It was October of 2019 and the state of society seemed bleaker than ever. Donald Trump was three years into mobilising far-right extremists as the President of the United States; deepfake technology was gathering steam, making it harder than ever to discern what content shared online was real and fake; and at home, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison was recklessly making life hell for millions of Australians. It was in this despairing context that Bad//Dreems released their aptly titled album ‘Doomsday Ballet’, a searing and scintillating rumination on “the absurdity of the post-truth world”.
The following years, as it turns out, would give the pub-rockers from Kaurna/Adelaide plenty more absurd material to mine for their music.
On the morning of September 22, 2021, Naarm/Melbourne was rocked by an earthquake – the largest ever recorded in Victoria. But some 300 conspiracists were unfazed, taking to the city’s streets to “protest” the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns – a gathering that ended in both rioting and drunken partying on the Westgate bridge. Ben Marwe and Alex Cameron – Bad//Dreems’ frontman and guitarist, respectively – watched the chaos unfold from their homes. Both stunned and amused by the insanity of the situation, they immortalised it in ‘Mansfield 6.0’, the lead single from their just-released fourth album ‘Hoo Ha!’.
“There’s so many elements in Australia there that we would laugh at,” Cameron tells NME, “you’ve got tradies fighting against their unions because their unions are trying to protect them by getting them vaccinated, and somehow they end up rioting – while at the same time they’re getting wasted and doing lines in the streets – all the while there’s an earthquake happening. There’s so many layers of meaning and irony in that, and I think that’s always been a bit of a sweet spot for us.”
In the song, Marwe adopts the character of a man attending the rally – “I’m a boxcar, I’m a racer, I’m a flagon of port,” he sings. “I’m a pinger, I’m a fuckboy, I’m a Canberra rort / You think you know who I am? / I’ll snort a bag for lunch and then I’ll hit the cans.” He adopts the same nameless, faceless avatar on other ‘Hoo Ha!’ cuts like ‘See You Tomorrow’ and ‘Waterfalls’ – inhabiting a pitiful bloke that Cameron’s described as a “critique of the modern white Australian male in all his confusion, angst, fear and (latent) violence”.
It’s not the first time Bad//Dreems have addressed toxic masculinity via satirical roleplaying. It’s one of many things they do a stellar job of – particularly since, as Cameron explains, “we’re not that far off from a lot of the characters we sing about”. He’ll be the first to admit that listeners have, at times, been confused about where the band stand on social issues – unsure whether Marwe’s lyrics are identifying or sympathising with, critiquing or mocking their subjects.
“I guess we’d like to leave those answers up to the audience,” Cameron says. “We know where we stand. In the case of ‘Mansfield 6.0’, at least, the story itself is the most interesting thing, and it doesn’t need to really be dissected and concluded by us in delivering that story.”
“I’m sure there are some people who maybe haven’t thought about some of the issues we talk about, and hopefully [our music] opens the door for them”
The songwriting is an act of catharsis for Bad//Dreems, he observes. “We’re dispelling the parts of ourselves that were instilled in us, but we don’t want or agree with. Ben and I were brought up in football clubs – and that, to be totally frank, was a terrible environment. Obviously there were lots of good things, and we both still love football – but in retrospect, some of what got instilled in us there as children, it needed to be exorcised… When we create these characters that Ben steps into, it’s almost like we’re exorcising those demons.”
‘Hoo Ha!’ is undoubtedly Bad//Dreems’ most direct record to date. On ‘Mallee’, for example, Marwe spits about the Australian government’s eagerness to “send the boys to die on foreign soil / then co-opt their legacy / to sell warm beer at the football / and piss on their memory”. His barbs are even sharper on ‘Southern Heat’, where he laments “another sole survivor / another racist prick / rotting in the southern heat”.
According to Cameron, there are two reasons why he and Marwe became more forthright in their songwriting. Firstly, “during that whole lockdown period, there was a very real possibility that we’d never get to make music again – so I conceded to myself that if I ever did get that chance, I wanted to be more direct”. The second stemmed from an unnamed critic’s review of ‘Doomsday Ballet’, which bemoaned how Bad//Dreems’ lyrics often relied on obfuscation to get points across. “As much as I disagreed with that take,” Cameron says, “it sort of weighed on the back of my mind. I had to ask myself, ‘Are we hiding behind too many layers of irony?’”
When the band started writing songs for ‘Hoo Ha!’, they “made a concerted effort to be more direct, and really back ourselves in what we’re saying”. They’re aware of their platform and want to use it, Cameron says. “We can’t hide from the fact that we pretty much tick every box for privilege – we’re five white men who come from middle-class backgrounds – so everyone’s very conscious of how we can use our privilege in the right way.”
Bad//Dreems play loud and energetic pub-rock primed for sweaty, beer-stained dives – and through that have an opportunity “to reach an audience that might not be so receptive” to other bands with similar messages. “I think most of our audience is on the page as us,” Cameron says, “but I’m sure there are some people who maybe haven’t thought about some of the issues we talk about, and hopefully [our music] opens the door for them.
“I believe in music as an instrument of change. That’s what I think is great about this particular community – you might get into it because you love the music, but it offers you a portal to learn about everything from other forms of creative expression to activism and politics.”
Cameron can speak directly to the power of music in sparking change. “In many ways,” he says, “music for me was a portal to learning more about Australia’s Indigenous people and their histories.” It’s become something he “feel[s] so deeply about” today, leading to ‘Hoo Ha!’ songs like ‘Jack’ and ‘Mallee’ – both of which address “the lack of leadership and empathy that white Australia has shown towards Indigenous history and identity”.
It’s songs like ‘Jack’, Marwe chimes in to add, that remind Bad//Dreems why they need to be as blunt as they are on ‘Hoo Ha!’. “We had people commenting some pretty disgusting stuff when we posted the film clip for ‘Jack’,” he says. “Sometimes it can feel like we’re yelling into an echo chamber or preaching to the converted. But all you have to do is read the comments on the AFL’s Instagram when they post something about Lance Franklin, and you’re quickly reminded that we’ve still got a long way to go.”