French musicians’ naivety, their music helps you imagine what lies beyond our Solar System in the vast expanses between asteroids, exploding stars and distant worlds. Both Mildlife members think those expanses of imagination, which give us time to dream and create, are increasingly being stolen from us.

“I was lucky enough to grow up with family and friends that really valued creativity. That creativity often happened in the space between things, when you’re daydreaming out the window,” says Shanahan.

“There’s not as much space between things these days because you’re constantly being fed something to refresh or scroll through, or you’re constantly being satiated in some way. So the space between things, which I think is a really sacred time, is much shorter now.”

The genesis for the ideas on ‘Automatic’ began with the record’s closing title track. It begins with a bassline that creeps on with a kind of inevitability, one bass note after another into eternity. Your consciousness of the groove fades away as impressionistic synth passages dissolve space and time. Before too long, you’re unsure of when the track’s eight minutes and 41 seconds began, and if you keep listening to the vinyl edition, the song won’t even end: you’ll find yourself in a locked groove repeating the album title ad infinitum.

“You’re constantly being fed something to refresh or scroll through… So the space between things, which I think is a really sacred time, is much shorter now” – Tom Shanahan

“It’s kind of a subtle comment on these automatic things that are happening [and that] you have to intervene sometimes to be aware of that automation,” says McDowell.

“I like the idea as well that people are maybe sitting around listening to the record. Perhaps they’ve had a few wines, fallen asleep and they’ve woken up at like 2am just to the sound of ‘AUTOMATIC, AUTOMATIC, AUTOMATIC’,” jokes Shanahan.

‘Automatic’ was primed to be a triumphant sophomore release on which Mildlife would once again whip heaving crowds into sweaty abandon. But for now those scenes are a distant memory. And while they weren’t premeditated, the album’s themes are even more relevant. It’s a reminder that at a time when our lives and interactions are mediated by technology, screens and rolling feeds of information, it’s important to stop, turn off auto-pilot and let your imagination set a course through the vast spaces between worlds.

Mildlife’s ‘Automatic’ is out September 18 via Inertia Music

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