EXCLUSIVE: How Carmada pulled off the impossible for ‘EDM The Musical’ set at Splendour [Long Read]
Long read: TMN’s Brynn Davies lived her best Cameron Crowe life and joined the touring party for Carmada‘s Splendour In The Grass live performance. A tale of bloody spinal cords, buckets of sweat and happy tears, in which everything that can go wrong, does.
“We’ve got… eight hours until pack-down here, and it goes in the truck up to Byron and it’s on,”Max Armata (Yahtzel) says, checking his watch.
Videographer Julian Rich is balancing on the bleachers inside one of Carriageworks’ cavernous rehearsal spaces, and pans to take in the massive custom LED screens, lighting rig, smoke machines and trundles of equipment below.
On the floor, Max’s brother Luke Cameron is busy helping to haul drums onto a riser while guest vocalists begin to stream in, finding their way to a seat in the dim light – it’ll be hours before they’re needed.
“We basically have to be ready to go when they call our names and that’s it,” says guitarist Timi Temple, leaning back on the bleachers. “They don’t show you the waiting around in Almost Famous,” he winks.
“Can you shine a light down here?” a voice echoes up from under us, as Audiopaxx tour manager Stacey Queffert roots around under us for a dropped Artist pass.
Drew Carmony (L D R U) – fresh out of hospital with a hemorrhage in his spine – pops a couple of painkillers and opens his laptop, diving back into a session.
“Can we get this mastered today?” he yells over at music director Joel Farland, who’s in deep conversation with front of house engineer Paul ‘Woody’ Annison.
There’s a lot of movement; everyone in the 20-something-strong Carmada team has their part to play, and the ticking clock is on everyone’s minds.
While the plan for their performance at Splendour In The Grass has been in the works for months, this is the first time everyone has been together – in the same country, even – for a rehearsal.
They’re on stage in two days.
This performance will be the first time all three projects belonging to Max and Drew – L D R U (Drew) Yahtzel (Max) and Carmada (duo) – will be showcased together, and performed live.
“The music that’s coming out, and looking at the quality of electronic shows – we can’t just have Drew or Carmada or Max or whoever DJing Splendour,” says manager and GM of Audiopaxx, Tom Granger.
“I personally think that’s ripping the fans off… I wanted to offer them something a little bit different.”
Tom has a unique opportunity; managing two successful solo artists who also have a project together.
When the rumbles of a possible Splendour set began, Tom took a hairbrained idea for a live, combined show to Max, Drew, and Joel.
“We’re calling it EDM The Musical,” laughs Joel. “That’s what Tom wanted.”
“At that first meeting, we all started spitballing absolutely crazy ideas,” adds Max.
“Like, we had white grand piano originally. We were gonna play Maybe on the grand piano. We wanted flaming drumsticks and all this crazy shit.
“We didn’t have the budget for it,” adds Drew. “We wanted magicians, we wanted some comedians, we wanted everything.”
“We wrote everything that we dreamed of in a big list and then we achieved as much of that as we could. The end result, I think we got more of that than what I thought we’d get,” enthuses Max.
The magnitude of the undertaking was lost on no one, but their schedules meant most of the show was built remotely.
Max and Drew – who on a good day live at opposite ends of NSW – were both off Australian soil for a good chunk of the year.
L D R U was due to perform at Coachella in April, but pulled out to work on the Splendour show, with Max taking his place.
Drew then headed on a pre-booked surfing trip to the Mentawais in the weeks before Splendour.
Meanwhile, Tom accompanied Max for Yahtzel’s three-month US tour supporting ODESZA.
“Now we’re getting to crunch time, we’re getting a month out from Splendour,” Tom remembers.
It was around this time that he found out Joel was in America with Peking Duk until July 17, mere days before the set.
“I was like, ‘Oh God.’
“So not only have been I been unable to get four people in the same room leading up to the show, I now have, literally, my musical director on one side of the world, one of my artists is in the middle of the ocean somewhere, and then I’ve got one of my artists who’s now gotta do a bulk of the work by himself in Australia.”
Drew is still putting finishing touches on the DJ components of the set in rehearsals, sending off a few new tracks to Joel’s mastering engineer before hopping up for his run-through.
Turning this show into a live performance has involved bringing along world-class drummer, Ben Ellingworth, who will be positioned directly behind Drew during a key solo.
