My phone rings, and I don’t recognise the number. I answer, greeted by a warm and eager “Zana?!”
I assume this must be an old friend with a new number. The familiarity in Jae Laffer’s voice threw me, as well as the fact that he was ringing me direct, half an hour earlier than his scheduled interview time. These things usually run to the minute so it took me by surprise. As I scrambled to set up my recording device, Laffer launched into the most comfortable of conversations, asking me the questions: “Where are you? How are you? What sort of space are you working from? What do you do apart from this stuff?”
We spoke about teaching music for a while.
“It’s good in your life to pass it on. But it could be shit as well. I had teachers that I didn’t want to practice [for]… The world of teaching music is not as romantic as it should be… It should be awesome.”
It’d be easy to natter away with Laffer for hours; he’s so interested and happy to chat about everything. The release of his band The Panics‘ fifth studio album Hole In Your Pocket is, however, the topic at hand. This album is the bands’ first release since 2011.
“We all kinda grew up on rock’n’roll and pop stuff… The record has a good power to it. I think there’s a lot of levels to the record and I hope it sticks around for people. Because I spent a lot of time on the lyrics and they feel good. When I think about the stuff I wrote the songs about… the emotion of the group and everything, I think we nailed a good thing. It’s an interesting record. I think after a few years away it has just the right amount of energy and purpose to it. I don’t think it’s a sleek record.”
Laffer has been busy during in the break between The Panics albums, one project being the release of a solo album. He explains:
“Yeah [I was] just keeping busy… The last album the band did was a little bit of a struggle. We kind of used up a lot of our ideas. Or I did, with writing. For some reason, I wasn’t being slapped in the face by all this inspiration, which happens to absolutely everyone, so I had to do those things that you do… Retraining your brain and having new life experiences. And for me, creatively, I’d only ever made music the one way with the same people so it was important for me to challenge myself and write a whole bunch of songs as quick as I can… And just test myself, throw myself in and make all the decisions. It was healthy for me. A few life changes later and it was like, let’s get together and see what this is.”
Even with a solid music career now spanning 15 years, Laffer admits there’s a fear, at times, that the inspiration will cease.
“It’s very tough for any artist, if you’re a writer or a painter or anything, once you feel like maybe you’re not as inspired as you once were, that fills you with dread and anxiety and you can fall into that. But I just worked through it. It took some serious realisations to realise that I’m in music and writing things for life. Now, I know that I’ll never have trouble again. I went through all that. I stared at a wall for 2 years looking for a song. I’ve done all those things that are not healthy as well, just to keep it flowing. At the end of the day, I had to try new things and get on with life and stop slapping myself in the face so much, and I got it back.
“It’s got to come from the place where you are so happy and in love with what you do that it feels right that you have the rest of the day to make music. And that should fill you with a really nice sense of ‘excellent, I wonder what’s going to come today’. I know it’s not always like that. But, in general, you have to get it back to ‘I love creating, let’s see what happens when I layer up these ideas,’ and all of that stuff.
“And I’ve been through the opposite where I’m like ‘oh fuck, I hope something comes today.’ And it slowly grows like a moss inside of you, you’ve got to clean the rocks occasionally and get it back to that thing you had when you were 16.
“And when do, when you know you’ve got a certain kind of discipline going on and a love for it so you won’t ever sacrifice it again… that’s a reason to live. That’s a reason to get up in the morning, and it’s something to do for the rest of your day. You’re fucked if you don’t have a creative outlet. The rest of it’s a bit of a drag without that.“
I thanked him for the excellent pep talk this conversation had become.
“You can call me anytime! I’ve been to hell and back. And you know, I was only asking about your space before because I’ve got this really old piano here [he bangs out a chord] so now these days I’ve got a really nice discipline going. And I keep journals now. That got me back on track. I do that every morning and write a bunch of pages just to see where it goes. I think you’ve got to keep your brain and your heart in training to remain open to when something around you is magic. That takes certain things. The only part of creativity that I might think is not that cool is that maybe some mornings I don’t feel like writing in a journal. But, I do it anyway. And that is part of the process.
