Pulling Teeth for Nothing: An Interview with Dark Horse
High on death, at war with everything and pulling teeth for nothing, Sydney miscreants Dark Horse flail in frantic circles full of bile and bruises.
With lashings of D-Beat, Grind, Crust, Punk and Metal up their shattered sleeve, they’ve been howling into the void for seven years of bomb throwing chaos. More than just furious chromatic thrashmonger’s daughters, these guys are cool cunts. Cool, ugly cunts. Prolific on both vinyl and onstage, they’re one of the twisted backbones of the Australian extreme and dirty-jeaned scene. Enemies of boredom and defiant in the face of somnambulism. Helping to gather a place for the placeless.
Ahead of the release of their new split 7” with fellow Sydneysiders Inebrious Bastard, and their return to Europe for the lauded and vaunted Extreme Obscene festival, I chatted with Kieren (Bass) and Dennis (Vocals) about cassette tapes, asylum wards, wars upon wars, and concrete floors.
Above: Image by Lee Stefan
Tell us about the origins of The Horse, how did this unholy shambles come to be?
Dennis: We played our first show in mid-2011 in a pub in Sydney’s inner west. At that time our set consisted of about 5 or 6 songs, all in all probably no longer than 15 minutes. Fran (drums), Romano (bass) and our then-guitarist Freddo had been jamming sporadically since 2010 but didn’t make much headway with completing songs or finding a permanent vocalist. One day Fran asked me if I wanted to try out as a singer in this band he was jamming with, and from there things took their course. Within a few months we’d managed to finish enough songs to play live, and by the end of the year we were ready to record a 10-track demo.
Do you recall your first exposure as a child to ‘extreme music’? And why do you think you didn’t have any friends?
Kieren: I first heard commercial grade punk™ in my first couple of years of high school – all the standard stuff like The Clash, Sex Pistols, Exploited, plus some faster stuff like MDC, DK’s, Black Flag and Suicidal, which came about when I was hanging out and skating the suburbs with a bunch of like-minded delinquents. That was all there was for a while and I loved it, although I had no idea what I was missing. A while later when I was fifteen I spent a few months in a psych hospital outside of Hamilton NZ. I had a few tapes of the music that made me happy, but one evening this one night nurse brought me a tape he'd made of a punk show from student radio – it had Subhumans, Conflict, Septic death, Puke, all sorts of shit on it. I felt like I had found my place. It was all so fucking fast and heavy and cool... and it seemed to mean something. Later on I met the guy who actually did that radio show and he gave me a dubbed copy of Grind Crusher (the Earache Compilation) which took the whole thing up another couple of notches. He is still a friend and we played with his band when we were in NZ last year. On another note, that same night nurse also built me my first bass amp out of an old gramophone he had found 'cos I had my bass in hospital but nothing to plug into, so I suppose he is kind of partly responsible for where I am today (laughs).
Dennis: I was a metal kid before I became a punk kid so for me it was definitely Metallica's ...And Justice for All. I must have been 11 or 12 years old when I saw the music video for 'One' and was instantly spellbound. I listened to the record on tape (I had the CD but didn’t own a CD player yet) for the next 15 months without end. I’m positive that is the very reason why I didn’t have any friends.
You guys have firmly embraced the DIY ethos at the heart of the underground. Can you tell us a little about why DIY is so important and how it differs now in the internet age from the tape trading and fanzine days of yore?
Kieren: I didn’t even realise there was an alternative to DIY for years. When I was young and playing music, we just played with our friends (and largely to our friends) and did everything amongst ourselves. We would release our own music, put on shows for ourselves and each other’s bands and trade and sell our tapes as we travelled. I knew people who did tape distros (and very occasionally records – but late 80's NZ for me was all about tapes) and got stuff from overseas and sent stuff away, but I never really did that myself.
It wasn’t a big socio-political decision – I never even thought of doing anything else. Reading Penny Rimbaud’s writings later in life and his idea of small scale and DIY was about a million times bigger than anything I could dream of when I was young. I guess it’s all relative – in England/US the commitment of punk bands to stay DIY was a genuine spit in the face of the commercialisation of punk and major corporations (some of which had some fucking hideous connections to the arms industry or the south African regime or whatever). It was such an important part of keeping the anger real. In NZ (and Australia when I moved here) there wasn’t any corporate interest in punk anyway. Nobody gave a shit. It’s not like we were turning anything down in a quest to stay DIY. Over time as I travelled more and communicated with a wider group of people, I started to find out more about how this way of doing things differed from the wider music scene and people/society in general. And then it became more of a focus of the way I do things. I love the connections we make through DIY punk. The friends and the awesome bands/zine writers/and just people who are having fun with it. We might sing about what we see as important issues and talk and live to match that – but we also have a lot of fun doing it. People tend to romanticise the ‘good old days’ of DIY punk - tape trading, letter writing and so on - and I guess there is something in that because the scene was a bit tighter. But really, when a bunch of 17-year-old kids can record in their bedroom and put it on Bandcamp and have like-minded people around the entire globe accessing that shit, it's fucking awesome. It's kind of what we dreamed of. There is no reason to feel so alone with it.
