Art and the Mining Boom: Mental Powers Interviewed

“This place isn’t very welcoming, especially for freaks.” So says ‘Deni Deni’, as he names himself, about the place he’s called home for the majority of his life. It’s one that, once you’ve reached a certain age, you’re bound to have lost a large chunk of your friends to the call of the wide world. A city terrorised by big money, little taste and what Deni describes as the ‘high vis nightmare’ that is the law and its enforcement making it pretty hard to do, well, anything.

It’s probably for that very reason that Mental Powers exists; a group of self-described ‘awkward individuals’ who’ve been playing town halls and lounge-room floors for the better part of a decade. They’ve released some limited-run hand-painted, live recordings and generated a cult following, all while rarely setting foot in an actual venue or learning what a sound engineer is. Now, with the release of their second LP PRO BONO on local label Badminton Bandit, Mental Powers have not only entered an actual studio, but they’ve recorded with a producer and expanded beyond whistle tubes and metal bowls to incorporate synthesisers, keyboards and song structure into their oeuvre. Here they generate a mantra-like repetition within the glitch-y though unprocessed electronics, still grounded in the organic sense of rhythm and interaction. Shared vocals flutter across nonsensical lyrics, while playful triple puns imbue songs like ‘Europeanist’ with a warmth and good humour you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else.

And, yes, Deni is a very weird person. Having myself lived in Perth well into my 20s, I can remember his imposing, awkward figure of a man rarely looking you in the eye, while being a fixture on the local house party circuit. He was older than most of us but no one ever really knew by how much and the only time I’d ever seen him without a baseball cap on his head was when he’d replaced it with a long black wig for the strikingly beautiful self-portraits of his art school graduate submission. In fact, the first time I’d met him, Deni revealed he worked at a mortuary and he wasn’t averse to going out in his ‘morgue pants’. So don’t be surprised when a conversation between the member and mouth piece of Mental Powers becomes a candid and cynical account of the hot mess that is the Western Australian ‘boom-town’ where he lives, while exploring what it means to be different there and how life in a state of unbearable civic restriction is conducive to creative inspiration.

This’ll be the first album you’re funding with a government grant. That’s a big part of being an artist in Australia, isn’t it?
Especially in Perth man, where it’s fly-in, fly-out or fly forward, or whatever they want to call it. Also to get a shitty meal it’ll cost you 25 bucks and you might get food poisoning or you might not. It’s hard to be creative in this town but I think it kind of separates the wheat from the chaff.

When I was back in Perth a few months ago, the first thing that anyone said to me outside my family was, ‘get a car ya bum!’ I was on my bike. There’s a real hostile energy there. It’s like you have to be tough to be alternative.
I think there are many tougher bands than we are [laughs] but I think it’s a resolve thing. If you really want to you will but the scene here will forever be, quote-unquote, ‘burgeoning’. There’s always more new people coming into it, bringing their sensibilities and their playing abilities to the whole idea of the Perth underground, indie music culture, or whatever. I think it’s a good thing. It’s a big melting pot… well, it’s a small-to-medium melting pot that’s trying to get bigger, which is a good thing.

It’s been quite a few years that Mental Powers has been a band and this is the most traditional release yet, in terms of format. Is being more accessible something that you’re thinking about now?
Not really. I think our circumstances have always come from an ‘art school’, quote-unquote, background. One of my big things is we’ve always said we don’t have a musical background but that’s bullshit. I’ve been listening to music ever since I can remember. So it’s always been ‘art in the shadow of music’ or ‘music in the shadow of art’. That line is not really an existing one, personally, and it’s experimental in this regard.

I’ve never owned a synthesiser and when you get your hands on one, you’re like ‘I don’t’ even know if I’m using it right. I can barely play the keyboard but I’m gonna give it a crack’. That’s kind of like a punk ethos thing, you know, ‘give it a go’. You can surprise yourself. We don’t really take drugs or are into bondage or sado-masochism or anything like that, so the music is a release for us from the shit job, or whatever’s happening locally in the music scene.

