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Are Melbourne band Client Liaison living inside an enormous performance art piece or are they taking the piss? By Romy Ash.

Client Liaison’s all-consuming synth pop project

Client Liaison: Monte Morgan (left) and Harvey Miller AO
Credit: MEGAN CULLEN

The first thing Harvey Miller AO does as I get into the limousine is lean forward, clasp his hands together, and apologise. “Forgive us for the LCD TV,” he says. “We’re in the process of retrograding the technology. It’s to be replaced with an old-school TV, and we’re also looking to get a hot towelette machine.” 

Monte Morgan, who is sitting beside me, chips in at this point. “Yeah, so when you arrive you can clean your face, freshen up. Duck Hunt, yeah, we want to get Duck Hunt on an old TV.” 

Client Liaison’s white limousine picks me up at my door, taking up a stretch of suburban street. As we pull out from the gutter, Monte, the band’s frontman, cracks me a warmish Foster’s. There’s a wooden heart-shaped table in the centre of the limo, with a champagne cooler stuck in the middle. The table is reminiscent of a nautical interior. The champagne glasses hang from indents built into the wood and swing with the movement of the vehicle.

The limo is Harvey’s first car. “We want to bring back the romance of driving in a limousine,” Monte says. “There’s too many Hummers and you know, pink stretch limos—”

Harvey interrupts: “With their dirty LED lights.” This is something they do often, finishing each other’s sentences, embellishing one another’s ideas. They obviously spend too much time together. Monte melts into the off-white leather seat, relaxed. He takes a slurp of Foster’s, his eyes hidden behind purple Oakley Frogskins. 

I try to open a window but Monte tells me the controls for my door are locked. It’s so that drunk people can’t fall out into traffic. “The driver controls it,” he says. “You want me to ask the driver?” No, I don’t. I relinquish all control and drink my Foster’s, the taste as bad as I remember. 

Creating a world

Client Liaison released their debut album, Diplomatic Immunity, on November 4, following on from their self-titled EP. Harvey says the album took four years to write, and that they could have kept writing forever if their manager, Adam De Cata, hadn’t put his foot down. De Cata is in the limo, too, but he doesn’t say anything, just busies himself with his phone, looking up occasionally to smile and laugh at Monte and Harvey, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s got himself into. 

Client Liaison is often received as ironic. Based in Melbourne, they are known as much for their performance and film clips as their synth pop music. The band embodies a certain vintage aesthetic – part business culture, part Australian kitsch – and at first glance it seems they might be joking, taking the piss. Instead, they approach their music, the band, and how it bleeds into their life with the utmost seriousness. Monte is not wearing his curly, flowing mullet ironically. When he tells me about his towelette machine, he does so without the hint of a smile.

“We like using the word ‘absurd’,” he says. “We like absurdity. Les Patterson is a big hero of ours. It’s absurd; it’s theatre. People are kind of like, ‘What the hell, is that real?’ I mean, we laugh. When we create an idea we’re like, ‘Yes, we’ll get a limousine, and we’ll drive around’ – and two weeks later we’re dead serious and onto the next thing. So we’re actually living it.”

Harvey says he doesn’t mind if they’re misunderstood at first, but he speaks like someone who wants to be understood. He’s a little defensive, and has a nervous energy that manifests in his never still, carefully manicured hands. He explains that Client Liaison isn’t just a band; that they’re creating a world. 

“We both have art school backgrounds,” Harvey says. “We do the song first and foremost, but we’ve got all these other spaces in our heads, whether it be fashion, the video clip. And there’s this overall narrative that we’ve developed for Client Liaison – the corporate mythology, the nomadic businessman. We can’t help but colour in every section of the Client Liaison world.”

Monte says, “The line blurs. We like to imagine something and realise the fantasy.” 

“The manifestation of the CL destiny,” says Harvey. “We have a Collins Street address. We’re rolling around in a limo. We try to actualise it. Fiction becomes reality.” 

De Cata jumps in here, with an anecdote to illustrate their point: “When we were touring about a year-and-a-half ago, the last bit of the EP tour, it used to be Monte, Harv and I.” There are two extra band members for live shows, now: radio journalist Tom Tilley and Harvey’s brother, Geordie. “For the whole tour, I was putting on a lot of weight and I didn’t know why, and I started to pick up that Monte and Harvey were doing these dual shifts. Harvey would go, ‘I’m hungry.’ Monte wouldn’t be but I would eat, then Monte would go, ‘I’m hungry’, and then I’d eat again – and the whole Italian, big, band manager was starting to become a reality for me.”

Harvey and Monte were feeding him up, fast food late at night, Pie Face every day, trying to make him fit into the idea of the sort of manager they wanted, and it was working.

Harvey says, “It was based on Michael Jackson’s famous manager Frank DiLeo. He’d always be seen with a cigar—”

“Overweight—” Monte says.

“—doing deals,” Harvey finishes.

“You can’t help but become the fantasy,” Adam says. “Embrace Client Liaison.”

“We call him Frank,” Monte says. 

Harvey says, “Another thing about Client Liaison – it’s about involving everyone. I mean a lot of people could dismiss the limousine as a symbol of wealth and crassness but it’s for everyone. That limousine, if you called us up and wanted to use it – and we do say this to everyone who gets in it, it’s as much ours as it is yours – so if you ever want the limousine, just let us know.” Later, with the jingle of the limo over speed bumps, Harvey tells me I could smoke a cigarette in there if I wanted, that I could “take a shit on the floor”, he doesn’t care.

