We settle in for a fresh convo with Australia’s Dom Mariani on his band’s upcoming April release, West Coast Highway Cosmic. “I’m a classic rock tragic at heart,” confesses Mariani. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. (Above photo: Ben Taylor-Vivian)
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When it comes to music, it’s such a cliché to say about any locale, but we’re gonna say it anyway: there’s just something about Australia. Possibly because of its isolation – remote from everything, getting cultural influences second- and third-hand, having the artifacts but little of the attendant hype to deal with. Possibly it’s simply the independent spirit of the average Australian – the combination of isolation and (though it’s admittedly overstated) a history of penal colonialism contributing to a certain filter, a way of looking at the art of other cultures (particularly American and British) and transforming it into a distinctly Australian vision. Regardless, the rock & roll that’s come out of the island nation has its own special flair, a certain je ne sais quoi that other countries don’t have.
All that speculation serves as a lead-in to the introduction of one Domenic Mariani, a singular figure in Australia’s rock scene for forty years. Lover of melody, shit-hot guitarist and absolutely winsome singer, Mariani has made his mark on the fields of garage rock (the Stems, the Stoneage Hearts, the DomNicks), surf rock (the Majestic Kelp) and, especially, power pop (the DM3, the Someloves, the Summer Suns), gaining diehard fans around the world. His current project, a singular spin on bluesy power rock dubbed Datura4, pays homage to his youthful love of early seventies blues rock and hard rock, emphasizing his expert six-string pyrotechnics without eschewing his traditional, song-based melodic instincts. Joined by guitarist Greg Hitchcock (Kryptonics, You Am I), bassist Stu Loasby (the Majestic Kelp, Jack & the Beanstalk), and drummer Warren Hall (the Drones, Gutterville Splendor Six), Mariani made three richly produced, riff-soaked albums that sound distinguished from his other work, while still being of a piece with it.
Hitchcock has since left and been replaced by keyboardist Bob Patient; the reconstituted quartet returns to the record racks this spring, on April 17, with West Coast Highway Cosmic (Alive Naturalsound), its most varied and accomplished LP thus far. We caught up with Mariani via e-mail to talk about the new Datura4 album and how it fits in with the rest of his career.
BLURT: Congratulations on West Coast Highway Cosmic. The songs are catchier, the riffs are sharper, the vocals as strong as ever. You’ve mentioned not wanting to repeat yourself from album to album. What inspired you to push D4 further than it had gone before?
DOM MARIANI: A couple significant things happened during the sessions for previous album Blessed is the Boogie . The first was the departure of Greg Hitchcock, which reduced the band to a three-piece for the recording process. The second, and most timely, was hooking up with our keyboard player Bob Patient. We had Bob come in for a session. There was a connection and it really opened up a world of possibilities for us. Greg had been against the idea of keyboards on previous records, and his leaving really freed things up for us to go beyond the two guitars-bass-and-drums thing.
We were chuffed when Bob agreed to join the band. This led to two new songs (“Cat on a Roof” and “Evil People Pt. 2”) being added to the album. Both from a band and a personal songwriting perspective, it’s the best thing that could have happened. West Coast Highway Cosmic is the first full album with Bob, and is just the tip of the iceberg. There was more spontaneity, paired with a “let’s see what happens” kind of approach to the recording. Some of the tunes came from basic grooves that Warren and myself had worked up in the studio. The results are a little more eclectic than on our previous albums.
Though there’s plenty of heavy blues rock, this album really expands the band’s palette. In particular it’s more melodic and psychedelic than before. Did you consciously tap into your past with the Stems/DM3 to add some spice to this record?
If anything, subconsciously. It’s inherent in the way I write. I’m always looking for a good melody or a memorable riff – always striving for the perfect balance/combination in a song. I’m a classic rock tragic at heart.
These are some of the best tracks on the album. Do you have any comments to offer on any of them?
“Give”: I wasn’t sure if this song would work on the album. It was one of the last ones that went down and it came up great. The electric/acoustic guitar, combined with Bob picking up on the main melody line on the Hammond organ, works well to give it a folk/rock feel with a soulful touch.
“West Coast Highway Cosmic”: I’d had the title for a while. The West Coast Highway is a stretch of road that runs along our beaches here, west of Perth, and where one of our recording studios is located. We had the bulk of the song recorded, but I only had the chorus. I kept playing it in my car, heading to and from the studio, and eventually the lyrics came. Bob added some cool Moog to it to take it far and beyond.
“You’re the Only One”: It’s a love song to my wife, and the last song written for the album. I went for a live, stripped-back approach on the instruments and vocals by using and messing around with the natural reverb of the room.
“A Darker Shade of Brown”: That one came out of a groove that Warren and I set up while we were goofing around in the studio – a heavy fuzzed-out blues riff over a funky drum groove, while Bob plays wild organ stabs. I already had the lyrics before the song came about. I read an article once about how they closed down a popular beach due to a mysterious dark algae, or so they said.
Considering how prolific the band has been, is it safe to say that Datura4 is your main project right now? Are DM3, Majestic Kelp, etc. on hold for now?
Both DM3 and The Majestic Kelp have been ongoing projects over the last bunch of years, while Datura4 has become my main songwriting and recording focus. Datura4 has plenty more fuel left in the tank. We toured Europe last October and were very happy with the response. It’s a slightly different audience to, say, DM3 or The Stems, but there’s still a good crossover.
Datura4 seems to have increased your profile in America, where you’re finally getting regular releases. Why do you think that is?
Hooking up with US label Alive Naturalsound records has helped a great deal. We love what Alive stands for, and we’re label mates with some great bands.
After so many years of being known as the power pop ace, are you happy to be flexing your blues rock guitar muscles?
Absolutely! I’ve been a fan of blues and hard rock all my life, and felt the urge to get out there and have some fun with it, do something different. I’ve not turned my back on power pop. In fact, as a lover of pop melody and heavy riffs, I still love that stuff, but for now I’m preferring to mix things up a bit. I don’t want to be stuck on the same bus. I will get back to it one day, maybe on a solo record. I recall quite fondly working with Mitch Easter and talking about our favourite hard rock bands in-between takes, and how he’d seen some of them in the seventies. It made me feel like it wasn’t some guilty pleasure. Anyway, it’s all about songs for me and I don’t care what style it is.
Like America and England, Australia has a legacy of heavy blues rockers from the ‘70s. Which of them particularly inspires D4, and which ones do you think should be better known outside of Australia?
I really like the latter-day Master Apprentices and boogie kings Carson. Both bands had great singers and guitar players. I was fortunate to see The Coloured Balls play a concert when I was sixteen, and snuck in to the Raffles Hotel to see Buffalo and The La De Da’s when I got my driver’s license. Locally we had Sitting Bull, Fatty Lumpkin, and Bakery.
Do you plan on touring here in the States for WCHC?
If the new record does well and there’s enough interest, then sure. We’d love to tour the States, given the opportunity.
Watch BLURT for a special track premiere from the new Datura4 album very soon. Meanwhile, here’s some mo’ Mariani for your edification:
https://blurtonline.com/feature/man-popsided-guitar-dom-mariani/ (by Tim Hinely)
https://blurtonline.com/review/dom-mariani-majestic-kelp-hi-seas/ by Michael Toland)
http://www.citadel-records.com/dom/768/page1.html (liner notes to Mariani’s career retrospective Popsided Guitar 1984-2004), by BLURT editor Fred Mills