Formed in London in 2016 and now based between Berlin and Zurich, Kerala Dust is a four-piece band influenced by iconic indie acts like CAN, The Velvet Underground, and Tom Waits. They fuse their influence of psychedelic rock, blues, and techno into their own signature hypnotic sound. In late 2020, they released their debut album Light, West, while immersing themselves in their new base of Berlin. This led to their latest album, Violet Drive released earlier this year, being deeply influenced by Europe’s past and future.
We chatted to Edmund Kenny, lead vocalist, bass and electronics about the album’s making and the forthcoming trip.
Is this your first trip to Australia?
Yeah, it is. For all of us. We’re really looking forward to it.
Do you have any ideas of what to expect?
I had an Australian girlfriend for two years and she was from Melbourne and was a real fan. I heard really great things about food. Being British I think you guys have a similar pub culture down there. I’m excited to see pub culture in a much warmer place. I feel like British pub culture revolves around how cold it is and hiding in pubs.
Let’s start at the beginning and run me through how the band first formed.
We met in London. We were all studying music. We lived in the same house before we started making music together. I had produced a couple of songs and was trying to figure out how to play them live. This as a time when a lot of people were doing solo electronic live sets with a lot of playback going on from a laptop. I just wanted to find a more interesting way of playing those songs out. I asked the guys in the house if they wanted to join in. We started rehearsing in my basement bedroom (with headphones so as not to wake the neighbours). One thing led to another, and they got more involved and seven years later here we still are.
After three EPs and an album, Violet Drive is the longest album that you’ve done? What made you feel ready to release this album?
There was loads of time because we weren’t touring because of COVID and there was a lot to say. One of the first goals was to shift the project in a new direction with an awful lot of drum recordings that we did first. That’s what led the album to take the shape that it took. We did the drums over two weeks with this amazing Swiss drummer in the Swiss alps.
At the beginning of every project, we set out what type of landscape this is; if this project were a movie, what would it be? We had these abstract discussions to formalise it in our heads and find a different way into what the whole project should be. It was really fertile, especially after the drum recordings. We sat down for a year or so and saw where it took us.
Do you think that environment was a factor in the sound of Violet Drive?
Very much so. Berlin as a city, architecturally and historically is really interesting. Add on that that it was so deserted for 2020-21, so we did a lot of night-time driving around. There was a studio near the river, and that stretch of the river used to be a no man’s land. It was a two-kilometre-wide buffer between East and West and if you were caught in that zone, you were usually shot. That zone then became a real creative hub because it was completely abandoned after the wall came down. There are a lot of studios there. But there are still remnants of all of that and it’s a city that carries a real sense of history. I feel that I’m losing that in London, for example. The older bits of the city are making way for chain restaurants and Boris Johnson’s Newbuilt projects. As Berlin still has that, we were very inspired by where we were living, for sure.
The music videos that you’ve released from the album all seem to follow a theme. “Pulse V1” is set in an abandoned Motorway. “Moonbeam, Midnight, Howl” is set in an abandoned warehouse. “Violet Drive” is set in an abandoned airfield. Does this mean that these liminal spaces are a metaphor for your music?
I think it’s about finding places that leave enough open to the imagination that you can imprint what you want into that thing. At the same time, it’s an unknown history and you can imprint your ideas into that.
All of those were filmed by an Australian director, a fantastic guy called Greg Blakey. The craziest one was the airfield. Where we filmed was very accessible, but right next to it was fenced off and there was a complete military barracks from the Soviet Union still there. When we were scouting, we sort of broke into the barracks and it was completely derelict with bushes everywhere. It was like something from a zombie movie. We were wandering through these Soviet barracks, with the overgrown airfield, and that was way too creepy for us. There were remnants of squatters and so on, so we left that bit alone. Places that leave enough to the imagination but have a sense of history really have something.
In an earlier interview you did, you said that you try to get the sounds in your head into the songs. How close do you think you got with Violet Drive?
