Three strikes and you’re out is the standard rules of the game, but not for Melbourne MC Defron, who keeps getting back up again! After a early round of hospital visits as a 10 year old, cancer at 20, and a theft that resulted in the loss of his debut EP, Defron has pushed back against the odds and released his debut EP, Invalid. We caught up with the MC to find out how he keeps on keeping on!
It’s finally out, your debut EP Invalid! How do you feel and what has the response been like to this point?
I’m still figuring out how I feel! It took me so long to complete and it has actually been finished for just under a year now, but then it was like, “What next?” I can’t just drop this thing, I’m not Beyonce! I was so unsure about how to roll it out. But I basically had to say “fuck it” and just follow my instincts and learn how to release something as I did it. Consequently my business game as a musician has stepped up by the truck-tonne.
I’ve been grinding with the release and now the launch that I haven’t had time to appreciate the actual reception. But it’s been getting some spins on community radio which is an amazing feeling and the Tone Deaf premiere was unreal! I was pinching myself the entire month in the lead-up, I was convinced it would get canned last minute!
You’ve spoken before about rapping for years but never making it a top priority. Tell about the point in your life where you changed that, and how that has affected your music and life to this point?
In a nutshell I had been working in the publishing industry at an admin level for two years, but I had been in that job for a total of four years and I got promoted to full-time after about a year and a half. My plan from high-school had always been to secure a writing job that could support a musical career so I was keeping my head down and working on music when I could. Then the paradigm shift came in 2013. Without going into too much detail, the workplace environment severely changed. I was getting pushed further towards advertising than editorial and I was miserable for about eight months straight. One day I stood up for myself and that altercation with my boss blew up and I was fired on the spot.
That made for a difficult transition period. I was still paying off a car so I needed a job immediately. After some soul searching I decided not to look for work in my field and I picked up a basic hospitality job with flexible hours so I could focus on making music. I often work nights so it can be draining and the pay isn’t the same but I haven’t been happier. I no longer have to cram writing into the weekend, meaning less time for family. It’s allowed my music and my writing progress to really expand, stress-free. I don’t write the same way I did even a year ago now, it’s constantly evolving.
You were in and out of hospital as a kid, and found solace in comics and cartoons, do you remember a lot of these experiences and how do you find they have influenced your music?
There are snippets that I remember from those days in the Royal Children’s Hospital. I had five invasive mastoid operations by my tenth birthday for cholesteotoma in my left ear. The strongest memories are of mum and dad buying me McDonald’s breakfast after check-ups, hearing children screaming in waiting rooms as I waited to be the next kid wailing on the inspection table. My first comic book I ever read was a copy of The Phantom my dad bought for me from the hospital newsagency during my recovery. But the strongest influence on my music those days had is on my attitude and my perspective. It instilled in me the belief that pain is necessary, in that sometimes a song isn’t going to work the way you think it will or you won’t get the shows you want. You just need to push through and get to the other side. You can’t bring an end to pain but you can accept it and let it mould you.
You returned to the hospital scene when you were 20. How did music play a part for you while going through this experience?
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer not a week after Black Saturday. I was actually trying to record songs at that time but everything immediately grinded to hault. They don’t fuck around when you’re diagnosed for the big C. I was at my GP on the Friday about a pain in my scrotum, at the oncologist on Friday and in surgery on the Monday. I had to cancel poetry slams I was enrolled for and an undercard battle when Anecdote vs 360 originally went down. I was bed-ridden for two weeks after the operation and could barely move without it causing excruciating pain or becoming exhausted. I was trying to write songs in bed but just couldn’t. Anytime I rapped out loud I was short of breath.
Not long after my recovery, when I was undergoing radiotherapy I was participating in the Push’s City Beatz program where you got to record with Mantra and Elf Transporter. In a story my folks won’t like knowing, one time I was driving to the city for a recording session and I was on this anti-nausea medication for the radiotherapy which made you incredibly drowsy and lethargic. I could barely see the road my eyes were so heavy, I had to splash water in my face to keep me awake as I drove.
It sounds crazy that I would endanger myself like that but making music has been the one constant since I was a kid. To me that was my life. So much like I wasn’t gonna let my light diminish, I wasn’t about to let physical restraints stop me.
You then had a theft which caused you to lose the first version of this EP a few years ago. What happened during this point in time and how hard was it to let go of the songs you ended up ditching?
