Formed in 2005 in the Gold Coast, Australia, The Death Set began as a four-piece group, clawing their way amidst the local music acts, cutting their teeth playing gigs in warehouses and various rock and dance clubs. Gaining notoriety, the band landed a tour with Brooklyn art/noise punk band Japanther. Inspired by their DIY-approach, Johnny and fellow band mate Beau Velasco committed to giving the music their full attention by moving to Sydney, where they would focus on writing what would become their first EP. However, frustration with the local venues combined with a thirst for pursuing their dreams, Johnny and Beau moved to New York City after only six months.
Battling it out in NYC to make a name for themselves, there were nights when the two had to sleep on subway cars. After a few months of relentless gigging, a contact in Baltimore connected them with Morphius Records, who wanted to properly release their EP. Moving again, this time to Baltimore, the band landed in what Johnny Siera calls a “…frightening scene”, one that they embraced and thrived within. Their growing popularity allowed them to embark on a US tour in an old work van they bought. All of this was accomplished within the one-year time frame that Johnny’s American visa granted. Still, that expiration date hit and Johnny was forced to go back to Australia.
“It was like this dark cloud hanging over our heads. We were confident in what we were doing and we knew it was awesome and we had all these awesome plans which were then up to this visa situation.” Still, making use of his DIY approach, Johnny went through a “…long, arduous but, in the end, fruitful experience.”
Upon arriving back in the States, Johnny and Beau began searching for a label to shop their music on vinyl, which their current record label did not have claim to. Coming across Ninja Tune, the record label believed in the band so much that they purchased the rights to all forms of release, giving The Death Set a solid home. They released their first full-length album, Worldwide, in 2008 and eighteen months of touring followed, including several trips to the UK. But nothing could have prepared Johnny for what happened on Sept. 27th, 2009. His best friend and band mate Beau Velasco was found dead in his New York studio.
“Beau was my best friend. We lived in close quarters for three years doing this. We were in each other’s pockets. We put everything in our lives aside for this. We got on each other’s nerves, but most of the time we were laughing about stupid shit!” Here Johnny’s voice broke ever so slightly and he paused, letting out a deep breath, collecting himself before continuing.
“We met in the Gold Coast, moved to Sydney together, moved to New York, moved to Baltimore, live in Baltimore together. When I moved back, he started tattooing, living in New York and took a back seat from the live aspect of the band, which was what it was. Touring isn’t for everyone, y’know? It’s not much money, it’s a lot of work but it’s a lot of fucking fun! But after the first year or two, it kind of wears on you. So he did the tattooing thing.
“He was just an amazing guy. He was very much a catalyst for so many different things, like tattooing, art, jewelry. People would come into his sphere and just be inspired.
“But he, of course, had his own demons, which he was battling for a long time.” Johnny’s voice breaks again, the emotion and pain coming forth. Taking a long breath, he continues. “It’s easy in hindsight, but there’s not really much you can do after the fact. Everyone knew he was troubled in more ways than one, but no one really knew what to do, except try and be there for him. The good ones die young, right?”
Johnny describes how difficult it was to make the decision to keep the band going after Beau’s passing, saying that, “…we had just gotten together to write the second record and really go for it. That was when we were living in Philly and it was only a couple of months after we had just started to bounce ideas off of each other. For me and [guitarist] Dan [Walker], it was like, “What else do we do?”, y’know? We write music. That’s what we do.”
And write they did, in the form of 2011’s Michel Poiccard, a 17-track album that mixes punk, pop, electronica, and rock, and fuses them all into something that might not be easily described but is undeniably infectious. Many of the songs on the album are directly influenced by Beau and his passing.
“I think it would’ve been sadder had we not continued, leaving that memory of Beau passing. I just don’t know what we would have done if we would’ve stopped it. It was more just of an automatic thing where we kept doing what we do. I mean, what would I have done if we’d stopped? Go back to Australia and work at a 7-11? [laughs]
“It was really fucking difficult but, in the end, I don’t think Beau would’ve wanted us to stop. Actually, I know that for sure.
“I think the two biggest things that have kept this band going for so long is if you believe in it, just keep fucking going, and if get pissed off, get over it quickly, because it’s not worth hanging onto. If you believe in it, you’re going to overcome whatever obstacle gets thrown in your face.”
At the end of 2011, The Death Set embarked on a massive tour in Germany and surrounding countries as direct support to The Beatsteaks. The tour culminated with the band playing in Berlin to over 10,000 fans.