The Panics are planning to make their mark overseas with a universal sound without losing their Australian voice, writes Iain Shedden
MARK Seymour knows the pitfalls of pitching for international stardom. As frontman for Melbourne rock ensemble Hunters and Collectors in the 1980s he followed the example of everyone from the Easybeats to AC/ DC in flying to London with his band mates and living there, hoping for the big break that would launch them on the world. It almost worked, too.
They got a recording contract with Virgin Records and recorded an album, Fireman’s Curse, but within months the band members were doing odd jobs, illegally, to keep afloat and getting steadily more miserable in the process. Pretty soon they were on a plane home.
H & C had the confidence and the talent to bounce back and become one of Australia’s most loved rock bands, but they learned the hard way the vagaries of taking that leap from small pond to overcrowded ocean. As Seymour says in his upcoming biography of the band, Thirteen Tonne Theory , naivety was their undoing.
‘‘ Without a clear commercial goal that was meaningful to the group, Hunters and Collectors imploded in a withering blast of collective cynicism,’’ Seymour writes. It was the band’s fear of selling out by making a more commercial album than their principles allowed that undid them, he goes on.
‘‘ When you wonder why some Aussie groups break through and others don’t, maybe it simply boils down to the one thing, the ‘ fear factor’, or the lack of it.’’
There’s not much fear in Jae Laffer’s eyes. Whether that bodes well for his music career remains to be seen. Singer and chief songwriter for Melbourne- based pop- rock outfit the Panics, Laffer covets international success for his band and he can taste it.
Already the Panics, a five- piece originally from Perth, have released three well- received albums since Laffer and guitarist Drew Wootton formed the band in high school.
The most recent album, last year’s Cruel Guards , was named Triple J’s album of the year ( and mine) and is about to reach gold status ( 35,000 units sold) in Australia.
The Panics have been living in the same house since moving to Melbourne two years ago and lived together in Perth before that, so there’s a certain all- for- one, one- for- all aspect to their career. ‘‘ It can get pretty intense, but it’s been nice seeing some rewards for our work recently,’’ Laffer says. ‘‘ That makes us all a bit happier. We are really ambitious so it has been a little frustrating at times.’’ This month the Panics set off on a mission they hope will make their overseas dream a reality, or at least set them on a course that allows them to develop as an international act.
Not setting his sights too high, however, Laffer, 26, has less lofty, immediate goals.
‘‘ You start to wonder after such a long time together, you know, ‘ When will I be able to buy myself a present, like some good shoes?’ ’’
Six years since their first EP was released may not seem too long to pay your dues locally, but if Laffer’s footwear comment reveals anything, it’s that moderate success in Australia does not bring with it guitar- shaped swimming pools and champagne on tap.
An Australian band or artist looking at a longterm career is obliged to at least dip their toes in other markets and the Panics are among those hoping to add the US and Europe, including Britain, to their touring and album release schedule this year. Not that a global music career need be about purely financial reward or even rock ’ n’ roll excess. It can be about making a decent living doing something you love, and that’s where Laffer is coming from.
This month the Panics are among the Australian acts appearing at the respected South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas. SxSW is a place where deals are done and publishers, record companies, agents and promoters from across the world converge
to talk shop and take a look at what’s hot. Depending on whom you talk to, the festival is a marvellous showcase for our talent or a scrum for freeloading music industry types trying to get into the hundreds of gigs on offer across the city without doing any deals at all. The reality lies somewhere between the two.
There’s also the SxSW Australian barbecue, an annual fixture at the festival that this year will have the Panics, Paul Kelly and emo punk band Something With Numbers, among others, on stage. The Panics’ brief extends further than Texas, however. They will also play shows in New York and London on this trip, with fellow Australian act Yves Klein Blue. Both are signed to the Brisbane- based independent label Dew Process. Both hope to gain something from the experience, but in terms of exposure the Panics have a head start.