What’s happening in the music scene?
Currently what’s happening is they’ve just changed the partying laws. If you have more than 12 people at your house and there’s a noise complaint, they can come and shut down your party at any time and the owner of the house, or the person that hosts the party can be fined up to $12,000. We played Yardstock [a DIY festival spanning several private residences] two weeks ago. We played at this house in North Perth, it was 8:30 on a Saturday night and the cops came. They shut down the party and said ‘we’re going to confiscate gear unless you guys cease and um…’

Cease and desist, whatever. The party was as a total buzzkill [laughs].

Fucking hell. You can’t wipe your bum without getting permission to do it.
I know, hey. Colin Barnett [current Liberal Premiere of WA] is on an absolute warpath, it’s real’ funny. So, basically, if you have a niece or a nephew or something, if they’re having a clown or a birthday party you could get shut down with a $12,000 fine. It’s preposterous.

I think it depends on how many tattoos you have.
We are the ‘mining state’, so you’re just going to get obnoxious…

The mining boom isn’t going to last forever and then people are going to be fucked.
It’s actually currently pretty fucked. They’ve stopped a couple of massive projects and the money’s not rolling in anymore. Now they’re all pointing the finger at each other because the economic policy was basically based around ‘the good times will always be good’. Now that hasn’t happened and they’ve turned around to understand that they’re living in a city where the costs of living, for basic things like water, electricity, gas, is so astronomical and people are paying such unbelievably large amounts of rent that It’s really hard to even exist in this city.

So are there people that are actually just extraordinarily poor?
Probably. The reason they did this big blanket law change was there was a party in Butler [41 kilometres North of the CBD] for some kid’s 16th birthday party. He posted it up on Facebook and he basically said it’s an open house and all these super-northern gangs rolled up who hate each other and wanted to fight. There were a couple of burnouts and then some fuckin’ girls got involved and some dude got hit. Then the cops came and they were in riot gear, there were rocks being thrown and broken bottles… It’s pretty Rage Against the Machine kind of shit [laughs].

It felt like I was on the set of Mad Max or something when I was there. Riding around the new Entertainment Centre and someone telling me cage fighting will be the main event.
Yeah, well, you know, the UFC sell all their apparel in Big W and shit. It’s real’ fun.

So what’s it called? The ‘United Fighting Corp’ or something?
No, no, no. Ultimate Fighting Championship, I think it is. It’s like dudes fresh out of jail who are given vouchers to buy clothes and they’re just head-to-toe in satin boxers and stuff [laughs]. The UFC is the new HSV.

I feel bad, this has turned into another Perth-bashing.
Oh it’s okay. Originally I’m not from Perth, so my perspective is there is so much good here and it has the potential of being a really, really, really amazing place. It’s just that people have to believe it. I’m not saying that we need to re-brainwash people or something but there is a lot of good here that goes unrewarded or unpraised. Those people that are doing it, they know they’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s just a matter of time. I’m all for people from this place, like yourself, who get fed up to a point where you have to move away to another city, that’s fine, but part of me also wishes that people like you come back and really impact that.

Where are you from originally?
Victoria. Torquay. The coast.

How long ago did you move to Perth?
A long time ago. I still feel Victorian but I’ve probably spent way longer in WA. This place is not very welcoming [laughs]. I know what you’re thinking but it really does have the ability to ostracise you and make you feel like you’re not in or part of the broader community, at least. And that’s fine. I don’t really mind that but every time I go home, see the sites, smell the smells and taste the tastes it feels like home. But home is where the older parts of my family are, where they sleep.

I think I’m young enough to keep doing what I’m doing here. Tom [Freeman] is originally from Margaret River, Lewis [Waters] is from Manchester in England… actually, York. And Jamie [Doohan], I think he was born in Canberra and raised in Sydney, or born in Sydney raised in Canberra. One of the two.

We’re guys from different parts of the world, or at least the rock that we live on, and we all converged in this place. I don’t know if it’s serendipitous, or chance or whatever but I’m kind of glad. Or I think that it’s an interesting point that we’re not from here but we choose to be here, even though the cost of living is way more expensive and it would probably be easier living somewhere else. Maybe, if we lived somewhere else, we probably wouldn’t be doing it, ‘you know what I mean?


Mental Powers’ PRO BONO is available now through Badminton Bandit.


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