Step-Panther x Wax Volcanic - Another Zombie Summer
Another zombie summer. They leak in long palls from luxury coaches, drifting overdressed from conditioned air and semi-recumbent snacking to the trapped heat of indoor sun, vinyl restaurant booths and plates stacked with dunes of fried batter.
Jimmy’s shuffled away from the grill again. When Janet tears the order off her pad and slides it over the steel counter she can just see his legs inside the back flyscreen door, one arm hooked around the inside of the frame. His body is hung around the door into the alley.
“What?” Jimmy’s body and head arch back into view, wrapped in smoke.
Janet peers back through the kitchen to the restaurant. “Give’sa go.” She plucks the cigarette from Jimmy’s hand, the flyscreen whimpering quietly as she pushes her head through. An old ginger cat is watching them from the alley.
“That your cat?”
Jimmy shrugs. “I call him Danger. He…” Jimmy exhales for two full seconds “…he tries to eat the ash from me ciggies…”
As Janet walks back through the kitchen there’s an interview on the radio, the broadcasted voices mingling almost perfectly with the festive squawk of the Hook and Anchor’s overnourished patrons. It’s on through the whole establishment. After years of staff fighting for stereo control, Steve the weekday manager enforced a radio-only policy. It was mainly Jimmy’s fault, who thought Slayer was the “shit-hot energy kick” the pre-dinner period needed.
Janet listens for a moment, standing at the water station, pretending to work. The interviewer sounds like a fuckwit. Some private-school city kid. Probably. One of those “Look-at-me-I’m-so-cool-I-interview-rock-bands” guys. Janet had known some kids like that. They’d all moved away.
Strange But Nice ranges from brittle, affecting pop to almost Sabbathesque riffing, often within a single song, especially ‘Nowhere’, ’User Friendly’ and ‘Something Must Be Done’. And the paradoxical nature of the record is also evident in the album’s lyrical and thematic content, especially in songs like ‘Strange But Nice’ and ‘Summertime Zombies’. Was the juxtaposition in the tones, textures and themes of Strange but Nice intentional?
It’s kind of intentional; it’s just the way we are. I think it’s more that we don’t care too much if songs sound really different from each other. We usually get to a point when writing a song when we say “This needs a little something else, right?” and that’s probably where weird unexpected changes within the songs come from. After playing in this band for a while we’ve tried lots of things - sometimes it works and sometimes not so much, but we just have to accept that is just the nature of Step-Panther songs.
Janet’s worked at the Hook and Anchor for 14 years. It’s one of four seafood restaurants perched on Parallel Bay’s teeming summer esplanade. She’s been here all her life—seen Large milkshakes become dwarfed by the arrival of the Jumbo size, noticed ‘Bubble-O-Bill’ icecreams recede in diameter and colour and witnessed the tourists’ clothes change, but rarely their mood.
Janet’s brother works at the User Friendly at the end of the row of shops, a convenience store that uses the word ‘Bonanza’ liberally, attaching it to seasons (The User Friendly Spring Bonanza!) products (The Helga’s Lower Carb Mixed Grain Bonanza!) and even people (The Penelope Tallis Memorial Bonanza!) Every time she visits the water station for a momentary reprieve, Janet gets hit with the radio interview again. The band sounds interesting, relaxed. But the interviewer reminds her too much of an ex-boyfriend she had the year after she left high school—using long words, obsessing over music he couldn’t hope to make himself. He moved away too. Apparently works in Harvey Norman somewhere.
You’ve spoken before about how much of a relief it was to not play so aggressively, and to write songs that were more relaxed. Interestingly you’ve also said the opposite— that the heavy, riff-laden material on the record was also like a “lever of tension was released”. Have you been waiting a long time to be able to write material like this, or did you finally feel like the moment is right?
We’ve always had songs that were kind of laid back but they always seemed to get pushed aside in favour of the riff-rock, especially in our live shows. Generally people watching us don’t know many of our songs so I guess it’s easier to get people riled up with more energetic music. When it came to this album the more chilled out songs seemed to be stronger, and influenced us to tweak some of the heavier songs with extra special sweet spots. Anyway to properly answer the question it wasn’t a choice to write more songs like this - it was more that these songs just felt like the right ones to use.
