Tonight at the hot and sweaty Railway Club, tracks like ‘Deep Heat’, ‘Suffocated’ and ‘Fever’ all seem really appropriate. A layered, deep and funky house party album, Deep Heat is rife with glam-rock references, endearing rock star affectation plus a little bit of reggae. It’s a total and planned departure, Oh Mercy frontman Alex Gow says, from the guitar-driven pop and autobiographically personal songs from the previous two albums.
“I wanted it to be, in almost every way, different to the last record. I feel an obligation not to make the same album twice,” he tells me in an earlier interview. Writing in third person was a considered decision he said, offering him a broader palette of concepts and vocabulary to draw on. Asked whether the departure has anything to do with how hard it must be to tour autobiographical stuff, singing it over and over, even when you’re long past the events or feelings it’s based on, he agrees. “I also think I’m just not that interesting,” he adds. “I’m just a middle-class white guy from Melbourne – how interesting can it get?”
In standard sans aircon Railway fashion, Oh Mercy’s Darwin gig happens on the weekend prior to Halloween, so that Gow is serenading everything from the undead to a pair of hilarious large-mouthed, googley-eyed aliens from The Muppet Show.
The dress-ups are not just in the audience; Oh Mercy themselves are decked out in full hipster regalia – not an easy feat in a Top End build-up. Gow wears a metallic gold jacket, ‘DEEP HEAT’ emblazoned on the back, the bassist Eliza Lam and keyboardist Annabel Grigg are rocking a coordinated preppy-chic look, each with a buttoned to the collar blouse and sensible sandals worn with socks.
They’re playing at a nostalgic aesthetic that works a profound nerve for Gen Y-ers, and ironic channelling of a memorable period they were not present to experience. “Up until the 90s, pop music was interesting and clever,” Gow has said of his own nostalgic referencing of the 60s, 70s and 80s. “Then something happened and people stopped giving a shit. So I’m looking back at David Bowie and Roxy Music and really admiring them for how creative they were and how much credit they gave song writing.”
At mention of his vocals, he explains: “Because I’m not a great singer, in a traditional sense, I look to people like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Brian Ferry. The thing that is important to those guys, and the thing that I love about them is they understand the limitations of their voice and they put lots of emphasis on their phrasing.”
In any event, the live result is awesome, and in this, the last gig of the tour, he and his band operate like a well-oiled machine despite obvious hiccups with the feedback and Lam’s mic being inaudibly low.
Gow dons his guitar for old time’s sake, and runs through some oldies, but stays with the well-received Deep Heat tracks. “We’re playing a lot of old songs that we’ve re-jigged to suit the aesthetic of the new songs,” he says ahead of the tour, “and for those I‘m playing guitar. But 80 per cent of it, I’m just doing that frontman thing. And it’s really exciting because I’ve never really felt that much of an attachment to the guitar; it’s something that I’ve had to do to be able to write songs so it just makes it so much more different than before. Sometimes I think ‘holy shit’ what am I doing with my hands, where am I?’ but I think these moments are becoming fewer and fewer.”
For the encore, Gow goes solo, and gamely wears a white wig – a component of someone’s costume and, I hear later, ends up back at their place for their birthday party.