Gus Watkins originally conceived of ACTN in 2013 as a one-man act. "A part of the original thought behind playing solo was that maybe it would draw more people into the lyricism," he says. These days Watkins is joined by three other members onstage, but it's hard to avoid confronting his lyrics head-on sometimes due to subject matter that is raw, honest and reaching.
Tonight, ACTN will celebrate the release of their new single and video, "My Flesh is Weakness," at Icehouse with fellow synth-driven popsters, Beasthead. We had a chat with Watkins about the inspirations behind his current sound, what went into their new video, and how the group has evolved over the years.
Watkins had been performing solo until a fateful night of Scotch-drinking with his buddy Peter Kenyon. They decided that Kenyon would drum with the band, and they booked a short Midwestern tour together. It went great. "If I try something new, I like to try it out on the road," Watkins says. "You want to be at your best when you're playing for all your friends at home."
Last year, however, was a difficult one for Watkins. His parents wound up divorcing after forty years of marriage. At the same time, his girlfriend was in a treatment program for an eating disorder, so he was doing his best to be there to support her while still maintaining strength for himself.
"Our bodies determine so much of what we do," Watkins says. "Our bodies propel us to be who we are," he says.
"I was imagining, 'What if I fucked it all up?'" he asks. "What if I was so consumed by family stuff that I missed out on the bigger goals? That's a weird intersection to think about, because all of that stuff makes us who we are."
He'd wanted to write something that was upbeat and bouncy, so he married the two ideas, and wrote the song, "My Flesh is Weakness."
This week the group released a music video for the song as well. Watkins creates a visuals for each release from the band. For this particular clip, he wanted to try to remove the band's figures, or alter and distort them, to drive home some of the lyrics in the song: "Time turned our bodies against us and draped our skin right off our bones."
He bought a couple hundred yards of glow tape, and though he didn't quite accomplish the effect he intended, everyone is quite pleased with the final product. "I just wanted to be colorful," he says.
The video is somewhat nostalgic of weird vintage Severed Heads music videos. "My Flesh is Weakness" is definitely a dance-ready song, and it goes through a lot of shifts in mood throughout. The juxtaposition of such dark subject matter -- the battle of a body against time -- with the wailing synth line and poppy drum beat is intriguing. ACTN calls itself "deathpop," but it sounds like the lyrics are where the so-called 'death' resides, for the music is often bright and shimmery. Watkins has somewhat of a surprisingly high-pitched singing voice compared to his conversational tone.
When asked what ACTN stands for, he plays coy. "Post-modern band-naming is a nightmare," he says instead, something that causes us to break into laughter. Despite (or perhaps because of) the clandestine band name, the group has had chart success in the past: they were number 53 on the iTunes electronica charts at one point. "At the time it didn't really set in," he says, "but now I'm telling everybody."
Tonight's pairing with Beasthead makes for an electric and fun Friday evening. "If you just wanna show up and drink a little bit too much and get wild, you can do that," Watkins says.
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