With a hemorrhage in his spine caused by a spill on a wave in the Mentawais, Joel needs Max to cue Drew in throughout the set, and Drew himself is feeling boxed in.
“I want to go wild and have me some fun, and I can’t do what Max was doing. Throw some wicked dance moves out there… I felt kind of caged almost,” he explains.
Drew and his injured back have a long history. Ironically, he owes his career to it.
After falling off a ladder at 16 during his carpentry apprenticeship, he was bedridden for around 18 months.
It was during this recovery period that he learned to produce, having already spent a few years sneaking into Sydney clubs to DJ.
While the stakes are high for his neck, it’s not the first time he’s performed under similar conditions.
“We put a lot of time and effort into the show. You know, you just kind of push through it. The show goes on.”
By 11am the next day at Sydney airport, photographer Brayden Smith is looking like hell.
He’s fresh off a plane from LA, and had a passport scare mid-connection to boot.
“I thought I left it on the plane, and ran back and they wouldn’t let me back on to look,” he says, pained.
Most of the gear shipped overnight, and the entire accompanying team, including seven guest artists, are making their way to Byron in vans and on different flights.
There’s two giant Airbnbs booked to house them – just one of the many astronomical costs that make up the $70K+ price tag for this hour and a half-long set.
The production crew are still furiously working on the plane.
“We’ve been working on it for three days,” says Jasper Brinkof, not looking up from his laptop where he’s time coding lights.
It’s been a tough gig for Arian Yeganeh and his production crew from Integratd to put together lighting and visual design without having seen or heard the live show before; instead, working off drip-fed snippets of music.
Visual production will play an integral role in the show – the three projects have vastly different soundscapes, which works to their advantage, according to Joel.
Along with live guitars, drums and guest vocalists, much money and thought have been put into lights and visuals to bring the music to life and giving each section its own unique flavour, while keeping the performance cohesive.
And not only are Max and Drew playing live, so is the production crew.
“What punters are looking for at Splendour is a live experience, and dance music traditionally is not a live performance,” Toby Royce explains.
The lighting design is a mix of time-coded triggers and live mixing, and all of the visuals mixed live by Toby – “they call it busking”.
The goal – like Carmada’s – it to give a human edge to a digital production.
“Actually… I’ll show you something,” Toby says.
The video on his phone shows a broken TV screen electrified by blue, melting drips and strobes; a phantom hand pressing the screen, spasmodic pixels leaping away from the pressure points.
What we’re looking at is the shattered screen of a massive liquid crystal TV.
While equipment was getting shuffled around in rehearsal, the TV – used to preview lighting – was rested flat against a set of stairs.
Drew, walking down in the dim light of the rehearsal space, stepped on it.
“When we went to pick it up, there was like a big, dirty ass footprint on the TV screen,” recalls Toby.
“Someone was like, ‘Who stepped on the fucking TV?’” shares Drew. “And then it went quiet for a bit and I was like, probably should own up to this one.”
“You gotta find inspiration in as many places as you can,” Toby shrugs.
He grabbed his phone and started recording the broken liquid crystal, which would later be used to form part of Yahtzel’s psychedelic visual design.
“When something like that happens, the way that a liquid crystal TV looks when you’ve broken it – you can’t make that visually any other way.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh that looks really cool.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah that’s your broken screen. You did that five minutes ago.’
“A lot of music and visual experiences are kind of homogenised by digital stuff. So, the more human elements you can give it, the more genuine it comes across.”
Dane Boulton pipes up, “The owner of said TV came to the site to see how everything was looking the other day, and Toby was sitting there rehearsing the content he’d made out of the broken TV. Without the owner of the TV having any idea it had been broken.”
Everyone – the artists at least – seems far more relaxed backstage than in rehearsal.
There’s drinks and plates of food to be shared, and Splendour have even provided the joke requested on their rider – a ritual request of Drew’s.
But vocalist BOI aka Anna Buckingham is uncharacteristically subdued.
Resplendent in a glittering red jacket – hand-made by her boyfriend’s mum – Anna keeps a brave face; she’s just heard the news of her grandmother’s passing.
“I had [a moment] by myself backstage getting ready to go on, and a feather floated passed gently in the wind, and there was no way I thought to myself I could catch it with the nails I had on… but I reached out and plucked it first time,” she says.
“It was orange and gold and I’d like to think that was Grammie cheering me on.”