Monte says, “It’s open to collaboration.”

“It’s hard to be… When you want to make bold moves and gestures you’ve got to be careful it gets communicated the right way. So people don’t just dismiss it as crass or uppity,” says Harvey.

They come back to this idea of inclusion, “for everyone”. Harvey, at least, seems concerned about how their vaudeville performance of the businessman could be taken the wrong way. When he describes the businessman to me, it includes none of the things I would normally associate with the trope.

He says, “The businessman is like the apex – at least, I think – of masculinity. He’s well spoken, he’s measured, he’s gentlemanly, he’s successful – all these things. That’s why Diners Club, the male in all those ads – that’s something that’s really interested me, just that gentlemanly, worldly, baroque man.” 

I ask him if this world of the businessman is the world he grew up in. He and Monte went to Geelong Grammar together, for instance. “Oh, but my father’s not a businessman,” Harvey says. “And I didn’t grow up in that world at all. So it’s not… It’s just imagery. I watched a lot of TV.”

“In terms of that, growing up, your childhood,” Monte says. “My father is a businessman, and I grew up with Australiana everywhere. I spent my whole childhood rejecting my parents, going: ‘Oh, that’s so uncool, get away from me’, like every child does. I’ve come full circle and now we’re in his office, and we’re referencing business culture and Australiana. It’s like, ‘Whoa, how did that happen?’ I don’t know.”

Celebrating influences

Diplomatic Immunity opens with the song “Canberra Won’t Be Calling Tonight”. There’s the sound of a kookaburra layered over a sample from question time, before the catchy dance track begins. The album is highly produced, its influences laid bare and celebrated. Tina Arena, a childhood hero of Harvey’s, sings a duet on the third track, “A Foreign Affair”. The afterimage of Prince is there, too, in the music and the way Monte moves onstage. Morgan spent a good portion of his teenage life following Prince. “That’s all I did,” he says.

By this time, the limo has circled through the streets of the northside of Melbourne. The driver drops us at a restaurant and, removing ourselves from the old leather, we go inside. 

“This is where you come to get ripped off,” says Harvey. 

“Really good food,” says De Cata. 

“They’ve done an interesting thing with the decor,” Harvey says. “See those flowers? It’s quite neat what they’ve done. They’re actually fake, but if I ever have the privilege of building my own house, I’d like a flower gauntlet like that. The way that they’ve tied them to the twigs – it’s quite nice.” 

I ask him if he’s being serious, because I cannot tell from one moment to the next whether they’re being sincere. 

“I am serious. I am being serious,” says Harvey. 

Monty says, “I’m going to get the snapper.”

“Classic,” says De Cata. 

“I can’t go past the breakfast menu,” Harvey says, and asks the waiter, “Is this side of avocado really $7? Eggs on toast with sourdough, with a hash brown, well-cooked bacon, avocado – and greens, I’ll add a side of greens to that. Thank you.” 

Monte also orders a chamomile tea. He says, “The first song I ever wrote was about the whales.” He sings: “We need to save the whales.” He says, “A love song is so boring. You’re creating a work, why not talk about something interesting? With the EP we worked a lot in Harvey’s bedroom. He had the attic room at his mum’s house. It was like a turret. It looked over Port Phillip Bay. It had 360-degree windows all around. Harvey would just obsess over the beats. I remember this song – we actually released the song, “Groove the Physical” – and it morphed in many forms.” 

“That was our first song,” says Harvey. 

Monte says, “We released it on our EP. Harvey was just like: ‘A windsurfer, on the bay, that’s the image. A windsurfer just going and going.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ Harvey still always has a beat and says a music video concept, that’s something he’s always done.” 

“We wanted to bring windsurfing back,” says Harvey biting into a rasher of well-cooked bacon. 

When we get back in the limo – it’s parked out front, hazards flashing – Monte continues drinking his now very warm Foster’s. 

Harvey says, “When we played at the MCA social in Sydney and it was one of those awkward moments: are we the band that’s meant to be the background music and low, or are we the band that are meant to be louder than the speaking, and actually command attention? We didn’t know if we were the background music or not. We found out shortly, when this old man came up to Monte mid-performance, grabbed the mic off him and said into the mic, something like, ‘Can you turn it down, I can’t hear myself talking.’ We were the background music.”

“We don’t work like that,” Monte says. “We can’t tone down our set, it’s already 200 per cent. ‘Turn down the racket, turn down the racket,’ ” he says in an old man’s voice. “Not every gig is good. Actually very few are, like, perfect.”

But Monte’s hair is perfect and so is Harvey’s. It’s dyed grey and standing on end. They walk through their film clips, untouchably cool, the hidden fan always blowing their clothes just so.

The pair is releasing a fashion range for summer – sunglasses straps, rash vests and T-shirts. Monte touches his curly mullet and says of the sunglasses straps they’ve designed, “I tried one on this morning, and it didn’t work with my hair, it just looked … confusing.” Harvey nods and takes a Foster’s from a hidden compartment in his armrest. They are about to embark on an Australian tour, but, for now, the limo is stuck in traffic.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Style councillors". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.