New Video, New Chats with Astro Children

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In the midst of their European tour, Dunedin duo Astro Children (Millie Lovelock & Isaac Hickey) have somehow found the time to release their new single ‘Milk’, accompanied by a new video inspired by the 1922 silent film version of Hamlet starring Asta Nielson. I was lucky enough to chat to Millie and director Elise Lanigan about the making of the video, channeling the ‘anger and absurdity’ of Neilson’s performance and process of creating aural and visual duality.

Millie Lovelock - Astro Children

Where in the world are you right now?

Millie: Right now, we are in Odenthal, a little German town outside of Cologne. We’re having a couple of days off before we play in Switzerland.

What have you been up to recently - how was the Red Bull Music Academy?

I quit my job to go to Berlin for Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), and to tour and write for basically the rest of the year. I’m the kind of person who always has about five thousand things on the go, but all I’m doing right now is music. RBMA was the kind of experience it’s hard to reduce to a simple explanation. They put you in this enormous and beautiful studio complex, sweat you out under the lights in the lecture hall, and siphon your creativity directly out of you and onto tape.

It was unreal, and I’ve never felt so tired in my life, but coming out of it I’m so much more focused and driven than I’ve ever been before. I also had the least Berlin “Berlin experience.” I spent the entire two weeks holed up with my classmates in Funkhaus, in East Berlin, only coming back to the apartments to sleep and shower. All I saw was studio walls and the swans in the river Spree, but it was beautiful. I have a newfound love for electronic music and for making new friends and spilling my guts to them within days.

Why did you chose to make a video for ‘Milk’?

I mean, it’s a statement piece on the album. It’s also a three-minute pop song and I like making pragmatic decisions when I release music.

Can you tell us a bit more about the song itself?

It’s a song I wrote in 2015. It would be undignified for me to say who it’s about, and it would detract from the fact that it could be about literally any man, but everyone can rest assured that it is absolutely about a specific person and it’s not just metaphoric feminism 101. It’s direct address. More generally, I guess it’s all about reduction: in a literal sense, being reduced to a face and a pair of tits, in a figurative sense, shrinking back into second guessing yourself.

I actually wrote the song to a Garageband drum loop and demoed the whole thing in my room, something I hadn’t done before, and something that marked the start of a new kind of independent songwriting for me. When we started playing it live as a band I changed the vocals to more of a shout, then when we recorded the track for the album (with Jonathan Pearce- The Beths) we listened back to the demo and I had done these super detached, 1980’s style vocals and Jonathan was like no way, you can’t just shout this song, get back in there and sing it like that. Hence the two vocal tracks on the album version- there’s me spitting in your face then rubbing it in with the heel of this smooth melody.

What was the inspiration behind the video?

Since the song is so much about being stripped, I wanted to do a video where I am completely untouchable, and at times hardly even visible.

What was it about Hamlet you identified with/wanted to use in the video?

Hamlet is such a great play because it is so dark, but it’s also really fucking funny. I don’t know if anyone else gets it, but that’s how I feel about my songwriting. There’s nothing bright about the chords I use or the subject matter, but I think I can deliver rage and misery with a certain levity.

The Hamlet film that inspired the video, the 1922 silent film version of Hamlet starring Asta Nielsen, really taps into the humour of the play. Nielsen plays Hamlet with this magnetic energy, and she’s at once tragic and hilarious. When she flings herself across her father’s tomb you find yourself laughing, even though you can really feel the anguish. She’s even funny when she dies, clutching at her breasts and begging Horatio to tell her story. She has the exact kind of power I strive for when I give live performances, like yes, I know this is dark as hell but I’m putting on a damn show for you.

That element of performance is close to my heart too, especially with regard to the content of Milk. I don’t often mince words when I have an opinion on something, especially not when that opinion is on what men in music are doing wrong, but because I’m in a loud, vicious band I find myself in these situations where people pretend like they can’t tell if I’m playing up or being honest. Is Hamlet mad? Did Claudius kill his father? Is Millie legitimately mad, or is she mad? I don’t think it’s impossible to make honest music alongside dramatic, hyper-performative music, and melding a very direct song with Hamlet was a way to explore that visually. Hamlet can act mad and screw everything up and it can still be true that Claudius killed his father.

How was it working with Elise and what do you like about her style/process?

Elise was great to work with. She’s a very calm presence on set, and also works really quickly, which I love. I felt like she was equally as invested in me in the Hamlet thing and had a strong grasp on the kind of frenetic energy I wanted to capture. We did some location scouting a few days before we shot the video and it was the first time we had met in person, but I felt super at ease with her and like she just had everything under control, which is probably the ideal kind of energy you want to have as a director.

The video communicates a lot through your actions and expressions. How did you find the acting side of things?

