Dead Letter Circus on Alt-Prog, Dream Theater and politics

Dead Letter Circus relax in a red room

Dead Letter Circus are a tricky one for prog pigeon-holers. They’ve got the spiky riffs, the crepuscular, cloudy atmosphere and the expansive left-field ethos, and they’ve shared bills with the likes of Animals As Leaders, Muse and, er, Linkin Park… but don’t let that put you off. They may have radio-friendly readiness, but they’re certainly part of our world.

“I’d say we have a lot of prog stylings, but in more of a rocky format,” opines singer Kim Benzie down the blower from his native Australia. “Perhaps it’s a gateway for people before they get shipped over to the true prog kings.”

You may have heard Dead Letter Circus’ impressive latest album, Aesthesis, many months ago. The quintet, completed by bassist Stewart Hill, drummer Luke Williams and guitarists Clint Vincent and Luke Palmer, released their third record in Australia in August 2015, but Europe had to wait until late April earlier this year for an official release.

“It took us a while to find the right people on the ground over there,” Benzie explains. “We wanted to find someone where the heart is in the right place.”

The album found itself at the top of Australia’s ARIA chart – number two. But it wasn’t much of a surprise, with the Brisbane band’s previous two studio recordings, 2010’s This Is The Warning and 2013’s The Catalyst Fire, also bagging silver medals on the chart.

I wouldn’t say we’re a fully political band, but we always try to catch the perspective of the ‘little guy’.

Aesthesis continues Dead Letter Circus’ cunning knack for juxtaposing juddering rhythms and industrial flair with masterful melody making, and the record sees the group at their most collaborative.

In a first for the Aussies, they often used vocals as the creative spark instead of pieces of music.

“We did try something quite different with the writing this time,” Benzie says. “In the past, we always started with a piece of instrumentation, whether it be a drum beat or a riff, or something like that. This time we started a lot of these songs vocally, and I had a bit of time with them on my my own before jamming with the band.

“As a result, it felt like the guys reacted to the setting that I’d made, rather than the other way around. The vocals are really deep in the background of every song.”

The group hibernated inside the Loose Stones studio on Australia’s sun-kissed Gold Coast for one month of writing followed by a month of recording. “We just jammed and jammed. It was an amazing vibe, and it was a team vibe. It was probably the most positive we’ve had a recording

experience – there was no pain or misery.”

Mixed by Grammy-winner Chris Lord-Alge, who worked on Muse’s 2012 effort The 2nd Law and has also been employed by the likes of Phil Collins, U2 and Bon Jovi, the record is enveloped in a gargantuan, glossy sound that feels destined for arenas. And with producer Forrester Savell previously working with acts like Sikth, Skyharbor and Karnivool, there’s a distinct edge too.

Throughout their career, Dead Letter Circus haven’t shied away from the big issues. In 2011 they embarked on their cleverly named No Fracking Way tour in an environmental protest against coal seam gas, and it seems their latest effort is happy to dip toes in deep, emotive themes. ‘We are pawns to our masters, laughing above us,’ Benzie soars in the jolting The Lie We Live, ‘knowing that we won’t even notice the game.’

“We’re kind of going for a big anthemic vibe on this album,” Benzie says. “I guess lyrically it’s sort of a continuation of some of the other albums, but I’d say the common theme running through it is moving back towards heart-based decisions over analytical decisions of the head.

“I wouldn’t say we’re a fully political band, but we always try to catch the perspective of the ‘little guy’.”

The record was released around a decade after the band formed, rising from the ashes of defunct outfit Ochre.

It was thanks to mainstream Australian radio and the wide reach of some infectious singles that their rise really kicked off, leading to festival shows and enviable support slots. The revolving door of guitarists – they’ve had four on the books in as many years – hasn’t derailed the runaway train.

Global domination, however, hasn’t quite happened… yet. “In America, we’ve had a struggle getting on the radio. It’s a different system where it’s about how much money you’d spend to get on it,” Benzie admits.

“We’ve done about five tours over there, but the response is the same as we would have in Australia – people saying ‘oh my god, I’ve never heard anything like this, this is the kind of band I’ve been waiting for’.

“But it’s on such a small scale there, because we’re not on the radio. If we got a break, I think the same thing would happen – it’d blow up.”

Among the prog influences floating in the whirring minds of Dead Letter Circus are fellow Aussies Karnivool and Cog, as well as Tool. Massive Attack, meanwhile, provide some of the band’s electronic inspiration.

“We’ve got a really strong alt prog rock scene in Australia,” Benzie says. “When nu-metal was massive America continued down that path with bands like Disturbed, but Australia kind of went down the Tool, ambient path.”

Don’t expect any 16-minute epics from these lads, spider-fingered freturbation (“Dream Theater are a bit too out there for me”) or wizard hats. They purvey polished, alluring alt rock, but it’s stimulating and challenging enough for the likes of Animals As Leaders and Periphery to invite them out on the road.

“Touring with Animals As Leaders and Intronaut in America in 2011 vastly affected our band,” Benzie reflects. “It was fucking incredible.

“The album we wrote after it was The Catalyst Fire, and you can see how we got a lot heavier after that tour. Animals As Leaders were so intense to watch every night. They have to be player-for-player the best band on the planet.”

Somewhat surprisingly, opening for Periphery was “harder” for Dead Letter Circus than warming up for the virtuosic instrumental juggernaut Animals As Leaders.

“I think it was because Animals didn’t have any screaming, and people maybe appreciated our tech guitars and drum beats,” he says.

There’s something inside Benzie’s musical psyche, however, that belongs to the experimentation of the 60s, 70s and 80s, even if his band are firmly rooted in the 21st Century.

“One of the first cassettes I was given was King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King – I had a real trip with that,” he recalls.

“I think about it all the time, about how that period affected me. Some of my earliest memories were spending the whole morning sitting watching music TV. Some of it would scare me, or freak me out.

“There was Led Zeppelin and all that, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t influence me in some way. It was the first music I heard – it wasn’t really kid music, because I’d had such a young mum. It was whatever the hippie music was in the 80s.

“One band I never listened to was Genesis, but we were in South Africa recently and someone put it on, and
I was like ‘holy shit’. It blew my mind how ahead of the times they were.”

It was Tool, however, that was the game-changer. Listening to the Americans’ 1996 record Ænima veered Benzie’s tastes away from the likes of Pantera and Sepultura and towards more imaginative territory.

“That album changed everything,” he reflects. “I’ve never looked back.

“And I can do a pretty mean Maynard [James Keenan] impression, if required. If they ever need me to come in a drop a few lines, I’ll pop right over…”

Judging by the success of Dead Letter Circus, it’s pretty doubtful Benzie will ever need a back-up job in a Tool tribute act to pay the electricity bills.

The band, however, thought they were being pranked when they were called about landing at number two on the Australian albums chart with their debut record. But digesting their polished sound, it’s clear they’re a group who aren’t scared to indulge in colossal melodies and alluring hooks.

Chuck in the left-field prog flourishes, and it’s an intriguing cocktail that looks set to continue their swift, upwards trajectory in rock’s stratosphere.

“There’s heaps of good bands out there, and however we’ve presented our one, we just seem to resonate with the people.

“When people love the music,” Benzie says confidently, “they really fall in love with it.”

Aethesis is out now on Rodeo Star Records. See the band’s website for more information.

Chris Cope

A writer for Prog magazine since 2014, armed with a particular taste for the darker side of rock. The dayjob is local news, so writing about the music on the side keeps things exciting - especially when Chris is based in the wild norths of Scotland. Previous bylines include national newspapers and magazines.