ASTRO CHILDREN: Millie Lovelock and Isaac Hickey (PHOTO: Fraser Thompson)

Astro Children: ‘The only Dunedin Sound I have ever cared about is my own’

Henry Oliver talks to Astro Children’s Millie Lovelock about the band’s new single and Dunedin’s indie music generational rift. 

The Spinoff: So… You’ve got a new record out?

Millie Lovelock: Yeah, it’s exciting and stressful and all sorts of fun things.

How come it’s stressful?

I don’t know, I just find the releasing music quite difficult. It hasn’t been that long since we released the first single, but there’s a lot of pressure, from myself largely.

Like creative pressure or in terms of its response?

A bit of both. Mostly creative pressure. I feel like I’ve spent such a long time sitting with this record – we recorded it in 2016 – and there’s a chance I’ve just tricked myself into thinking that it’s good. Which, rationally, I know isn’t true.

So why wait so long?

I wanted to be ready to release it. I’ve never felt ready when we’ve released anything before. It’s usually like we record, it takes a lifetime to be mixed and mastered so by the time it’s finished, we’re in a frenzy to just get it out and I didn’t want to do that with this one. We spent a decent amount of time recording it, I wanted to spend a decent amount of time doing the mixes and thinking about what kind of artwork I wanted to use and which songs I wanted to release. So it’s taken a bit longer, which is fine, but the pressure builds the longer you wait.

Where do you see yourself fitting in Dunedin music? The other day, you tweeted, “the only Dunedin sound I have ever cared about is my own” yet you played ‘Getting Older’ at the Silver Scrolls celebration of The Clean…

That was deeply amusing to me.

So how do you reconcile those things?

I mean, the Dunedin Sound thing is a whole cesspit really, but in terms of where I see myself or where I see the band fitting in, I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot since we recorded the album, and I don’t think this is just a New Zealand thing, but there’s a lot of value attributed to having a sound that is easily recognisable as your sound, like someone like Kane Strang.

You hear a Kane Strang song and you know ‘Oh, that’s a Kane Strang record’ and there are a consistent structure and sound across all the songs and all the records and I don’t really like working in that way myself. And I have this anxiety that because my songwriting tends to shift quite drastically between releases, that we don’t have the kind of consistency that’s expected from an indie band. but I also don’t want that consistency because I think it’s fucking boring.

So I’ve spent quite a bit of time worrying that this album is so different from our last album that people won’t like it. It’s just quite a weird record. And I think I’ve settled on thinking that it’s a weird record now and it doesn’t really fit in with anything else that I’ve heard that is coming out of Dunedin or is coming out of New Zealand. But I think I’m okay with that.

Coming from Dunedin, I’m proud of it because I like Dunedin as a city, I think it’s a cool place, but I don’t want to carry the burden of the ‘Dunedin Sound’ throughout my musical life. I personally don’t particularly care about any of those bands – if I cared about any of them it would be Look Blue Go Purple – and I’ve been vocal about that in the past, which is why I was amused to be asked to play The Clean tribute.

How did that feel?

It was fun. I had a really good time. Playing with Billy TK was just a crazy experience and I love playing with Lucy so it was really fun. But also, when Shayne [Carter] asked me if we’d be interested in doing it, I was like ‘Does he know about all the shit that I’ve talked? Does he read my tweets?’

Did that then feel like a bit of a ‘fuck you’ or something?

My friend did describe it as a defiant cover. I don’t know if it felt like a ‘fuck you’. It was definitely a satisfying feeling. I’ve talked so much shit about all of these bands and here I am playing the tribute for The Clean. And it’s not that I don’t like The Clean, I don’t actually know The Clean very well. It’s not really the kind of music I listen to – my dad listens to The Clean. My dad thought it was really cool, he was very excited about it.

I’ve gotten in a fair bit of strife when I was signed to Fishrider for blogging about how I didn’t give a shit about the Dunedin Sound and that was the beginning of the end of that label, being told that I wasn’t allowed to say such things in a public forum.

In contemporary Dunedin music, is that a division between those that are carrying on that tradition and those that work against it? Or does that not really exist?

