“It’s about arc, it’s about drama and about a kind of flow of consciousness,” Max Hallett, aka Betamax Killer, tells DJ Mag down the phone from an airport security queue. We’re discussing how the raucous, tangible energy that defines the live shows of The Comet Is Coming — the band he’s in with King Shabaka (Shabaka Hutchings) and Danalogue the Conqueror (Dan Leavers) — is crafted.
Rewind a few weeks and that energy is in full swing. Mounted on a stage in the middle of Hackney Wick’s Colour Factory venue, the trio blast out music from their new album ‘Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam’ (alongside a few old favourites) from within a vortex of swirling smoke and flashing lights. The in-the-round set-up — which Hallet says the band like because it “feels really intimate... more like a community thing” — has been specially put together for the show, taking a full day to put together with the addition of a new PA to achieve the 360-degree inside-to-out sound that’s currently shaking us to our core.
A next-level drummer, Betamax provides the beats, while Shabaka — now able to spend more time on the project since the dissolution of his Sons Of Kemet outfit at the end of the summer — sends each tune into the stratosphere with his saxophone noodlings. Most striking of all are Danalogue’s synth lines, which boom and soar — one moment twinkling like a voyage through the Milky Way, the next looped into a pounding gabber beat, and the next roaring with distortion like the overdriven bass of doom metal giants Electric Wizard. This latter style is best heard on the appropriately titled ‘THE HAMMER’, the space between its plodding march filled with a grinding low-end and maniacally screaming sax.
It’s fitting that Dan’s synth elements should leave the biggest impression on us, given how ‘Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam’ feels like The Comet’s most electronic album yet. Recorded in much the same way as previous efforts, the tracks are a mix of studio compositions and live jams with varying levels of post- production by Dan and Max. “We do overdubs and we restructure things and kind of accentuate things that happen naturally and make them more dramatic,” Max says of the latter part. “Me and Dan are kind of mixing, but also adding little bits, trying things back to front, seeing how things work together. Sometimes we end up going, ‘Wow, we’ve really transformed this, we’ve restructured this so much it’s basically a new tune’, and then other times it really is more natural jam sessions that retain their basic structure, which is more spontaneous.”
The album is still as sonically psychedelic and jazzy as previous efforts, but the overall picture painted by ‘Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam’ leans more towards dance music than ever before. It’s not necessarily a view the band takes, or a direction that was intentional — they’re just doing their thing, and having all been influenced by electronic music over the years “it’s just part of how we understand musical structures,” says Max. But with the funky dance groove of lead single ‘CODE’, sleek Magnetic Man-esque wobble of ‘PYRAMIDS’ and relentlessly propulsive ‘ATOMIC WAVE DANCE’, it’s hard to ignore from a listener’s perspective.
“We don’t plan to do it, ‘cause a lot of our music just comes from playing together and trancing out and then seeing what happens,” explains Max. This ‘trancing out’ comes into its own on stage. The band uses various techniques — rituals to create a “collective routine” and get into the right headspace before playing. One is the famous Wim Hof breathing technique, a kind of hyperventilating used to pump extra oxygen around the body; “It gives you quite a particular vibe in your head where you’re kind of very relaxed and focused, but also energised, and your body feels oxygenated.”
Another ritual sees the band choose three words (one each) to focus on during the show. “It just ties into our interest in the collective mind and collective creativity, ‘cause you get these nice poetic collisions of words,” says Max. “It’s just kind of fun, it’s spontaneous, and then you go on stage and you’re all thinking about the same three words. It’s different every gig and it just starts to synchronise, so you can get into sync for the show.”
The latter process was also how they came up with the album title ‘Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam’, utilising the technique to provide a description of their music, something they’re regularly asked to do in interviews. The result is an incredibly powerful live show that’s become renowned across the industry. Tracks become ever-evolving expansions of their recorded forms.
“No one wants to be a slave to the track,” Max says of the outfit’s desire to build upon their existing music when playing live. “If you’re naturally getting curious about adding more stuff, you can do it, you can always keep playing with the music, you can play whatever you like and it’s nice. A lot of it’s just based on these things that just happen — I dunno, music just happens,” he laughs. “We’re not big rehearsers; since we played at the Colour Factory, our set’s already changed and different things are happening now.”
He describes the live set as like a starting 11 in a football match; ”You’ve got your players and you can sub off different tracks and try different tracks on, and it’s all kind of based on some kind of tactics, to create a particular vibe, a particular arc, a particular timeline of events.”
The analogy works in more ways than one, also fitting in with the physicality of the show, which sees the band throw everything they have into each tune. At the time of writing, they’re in the middle of a US tour — Max is about to fly out to Chicago to rejoin the others after a trip back to London — he says the show is “bubbling away and it’s just starting to settle down now... It’s all starting to get even better for us.”
So they’ve worked out the perfect formation? “Exactly, we’re like mid-season now,” he says with a laugh, “we’re clocking up the wins. It’s been really great; there’s a great vibe in the camp right now and I’m excited to get back out there.”