Polish Club Frontman Dave Novak On The Band’s Origins & The Making Of New Album ‘Iguana’

Before I talked with him, David Novak from Polish Club was a bit of a mystery to me. I knew that he had spent most of his life in Sydney, yet he spoke with what seemed to be an American accent. I had read that his mother was a musician and that he himself was also possessed with considerable talent, but also knew that he came to music late. (Dave spent the better part of his twenties climbing up the rungs of the music industry ladder before high school acquaintance John-Henry Pajak convinced him that playing in a two-piece rock ‘n’ roll band was, quite obviously, a far more sensible idea.)

Having now spent some time in conversation with Polish Club’s vocalist and guitarist, much of that which had previously been mysterious to me has now become apparent. And in making it all clear, Dave also cast light on the making of his band’s long-gestating second album, a love of ’90s R&B and the magnetism of The Strokes. Speaking in good humour he was also at liberty to clarify that the feud between Polish Club and another two-piece rock combo, Royal Blood which had widely been reported on in the Australian music media October last year, had never been all that much of a ‘beef’ to begin with.

But to say any more on this, that or any of the rest would more likely to be giving far too much of it away so read on.

Music Feeds: Before you were in Polish Club you worked in the music industry promoting or booking gigs. Is that right?

Dave Novak: Yeah! I worked with a promoter called Chugg Entertainment for about, I don’t know, five years? I just kind of fell in there doing intern stuff for Laneway Festival and then became the receptionist. Then I fell into doing their digital marketing for a little bit. So I kind of had a view from the inside.

MF: What then motivated you to start playing music?

DN: I guess I always wanted to but never really had that… Well a lot of people need that push from someone, so it only took John from my high school band dropping in and going, “Hey, why don’t we try this ourselves?” It kind of just happened rather than me going, “I’m going to do this and take it seriously and do it properly from the other side.”

I guess you sort of need that confidence you know? And it’s not easy to find that by yourself. It usually takes another person to be like, “Hey! You can do this! Probably… or at least you should try.” And then you get the courage to do it. And fortunately, all of a sudden, we were on triple j and stuff. So it worked out well.

But there’s no knowing that until you try. Part of me wishes we did that earlier because we are no spring chickens now. But that’s chaos theory or something. If we did it earlier, it might not have gone the way that it did. I’m just happy that eventually, we did.

MF: You and John were playing music together in high school?

DN: We never played music together. I was in a really like, low effort high school band. [Laughs] We kind of just messed around, wrote some songs and never really knew what to do with them. It was very of its time, very plinky-plonky indie rock. John was a bit more… not serious about it, but a bit more into it. He was in a few other bands which properly released music and kicked around in [Sydney nightclubs -] your Kandys and Spectrums and what not.

Eventually, we asked him a favour. Just before we started Polish Club, he started playing for this high school band of mine. And that’s when he had the epiphany, “Why don’t we just do our own thing? You seem to know what you’re doing!” So we’ve known each other since high school but it never occurred to us to play music together because I’d never really done it in much of an official capacity.

MF: You are a very distinctive vocalist. Was that something that motivated John to suggest you work together?

DN: Well I never really sounded like that until we tried it with Polish Club. I was never trying to be you know, James Brown or a screamy, soulful singer. I was always trying to be indie rock. It was very of its time and it was a bit quieter and weaker and less melodic.

It kind of took that encouragement [from John] to see how much I could push it. And fortunately, I came up with something a little different and a little bit more natural. I only found that out then, which was way into the game for both of us. It’s not like we’re 18-year-olds. I was well into my 20s and like, “F*ck! I should have been doing this from the start!”

MF: What I also think is interesting about all this- and this is going a little further back in time here – is that your dad is Polish, your mother is a musician and you grew up in-and-around Sydney. It sounds like there was an interesting confluence cultures feeding into your music…

DN: It does. It does make sense and it’s a bit weird how it took that long to realise that I could do that kind of thing. My mum is a very musical person, she was in a big show tunes band in Manilla in the Philippines when she was young. And my dad loves music, but I wouldn’t call him a musician. [Laughs] They both were very encouraging.

I remember when I was a kid – I mean I grew up in Belgium, which is why I have a weird accent. I went to an international school. And yeah, it’s annoying. I was born here, and I moved back here when I was 14 and I can’t get rid of the accent! But that’s fine, whatever, a bit of mystery.

But I never really tried the music thing properly. I knew I could do it but I guess it’s always a case of trying to find your worth in terms of something you bring to it that’s different enough to feel valuable and not just, “Oh, I can kind of do what other people do. Why don’t I just do that?” That kind of seems pointless, at least from my perspective. I don’t really want to do it if it’s just the same old stuff. It needs an angle no matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing. As soon as we found that everything became super, super easy.