That night, Anna performed with the feather stowed safely under her costume, next to her heart.
Guy Sebastian was the original choice to sing Keeping Score, which he performed with Paces for Like A Version.
“It was a match made in heaven,” says Tom, “and it wasn’t until the week before Splendour that his manager called me and said ‘Look I’m very sorry… yada yada yada. Long story short, he couldn’t do it.’”
“So here I am, not telling Drew yet that I have no one to sing Keeping Score which is his biggest song.”
After flipping through a bunch of music magazines, Tom saw rising star G Flip pop up repeatedly.
“Why not? We’ll see what happens.”
Drew and Georgia Flipo met for the first time backstage, on the day of the performance, with 20 minutes to rehearse in the lot behind the Mix Up tent.
“That was a magic moment,” said Joel. “She’s an amazing performer and amazing artist and she really nailed it, just off that fifteen minutes of practice,” agreed Tom.
This is it.
Max’s Dad needs to get a Splendour In The Grass T-shirt.
Braving the evening crowds, he makes his way to the merch tent.
Staring up at the mountain of gear on the wall, he spots his son’s Yahtzel shirt.
“Jeez, they’re all so expensive!” he laughs.
Standing on the soundstage – an island in a swarming sea of cheering bodies – Max’s Mum, Dad and sister are beaming.
The show begins, and almost immediately we know something’s gone wrong.
Max’s MIDI controller has conked out, and he doesn’t look happy.
“Sadly, MIDI controllers love to tell you loudly that they’re going wrong,” explains Joel. “They’ll shout at you and they’ll be quiet for a bit and then they’ll shout at you… we got it up and running for a few of the main songs.”
“Joel’s like Obi-Wan Kenobi. If he’s there you just feel safe. He’s like a Jedi,” says Max.
“At that point, I thought triple j was streaming live. I started to think: Holy shit, this could be live right now to, in essence, the whole world if you’re streaming.
“That kind of locked me up for a second and then I just thought: Nah, there’s gonna be magic somewhere, magic will happen. Someone will help me here.”
“That’s what happens with live music,” Joel concedes. “It’s being created in front of you, there’s no backing tracks making up for that stuff, and there’s always a risk.
The MIDI wasn’t the only thing to go. Anna’s mic cut out for the first ten seconds of her song, and the confetti cannons didn’t pop off as planned.
“I don’t know what happened with the confetti stuff. I’ve gotta find out,” says Tom.
“In true manager fashion – the one time I will go into manager mode – I need someone’s neck wringed out for that confetti. I don’t know whose it is yet, but I’ll find out,” he jokes.
But any slip-ups, minor as they were, went unnoticed by the crowd. Instead, the explosive moments of sheer joy from the performers took centre stage.
It’s little-known that Drew sings on some of his tracks, and he’s incredibly reserved about it. But for Splendour, during Too Late, he came out from behind the decks to join up-and-comer Ned Philpot on the mic.
Seeing Drew get up to perform, Max ran back onto stage and started to dance like a lunatic. “I think he had a few beers after he’d finished and was like, ‘Fuck it’,” laughs Drew.
Tom was overwhelmed watching them together in that moment.
“Max knew how special it was that Drew went out and sung… being so overwhelmed by emotion that he just needed to go and show Drew how much he thought, how special that moment was, so he went out to dance with them.
“It was one of those moments where you hear people say music is a drug, and it was like, well fuck, I was grown man on the side of the stage crying seeing these boys out there doing what they love.”
The success of the show is an absolute credit to the hard-working team behind Carmada – from their management team at Audiopaxx to Arian Yeganeh and his production crew from Integratd, and each guest artist: Kira Puru (vocals), Ben Ellingworth (drums), Anna Buckingham(vocals), Xavier Dunn (vocals), Ned Philpot (vocals), Guy Brown (vocals) and Tim Lockwood (Timi Temple, guitar and bass), and all the other players along for the ride.
“A lot of people, they just look at the musician actually performing the music and they get the credit – but there’s a lot of people when you get to that level of show we’re doing that are also artists in their own right, creating something, who don’t get enough credit,” says Tom.
“We had such a mixing pot of personalities all in one show, but it’s all to their credit that we pulled this off.
“I was very very lucky to have the people that I had around me doing the show. I think if you did that process again, nine times out of ten… I reckon it’d blow up in your face.”