Zac Denton sang like he spoke. His voice had a broad drawl to it that he augmented with humour and warmth in conversation, rhythm and melody on record with bands like The Ocean Party, Ciggie Witch and Pregnancy. But there was little separation between the two: Zac’s music was not an auxiliary part of him or just something he did, but an intrinsic part of his being. Zac tragically passed away this week at the age of 24, an insurmountable loss for his friends and family as well as for Australian music at large. His death came too soon, but Zac will live on through the immense body of work that he left behind.
It is tempting, when bright talent dies young, to say that we never knew their full potential. It’s undeniable that Zac probably had much more to give, but to focus on that aspect of his career would be to ignore how intensely generous Zac was with his music, and would skate over the mammoth amount of work he left behind. We didn’t know where he might have taken his career, but Zac’s music was a blessing that stands up despite that fact.
Over the past few years, Zac gave us a full-blooded and richly textured output that displayed how deeply talented he was. If you ever listened to any of his records, the wit and skill and beauty of Zac’s music was immediately obvious. From the earliest Ciggie Witch tapes – where he would sing about sitting at home on eBay while his 18-year-old friends went out drinking – through to this year’s Ocean Party releases, Zac’s manifold skills as a drummer, as a guitarist, songwriter and vocalist, seemed to become sharper and more brilliant release-on-release.
Zac could write songs that ambled or swerved, oftentimes both; he was fond of unspooling yarns that juxtaposed his constantly moving mind with the quiet country streets of his hometown Wagga Wagga or the exhausting din of Melbourne’s north, where he lived. Through simple words, Zac could exhale lucid and complex truths about life and youth in Australia. On “Latest Fashion,” the final track on Ciggie Witch’s 2012 record Classic Connection, he wrote about the feeling of displacement that comes with returning to your hometown after living in the city. “Everyone I know has got their careers all sorted out / Everyone ages so much quicker in the country,” he sang, looking over the streets of his hometown with a kind of urban incredulity, before wondering why, then, he was “dressing more country” than anyone else on the main street. That song speaks to the heart of his music; existing somewhere between city kid and country boy, Zac’s keen eye could dig up the strange beauty and nuance of both.
Across his albums with Pregnancy and Ciggie Witch, Zac’s songs became more darkly toned, and he began to experiment more with form and style. Songs on Pregnancy’s Urgency and Ciggie Witch’s Mad Music were uneasy and muscular, adding new angles to Zac’s signature style. Highlights like Mad Music’s “Tight Lipped” and Urgency's “First Kiss” took Zac’s most tempestuous song concepts and married them with his prodigious ability to write sharp, sticky hooks, a talent that only became more and more pronounced. Mad Music’s “Shadow,” one of his greatest pop songs, seemed to race, a quality rarely present in his music before.
From his earliest recordings, the music Zac made felt classic; the small community he was entrenched in have a habit of making records that feel timeless and precious. As a teenager, I obsessed over Ocean Party records, spending my weekly earnings from my supermarket checkout job on collecting their records and tapes. The songs on them chronicled winsome crushes, boring day jobs, strange life pivots, and their outsider spirit spoke to me on a base level. Zac’s songs from this period, like “Split” and “Cut Throat” and “Black Blood” captured a world that felt crushingly mundane and extraordinarily alienating in his terse, finely wrought way; his music is an integral part of my youth, as it is for countless others, and for that I will always be unbelievably grateful.
On Classic Connection track “Scooter Pants,” Zac sang about legacy, about the pressures of growing up and becoming an adult. “Too many people that I’ve gotta go and see,” he sang on the song’s chorus, “Too many people that I’ve gotta be.” The song is over in under 90 seconds, but it carries a familiar weight – that of wanting to be something without wanting to conform to what everyone else wants you to be. As listeners, we’re lucky: we got to see Zac fulfil that wish through the brilliant music he made, and the immense legacy he leaves behind.
In light of Zac's passing, The Ocean Party have released their new record The Oddfellows' Hall as a pay-what-you-feel download on Bandcamp.
Zac's body of work is vast: listen to him on The Ocean Party's Split, Soft Focus, Light Weight, Mess & Noise Critics Poll, B-Grade Material, Restless, Beauty Point, Guilt, IBO and The Oddfellows' Hall; Hobby Farm's Braeside; Pregnancy's Urgency; and Ciggie Witch's Stupid Hamish, Echidna Cottage, Long Weekend, Rock & Roll Juice, Classic Connection and Mad Music.
This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.