That was a hard moment. It was the same year I had lost my job and completely uprooted myself from my comfort zone to pursue music. I’ve never had a home set-up so I was going to Stronghorn Studios constantly even to record demos and the whole process was so confronting and challenging. I knew nothing about making a record and each studio’s lesson constantly reminded me of that. But I was pushing forward with mastering anyway cause I was determined. Then I had just finished work at 2am and I got that call from JD telling me the hard-drive and computer had been stolen. I felt like giving up. Like it was a sign that I didn’t know what I was doing so I should pack it in. I was immediately plunged in a selfish downward spiral of depression and self-loathing. Then, no shit, the very next day I was lying on the couch basically catatonic contemplating everything and my girlfriend got a phone-call from her dad. He’d had a near-fatal heart attack and had been flown via emergency helicopter from Gippsland to Melbourne. It was an immediate eye-opener. I slapped myself out of my self-indulgent funk and reminded myself about pain: once it’s healed you can hit the ground running after what you want.
At this point I looked at the EP and made a decision to completely re-work it and I looked at it as an opportunity to apply everything I’d learned. The songs were concentrating too much on my past rather than being inspired by it and the concepts were too ambitious. It was sitting at between 7-9 tracks. I made the decision that instead of a mini album, I would have an EP of five singles: five songs that could stand on their own. It sounds like an obvious observation but it really changed the approach to the new sessions. I don’t even miss the songs I scrapped. I don’t need to tell that story anymore.
You have felt the need to pursue the kind of life that society dictates; uni, job, car, career etc. Now you’ve ditched that for music, combined with your affection for comics. Tell me honestly, does your Mum / Girlfriend just constantly tell you to grow up? Haha!
Haha, all the time. My girlfriend does actually call me a man-boy, which she says luckily for me is her type. It’s funny because that type of life never appealed to me. I always wanted to pursue music more than anything. It’s actually taken me a while to figure out but I think what it came down to was this. I had grown up sick, constantly being told by authority figures how to live and that meant literally life or death. As I grew my mind translated that over to everything in life. I was just running on auto-pilot, doing what I felt I needed to in order to pursue what I wanted. I needed to just say “fuck you” to those pressures and be true to myself.
It was actually something my mum never understood. We got into big arguments, ever since I was a teenager when I said what I wanted to do for a long time I felt she wouldn’t get it. But it took me sticking my heels in the ground and building up the courage to tell her bluntly that I needed to do this or I’d feel like I’m wasting my life. It was actually a pretty intense moment when I got through to her and she was immediately on board. That’s actually probably my proudest moment at this point.
You’ve really seemed to make an effort with the EP release: good design, quality production, your pre-order packs included a exclusive comic strip by Katie Alexander. Was this business side of releasing music important for you? And with the prominence of the internet, was it a decision you had to actually think about when it came to pressing physical copies?
I just looked at it from the perspective of a consumer. I wanted to make a solid product with a story and an aesthetic to it that people wanted to own and have in their collection. When it came to pressing physical copies I was definitely still learning the business , I didn’t step back and think, “You don’t need to sweat over pressing physicals when they can just download it”. I actually swung back and forth between whether or not to go through with it and save my money. What won me over was thinking about it on a hand-to-hand basis: you have a product that people will genuinely enjoy having. It’s a vessel for the story I’m telling.
You used some cool animation in your debut video for Invalid and on the artwork too. How did you conceptualise the video and what was the experience like producing a professional film clip?
I was originally going to shoot a different song for the clip but after some discussions with close friends it became clear that Invalid was the best song to lead with. Comic books played an important part of the aesthetic and the soul of the EP so I knew I wanted something paying homage to that. And I had the idea of bringing the artwork to life. I originally just had the idea of making the masks that are on the back cover and wearing them in a pretty generic film-clip. But then the more I thought on it, I wanted to go big so I scouted some factory locations and hit up my friends, Steven Maclean to film & edit and Josh Trotter to animate it. I was actually unsure about hitting up Josh because I was worried about blowing budget, but I made that same decision as the CDs. The idea of an eye-catching video I could be proud of, rather than a low budget version of it, won me over.
And man that shoot was gruelling. Both the build-up and the day of. I tend to overdo things so I was sweating every detail. I wrote a short script and drew up a storyboard and was constantly working on it weeks before the day we shot. I headed to the location three hours early for set-up and we shot for six hours. We actually had way more footage than we needed and there’s some details to the set you can’t even spot in the clip!
Montblanc is about a childhood friend you lost contact with, a common story no doubt, but with a tragic turn. How did you find it writing about this story being on the serious side of life?