You guys have had some pretty elaborate packaging and fully support the physical format for your releases. Is it important to have something tangible in a world that is rapidly embracing the ephemeral?
Kieren: I just like getting cool things, so I like making cool things for other people to get. All our music is available for free from Bandcamp and it'll always be that way. If people just need something to listen to, it’s there. But if someone comes to a gig and buys something, or sends off to whatever distro for our music, I want them to have the whole fucking deal – lyrics, packaging, photos, info, everything. There is something so satisfying in getting a great record. I remember getting CRASS records or Antisect or DKs (and so many others) when I was a kid, and the whole way the thing was put together was just so awesome. You’d sit and listen and read through the lyrics, look at the posters and photos, and totally get into the experience. I guess I’m trying to recreate that.
You guys have toured quite prolifically and will be hitting Europe again soon. What kind of network do you have to arrange such things and what is the comfiest floor you've ever crashed on?
Kieren: I lived in Europe for 6 years or so and while I was there I toured a bit with my band at the time (Murder Disco X) and was involved for a while with Skuld records - so I met a lot of people touring through who would stay with us, or we would put gigs on for them or whatever. I also spent a lot of time just wandering aimlessly around the continent going to shows and demonstrations and just meeting people. I have stayed in contact with a lot of them, even if only occasional contact. Of course social media helps with that now. I also toured over there with Vae Victis in 2007 and again, stayed in contact with people who helped us out back then. Dennis: It is a mix of friends and a ‘friends of friends’ network and sometimes even lucky coincidences. For example, we played Obscene Extreme in Australia in 2013 and in Europe in 2014 and when we learned that the festival would take place in Japan one year later, we simply asked Curby (OEF founder) if we could jump on it, to which he kindly agreed. Playing OEF over there helped us make lots of new friends, which in turn made it easier to book a full Japanese tour a couple of years later.
Kieren: Most comfortable floor? That’s tough – we have spent a lot of nights on the concrete floors of gig venues around the place, which at my age starts to hurt after a while. The way people have looked after us everywhere we have gone is amazing but staying at Four Letter Words in Osaka was pretty fucking sweet.
Do you have any stories or shows from these jaunts that particularly stand out?
Kieren: OK – everything we do is fun. Japan, particularly the second time round when we toured with Invidious from the US, was ridiculous. But probably my fav story was when I was touring with Vae Victis (also with Fran on drums) – we were heading through Northern Italy. We were told to be at a certain place outside Torino at 4pm for a show. We drove through a couple of towns and headed up a mountain, following the directions we had been given. When we got to the end of the road there was just an abandoned, trashed, and spray-painted hotel building on a little plateau on top of the mountain and a little concrete viewing platform looking back over the way we had come. No people though. So we hung out and waited, went for a walk and started to drink. I had time to drink, get drunk, pass out, wake up hungover and then drink the hangover away before we finally played at around 3am. Nobody else showed up at all until about 9 and there was no food or water until then. No toilets either. For a 3 day fest. Just an uncertain scrabble through the forest undergrowth and hoping you don’t stand on anything soft and squishy. But we played and had a blast – I had a bunch of people run up and grab me while I was playing and carry me around the crowd while I kept on playing. In the morning we sat on the viewing platform whilst lovely Italian punks smoked cones and talked dreamily. Was fucking cool really.
Above: Dark Horse @ Vortex Club, Yokkaichi. Image by Todd Farnham.
Lyrically, what are the prevailing themes that you guys tend to explore? Is it important to you to articulate certain scenarios, points of view or belief systems? Or is it more a general exercise in catharsis?
Dennis: I don’t think there is an overall theme or motif that drives the ideas for lyrics. I do, however, often find myself using war analogies when writing, so maybe you could say that the general outlook on things is a bleak one. I’m not a super pessimistic person all the time, but the concept of war does seem to be fitting in a lot of interpersonal and political contexts. I mean, even going to the fucking shops can be war. Plus the war theme is crusty as, which hopefully satisfies the purists.
When I was 20 years old, I was eager to write lyrics that would be ideologically ironclad and get ‘the message across’ in the attempt to do my bit to change the stupid world. These days things are a bit more toned down, at times even directionless. Lyrics can be just an instant reaction to whatever grabbed my attention at the time, a few lines scribbled down and finalised in 15 minutes. Others inexplicably take me months to finish, to the point where I can’t remember what the starting point was. I still have strong opinions and point of view but I guess it isn’t that important anymore that everything is readily identifiable.
With the world's absurdity dial currently sitting on a solid eleven, what are the prevailing issues you seek to address and the answers you think that punk rock can provide to both individuals and the greater community?
Kieren: There seems little chance of tackling anything big right now – all that stuff we grew up on, all the anti-war stuff from CRASS, the taking of some kind of power – it all seems kind of ludicrous now. People want war. To be anti-war is to insult the memory of our glorious fallen. Or something like that. People want a good strong government that will keep out the scary people. I remember going on peace marches as a kid, tens of thousands of us – we don’t want war, we don’t want nukes etc. Now it all seems so unlikely. I loved the school strike the other day. Was quite a new kind of ‘fuck you’ for this country.
