Paul Dempsey is tired. When NME catches up with the lead singer of Something For Kate, he’s battling fatigue from doom-scrolling on Twitter at 3am for the US election results. Politics probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the resident Dean of Science and Philosophy of the Australian music scene, but it’s 2020 and nothing is apolitical.
These were nervous hours: Trump was leading in Georgia and Pennsylvania, and slowly narrowing the gap in Arizona. And for Dempsey, a man who has always been fascinated by scientific hypotheses and mathematical modelling, the reality of consequence bearing down in real-time on CNN is agonising. “God, it’s just taking so long,” he grouses. “Trump is speaking from The White House saying that the whole thing was a fraud. He’s inciting his nutjob supporters to basically go out and try and claim victory by force.”
As Dempsey bemoans a tyrannical despot desperately clinging to power, Something For Kate’s seventh album, ‘The Modern Medieval’, feels like it doesn’t need explaining – but he obliges anyway: “There’s a lot about the world right now that resembles medieval life. People have retreated behind the walls of their castles and back into their tribes. In medieval times, power was concentrated in the hands of the few, everyone else was a serf and the thing that stopped them from rising up and eating the rich was religion.
“Now we have social media and the fact that everyone is walking around with a television in their pocket is the only reason the powerful are able to get away with this shit.”
‘The Modern Medieval’, out last Friday, is Something For Kate’s first album in eight years, but it’s not the first time they’ve held a mirror up to society. In 2003, ‘The Official Fiction’ foreshadowed the ongoing war between the truth and alternative facts and now, as humanity’s worst impulses play out against the modern world, Dempsey’s songwriting proves prophetic.
The common thread of ‘The Modern Medieval’ is Dempsey’s unwillingness to be placated by bread and circuses, and it’s not difficult to pinpoint the source of his anger. Something For Kate are releasing an album in a year where our lives are being governed by the cold heart of science, and as a preacher of the scientific method for the last 26 years, Dempsey has been thoroughly riled by the conspiracists, anti-maskers and the official rhetoric on vaccines that obscures more than it enlightens.
“If I hear the words ‘game changer’ again, I’m going to fucking lose it,” he says. “It’s a government phrase that means next to nothing. A lot of what they say is just hollow maneuvering when they’re unable to deliver an articulate position on anything. We used to have eloquent speakers. Public speaking was a high art. But now you just watch their mouths moving and you know that it’s completely hollow.”
“I don’t want to be a downer, but I feel a deep sense of foreboding about where the world is and where it’s headed”
Musically, Something For Kate have never sounded more adventurous on their new album, with Clint Hyndman and Stephanie Ashworth joining Dempsey in joyfully breaking down the walls of their restrictive alternative rock tag. And while the Tears For Fears-inspired piano loops and backing vocals of ‘Situation Room’ might initially throw off some of their diehard fans, thematically Something For Kate have never been more focused: This album is about our collective instinct to survive and how emotionally taxing that survival can be.
“There’s a sense of dread throughout this record and that’s a reflection of the times we live in,” Dempsey acknowledges. “I don’t want to be a downer, but I feel a deep sense of foreboding about where the world is and where it’s headed. And so obviously that’s going to come out in the writing.”
This dread, mixed in with a dash of vitriol, manifests itself in surprisingly tender ways. The album’s second single ‘Waste Our Breath’ plays out like a love story in Cold War Berlin, with two lovers hatching a plan to escape from the surveillance state. And ‘Bluebird’, one of the most lyrically direct songs Dempsey has ever written, is a port in the storm, “a song about two people wanting to step into the comfort of a familiar bar and shut the world out for a while”, as he explains. “The bluebird is a symbol of hope, beauty, peace and just… what’s the word? Sanctuary.”
And for Something For Kate, this direct simplicity is evolution. If the band have ever been pigeon-holed in their career, it’s for being unashamedly high-brow: They have written a song about the chemical reaction in our brain that triggers déjà vu and named an album after the psychiatric disorder of repeating meaningless words. One of the singles from ‘The Modern Medieval’ is titled ‘Supercomputer’, because of course it is.
But in 2020, they’ve made a record with moments that would have Jack Antonoff taking notes. Charged with the crime of finally embracing pop music, Dempsey admits it might be a sign of getting older. “I think the first bunch of Something for Kate records were quite autobiographical and a lot of it was just me being an angry and anxious young person eagerly venting my spleen,” he muses.
“I used to be really determined not to let myself write anything too simple. There often wasn’t a straight 4/4 time signature and everything had to be complicated or multilayered – and I still really enjoy that. But there’s also a newfound willingness to do the simple things that feel good.”
This faith in simplicity is best encapsulated on album closer, ‘I Will Defeat You’. “It’s a song about the nature of vulnerability and the power dynamic in a relationship with this weird confusion of tenderness and venom,” Dempsey says. “But by the time I’ve finished singing the lyric ‘I will defeat you’ in falsetto, it’s almost like I’m talking to this current climate. So it switches into being a hopeful statement.”
“I told Bernard Fanning I wanted him to sound like a cross between David Bowie and David Attenborough – so I started calling him Attenbowie”
Subtlety remains the band’s forté, so despite Dempsey’s simmering rage and mounting despair, there are no Peter Garrett cameos or Dylan-esque protest songs. There is, however, an appearance by Powderfinger’s frontman-in-exile Bernard Fanning, who plays Dempsey’s antagonist on ‘Inside Job’, a commentary on the insidious nature of conspiracy theories. Inspired by Dempsey’s encounter at his local pub with a particularly voracious and persistent wingnut, the song is a stinging rebuke of red pill culture. Take the lyric: “He says he tells it like it is, but you can’t reason out what wasn’t reasoned in / He’s a dramatic re-enactment of everything that never happened”.
To capture the characters of the evening, Dempsey ended up enlisting the help of his friend from Vulture Street: “The voice through the verses is like the raging conspiracy nut and then in the chorus it’s an anthropologist trying to describe this creature in its habitat.” A cheeky smile flashes across Dempsey’s face as he adds, “I told Bernard that I wanted him to sound like a cross between David Bowie and David Attenborough – so I started calling him Attenbowie. And where it sits in the register is just perfect for Bernard’s voice, because he has that beautiful baritone.”
‘Inside Job’ isn’t the first time this year Bernard Fanning has channeled his inner Starman for Dempsey. The pair recorded a triumphant cover of David Bowie and Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’ in August for Dempsey’s Something For Victoria! COVID lockdown cover series. The project, which gave this quarantined writer such joy, is something for which he could one day be awarded an OAM, though Dempsey humbly describes the initiative as “just a little bit of escapism to hopefully put a smile on people’s faces”.
And smiling has been key to survival in a year when ‘The Modern Medieval’’s oligarchy and the shadow of Trumpism have loomed large over our lives. What Something For Kate make so abundantly clear on their eighth album is that the search for truth is now also a fight for our shared reality – one that our Dean of Science and Philosophy believes is one worth fighting.
“If we want to get over this suspicion of science and facts, so that we can actually move forward, then we need a cure for miracles. Contrary to the bumper stickers, miracles don’t happen and science doesn’t require your belief. It’s a system of knowledge that questions itself. So if they’ve got better information, let’s hear it.”
Something For Kate’s ‘The Modern Medieval’ album is out now. The band will conduct a Q&A with fans and perform songs from the album on November 26