I thought that it didn’t really exist until this last week when…  I don’t know if you’ve seen this drama between Coyote and The Chills street art?

No, I haven’t…

Basically, Chorus commissioned an artist to paint a little Chills mural thing on a power box outside the Cook Tavern and a local band came and painted over the Chills and wrote their own name. And a lot of people had a bit problem with that. There was a lot of discussion like ‘We wouldn’t even have a music scene in Dunedin if it weren’t for The Chills and how dare these young people to disrespect their elders and deface such a beautiful work of art’. So there was a division that made itself clear in the last week or so. Older people in the scene very much feel that we should all bow down to these Dunedin greats, who arguably only have one or two good songs between them, and not act out of turn.

Painting over a corporate celebration of an older band is what those bands would have done when they were young right?

Exactly! There’s so much talk of, ‘Oh, everything was so anarchic and young bands here are so tame and safe these days’. Then a young band actually does something a little anarchic and everyone is up in arms about it.

ASTRO CHILDREN: Millie Lovelock and Isaac Hickey (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

So you were saying that the album that’s on its way is different from what you’ve done before. Is the single that you’ve released this week that illustrative of that difference or is it different from that again?

No, it’s in the same vein as the single. And some of that is working with Jonathan Pearce. He played synth on the singe and a bunch of other tracks on the album and that obviously changes things quite a lot, going from just guitar and drums to having these really lush synth beds has been revolutionary for us.

And the same with the production as well?

It’s much more hi-fi than anything we’ve done in the past. And just the amount of time we’ve spent on it. We previously would record in one or two-day chunks spread out over weeks or months so that’s really different to settling in for two weeks and doing nothing but working on the songs and recording and adding lots of really weird shit. Jonathan and I worked very long hours and late in the evening would be like ‘Why don’t we add a five-part vocal harmony to this section?’ Isaac [Hickey, Astro Children drummer] would come in the next day and be like ‘What have you done?’

If the hi-fi-ness a creative choice or just an opportunity you didn’t have before?

A bit of both. Issac and I differ in our opinion on this kind of stuff. Isaac loves lo-fi music and is more DIY aesthetic. I love big production pop record and if I had it my way I would do nothing but produce hi-fi pop record but it was an opportunity as well. We’d saved enough money to pay for that kind of recording and we were about to make time to go to Auckland to do that kind of recording. I was writing my thesis so I was splitting my time, maybe unwisely, between ten hour days recording and several hours in the evening writing the final chapter of my thesis.

You’re internet-famous as the person who wrote their thesis on One Direction, what does studying a band like that do to your songwriting? Does spending so much time with such hook-orientated must change the way you write your own songs?

I think it did. It made me a better songwriter. Listening to a lot of One Direction, something I do regularly and had been prior to the thesis as well, you start to think a lot more about the structure of things. Previously, we’d do a lot of writing together in a much more jammy kind of way which was fine and our first proper record was a beautiful thing for it, but it wasn’t a sustainable way to write songs and I had been in a weird place where I didn’t have any music that I like listening to. After I left high school and started playing music a lot, there was a lot more pressure to listen to ‘cool’ music where previously I’d just been a huge My Chemical Romance fan.

I ended up in a weird place where I wasn’t really listening to anything because I didn’t know what I should be listening to and then I secretly got into One Direction and didn’t really listen to anything else for a long time. So that changed the way I wrote songs. I hadn’t written a song in a long time, I had almost two years when I couldn’t write anything, so listening to pop music, I thought maybe I just want to sit by myself and work out the structure of things before I throw myself into it on the guitar. One of the first songs I wrote for Turnpike was ‘Straight from My Heart’ and that lyric directly lifted from a One Direction song I was listening to while I wrote the lyrics and thinking about how many syllables I was able to squeeze into a line and whether the next line should have the same number of syllables or not. I think I ended up in this hideous pattern of like 12 syllables then nine then 12 again, then seven.

That’s very Max Martin.

You can’t listen to One Direction and not think of that. Their songs are so perfectly put together and I couldn’t imitate that but thinking about it makes me a better songwriter.

See Astro Children play:

10 March: Auckland, Whammy Bar

17 March: Wellington, Caroline

6 April: Dunedin, The Cook

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.