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Midnight Juggernauts: Reflecting On The Legacy Of Australia's Most Mysterious Band

26 June 2023 | 11:58 am | Cyclone Wehner

Midnight Juggernauts imagined the zeitgeist before its advent – so much so that the epiphanic 'Uncanny Valley' might be a worthy 'album of 2023' contender.

Midnight Juggernauts

Midnight Juggernauts (Supplied)

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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Midnight Juggernauts' third, and last, album, Uncanny Valley – the sci-fi premise resonating even more today, auguring the AI revolution. But it's an opportune time to reflect on the trio's legacy as transgressive retro-futurists.

In 2023 the Juggernauts – frontman Vincent Heimann, Andrew Szekeres and Daniel Stricker – are surely Australia's most mythic 2000s band. 

The Melbourne synth-popsters never scaled the commercial peaks of Cut Copy or The Presets, but their influence is pervasive. 

Since Uncanny Valley, Midnight Juggernauts' mystique has been magnified. Their Wikipedia profile is written in the past tense and its members have retreated. However, they still command a cult audience. 

International acts like Groove Armada ask about them in interviews (Tom Findlay booked the Juggernauts for 2010's Lovebox festival in London, the same year Dizzee Rascal, Roxy Music and Grace Jones headlined). In fact, the group hasn't officially broken up. 

Ever enigmatic, they refer to themselves as "hibernating" on social media accounts. 

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From the beginning, the Juggernauts mythologised themselves – personnel assuming various aliases, some irreverent ('Manuel Noriega', 'Muammar Gaddafi'). 

"We wanted to be like this mysterious creation where no one knew if the music came from here or another planet," Heimann admitted to this writer in 2007.

Midnight Juggernauts was conceived in 2003 by Heimann and Szekeres, who'd connected as high school students, gigging in ignominious bands. 

The rock kids became enamoured of electronic music on discovering Daft Punk – the French housers in turn devotees of British art-rockers ELO, who pioneered the vocoder on 1977's Mr Blue Sky

Still, the Juggernauts remained peripheral to the indie-dance scene, their interests often outré, arcane, or idiosyncratic. Much of that otherworldliness ensued from an innate curiosity. 

The Juggernauts were resolutely independent, utilising MySpace (significantly established in 2003) to build a fanbase and founding Siberia Records – creative control key. They produced their own music and handled their own visuals – Heimann's multidisciplinary nous evident. 

"We're a very DIY band," he explained, in another archival interview from 2006. "We've always just done everything ourselves. We have friends like the Cut Copy guys and the Modular [Recordings] guys who help out, but we've always controlled our own music."

In 2004, Midnight Juggernauts issued an eponymous EP, which Heimann subsequently described as "punky and raw" and with "a rock feel." 

They followed with the dancier Secrets Of The Universe – revealing their signature space disco bop Shadows, Heimann's dramatic vocals Bowie-esque (although the Juggernauts also refined ELO-style polyphonic harmonies).

In 2007, Midnight Juggernauts – now joined by the Sydneysider Stricker, formerly of Lost Valentinos, on drums – launched their debut, Dystopia, orbiting through psychedelia, kosmische musik, disco, goth and cinematic soundscapes. Lyrically, they explored themes of change, technology, and the unknown. 

Overall, Dystopia felt allegorical, if amorphous. "I've never really thought of ourselves as some environmental protest band, but there could be something there!," Heimann pondered at the time. 

"It could be the end of the world – and it could be the start of something new… The album is not all dark… There's light and shade throughout – and there are definite pop elements."

Dystopia landed in the ARIA Top 50 Albums Chart – and was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize (AMP). The Juggernauts generated global buzz, securing a licensing deal with EMI, and played 2008's Glastonbury. 

In early 2010, Midnight Juggernauts replaced Echo & The Bunnymen at Laneway in Melbourne, Heimann singing the opening lines of The Killing Moon. That year, they'd unveil The Crystal Axis, led by This New Technology – a space rock stomper. In contrast to Dystopia's dark glam, it was proggier, trippier and hopeful.

Midnight Juggernauts attracted kindred spirits. They not only toured with Tame Impala, but also remixed Solitude Is Bliss off 2010's Innerspeaker – and arguably Kevin Parker's sonic aesthetic benefitted from the Juggernauts' celestial influence. Indeed, Tame Impala covered Vital Signs off The Crystal Axis.

The trio were embraced, too, by French house luminaries. Ed Banger Records' boss Pedro Winter declared Dystopia his 'album of 2007', suggesting that it sounded like "Alan Braxe and David Bowie smoking crack in Paris" to XLR8R. 

The Juggernauts supported Justice on a North American tour – and warmed up for the Parisian electro-noisers as DJs in Melbourne as recently as 2018. They remixed Sébastien Tellier's Divine (which, co-produced by Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, outrageously served as France's entry in the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest) and Kavinsky's Odd Look.

