Those that discredit punk as an artform need only look as far as Tapdog for a reality check. A band shrouded in the secrecy of their anti-social media stance, what awaits on their sophomore EP, II comes as a sublime surprise. Packing near-cosmic, funked-up post-punk over it’s 10 minutes, the ephemeral emotions of front man Liam Wilkerson’s unhinged subconscious play perfectly to the technically proficient idiosyncrasies of all involved. We joined Wilkerson at Miss Moses with his right-hand man Layton Otene and drummer Emma Fowles to learn how they invited and engaged with satisfyingly spontaneous moments of musical expression.
Initially the sole recording project of Wilkerson, Tapdog was born from humble beginnings in 2016; “I was recording into a USB mic on my Ex-Girlfriend's laptop. It was purely a writing thing which was full of your bad home recording vibe but then pushed another step into shit. You can hear my dog barking all over the album. A few of the songs were made without headphones so you can hear the track feeding back from itself as it records. I was really at a point in my life where I wasn’t doing anything in the recording process properly. But it was definitely artistic to me”.
Moving from the LaTrobe Valley to Melbourne after having uploaded these rough recordings with little fanfare to Youtube, Wilkerson soon found the Easy Browns flock, joining their rhythm section. Starting on keys before moving to the drums where he still sits, Wilkerson encountered a key cog for Tapdog in bass player, Layton Otene; “He showed me Tapdog 1 that night and I did not get it (laughs). I was intrigued but I didn’t get it”. Following Wilkerson’s stay at Sono Studios in the Czech Republic where he recorded several demos, the pair later reconvened to fire up the band. Adding Emma Fowles on drums, fellow Easy Browns stalwart Zak Brown on keys, Anthony Ratcliffe on rhythm guitar and Tom Hueston’s synth skills, the cast of creatives was complete.
With the intention of developing ideas suited to a live rock ‘n’ roll band, Otene and Wilkerson soon set to work on material whilst jamming at an Ascot Vale share house; “It was your dank musicians house to the extreme. At times there were about 10-15 people staying/living there and it was all just about jamming. I was getting all these ideas but they needed to fit into a band. My way of figuring out if it was gonna fit or not was, and still is, chucking it at Laydo”. Helping to direct the discourse, Otene kept everyone honest and on-task when noodling about; “He has the power to pull up somebody. If Laydo’s upset with someone he has no issue with telling them, especially musically. In jam situations, Laydo was so directive with the band about things that should happen and it made it easy for me to figure out what I wanted to do”.
While Wilkerson’s skewed rock-centric demos formed the foundation for Tapdog musically, a direct intention to engage with his deeper emotional self served as a special ingredient; “When I wrote the album, I was just trying to make sure that I could detach from myself and go into the emotional state. If the song’s good you have to do that”. Just as Wilkerson pushed himself to engage with otherwise ephemeral emotions, so too has the band evolved from their rock roots into a chameleonic collective. The climactic drive on II’s opener, ‘Harley Mountain’ is in stark contrast to the pacey neo-punk of closer Crayons; “I think that we’re just funky motherfuckers. I mean it in jest but also certain people want their music where it’s got that extra little pluck in it. Havin’ a straight rock n roll band, it’s hard to keep it straight if you’re playing so much that you keep progressing”.
With the first 3 songs on the EP recorded live, ‘Stiggypop’’s crazy clash of sharp and straight rhythm against more maniacal vocals melodically paired with the lead guitar gives the most apt insight into Wilkerson’s creation of a creatively conducive safe space for jamming; “I’m trying to tap into the art side of it. It’s hard to write something where, yep that’s me just really making myself happy. If I’m ever gonna get to that point where I feel happy it’s because I’ve fully gone into that state where lyrics start coming up on the spot, like what happened with ‘Stiggypop’. There’s no real direction of it except I know I’m trying to keep creating in the moment with the band. I’m not gonna waste anyone’s time and there’s gonna be new creations and they’re gonna be good”. Recorded on what felt like a 38-degree day in Brodie Casey’s home studio, the sessions for the EP themselves speak to the inventive openness of all involved with the band; “We got back into the second set and unbeknownst to anyone we played everything half speed, groovy as fuck. After we played all those songs at half speed, we were ready to record the album”.
While their EP captures a more concerted version of their creative chaos, Tapdog are best witnessed unhinged in their live surrounds; “We had a show recently at Café Gummo where we played ‘Stiggypop’ for about 16 minutes straight with 3 step-ups and cycling one verse time and time again. And we got onto this big jag where Layton held a note for what felt like 15 minutes and blew up the bass amp. It was an absolute beautiful disaster of a gig”. It’s these moments of madness that act to anchor the prodigious musicians to their artform; “It has to incorporate improvising and have momentum. Even if we’re playing stuff that comes really natural and it’s almost too natural, like shredding or playin’ a bit extra, all that stuff is worth it if that spirit comes out”.
Critical to the aesthetic of the EP is the addition of Tom Hueston’s synth and production talent. Taking the live recordings made by the band, Hueston managed to naturally coat the tracks with colours others failed to hear; “They really nailed those textural sounds. In the home studio, that is their element". Whether it be with a more tempered synth to create the dense sense of tension behind ‘Bye The Barrel’ or the more upfront dancey drive on Trans, Hueston’s nuance helped unify the EP with a peculiar cosmic force; “Tom just went and grabbed those stems and played so many synth tracks and went into the creative producer mode. ‘Trans’ as a composition was just meant to be 3 chords as a straight rock n roll track. I had no idea that somebody was gonna try and make this bass drop out of it and it tied right into the creativity and the silliness of the album”.
Staunchly anti-social media, leader Liam Wilkerson has always opted for a more human form of interaction. Many may have missed his debut 2016 EP for this very reason. Released solely on Youtube, it further sits beneath an endless supply of algorithmically assigned tap dancing videos before you reach it. Regardless, there’s a derision for synthetically computer-generated motivation in favour of engaging in a fatefully magical series of human interactions that drive himself and anyone else to encounter what’s right, and what’s art. Appreciating this allows you to learn the lay of what the whole point of Tapdog’s progressive, art-garage music aims to achieve; “If you look back on something in 3 months’ time and it doesn’t sound good, it isn’t art”.