“[You’ve got to be] open to everything throughout the day, so when those little sparks fly in and out, and most of us never notice them… you can go ‘oooh’ and grab it out of the air and say ‘I’ll at least write this down or this song title down that I’ve just come up with. Or I’ll at least enjoy the process of writing three paragraphs about a subject, then I’ll finish it in this line that I think will end the song.’ Just keeping that thing open is a little nice practice to have, if you can. But it’s gotta be really vague conversations like the one we’re having now to even figure out what that is. It’s not even something you can print. You know, no one knows, and yet it’s so cool when it’s working.”
We compared old acoustic pianos and I mentioned that I have been playing some blues on mine lately, first thing in the morning to get my mind in an open, creative place.
“Really? I read the Brian Wilson bio not long ago… He spoke about songwriting and [he would] sit at the piano on a daily basis and just play boogie woogie blues and it was just this thing that zoned him out, and eventually it would lead him somewhere, or he’d start daydreaming other chords within it, you know what I mean? I think that’s really cool. It’s tough to talk about blues it in terms of words like pure and stuff but it has this great simplicity to it, and it can never ever annoy you. You never get sick of it. It’s something that you can put your own thing on top of. And it’s something to share… I was just reading the bio of the drummer from The Doors and he was saying something similar about the blues and how it gives you the chance to put any kind of message into its simplest form. It’s cool ‘cos you get to just repeat a few things that are on your mind and you’ve got a song. That’s pretty cool.”
Simplicity is no stranger to Hole In Your Pocket. The Panics ditched the bright lights of New York and the UK, where they have recorded in the past, and transformed an old Aussie shed into a makeshift studio, where they’d write and record simultaneously.
“That’s the difference with this record,” explains Laffer. “It wasn’t like we put a month aside, we thought we’d just begin and we’d make stuff up or I’d bring in a song idea and we’d jam on it for a change and also be prepared to record stuff as well, come up with a great set of chords and just lay them down. So that was the difference. It was really no pressure from ourselves or labels. There was no time frame, and there was the comfort of doing it at home and not having to watch the clock. ‘Cos we’ve done that before.
“We’ve been to New York a couple of times and done stuff in England before. We’ve always tried to take music away to mix it, but the last one was mixed and recorded in New York over 6 or 7 weeks which is a great adventure, but this time we were like, we haven’t got an album so let’s go into the studio and create it ourselves and just build it.”
And how did this process impact the music itself?
“I guess it allowed you to be recording in the moment, with spontaneity, which is nice. And even though you can tell it’s been produced and mixed and all of that stuff, it really was just that thing of not rehearsing a song for 6 months before you get in a studio, just making it up, it just means that the freshest ideas or the first good riffs to come along will generally be the ones that we lay down on tape, so that’s how it influenced it. It also influenced it because we’d get together some nights with the idea of not recording, where one of the nights a week we’d just go in and press record, but also make songs from scratch, as in, ‘I don’t wanna work on any ideas that I’ve been writing or anything, let’s bring something out of a wall of noise and then go down a path and see where it goes.’
“Having those sessions turn into songs is only something you can do in that kind of environment. And that’s cool, that’s why you’re in a band. A lot of bands have just become a producer or a production thing, where some guy in the band does it all himself in his bedroom and then gets some people together to perform them or something [laughs] so that’s just kind of the opposite.
“Both can be cool I suppose. You know, I’m sure if you were on a mountain on your own with some gear, it’s great to do that… I did it for a few years, and my personal opinion is that there is nothing quite as satisfying as an enjoyable session where everyone has just made something up and there’s been those moments of happy surprise that something’s come out of thin air. I mean that’s the reason everyone got into it, and everyone remembers being a 15-year-old at jam sessions, ‘cos it was so cool… You don’t wanna be teaching your mate the parts that you wrote on Garage Band last week. I’ve been through that and there’s no interest for me whatsoever.”
According to Laffer, the result is an album that analyses the many compromises people are faced with over a lifetime, whether that be in relationships, work, societal expectations – and what those compromises force you to do.
“All of those things that maybe knock you off your true path, but that you also have to take on in a way so you can work your way through to make sure that you stay who you are.