I guess that’s why we kind of struggled a little bit on the second album where we were kind of like, “Well we found our angle, but we can’t just do the whole retro soul thing until we die!” Or at least we don’t want to because it’s kind of boring for us now and it feels a bit disingenuous to make the same album twice. So it’s always a case of trying to find that believable, genuine and fun angle that you can paint and not necessarily everyone else can. That’s what makes it feel worthwhile.

MF: Tell me about Iguana. The album takes its title from a bar on Sydney’s King Street. I’m guessing this might be a nod to what’s been happening to the city’s live music scene in the wake of gentrification, the lockout laws and all that…

DN: Well, it’s actually named after a bar in Kings Cross which is kind of telling of what era we’re coming from and what era we’re kind of nostalgic about. There was a bar on Kellett Street that was called ‘Iguana’. It’s a strip club now! It was the place you ended up when you had a massive night and you wanted to forget all your worries and do stupid stuff.

I guess it reminds us of that time in our lives that really has passed. But it reminds us [also] that not much has really changed. We still do those same things but it’s undeniable that the surroundings and circumstances have changed.

So yeah. I think the whole album sort of fits into this nighttime scenario, a night out where you kind of have your own mental anxiety and social pressures and all that goes along with that. And hopefully, that makes sense across the whole twelve songs because that’s where it came from for us.

MF: As you’ve said earlier there are more than a few stylistic shifts on the album, things which move outward from the record that came before. There’s one song called ‘2 Scared’ which has more a Queens of the Stone Age sound…

DN: Queens of the Stone Age was a reference that we kept coming back to. We found ourselves trying a lot of things that weren’t necessarily coming from a rock space. We wanted a bit more of synth stuff and a bit more of beats that were taken from ’90s R&B, from Justice and electro stuff from the early and mid-2000s.

But we always came back to, “Well at the end of the day we’re still a rock band. How do we sort of marry these two concepts and that kind of darkness.” So we dropped the flavour of that and brought it back to a more believable thing where we’re not just like, “Oh, by the way, we’re playing electro now.” It’s still very much a two, sometimes three-piece rock band setup.

‘2 Scared’? It’s kind of funny that you bring that one up because it’s the only one on the album that we co-wrote with someone, this guy called Thief. Our label set us up with him and we went through all these co-writes. We went to America and did a bunch over there.

We didn’t keep any of them and that seems to be a common thread with a lot of bands. North East Party House just did an interview with triple j where they [said] they went to The States and didn’t keep any of it, but it was still a positive experience. That’s probably true because it kind of makes you realise how you write best.

With me and John, more often than not it’s like an unspoken thing that we only write together. We don’t really write by our ourselves or bring anything into the room besides a really simple idea, a simple reference or a kind of vibe. So it’s kind of amazing to us that song made it through because we worked on it with Thief. We still kind of made the song by ourselves though he did top-write it a bit. But yeah! It made us realise how much we’re dependent on each other for the songwriting.

[Iguana] took ages, almost year-and-a-half from the first idea to mastering the album. It was tough but it was necessary you know? When we look back we go, “F*ck that was such a trial, that almost broke us!” All that cliché bull sh*t you can say about an album.

But at the end of the day? It kind of lead us to this thing that I don’t think we could have done if we just locked ourselves in a room for 10 days like we did with the first album. We just followed our instincts. It took a lot of trial and error.

MF: Do you have a favourite track?

DN: I did mention a ’90s hip hop beat earlier and that’s track nine. ‘Let’s Pretend’ has an undeniable new jack swing beat and is hilarious because it’s just so far removed from what we do but so intrinsic to my tastes as a listener of music. I like Bell Biv DeVoe and Blackstreet songs – all those songs written by Teddy Riley. Stuff like that informed a lot of what I like. I’m stoked that I found a way to logically, and that genuinely makes sense, to bring that into our bullsh*t two-piece rock ’n’ roll fun times vibe. I had to fight for it!

MF: It sounds as if you’re almost smuggling it in.

DN: I think we realised that as long as I’m belting it out vocally and playing guitar and John’s playing drums there’s a lot around that space that we can deviate from the rest. We can add synths, we can add weirder beats or less-expected genre beats to it that still feel cohesive amongst other songs that are stylistically different because it’s still me and John just doing what is, not easy, but natural to us.

MF: Polish Club had a bit of a flare-up with Royal Blood a little while ago. Are they still in the bad books?

DN: [Laughs] No!

MF: Is it water under the bridge? Was it a media hype, a fabrication?