I have a dark theatrical past, so the acting wasn’t much of an issue for me. I’m used to strutting around on stage and rolling my eyes and looking nasty, so doing it in various public places was strange, but not overly difficult. Not sure if I should be worried about that. The most challenging part was actually singing the lyrics in the Mouthful studio space we shot in. We were playing the track on a UE Boom and it was just Elise, Maddie Weston, and myself. I was crushingly aware that there were apartments upstairs who would hear me if I absolutely cut loose the way I do live. But Elise knew that getting me to shout it the way I do live was the only way to get my face to do the right things, and so she coaxed me into it very gently. It took a few takes, but we got there in the end. It feels very natural to work myself into that state on stage, but in a room with only two other people and without a guitar in my hands it was quite confronting.

What have you learnt for future music videos? Are there specific ideas or concepts you want to explore/focus on going forward?

I think really I’m just always reminded that it’s important to work with the right people. I usually have a very strong visual direction in mind when I’m writing a song or an album, and it’s high up my list of priorities to work with people who are on the same aesthetic wavelength as me. There are always ideas and concepts I want to explore, I’m endlessly fascinated by the body, by words, layers, dissonance and melody but none of that becomes concrete until you have a song in your hands, then you can start working out what it looks like.

What’s next for Astro Children?

This is a question maybe best left alone. We are sitting on an album, Turnpike, which will in theory be out next year. I’m also sitting on a Repulsive Woman album, which after tour is kind of my next big focus.

Elise Lanigan - Director

Tell us a bit about the shooting and production process...

It all happened really fast! Admittedly most of my projects end up being super last minute, I think going for a lo-fi aesthetic is always a bonus with time constraints. We had chatted intermittently over a week about the concept online while Millie was in Dunedin, then one day to scout, one day to shoot. It was a real classic grizzly Wellington day, which was great for the drama, not so much for the gear especially when you’re trying to scam as many free parks as you can throughout the day in the CBD We got it all done in time though. I had it sit in post-production for a couple of weeks, cut together a performance sequence and then went through and picked out highlights from the location-based footage.

Who was in your production crew and how did it all work collaboratively?

It was just Millie, Maddie Weston and myself. Maddie was great on location, there’s a lot more to think about when you’re in a public space without a shot list, so we definitely shared a lot of the directing in those instances. Though the weather was utter shit, the general group dynamic was calm and optimistic. We never pushed too hard or were disappointed by potentially missing out on locations. Most of the shots were figured out on the go and we just had fun with it -- I’d say a good 80% of the takes ended with giggling over how silly or dramatic it must look to the public.

Have you shot music videos previously and what attracted you to this song/project?

Apart from a small handful of horrific attempts in high school, I’d only just made my first music video for a friend (Comf) a couple of months earlier. I missed their last show in Wellington but had heard Astro Children’s music before, so was stoked when Maddie asked me to come on the project. I really admire the degree of simplicity but focussed intensity that comes across in their music. ‘Milk’ in particular has this sort of dualism to it, so I was keen to see how we would go about filming the performance to capture both vocal styles.

I know a lot of filmmakers love dreaming up and making their own stuff, but honestly I really enjoy working with people who already have an idea of what they want, and then making that happen technically. Millie had a very specific vision in mind that I immediately was on board with. We clicked fairly well for having only met within 24 hours of shooting, so I'm more than stoked with the results.

What were the key aspects of the song you wanted to accentuate in the video?

There’s a sense of duality in both Asta Nielson’s Hamlet (1922) and in Milk that Maddie and I agreed would be great focus on translating visually. With the performance, we explored expressions of anger and absurdity, some shots were stoic power angles, others with an air of languish. By languishing, I mean that in the style of Nielson’s character that is always with a strain of flippancy; a sort of mockery of the male gaze which is also what Milk communicates. There was a risk of not quite getting the balance between melodrama and comedy that could throw the whole tone of the video, but I think we managed to attain it in both the performance and edit.

Was it always the plan to use Millie as such a focal point in the video? How do you go about getting a visually expressive performance out of someone?

Initially, I imagined a lot of the location shots being more of a focus in the film, but upon looking at the Mouthful footage, quickly realised the huge range of expression and emotion would work really as the base.

As for performance, quite honestly, I barely needed to give direction. Millie channeled both the cheek and austere of Nielson’s Hamlet brilliantly. The only small challenge we overcame was at Mouthful. We were trying to capture the different levels of energy in each vocal track, but I don’t think we managed to quite capture the vehemence in that high energy layer until Millie was comfortable enough to actually yell the lyrics “just for one chorus” - which then turned into three more full on yelling takes it was amazing.

Do you have any other upcoming projects we should be excited for?

Nothing super duper creative in the near future!! Always looking for musicians to collab with so if you’re around Welly do hit me with yer pitches x.