The Delta Riggs’ ‘Active Galactic’
Active Galactic is the third, and by far the best, album by The Delta Riggs. Ranging from punk to funk, from Britpop to hip-hop, The Delta Riggs’ musical universe keeps expanding. At the same time, the band itself sounds more focused and musically surefooted than ever. Hex.Lover.Killer and Dipz Zebazios were both good albums but Active Galactic is their first great one.
“Surgery of Love”, the opening track and first single, was inspired by a visit lead singer Elliott Hammond and bass guitarist Michael “Monte” Tramonte made to Berlin’s legendary Club der Visionaere. “We’d just got to Berlin and we wanted to do something cool,” Tramonte told me when I interviewed both men a couple of weeks ago. Initially titled “Der Visionaere”, it turned into “Surgery of Love” after Hammond completed the lyrics in Los Angeles during a songwriting stint last year. It’s an infectious dose of rock disco, that much-maligned genre from the late-’70s that gave the world crossover hits by Rod Stewart, Blondie and, in particular, The Rolling Stones circa “Miss You”. The resemblance of “Surgery of Love” to this last one is intentional, with the Riggs using harmonica and falsetto vocals on a riff that is a hair’s-breadth from outright theft. Cheeky buggers.
Active Galactic’s potent mix of rock’n’soul continues with the next track, “Never Seen This Before”. Here Hammond distils some of his LA experiences into a bracing shot of souped-up R&B:
When you drive all night to the top of the hill with your motor running hot. Oh, Lord!
With a high-rise view of the city below and a Jag on the basement floor. Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!
With the evening coming and a bag on the go, I got a number in my mobile phone
I got a driver coming at a quarter to eight with a bottle on the patio. Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!
Guitarist Alex “Rudy” Markwell peppers the pulse-racing rhythm with taut, funky licks, pushing the track’s accelerator even harder. Markwell’s nimble riffing is equal parts Nile Rodgers and Mick Jones, the latter impression partly reinforced by the crunchy burr of his guitar. “Never Seen This Before” gets a further adrenalin lift when a super-fat horn section joins in towards the end. The down-and-dirty baritone sax sounds for all the world like it came straight from Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and you don’t get better than that.
Elliott Hammond told me that his time in the United States had a strong impact on him. “That’s kinda what shaped the album as well,” he said. “I bought a muscle car and I’m driving around LA in this ’63 coupé and The Bee Gees are on the radio, and I’ve never really got into that at all but in the context of Sunset Strip, and the palm trees, and Pink’s [Hot Dogs] … I get it now. I got it.”
Los Angeles was also where they met Jason Hollis, who co-produced Active Galactic with the band. Previously, The Delta Riggs had always done the production themselves, but Hollis’s ideas and enthusiasm proved to be an asset in the studio. “What I liked about him was he was there when you needed him,” said Hammond, “but if everything was going you just wouldn’t even notice him… It’s more Andrew Loog Oldham style. More, ‘Let’s get the right vibe, let’s get the right people around, let’s get you thinking about the right stuff.’ Then he just takes a step back.”
Hollis solved the thorny problem of how to combine slick dance music with raw rock songs. “We wanted the punk rock shit on the record to offset the disco kinda shit but still make sense in that kinda Clash [way],” Hammond told me. “Having these kinda conversations about how to do that and [Hollis’s] idea was, like, ‘Alright, if we’re gonna be going for three microphones on the drum kit – a dead, minimalist sound for the punk stuff – let’s just do the same shit for the disco stuff. We don’t need to go Big Production.” This bare bones approach gave the band the flexibility to dabble in any genre they wanted, knowing it would come out sounding sonically consistent.
The next few songs demonstrate the band’s grab-bag ethos very well. “Slingin’ on a Saturday Night” slows the tempo to a sexy swagger, putting it in the same neighbourhood as Gwen McCrae’s 1975 hit “Rockin’ Chair”. A trashy hi-hat overdub adds some rare groove brashness, while Markwell’s twangy guitar wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to a ’60s spy thriller. As a complete contrast to that, “Get Right” is a chunk of post-punk agitprop. Hammond rails at “the fuzz” like a true counterculture rabble rouser. The dated term for police may be a quaint pop culture reference but Hammond is in deadly earnest when he calls for “boots on the ground to take up the fight” against authoritarianism. The Riggs are joined on the track by some fellow party monsters, namely Dylan and Paddy from Sticky Fingers, who add their voices to Hammond’s plea for righteous rebellion. The guitars on “Get Right” are angular and hard but they’re underpinned by a loping reggae rhythm that will keep the dance floor heaving. This is a revolution you can dance to.
“June Gloom” provides the first opportunity for quiet reflection. It features my favourite chorus on Active Galactic, and for the first time we get a glimpse of Hammond’s vulnerability. In the lyrics, the singer is wrestling with questions of fidelity and commitment, but the beautiful descending melody answers him with passion and warmth.