DN: We were in Germany and I think it was you guys that wrote the article – which was so funny! We were on a tour bus in Germany with a couple of German bands just totally whacked out because it was like, different time zones and we’d never toured on a bus before. And then John checked the internet and he was like, “Ah… FUCK.” We got his message from [Mike Kerr] from Royal Blood saying, “Hey man, kind of a bummer that you had to badmouth us on national radio.” (We’d told a radio station in London all about it.)

We – it was kind of annoying, but you know whatever. He was cool about it though. He was like, “Sorry, it was a weird tour for us. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I was like, “Dude, that’s totally fine. We don’t care. We don’t take this stuff seriously. No one owes anyone anything and we were happy to be on the tour.”

So they were super chill about it, we were super chill about it. It’s just something funny. To pretend that you have a beef with someone is just such a kind of old-school thing that you never get. And you know, we’re not those kind of guys.

It was just weird for us. You play these arena shows and your green room is on the other side of the arena to the headline act. They have to go out of their way to say hi and sometimes the venue doesn’t permit that. So I would never put that upon the artists themselves.

But God, it was fun that kind of got picked up and became a thing without us even knowing! We never really had any bad feelings or any feelings towards Royal Blood. We were just happy to be on the tour with a big band!

So yeah, that was the thing, it wasn’t really a thing. But we’re totally cool. If they are ever in town, I hope they don’t hate us. We’ll happily have a beer! We don’t hold grudges, we never really had one to begin with.

MF: I’ve heard that you and John are fans of The Strokes. Do you have a favourite album or song?

DN: Ah, man. I’d say I’m The Strokes fan. John was as much of a Strokes fan as the next person. But I’d still say they are probably my favourite band.

Which is annoying ’cause it’s like, it’s not an exciting choice for most people. But there’s something about how intrinsically they’re linked to the time that they came out of and the way they looked.

And the music! They just created this wholly realised vibe that you don’t really get that much anymore from a rock band. Everything now is kind of harking back to another time or whatever. But [The Strokes] kind of changed everything. They ripped off all of these bands, from Television and what not but they made it totally new to a whole generation of people. And I guess it’s probably mostly a reflection of my age at the time, I was just a kid kind of discovering that kind of music.

You know I read an article about how when you’re in your teens the music that you listen to irrevocably stays the music that you’re into until you die. So that’s that one for me. I realise that they’re not the f*cking Beatles or whatever, but it’s like the feeling of just every part of their band being so effortless and cool and classy and not contrived.

I guess it slowly but surely did become everything that it wasn’t at the time. You can’t keep doing that without successfully reinventing yourself as time goes by. I don’t think anyone can really do that forever.

But yeah. Room On Fire. That whole period was amazing for me. And I guess my favourite song from that is probably a song called ‘Under Control’. It’s like a crooning love song. No bullshit, really sweet soulful chords. It’s effortless you know? It’s that effortless nature that I always respected about it because it emotes so much without anyone even trying or breaking a sweat at all.

It’s kind of the opposite of what we do. I’m like, “Look, I will flagellate myself to make anyone feel anything.” But with The Strokes it was like, “I’m not even going to look up. I’m just gonna do my part and it’s gonna fit perfectly with everyone else’s and we’re just gonna do the song and that’s gonna be it.” And that, somehow, is unreplicable by anyone else. I don’t really know how to put it in words, but that song, in particular, is probably my favourite one.

MF: Are you excited about the new Strokes record? Do you think they still have it?

DN: I am excited about any new Strokes stuff. They cop a lot of sh*t for doing the same sh*t. They cop a lot of sh*t for new sh*t and changing! It’s a lose-lose scenario for them. I also just enjoy the musicality of it all and I always find it exciting because I have a personal connection and nostalgia for it. So I don’t take it too seriously. I think anything new that comes from it is worthy of attention whether it will blow my nuts off or not, it doesn’t really have to at this point so I’m super excited.

MF: Iguana will be arriving shortly, what else is coming next?

DN: We want to not have the same thing again. We just spent two years going, “What should we do now?” We very much just want to go back into the studio and try to see how much we can get away with. It might be terrible, it might be amazing. It might be, you know, a disaster. But it won’t be at all the same thing hopefully. We just want to keep doing stuff. To be, for lack of a better word, prolific. So as soon as this tour is done everything is leading to that.

We’re being a three-piece now, we’re bringing Wade [Keighran] on tour. All the songs are new so it’s a totally exciting, refreshing and new thing for us. We haven’t done an album tour in two years, so it’ll be crazy. But as soon as that’s done? On to the next thing, whatever that will be – something different! We’re too old to kind of sit on it and do the same thing.

Iguana is officially out Friday, 7th June but you can hear a “leak” of the record here. Well, sort of. The band will be touring the album next month.

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