“A couple of songs came out of a few trips that I’ve done to the Pilbara desert area in Western Australia. It was a new environment to me and [the title track Hole In Your Pocket] was written from the perspective of a father talking to his son, looking at the land around him that their family had been on for thousands of years. Industries have now come in to start using the land for cash, and everything started going down hill. So that was the starting point in the title. I think the general theme of the record is looking at different characters and different people and their general day-to-day struggles that everyone can identify with.
“I could go through a bunch of the tracks… There’s a song Not Apart Not Together which is that in nutshell, but which is based on relationship stuff. The single Weatherman is just basically that in a nutshell, like ‘God what do we put ourselves through?’ Just in our day-to-day life. [Recites lyrics] ‘A guy woke up one morning in a strange uniform.’ It’s almost literal. You wake up and suddenly you’re in a warehouse and you’re depressed and nothing is right and the reason you feel that way is because it’s not fucking right and it’s not supposed to be that way, and money is God and fuck that! I’d rather be broke. It’s all that stuff, and the more time I get to spend in my life [I see] that that stuff around us is rampant, it kills some people, it turns others into monsters, and some people battle through and do so well.
“All those things come up in me a lot… any strange job I have or travels. I guess it doesn’t take me much to feel for people in predicaments. I have my own as well but, I guess it’s just having that empathy, and those things make me want to make a song. There’s no choice, I just put pen to paper.”
Laffer adds that he has kept a journal over the past couple of years since his last record, and he drew on these to come up with lyrics for the new album.
“The last record we did I wasn’t writing a lot of lyrics so I got swamped, we wrote so much music and then it was intimidating. Suddenly you’ve got all these songs recorded, and the melodies are already there and you’ve got to come up with words to fit right in, like a glove. So it did my head in, it kind of ruined the process for me. And this time around I had the happy realisation that if I have ten poems that I’m proud of, an album can follow the following day. The music is so much fun, lyrics are elusive… So basically I just tried to write about things in a different character… I try to just give some kind of rhythm and focus to it. Then, if I’ve got anything resembling something that sounds like a lyric, I’ll maybe just put them in front of me on the counter and just keep repeating them, and pounding on the piano as well.
“That’s kind of how, the last year or so, I’ve been coming up with songs. And the result is excellent, because rather than slowly squeezing out ten songs over two years or something it’s like, I can get ten half-songs in a fortnight. Just making the pile of stuff, put them in your phone or on a tape deck and they’re there to be revisited. I seem to just be able to write a song every week or two over the last year. So I’ve got a bunch in the bag and it just feels right. It’s really nice to have that off my mind. That’s taken me years of tunneling in my brain… I’m probably just ahead of you actually! It’s probably just about to happen. Call me when you’re on the other side, if you’re still alive.
I ask, but what if I’m only at the beginning of the tunnel?
“Don’t say that! [laughs] I reckon there’s lots of little tunnels as well as you go. Don’t let me paint a dark picture.”
The band’s original October national tour dates for the album were canceled, but Laffer explains that it’s not a big deal, they had some “semi-serious stuff come up in one of the guys families so we just have to reshuffle stuff. But we’ll announce the new dates soon.
And for 2017?
“The touring plans are just that we’re really keen to do it… We hope to prick up some ears of people who know us overseas as well… it’s been a few years so we want to gather momentum, play as much as we can. My plan is now, cos it’s been a slow half decade of making music and now I’d like to have a really, really fast one. So to me, I don’t feel intimidated by any expectations of success of the record. The success is saying that it’s completed and recorded and you go ‘excellent, now it’s done and now I’m just already well into working on more and more and more.’ I just hope that it gets around. There’s a couple of songs that I’m really proud of. I’d love to hear a song like Know My Name on the record playing out of someone’s car speakers, that’d be really cool. That would be enough.
“It’s just thin ice. You’ve just got to respect it, and if you don’t, the other side is you do drift into other areas where you have to spend your time making some money, and that starts to influence you. It becomes something that’s not [in line with] the person that you are today, in a studio with all your writing. You wanna just make sure you keep it, you know, and get it to grow, ‘cos it’s awesome. I think I said about 20,000 words into your ear. But you know, whatever…
I thanked him again for the pep talk.
“I mean as far as pep talks go, obviously I’m giving myself one at the same time. It’s a good thing to do.”
The Panics’ fifth studio album Hole In Your Pocket is out now.