On stage at the Supernatural Amphitheatre there are three musicians, dressed simply in white. They’ve scored a prime 2am slot at Victoria's revered Meredith Music Festival. More than 12,000 people are there. This is the biggest show of Harvey Sutherland and Bermuda’s career; and it’s only the third time they’ve played together live.
That night HS&B staked their claim as Australia’s most exciting dance act, going onto national and European tours in the space of a year. Not one member of the crowd that evening could have noticed how little the band had played together. Over the course of an hour it delivered a flawless instrumental set blending ’70s funk, ’80s boogie and cosmic-disco; the ecstatic dance floor was given barely a moment’s rest. There were few breaks between tracks and Harvey, aka Mike Katz, barely said a word.
Hunkering down behind a bank of analogue synthesizers, a drum kit and an electric violin, Katz and his band, Bermuda, – made up of Graeme Pogson (the Bamboos, GL) and Tamil Rogeon (the Raah Project) – prefer to focus on maintaining the energy of the audience than talking.
“Dance music isn’t about looking at the DJ or having any of that kind of performance. I’m still trying to keep that spirit of dance music, which is about the dance floor. It’s about the people in the room – not the person or the stage,” says Katz.
More than a year on from that unforgettable debut, the band occupies a studio in Melbourne’s Fitzroy North. Formerly leased by Melbourne treasure the Drones, Katz’s studio is packed with rare organs and analogue synthesizers. The Helpinstill Roadmaster, a full acoustic piano with built-in pickups for amplification, is his new favourite piece of gear.
“It’s a pop piano, there’s one in the Split Enz clip for 'Message to My Girl', It has a great ’70s Elton John bright-pop piano sound.”
Although built into a flight case for touring, it isn’t exactly practical: “You really can’t move it, as much as it’s on wheels, you need, like, three fuckin’ roadies.”
Katz taught himself to play keys when a high-school jazz band needed some organ lines. Not wanting to dwell on the past, Katz reluctantly admits he started off playing the trombone.
“Let’s put it this way, I definitely went through my ska phase.”
Seeing an Instagram post by LA synth Godfather Dâm-Funk playing one of Katz’s early singles, 'New Paradise', was a moment of validation. The Juno 60 synthesizer at the heart of Katz’s rig is signed by Dâm-Funk.
“It’s always good to look down on that, he’s one of my main modern influences. He’s been doing it for a long time and I’ve got respect for those guys, this is a job, at the end of the day. It might be a calling, but there’s still a lot of bullshit you’ve got to deal with and he just kind of glides through it.”
Making a track usually begins through improvisation in the studio; Katz layers melody over Pogson’s rhythm section. Successful passages are isolated and looped before Katz meticulously overdubs these sections. The final layer is added by Rogeon, who orchestrates string sections for the track with his electric violin.
Being too beholden to the musical touchstones produced by vintage equipment can lead an artist to dangerous nostalgic trappings, something Katz is wary of.
“The influences come from all over the place, Patrick Adams, the Doobie Brothers. The sonic ideas, the tones, are very ’70s, but a lot of my chords are straight-up Pharrell Williams. It’s all Neptunes and ’90s R’n’B.”
After a deal with a major record label fell through, Katz launched his own imprint (Clarity Recordings) to release his work. Including new EP Expectations.
He wanted a label that didn’t have any preconceptions about the kind of music that would be released. Jazz labels of the ’70s, like Germany’s ECM Records, which had the flexibility to release difficult jazz records before crossing over to more pop-driven releases, served as a model.
“There’s a lot more open-mindedness with people [now] in terms of esoteric music. Reissues, a lot of that [DJ] digging culture is crossing over to more of a mainstream level now,” says Katz. “Eighteen year olds now know more about Chicago house than any other 18 year old in history.”
Since that set at Meredith 2015, Harvey Sutherland and Bermuda have gone on to headline Paradise Music Festival. At Melbourne Music Week 2016 they played the State Library of Victoria alongside industrial-electronic pioneers Severed Heads.
“That show was all sorts; it was the club kids, it was the punk scene, everybody under the same roof, like Meredith, it had the spirit.”
The new EP Expectations is out now on Clarity Recordings.