It’s funny; I think sometimes when you’re lying in bed at night, you have finished songs in your head. During the creative process, during the difficult moments, it can feel as though you don’t have anything inside your head, and you’re all washed up. I guess it’s about going into the essence of what that thing is that you’ve created. The idea always has the answer about where to go next. It’s more about listening to that idea in the right way.
I’m not exactly sure whether you’re meant to follow the sounds in your head all the way. You reach a real-world idea that’s there on paper, in the form of a sketch or a short draft of music, then that becomes the thing that you’re meant to listen to clearly. The idea becomes the master to the form that the song should take. If the song doesn’t get finished, then maybe the idea wasn’t conclusive enough to take you all the way.
That kind of approach makes it easier to work on music day in and day out, because it’s quite a Zen sort of approach to the whole thing.
The idea of working from the drum beat up was a new way of working for you as well. Did that spark any new trips in your song writing?
Totally. It was interesting, because previously if we were using a drum beat, it was just drum samples and maybe we would re-record them at the end. Drums also lend themselves to a different style of song writing. The initial struggle on Violet Drive was how to write songs around these initial drum takes that we had. To say we were taking the drums first and writing songs over the top was a real challenge at the beginning. Once we found the way forward it flew, but it was a very novel process.
You hear a lot of melodies in drums when they’re on their own. If you have a drummer that’s onboard with the process, then they’re giving way more melodically, with congas and bongos, you got whole guitar riffs in those percussive patterns.
How do you interpret that for your live performances?
First and foremost, we’re trying to get the audience into a headspace where they forget everything else that’s going on. They forget about time and space and are just there in that moment. Usually on the way into and out of songs there’s a lot of improvisation going on and a lot of playing with the format of the songs. Plus, there’s a lot of reaction to the room and different audiences. Our sound engineer records most gigs and listening back it’s interesting how different the German portion of our tour was compared to the west coast of America. We were much faster in the States, coming into and out of songs, but noisier and more abrasive. Whereas in Europe we had a longer format to take people there and be slightly longer and the guitar wasn’t so jangly.
Who are your musical inspirations? Both for relaxation and inspiration?
I would say that relaxation and inspiration are two ends of the spectrum. For relaxation I’ve been listening to a Belgian singer called Melanie De Biasio. I really like the new Mitski album. She has a style of song writing that unfolds on itself and you don’t know where each verse ends and begins. It gets in your head, and you start to lose all sense of a song format. Jockstrap are another band where I feel like they’ve completely untangled the format of what a pop song should be.
The last record that was a big inspiration was CAN, the German band. The song “Vitamin C” is a song that you’d probably know. There’s a great album called Ege Bamyasi recorded in Cologne. It wasn’t just the album; they bunkered up in this abandoned American military bunker in the 70’s. The Americans had left all the mattresses, so they took the mattresses and stuck them around as soundproofing. The singer had fled America so as not to be conscripted for Vietnam and was a bit loose in the head. There’s a lot of story about the band and the drummer is amazing, a guy called Jaki Liebezeit.
Autumn Hardy sings on a few of the tracks. She really layers and complements your “dirty” sound. How did you connect with her?
She’s Australian actually. She lives three flats below me. During COVID, people were stuck in their flats, but within our own building it was alright. She’d come up in work breaks and sing over the top of stuff. She had her own thing in Australia, on Triple J and the like. She moved to Berlin and was such a great addition.
Violet Drive is described as being like a drive from Hamburg to Rome. I get the feeling that your live shows are similar.
Everything today, with social media and news live tickers, means that we’re often stuck in our own digital bubbles. The goal of any live show is communion – for people to come together and meet. Whether it’s church or Trump rallies, I think that’s what really great live shows do. They bring people together in that space. You feel like these people are your friends, even if you turned up on your own. You have something in common. That’s a big part of our goal, live. In the same way that a movie takes you on a journey, especially like a Kubrick movie that unfolds on itself.
Kerala Dust headline club nights:
Thu 16 Nov 2023 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
Sun 19 Nov 2023 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tickets on sale now at secretsounds.com