‘‘ Drew and I have known each other since we were 13 and it’s always been in the back of our mind to be big overseas,’’ Laffer says. ‘‘ There haven’t been any Australian bands who have done it in a good way for so long.’’
In Britain, in particular, the Panics have made headway. In 2002 they played at the British equivalent of SxSW, Manchester’s In the City, and recorded their debut album, A House on a Street in a Town I’m From over there for the LittleBigman label, partly run by Happy Mondays founder Gaz Whelan.
Since then they have toured in Britain without setting the place on fire, but with Cruel Guards , an album that in terms of production and songwriting has a decidedly more commercial sound than their previous efforts, Laffer believes everything is in place to break through there.
‘‘ From when we started, the feedback we’ve had from people there suggests that we have an edge there,’’ he says before doing a sound check for an ostensibly secret MySpace concert in Melbourne. ‘‘ It feels like we should be over there and we have a chance.
‘‘ Now that we have a good album under our belts we want to spend more time overseas this year.
‘‘ I think we’ve taken it as far as we can around here,’’ he says of Australia.
‘‘ We’re happy to do a tour in Australia once or twice a year, but we’ve decided this time to put our efforts and money into nailing it overseas. It’s time to do that and I think it will work.’’
To that end this will be the first of several trips for the group this year, but they will also play their biggest tour of Australia, beginning in Tasmania on April 23.
It’s a little ironic that some of the Panics’ influences are Australian bands such as the Triffids and the Go- Betweens, which were critically acclaimed in Britain in the 1980s but didn’t enjoy the equivalent in record sales.
Laffer is aiming at getting that success without sacrificing the soul of his songwriting, which has much in common with the undercurrent of Australiana in the writing of the Triffids’ Dave McComb and the Go- Betweens’ Robert Forster and Grant McLennan.
‘‘ We love those bands, but we don’t want to take too much from them,’’ Laffer says. ‘‘ You can tell the Triffids were from another time. We want to be modern with what we do. We don’t want to be too guitar- pop either. It’s too easy to go in the studio and say, ‘ That sounds like the Stones or whatever, let’s do that.’ We want to make our own sound.’’
As to sounding overtly Australian, whatever that may be, Laffer errs towards what he considers to be ‘‘ a really cool Australiana’’ in his lyrics. ‘‘ That’s what it is in my head anyway, but there are so many dodgy forms of it out there,’’ he says. ‘‘ I wouldn’t want to have that heavily Australian label around us, whereas an English band will happily wrap a Union Jack around themselves. The US is the same.
‘‘ I like the idea that Cruel Guards is a universal- sounding record, but we can keep that Australian aspect in the meaning behind it.’’
That aspect is apparent in the subtext of songs such as Get Us Home, Feeling is Gone and Sundowner . They sound like songs one might hear on European or even American radio, but that could be said of many Australian bands that have failed to crack other territories.
At least the Panics, much like their Melbourne predecessors Hunters and Collectors, have the potential for a long career at home even if it doesn’t happen for them overseas. At worst they can say they have tried.
‘‘ We’ll have anything,’’ Laffer says. ‘‘ I think it’s a buzz if I hear us on a TV show, even if the show is a pile of shit, but I like my band being out there. I can’t see why you would want to hide in the corner doing this.
‘‘ The more people ( who) can hear our music the better. I’m proud of the songs.’’
Pride can come before a fall, of course, but that pride, along with confidence and a bag of well- crafted pop songs, may just get the Panics over the international finish line, although they have decided to stop short of Hunters and Collectors’ and many others’ strategy of moving to England.
‘‘ We could have gone over and stayed in England a couple of years ago, but I’m glad we didn’t,’’ Laffer says. ‘‘ We haven’t had to work jobs too much in the past couple of years, but if a band asked me for that advice now I’d say go. If you’re going to f . . k up you may as well go down in a big fight.
But I’m glad we’ve done it this way. We’re at the top of our game and inspired.’’
Flying far: The Panics, from left, Paul Otway, Jules Douglas, Jae Laffer, Drew Wootton and Myles Wootton