My favourite band just released their debut album. Great Dad are perhaps best known from the South London band circuit, playing ramshackle shows in venues like Brixton’s Windmill and Deptford’s Sister Midnight, which is where I first heard them. Watching Great Dad play for the first time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. Packed into an overheated basement with some basic live equipment, I couldn’t work out if the indiscriminate nature of their sound was intentional or circumstantial. To be honest, this ambiguity remains unsolved for me. But this is precisely why I have become such a super-fan.
Unpicking the Great Dad enigma necessitates a close look at their instrumental set up. Their original line-up consisted of a laptop backing track, stand-up drumming, and the occasional flurry of flute. This jarring juxtaposition of tone remains forever at the forefront of their sound. The backing track blares MIDI strings, horns, and percussion: every element is fully present, and every note of their weird harmonic configurations can be heard. Their drumming style is leant back far enough that it is wrong-footing at every step. The choice to play stand-up puts the beat at a different pace from the quantised samples, thudding just behind the beat. Their live flute flurries offer more strangeness to their sound. The flutes appear, in almost cartoonish fashion, at the end of a phrase or line: a little trill to conclude a statement, like laughter following a joke.
MIDI sounds have gone through a strange cultural loop over the years, from the novel functionalism of Casio keyboards to the knowing referentialism of Windows ’98 vapourwave and retro-fetishism. I first started hearing these sounds in the early recordings of US oddball bands like They Might Be Giants. On tracks like ‘Where Your Eyes Don’t Go’, the MIDI saxophones, organs, and pizzicato strings sound like musical ambition over-extending budget, for a band that didn’t care about sounding too naff in the meantime. But as with Great Dad, those naff MIDI sounds become weirdly captivating, and give the perfect backing to the naff social awkwardness of their lyrics.
Those same MIDI sounds made a renaissance in the early 00s, with grime collectives like Ruff Sqwad making music on Fruity Loops. A lot of those sounds, although radically forward-thinking, retained a quality of ‘classicness’ by choosing not to over-process the textures or remove them from their original context. The textures on ‘Misty Cold’, or the orchestral hits on ‘Lethal Injection’ sound like computer game samples, partially because those were the sounds most accessible to the group at the time. Further down the line, on the academic avant-garde of electronic music, composers like James Ferraro (patronisingly?) re-presented these sounds in an artsy, high-brow context. On the legendary Far Side Virtual, MIDI horns and pianos are presented meta-aesthetically, as a birds-eye view on the progress of culture and technology, but losing some earnestness in the process.
So where do Great Dad stand in all this? Many of the sounds on this album sound like they come straight from the sample packs and Casio keyboards mentioned earlier. But almost every sound on this album remains somehow untraceable: a copy without an original. The album opens with a curious instrumental, ‘Old’, which sounds somewhere between the incidental music of Ocarina of Time and the brash primary colours of Micachu & the Shapes. Then there’s the angular riff which opens ‘Bus’, which sounds like an acoustic guitar MIDI-ised into uncanny obscurity. Is that a live recording, a software instrument, or a synthesiser? I’m still none the wiser after speaking to them about the recording process, in which they told me it was “largely recorded over webcam”.
Although the musical backdrop of Great Dad is ambiguous, the lyrics are certainly not. Their sardonic takes on life, death, work, and health punctuate these songs with a clarity that brings them closer into focus. Last year, they released ‘1000 Speedboats / Humming’, a single that I argued at the time offered some of the most honest and original music of the year. On ‘1000 Speedboats’, they lament the uncertainty of being trans in the UK today. Following London’s Pride parade, they sing “…yesterday was lovely, we all just smiled and screamed; today some guy in the toilets asked what was wrong with me…”
This new album expands upon these themes with an added intensity. On ’Blood Dirt’, the only song that could really qualify as a single, the lyrics read “you say all your friends are TERFs / but you wanna talk it out and see if we can make this work?” On ‘Dinner’, a fan favourite at shows, we are told “I work in a restaurant passionately, my boss thinks I’m cis, it’s pretty funny to me”. These moments of realism bring the music’s ambiguity to the fore; making its contradictions sharper and more difficult to resolve. At the climax of the album, and arguably its strongest moment, ‘Churchy’, the wonky organs and stark lyricism seem to converge on a point of heartfelt sincerity. Here, the listener is given free permission to wallow guiltlessly over words about loneliness and fear of intimacy.
Great Dad’s eponymous debut lasts only 23 minutes. But this album has more to offer in that time than most have in an hour. At almost every turn there is a novel texture, a different mood, some clever wordplay. They continue to evade easy categorisation by simply refusing to be anything in particular. Indeed, their album launch show last week saw a complete overhaul of their original set-up, losing the samples to introduce bass, guitars, synthesisers, and backing vocals. This commitment to deviancy can make their music difficult, chaotic, and at times utterly infuriating. But those able to withstand the racket are greatly rewarded.