So, to answer the other half of your question: What the fuck can we do if we can’t change the world? We can offer a place for the placeless. We can help with the ‘smaller’, more personal issues, whether it is being in support of local Refugee groups, LGBTI support, Women’s support groups, Indigenous groups – there are so many local things to work at.
There are some fucking amazing people doing incredible things both here and across the world to make shit better in a million smaller ways – from feeding the local homeless in your own suburb with your Food Not Bombs, to helping push for better education for those often left behind. Watching Rebel Riot work for the poor of Myanmar, watching some of the women in this country I know trying to make sure that other women are getting their voice out. From Wolfpack giving everything they can to our animal friends, to G.L.O.S.S paving the way for Trans performers and people everywhere. From Dispossessed making sure we don’t forget where we are playing and what that means, to every band I know playing benefit shows, donating their time and their music to the causes that mean much to them. We have donated money and time to local Trans Youth groups as an issue that is close to our heart, but there is always so much that can be done and no reason not to do it.
The most recent LP Bomb Thrower is relentless, but with a weird clarity to it as well. How hard was it to capture that intensity on tape? Tell us about the sessions.
Dennis: The Bomb Thrower session was a nice and hassle-free experience (thanks to Fuller at Goatsound Studio who did a fine job). We had the studio booked for 4 days but actually wrapped everything up in 3. Before we went down to Melbourne we rehearsed the material quite a bit - we even demoed most of the songs beforehand, which is something we’ve never done before. It certainly pays off to properly learn your songs before you try to record them.
Even after 2 years I’m still happy with how Bomb Thrower turned out. The songs sound organic to me and have a certain live-feel that we initially were hoping to capture somehow. But obviously that’s not just our achievement - like I said, Fuller pushed a couple of buttons too, I think.
You followed that up pretty quickly with the ‘Lesser Lives to Live’ track, how did that come about?
Dennis: The song is basically a left over. We recorded 13 tracks with a total running time of more than 31 minutes which we decided was too long for the album. So for practical reasons we wanted to leave one of the longer songs off the record and ‘Lesser Lives to Live’ was the obvious choice,as it was the last song we had written and never played live. It was kind of the runt of the litter. We did plan to release the track exclusively on a vinyl-only compilation put together by someone in the UK, but I’m not sure if that project ever took off. So eventually we decided to put it up for free download because the song still rips, and why the hell not?
Being based in Sydney you’re surely aware of the constant bemoaning of the death of the live scene, but the underground still seems to be thriving despite the continued shuttering of venues. What’s your opinion on the state of play as we kick off 2019?
Kieren: It is hard to deny that the venue situation in Sydney is a problem right now. I mean – we have some great places – Valve, Gaelic, Small Shows, Hideaway, Moshpit, Marrickville Bowlo – but not many and almost nothing DIY. But at the same time there are so fucking many amazing bands happening right now. Almost every show we play there will be a band I don’t know and they will blow my fucking head off... Like Rooted the other week – goddamn! So much cool stuff ready to happen and nowhere for it to happen at. We miss Blackwire for sure. Having a medium size, all ages DIY venue is so important to ensure that these bands continue to come up. I don’t know how kids get into punk/hardcore/grind/whatever now days when there is pretty much nowhere they can go and see it until they are 18. But it continues, and we are definitely having fun with it.
It sometimes seems to me that some of the people that are most vocal about it are the sort of people who rarely go to shows, even when they're on. What advice would you give to people wanting to start out providing an alternative to stagnation?
Kieren: Don’t give up. I agree with you – a lot of people stopped going to gigs when gigs got scarce. Makes no sense, but it happened. Big festivals killed a lot of smaller shows too – not so much in our scene, but in the wider world. If someone has $XXX budget for fun and frolics, then it makes a lot more sense (to someone who thinks that way) to spend it all in one hit on some shitty fucking festival with awful sound, overpriced drinks and heavy security than it does to spend it on 30 cool smaller gigs with ya mates. Apparently.
But, yeah – trying something different all the time is great. Suburban shows/small town shows/mixed bills/one-night events out the open or in a park/instore performance/play acoustic in a drain near you/set up on a moving train – fuck, there are so many options outside of the same few licenced venues we always end up at.
What’s next for you guys?
Kieren: Last weekend we went into The Pet Food Factory to record a new EP to be released in time for our Euro tour. And our split EP with Inebrious Bastard comes out soon. Then we start writing again and just gig around until Europe in June. Hopefully we will be ready to record another LP by the end of the year.
And then... Japan again? NZ again definitely. South East Asia would be nice. So many things I would like to do.
Above: Dark Horse @ Asakusa Deathfest, Tokyo. Image by Natsumi Okano / IMagenoise photos.
DARK HORSE TOUR DATES
With Inebrious Bastard and Necessary Vengeance
25th Jan | Lismore 26th Jan arvo | Ipswich
26th Jan evening | Brisbane
27th Jan | Sunshine Coast
Visit Dark Horse's Facebook page for Euro tour details.