Most impressively, Midnight Juggernauts collaborated with Solange Knowles early in her indie era. The Australians met Solange in Paris and she vibed with them in Melbourne during the summer of 2009/2010. Solange even accompanied the Juggernauts at Falls Festival (when she returned for Falls in 2012, they DJed at her side-shows). 

"She was really awesome – and really into interesting music," Szekeres recalled in 2013.

 "She brought up this idea of coming to Australia to write with us and we were totally into it. She came by herself; had never been here – and then was here for a few weeks, just hanging out. We did some session stuff in Melbourne and then Vinnie went to [Los Angeles] for a bit and recorded some extra stuff there. We couldn't complete all of the stuff with her – we were trying to do our own thing. I think it'll definitely get released at some point."

Midnight Juggernauts enjoyed a hiatus after The Crystal Axis, eventually reconvening in France's Loire Valley for album three. And Uncanny Valley captured them at their experimental zenith. 

The band borrowed the title from a theory advanced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the '70s. He proposed that we are discomforted by androids, and CGI humans, that are imperfectly realistic: "I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity with them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the 'uncanny valley'."

As such, Midnight Juggernauts revelled in the enduring fascination with machines and automation defining electronic music from Kraftwerk to Detroit techno to Daft Punk – a press release proclaiming Uncanny Valley as "robotic sounds made by human hands." 

As with their previous LPs, the tone was indeterminate, rather than either dystopian or utopian – the Juggernauts expressing an alternative abstract futurism. "I think in general we wanted to make a more energetic-sounding record," Szekeres stated. "In lots of ways, it's more electronic than other stuff we've done, but it's not like it's a straight-up dance record or anything."

Rolling out Uncanny Valley, Midnight Juggernauts circulated an anonymous low-fi video for the coldwave (and neo-Cold War) protest song Ballad Of The War Machine, passing it off as a forgotten Soviet band. 

Symbolically, the clip ends with a quote from dissident Russian poet Anna Akhmatova – poignant amid the current Russia-Ukraine War. The group expanded musically – the shoegazey Streets Of Babylon redolent of the Cocteau Twins. 

Yet the set's pinnacle is the anthemic Another Land, again alluding to environmental degradation – the Juggernauts eternal sojourners through intergalactic romance and doom as well as elevated horror.

Alas, Uncanny Valley was slept-on locally. Contemplating crossover success, Szekeres reasoned, "I guess we've been pretty uncompromising in what we're willing to do. If we changed tack and we were thinking more about 'How do we make commercial music?,' then I'd say we'd just fail miserably and probably we'd lose on all fronts!" 

Celebrating their 10th birthday in 2014, Midnight Juggernauts shared the acid house EP Aerials (with proceeds directed to the Aboriginal Benefits Foundation – and performed at both Vivid Sydney and Melbourne Music Week.

Having long indulged in "monkey business," the Juggernauts baffled fans and industry types alike in 2015 by rebranding as entrepreneurs. 

n their most eccentric manoeuvre yet, they previewed MJX, "an international hybrid vitality company dealing in progressive consumer goods, fusion pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, technology and entertainment" at Sugar Mountain

But Heimann maintained that the lifestyle venture, originating as "a comment on the music industry and art," was no postmodern conceit – being "100 percent legit."

Over the past decade, Midnight Juggernauts have been intermittently active – primarily DJing. In March 2020 they were billed alongside Jamie xx and The Avalanches for the Sydney climate change event No Coal Zone, cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, band members have moved into production. Stricker has worked extensively with Tellier – and, recruiting Solange's Californian cohort John Carroll Kirby, they devised Mind Gamers. The three were credited on burlesque icon Dita Von Teese's self-titled debut. In 2020 Stricker aired a personal solo album, Morphin, as Danial.

The year prior, Szekeres introduced the ambient Sanctuary Lakes with Cut Copy's Tim Hoey – and he was crucially involved in The Avalanches' metaphysical We Will Always Love You, the duo praising him publicly.

"He just helped so much; he's such an amazing songwriter," Tony Di Blasi enthused. adding, "It was like a big burst of fresh energy coming into the band." The Avalanches went on to win the 2020 AMP.

In the aftermath of Uncanny Valley, Heimann has pursued immersive virtual reality projects. He teamed with Stricker on Shifting Homes for the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale – the concept, precipitated by the impact of climate change on the Pacific Islands, specifically Samoa, foregrounding community, storytelling and cultural memory.

Saliently, Shifting Homes seemed less like an evocation than a culmination – the intangible, and ambiguous, preoccupations in Midnight Juggernauts' music coming into sharper focus; from existentialism to hyper-capitalism to, in Heimann's case, bicultural identity in a shifting world.

An avant-garde band defying temporality, Midnight Juggernauts imagined the zeitgeist before its advent – so much so that the epiphanic Uncanny Valley might be a worthy 'album of 2023' contender.