Primitive Calculators: “We were always trying to be a pop group.” Interview by Chris Downton


While post-punk / noise outfit Primitive Calculators first emerged out of Melbourne’s ‘little bands’ scene in 1978, it’s arguable since that their reformation for 2009’s All Tomorrows Parties, they’ve entered their most prolific phase. While they were only active for the years spanning 1978-1980 during their initial lifespan, Chapter Music’s timely reissuing of Primitive Calculators 1982 self-titled album (itself a posthumous release recorded live while supporting the Boys Next Door) and the subsequent ‘Primitive Calculators and Friends’ compilation exposed the band’s early tracks to a whole new audience of listeners.

If 2013’s ‘The World Is Fucked’ album managed to more than live up to its title by containing easily some of the most nihilistic and pummelling, yet curiously funky and hooky tracks the Primitive Calculators had crafted to date, five years on, the band’s latest album ‘On Drugs’ sees them venturing off in new directions. Indeed, there are influences ranging from nineties techno through to layered gospel vocals on the nine tracks collected here, as well a distinct lyrical emphasis more on the individual compared to preceding records from the band. Chris Downton caught up with Primitive Calculators songwriter and frontman Stuart Grant to find out more.

You’ve mentioned in the accompanying release notes for ‘On Drugs’ that this latest album has narrowed its approach to focus more on the plight of the individual than previous records. Were there any particular reasons why you wanted to explore this perspective this time around?

No it wasn’t deliberate. After the last record we were pleased and surprised at the rightwing outcry that greeted it and we wanted to take that to task and address some of their concerns. The personal approach just kind of evolved. I don’t think it’s actually that much more to do with the individual than previous stuff, maybe a little less nihilistic, a little more polemical and didactic.

Is it fair to say that ‘On Drugs’ is a much more personal album than ‘The World Is Fucked’? I certainly had that impression upon listening to the album.

There’s a love song, but there was a love song on ‘The World Is Fucked’. The title track is a kind of personal memoir of growing up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, but it’s still about broader issues of rape culture and power. I guess it’s about the effect that all that has on the everyday life of people, the grinding emptiness of suburban life – home car work home car work home car work shopping. Still, rather than personal I think it’s just more political and less nihilistic. A vague whiff of hope and humanity perhaps? Rather than the blanket pointlessness of ‘The World is Fucked’.

Compared to previous Primitive Calculators records, the production on ‘On Drugs’ sounds more polished, and there’s a much more expansive sound. What sorts of factors fed into this when making the album?

I wanted to make a psychedelic album. That’s why its called ‘On Drugs’. But like all Calculators records it came out different to how we planned it. There’s more space, less over the top brutal harshness in the sounds. It’s also a bit funkier. James Brown was always a huge influence from the early days. This just makes the funk more explicit. We were always trying to be a pop group, (we) just always fucked it up. We just want to be pop stars, but are totally incompetent, ugly and old.

There’s a also a far more dance music-based feel to a lot of the beats powering beneath these tracks – was that a deliberate aim that the band had when making ‘On Drugs’?

I wanted to go for a sound that combined brutal shit bad nineties techno, the Temptations’ psychedelic period, bland drones, and our own characteristic shitpile of sludge. We were always trying to be a disco band but again, always got it wrong. I guess maybe after 40 years we might be getting a little bit closer to what we are actually trying to do.

I could also notice a definite gospel feel to the backing vocal harmonies on tracks like ‘On Drugs’; was this something that influenced writing and recording these tracks?

Yeah, definitely. I wanted to get a choral feel, so there’s a lot more singers on the record, even though most of them can’t really sing. It’s also got rappers on it, but they’re not really doing what would conventionally be thought of as rap. We’re actually heading much more in a noise-hop direction at the moment, exploring more possibilities of the voice. I’ve always loved gospel and soul music, so that’s creeping in.

Do you find that your band approach to writing songs has altered much over the years with changes in musical technology, or has it remained fairly the same? What sorts of things inspire the creation of a Primitive Calculators song?

There has never been a band approach to songwriting. I always wrote all the parts and most of the words. Frank would stick in a few words here and there, but the music was always written by me with the others just operating it. Technology has allowed me to do more than we could in the seventies, to control the precision. When we started there weren’t even sequencers and our drum machine had to be programmed by tapping the beats into a rubber cone. Even then, it could only store twelve steps. But my process is still the same…a few lyric ideas, nail a bass groove, build stuff around it and fill in the blanks. James Brown.

With much of the world currently caught up in scary neo-conservatism at the moment, I’m guessing that Primitive Calculators have more to react against than ever. Has this been the case when writing this latest album?

This album is entirely about the effects of the Chicago school of economics. I’m not surprised, but pissed off that nobody in power seems to want to say that the current growing wealth inequities in society are caused by shrinking government expenditure, low taxes, and upward shift of wealth. We haven’t even begun to see the real demise of the mid-twentieth century experiments in more caring societies. I think we will see the end of democracies as we know them and a new rise of totalitarianism in the West. Shit is gonna get a lot more fucked up. I see this week that the Liberal Party is debating whether to include floggings in their party platform. These cunts are insane.

You’ve got a new band member (Mo Louie) for this latest album, and you’ve also collaborated with people like Andrea Blake, OGO and Stella Electrica on tracks. What sorts of things have these collaborators brought to the table when working on this album?

This album was a transitional period, trying new sounds, new people, new approaches to recording. There is a lot of different stuff on it. Since recording it we’ve moved a lot further and we have a whole new band. I’m the only original member left. The new band members are all actually musicians and sound designers who can play instruments and manipulate sounds. We are an infinitely better band. On the record, Andrea brought a knowledge of found sounds that we’d never had before. OGO and his crew brought the rap. The other singers coloured it up a lot more. And then there’s Grace. Grace is a god. The voice of death.

I was saddened to hear of Frank Lovece’s passing earlier this year. Had recording of the new album been completed at this point?

Yes Frank is on all the tracks. He did some really good work on it.

What sorts of touring and live shows have you got planned for ‘On Drugs’?

The launch is on June 1st at the Curtin. Adelaide July 14 Bastille Day, and a bunch of other things are in the works.

Primitive Calculators’ new album ‘On Drugs’ is out now on It Records.


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