BIGSOUND 2017 Interview: Willaris. K

By on Wednesday, 18th October 2017 at 11:00 am

The popular saying “technology is great when it works” implies that when a computer has failed, it’s always a bad result. Not so for Aussie Jack McAllister. Such an error came through when he was searching for a name to perform and release his electronic music as. “Here in Australia, we’ve got RSLs, they’re a local club where there’s a bar and restaurant etc. You walk in, hand over your ID and they scan it [Queensland has an especially strict ID scanning protocol for nightclubs, enacted this year]. Around the time when I started Alchemy in early 2016, I went to the local RSL one day, they scanned my ID, as you can see my ID is fairly scratched, my full name is Jack William McAllister , the machine printed out a receipt that had my name printed as Willaris. K McAllister. At the time I had a few options in mind but as soon as I saw that, I knew that was it.”

It might sound like McAllister has come from out of nowhere, but it’s been years of hard graft in clubs, then working diligently on his own to hone his sound to have arrived at this point. He’ s from the town of Tweed Heads, on the New South Wales side of the border with Queensland but he found himself wanting more musically. “There’s not much of a music scene where I’m from. I started DJing in Coolangatta in 2013, but it wasn’t really the music I was into, so I eventually started driving up here [to the Fortitude Valley of Brisbane] and became a resident at the then Bowler Bar, now TBC Club.”

He spent 3 years as a resident DJ at The TBC Club, one of the BIGSOUND 2017 venues where, essentially, he cut his teeth on what made for successful dance sets. “I was a support DJ. I’d usually jump on straight after the headline act to a full room of people. I learnt so much from that time, from watching what the headline act did right and wrong to feeling comfortable on stage.”

But he had dreams of doing something bigger than just DJing in Brisbane. “Throughout that time I was slowly learning to write my own music, that was from 2013 to 2015. I was at the stage where I could make music, but none was at the level where I wanted it to be, at the level of the artists I looked up to.” He knew he needed to take a different tack. “That was when I completed discarded actually writing music and went back and basically started from scratch. I had a schedule for myself after work, music theory this afternoon, technical synthesiser stuff *this* afternoon, etc. I also started piano lessons then too. I worked really hard at it throughout 2015, then started ‘Alchemy’ in February 2016, and it all led on from there.” As a project, Willaris. K is still in its infancy, McAllister only having launched it in January of this year.

McAllister played several sets during this year’s BIGSOUND, all to incredible audience response. Why is that? It could be because his style of electronic music is unique and intriguing. When I ask him to use some terms to describe his sound to a non-electronic fan, he replies, “I think the easiest one would be a blanket term: emotional dance music. If I dive deeper, there’s definitely elements of techno, house, garage, classical and ambient. I can’t really pigeonhole it, all of the new stuff I’ve written for my album so far sounds different again.”

Being different was part of the plan, he explains. “That was the main goal. Having played in clubs and seeing the trends, I wanted to put in the time to make something completely unique and unheard. If people are hearing it on the radio or in clubs, and they’re aware of ‘Alchemy’, I want them to know it’s me straight away.” It’s impressive, too, that his eclectic style music has already reached beyond the traditional electronic audience: “I’ve had a lot of people tell me, people I wouldn’t ever expect to like my music, like my parents’ friends or people who don’t like electronic music, that they’re into it, usually because there’s an emotional aspect that’s relatable.”

Willaris. K at BIGSOUND 2017
Willaris. K performing at a pop-up caravan venue on Brunswick Street Mall at BIGSOUND 2017

I was at McAllister’s BIGSOUND set at Heya Bar, where I saw him play to a packed room of appreciative dancers grooving to his tunes. Watch a clip of it here on his Facebook. We chat about his approach to his live show and the important he puts on his own performance in front of a crowd. “My main thing is how I format the set emotionally. Especially because for most of this year I only had ‘Alchemy’ out, so playing a set of 90% unreleased stuff was sometimes challenging. I usually start with pretty heavy, like in your face tracks, but then pull it back with a piano track, like ‘River Song’ for example. These extreme peaks and troughs are what I personally enjoy with live music, so that’s how I approach my own. With showcases, it can be hard, you have industry people just watching, you know? So having people dancing is really cool. I get so much more into it when everyone is ‘on my team’ kind of thing. I think that also takes down the barrier between artist and audience, just genuinely enjoying it myself.”

It becomes clear in talking to McAllister that in addition to bringing something new to the electronic music table, he’s keen on making sure his music comes from organic beginnings. This could be attributed to the unpretentious, blue-collar work he once did before turning to music full-time, where he was already thinking about his surroundings and how to make things sound more real. “I’m an electrician, well, an electrical and instrument technician. I worked in big high voltage substations that connect the New South Wales and Queensland power grids together. Each state has its own power grid, so there are six cables that connect them with a substation at each end. I would maintain them, part of that involved inspecting the trays that housed the cables out in the bush. One day I was inspecting the cables, walking along the tray, and I started recording on my iPhone. You can hear me walking, you can hear the birds, it gives you this kind of shitty recording which I like, and I ended up using that particular one in ‘Dour Nights’.”

In the studio, I jump between analogue and digital. I’ll usually just play around on my gear until something worth pursuing starts flowing, then I’ll go in and expand on it in the computer. It’s so much easier to start ideas when everything’s at your fingertips, opposed to looking at a screen with a trackpad. I love having to commit to audio with hardware also, you’ll always end up with happy accidents.”

Australian electronic music is going through a bit of Renaissance these days. Sounds Australia took advantage of the burgeoning scene, putting on a second afternoon Aussie BBQ showcase at SXSW 2017 this year to accommodate so many electronic artists coming out of the country. Gone are the days that an artist would have to leave Oz for Europe to have a chance at success. Being Australian might even be more of a positive. “There’s definitely been a post-Flume apocalypse. There’s been more of a spotlight on Australian electronic music since Flume came out. In a way, he also gave birth to a whole new genre. You hear it everywhere now, a lot of the electronic pop music now is influenced by what he started. The rest of the world is definitely aware (of Australian electronic), guys like Nick Murphy (aka Chet Faker) and (the ARIA-winning dance band) RÜFÜS are doing big shows overseas.” Beyond Oz, McAllister has already been discovered by none other than BBC Radio 1’s Pete Tong, which is quite promising.

So what’s next for Willaris. K? McAllister will be playing his first shows outside Australia, in New Zealand, at New Year’s time. With an ear for something beguiling different to offer the electronic music fans of this world, his time in the sun (or should I say night?) in Europe will come soon.

To catch up on all my past coverage on Willaris. K, use this link. All my BIGSOUND 2017 coverage is through here.

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