She gonna say, ‘Can I be the only one?
Can I be the common touch
And be away when the sun comes up?’
In the battle between head and heart, the music of “June Gloom” definitely favours the latter.
Active Galactic was recorded in only nine days. That’s a very short period for an album so textured and rich in detail. The Riggs saved a lot of time by recording a lot of it completely live – including the lead vocals occasionally. That is unheard of in this age of unlimited recording tracks and endless manipulation. Several of the band members are adept on a variety of instruments and they often swap roles. For example, Hammond is an accomplished drummer and drums on half of the songs on the album. “We’re at that level now as musicians where, like, if I can picture a drum part I can sit down and execute it,” Hammond explained. “I don’t need to nut it out.” Markwell, the band’s guitarist, also played a lot of bass, while Tramonte, the bassist, played a lot of guitar. “Monte will play the acoustic because his metering is a bit slower and more jangly,” Hammond added. “So we’re all jumping around onto different things and the live version of the band is completely different to the studio version. The studio version is chopping and changing constantly.”
“Kids Are Alright” dates from their earliest days, but a spontaneous change of feel in the studio breathed in new life. Here Hammond laments the desensitising effect of constant exposure to political violence in our culture and the complacency it engenders. As he told me: “We have shit like bombs going off in airports… [but] the kids are alright, they’ve still got their iPhones and their Pokémon Go.”
Some of Markwell’s twisting guitar lines remind me of The Strokes, such as on “Stay While You Run Away” and “Don’t Be Lonely”. Both of these songs are punk inflected but The Riggs have given them a ’50s overtone as well. I was pleasantly surprised to hear some doo-wop harmonies in “Stay While You Run Away”. You can never have too much of that.
“Baddest Motherfucker in the Beehive” is full of great pop hooks. In a perfect world, this would be a smash hit single, but for this one the title – also the final line of each chorus – might present a problem for radio programmers. The song is inspired by Pharrell Williams and N.E.R.D. and once again perfectly illustrates what makes The Delta Riggs so good: no matter how far they wander musically, they never lose sight of their own identity in the process.
Active Galactic contains a generous 13 songs without a single dud. I wish I had the space to describe all of them in detail. I’d tell you about “Sunny”, which is written from the point of view of a desperate user looking for their drug dealer – it goes for seven minutes, but that goes by in a flash. I might talk about “Take You for a Ride”, which takes a hip-hop groove, adds a funk overlay, and tops it off with vintage Moog sounds and a playground singalong, but there just isn’t the space to do it justice.
One song I must talk about is the album closer, “Losing All Our Love”. This is Hammond at his most heartfelt and exposed. It depicts the breakdown of a relationship without assigning guilt or blame, simply laying out all the cards, to reveal his terrible feelings of loss and helplessness. It probably won’t be something he will ever sing in concert. “I didn’t really like listening back to it afterwards,” he told me. “I think I sang it twice and I said, ‘Right, that’s it – I can’t sing that again.’ ”
Rather than being a path to success in the music industry, playing rock’n’roll – the good stuff, the straight dope – is one of the least profitable things anyone can do in this business. As Michael Tramonte lamented, “We’ve been doing fucking everything on our own. We don’t even have a label here. Inertia helps us a lot but they’re not our label, they just distribute it. We pay for everything.” I can’t help feeling that major success mightn’t be too far away. It would certainly be richly deserved.
The Delta Riggs are the real thing: an honest-to-goodness, no-holds-barred rock’n’roll band, a commodity that has been in very short supply for decades. Elliott Hammond, for one, is aware of the magic they have: “Not many bands can do the Stones thing,” he says. “That push-pull, the guitar weaving in [with] the drums… the latency in the drumming, the backbeats without the hi-hat, the Charlie Watts kind of thing. We’ve figured it out. Not too many bands have figured it out, so we’ve got to exploit it.”
Here’s what I’ve figured out, ladies and gentlemen: Active Galactic is an outstanding, diverse album that makes a strong case for The Delta Riggs being one of the better groups this country has produced. More important than that, it makes me want to dance, and isn’t that what rock’n’roll is supposed to do?
BALLET Snow White
La Boite, Brisbane, until September 24
VISUAL ART I Never Painted My Dreams, I Painted My Reality
Kingston Arts Centre, Morabbin, until September 27
CLASSICAL Sato and the Romantics
City Recital Hall, Sydney, September 7-17
Melbourne Recital Centre, September 10-11
FESTIVAL Australian Antarctic Festival
Various venues, Hobart, September 8-11
MUSIC Eric Isaacson presents ‘I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore’
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, September 8
Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 7-17
LITERATURE Batemans Bay Writers’ Festival
Various venues, Batemans Bay, September 9-11
CINEMA Sydney Latin American Film Festival
Dendy Opera Quays, Sydney, September 8-12
THEATRE Never Did Me Any Harm
Theatre Royal, Hobart, September 8-9
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Heart of Stones". Subscribe here.