The Pan­ics are plan­ning to make their mark over­seas with a uni­ver­sal sound with­out los­ing their Aus­tralian voice, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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