DMA’s glow on: How the Sydney band finished their most difficult album yet

Rock ‘n’ roll has its perennial vices, but here’s an unexpected thing that comes with releasing a successful album that’s caught on with an enthusiastic international audience: um, hand cramps.

“Just been signing records for the UK people who bought the pre-orders,” says Johnny Took, guitarist for DMA’s, when I ask how his day’s been. “We’re doing 2000 today, but we’ve already done, like, 5000 or something. I had to alter my signature. I learned early on that doing the real thing’s a bit f—ed. So I’ve got this, like, little initial I do that helps get through them quicker.”

Tommy O’Dell, Matt Mason and Johnny Took of DMA’s.Credit:Simon Schluter

Dating back to their debut EP in 2014, the Sydney trio – comprising Took, frontman Tommy O’Dell and lead guitarist Matt Mason – built a solid following off their Madchester revivalist sound, all jangly guitars and chav-ish attitude. But it was their last album, 2020’s ambitious The Glow, that properly wrested their potential.

The band’s mainstream breakthrough, it debuted at no. 2 on the local albums chart, earned them an album of the year nod at the 2020 ARIA Awards, a couple of spots in Triple J’s Hottest 100, a pre-match performance at the 2020 AFL Grand Final, and a huge following in the UK where, starved for a band that harks to the halcyon days of Brit-pop, the album reached no. 4 on the UK charts, saw the band opening for confessed fan Liam Gallagher on tour and headlining to a crowd of over 10,000 at London’s Alexandra Palace.

“To have that kind of support from people on the other side of the world, it’s remarkable,” says O’Dell, who became a father a year ago. “It’s definitely made us feel very lucky and privileged, and it spurs you on to continue to make more music.”

Which the band has, with new album How Many Dreams?. If The Glow cohesively drew together DMA’s various modes till then – the chiming guitars of 2016’s Hill’s End and the baggy acid-house of 2018’s For NowHow Many Dreams? is its logical follow-up: another ambitious jab with a focus on classic pop songwriting, bringing in piano and strings into grand stadium singalongs no doubt influenced by the band’s overseas success.

DMA’s performing The Glow at Margaret Court Arena last April.Credit:Rick Clifford

But as any student of Brit-pop casualty could tell you, following up your most artistically realised and commercially successful album is its own sort of pressure. Second Coming infamously paralysed the Stone Roses; the Happy Mondays bankrupted Factory Records with Yes Please!. If not quite so dramatic, How Many Dreams? proved a challenge for DMA’s.

“This album took by far the longest,” says O’Dell. “Usually, we set an allocated time and we finish it in that time, but this time it just didn’t work. I did think at one point, ‘Oh god, we’ve got so much to do, how are we ever going to finish this?’”

Looking to emulate the forward-thinking pivot of The Glow, the band returned to London to recapture magic with super-producer Stuart Price (Dua Lipa, Kylie, New Order) and Rich Costey (Bloc Party, Foo Fighters, My Chemical Romance). But still in the midst of the pandemic, the sessions were wracked by time restrictions, perpetual illness and the Omicron surge.

“We were on the plane back and I remember landing at home like, ‘What the f— did we just do?’” recalls Took of the harried sessions. After three weeks in London, the band returned to Sydney with the realisation that the album they’d anticipated finishing was severely lacking.

“Yeah, we had a few challenges in London,” O’Dell deadpans. “Deep down, we just knew – and I think that’s one of the things we’ve learned from being in a band together as long as we have – that it wasn’t there.”

“It was rushed and we realised quickly that it wasn’t at the level we wanted and that it wasn’t the album we wanted to make,” adds Took. “It kind of felt like the album was there but it wasn’t wearing any clothes, you know? It didn’t have the character that we wanted or any sense of style.”

Back in Sydney, the band sat on the record for a month, sifting through what they’d done. In a studio in Darlinghurst with Konstantin Kersting (The Jungle Giants, Tones and I), the third credited producer on the album, they finally began to crack its code. On the Verve-ish Dear Future, they turned a guitar riff into a soaring string part and transformed lilting country drums into sampled electronic beats. On other tracks they pulled away layers, to make things sound more complex and grandiose.

“It felt like we’d got our hands dirty in London, getting through the nitty-gritty stuff, so by the time we sat in with Kon we were finally having fun, chopping up drum beats, adding synths, reworking lyrics,” says Took.

“We’ve had time to think about it quite a bit, and it’s not an experiment you can do twice. It’s like, okay, we went to London, we worked with Stuart and Rich, it was a bit rushed, people got sick, blah, blah, blah. There were all these things, but it’s like, maybe that’s what’s made [the album] unique, those challenges we encountered.”

You have to admire the band’s tenacity. The resulting album sounds huge, ideally suited to post-pandemic pop’s mood of euphoric celebration. You can already picture the drunken lads arm-in-arm chanting along to the wiggly guitar riff of Olympia, or the delicate New Order-ish bombast of Get Ravey, or the Pet Shop Boys-esque bliss of Something We Are Overcoming.

“After gaining a bigger fan base, you do realise the kind of songs people respond to,” says O’Dell. “But it’s a subconscious thing, I think, writing songs that will evoke that kind of euphoria in people.”

Took is more forthcoming. “Only recently have I consciously started writing songs thinking about the live show,” he says, pointing to the album’s explosive titular opener. “I wanted that song to open the album, and I’d like it to open the live set as well. It felt kind of nice to have a song that goes for two minutes before the vocals come in, kind of building up to that mood, and I don’t think we would have done that in the past.”

The Glow earned DMA’s their strongest critical and commercial success to date and, considering it’s essentially the same but more, signs point to How Many Dreams? emulating, if not surpassing, that trajectory. The Glow came close; are the band ready for a number one, even a few awards?

“I mean, in the grand scheme of things you’re not going to be lying on your deathbed thinking about how many ARIAs you’ve won or how many number one records you’ve had,” laughs Took. “You’re going to be more proud about that special song you wrote that was maybe not even a single, it was the little B-side track.

“I know a lot of people who’ve had number one albums and won ARIAs, and it doesn’t make them happy. The only thing that makes you happy, as a musician, is if you keep writing great music. You can never tell what people are gonna love, but as long as we feel good about it we’re gonna keep taking risks and trying new things.”

How Many Dreams? is out on March 31. The DMA’s will tour nationally through September and October.

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