Montblanc didn’t even start out as a song. I originally wrote that it as a slam poem, and it got me to the 2013 Australian Poetry Slam finals in Victoria. It was always a story I wanted to tell and to pay homage to a dear friend. For a basic story about two kids who stole pens like they were running a drug ring, there was an innocent quality to the memories I always found intriguing. The one element I found difficult was would airing out those memories feel tacky or disrespectful. It was performance ready but after the slam I just had it on the stock pile. Anyway I was sitting on this beat by Rahjconkas and I couldn’t think of any ideas for it. One day I was just listening to it when the first two lines of “Pen Thieves” (its name as a poem) popped into my head and I just spat them over and over and the mood worked perfectly. It was bittersweet but endearing.
You have a few features on the EP, how did you get in touch with Niamh, and link with the producers, especially Bottega Beretta from New York?
Bottega and I had a mutual friend in Blazin’ Marty and he just hit me up out of the blue back in 2011 offering to throw me beats if I wanted them. He’s primarily a bounce producer as Kosmo Weston from Melbourne but he dabbles in hip-hop for me while he’s studying at Columbia. I was lucky enough to crash on his couch during my stay there when he gave me the beat for “Staple Snap!”
Rahjconkas and Vince were two dudes I knew who had heat and whenever they posted beats for sale I’d immediately scope them! Vince did an amazing job mixing the EP and Rahj is blowing up now, so he had some solid advice for me when I started the roll-out.
Niamh is actually my girlfriend’s sister and that’s another case where the stars aligned. I knew I wanted a voice on the hook for Montblanc cause I couldn’t carry the melody by myself so I was looking for singers but nobody’s schedule lined with mine. Then on the day we recorded I was just going to do it myself when my girlfriend suggested Niamh. So I called her from the studio, she rocked up, learned the notes and smashed it in a few takes. It was pretty miraculous!
Tell us about your other band Kilamari and how have you transformed your solo EP to the live show and live band platform?
The drummer Alex and I go back to our high school days through a mutual friend. He hit me up out of the blue in early 2013 about this hip-hop band he had started with some friends of his from Box Hill and they needed an emcee. We had a trial jam and just immediately clicked not only as musicians but as people, and they’re easily four of my closest friends now. We’re currently rehearsing the EP tunes and we’ll have some of the trickier samples playing alongside but for the most part the boys will be interpreting those tunes. We’re basically covering the EP and it sounds amazing so far! I can’t wait until the launch. As well as the chance to premier Kilamari’s original tunes to a larger crowd. My song-writing has changed drastically since “Invalid” and the songs we’ve been writing are more accessible for a wider audience than my previous work. Not to mention they’re fresher and I’m sick of the EP! Vibing off of four musicians as opposed to a laptop is pretty amazing too; I can’t really go back to how I used to perform now.
You were on the battle scene in the late 00’s, a great time really for the freestyle rap scene in Oz for a while there, and a lot of that braggadocios Hip Hop battle rap still comes through in your music. Do you think battling is something more MCs should cut their teeth on these days? What do you think about the battle scene in Australia now?
This is one of the most dramatic changes in my approach and perspective as an artist. I’m grateful that battling allowed me to learn how to carry myself on stage and it definitely earned me some amazing fans and contacts. That being said I don’t even pay attention to it anymore. It’s not from a state of being bitter, it was more that for me, time spent crafting verses deriding somebody is time that could go on perfecting your craft in a creative sense. But yeah that instinct is still something I’m trying to shake. I just looked at the artists I look up to, Drake, Big K.R.I.T, Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco and Skyzoo, and said to myself, “You think they make the music they make by worrying about proving it to everyone?” I think freestyling and battling at open mics is a great platform to develop as a performer but I’d say the acapella written circuit is a distraction from what matters. In 50 years people will be listening to “To Pimp A Butterfly” in universities, they won’t be watching two dudes yell insults at each other on YouTube.
What’s next for you?
Well after the launch I’ve promised my girlfriend that I’ll take a quick respite before the next plans, but I’m already looking at a follow-up mixtape. I have the artwork concept and the release strategy pencilled in, just need to start writing the music. I have some beats I’m sitting on from Bottega, Kwasi and my dude Calvin (make your producer name bro!) Before that though Kilamari are gonna drop some tunes online and then either a mixtape or an EP, we’re still figuring that out. But that all definitely needs to happen after a quick breather.
Anything else you want to say?
Cop the EP and come to the launch!
Cheers Defron for your time!
Catch Defron LIVE on the 25th September in Melbourne at Rubix – All the Details Here.