The 24-hour recording of the Dreamcrusher EP with Berkfinger in Berlin sounded hectic. This time you recorded in Melbourne with Tom Iansek. What was the process like this time around?
This time we had a little more time to work and think about things - we did it in seven days which is the longest we’ve ever spent on a record. But more time would have been better, time and money are always hovering above us with big whips. We had made pretty detailed demos so we knew going in a lot of the parts we wanted. So I think that saved time, and that gave us more time to work on the vocals and getting the other sounds right.
Parallel Bay has the usual kind of semi-mouldered feel that attends a lot of seasonal tourist spots. It has the same partly corroded mini-putt course and brittle weatherboard antiques shops, the same tawny-coloured modern bistros (mid-late 90s decorative concrete and tinted glass) and packs of preteen kids roaming at breakneck speed from the main jetty to some backstreet play equipment they’ve claimed. Janet pretends to clean the windows overlooking the esplanade, the radio interview still in progress, the interviewer’s voice galloping nervously through his long, overwrought questions.
Tom Iansek is most notably one half of Big Scary, a band known for their catchy pop and radio-friendliness. You clearly wanted to make this record a bit prettier, but it still retains its natural grime. Did you have to be careful that it didn’t clean up too much?
We didn’t worry about that at all, even when deliberately trying to sound impressive and nice this is what happens. It’s a permanent mark.
On Strange But Nice there’s Snow White references, a song about Namor, Prince of Atlantis and a song about zombies. Steve’s even described ‘It Came From the Heart’ as a “fun nod to sci-fi and monster movies from the 1950s and 1960s”. The album has a lot of childlike fun about it—even the name of the record was something a kid wrote in an art-show guestbook. Were these themes and references more a product of personal nostalgia or just a way to keep the album’s mood light?
Keeping the mood light was definitely something I realized I wanted after recording. There were a few songs we cut because they had a bit more of a downer feel, they weren’t even that dark but all the songs on the album including the sadder ones have a kind of positive edge somewhere. In terms of the childlike themes it might be a subconscious thing. I watch a lot of movies and more or less this is just how I communicate and relate to things. The stuff that does come up from my childhood is actually some sporting references I put in there from playing footy when I was a kid - ‘hit and spin’ in “Parallel” is a good move, and I wrote something about being on the ball in “Let Loose”. I guess these kind of references work as a nice thread with all these different types of songs together, that’s what helps make them fit.
Parallel Bay is different to other tourist towns in one, fairly iconic way. It doesn’t possess great swimming beaches, a relaxing counterpoint to urban life or even tasty regional food (Janet should know). Its main attraction is the annual appearance of a particular mammal who chooses the height of summer for its yearly display, preferring warmer waters, and wherever possible, an audience. This mammal is the reason the Hook and Anchor’s patrons are talking in high, excited voices, unable to hear the radio interview being broadcast through the restaurant.
The songs on Strange But Nice sound like songs that’d be a lot of fun to play live. How has the new material with its wider sonic range and genre-resistant variety altered the live show?
They are really fun to play. We’re still in early days playing a lot of them because we haven’t done too many shows but so far it works okay - there are only three of us so at times it’s a bit bare-bones compared to the album. We add a bit of venom if we can - hopefully by the time we do an album tour we will be able to provide the full “Strange But Nice” experience.
The mammal that acts as Parallel Bay’s sole tourist magnet is a 63 year-old man. Every year this man wades into the sea out the front of the Parallel Bay lifesaving club, setting a boombox on the sand which emits a constant loop of Donovan’s ‘Atlantis’, while he capers in the gentle waves. But his capering has, over the last five years, become somewhat of a national phenomenon. He half moans and half-sings incantations at the horizon, words like: “Prince of Atlantis, indifferent to humanity, please forgive the ignorance of man! I offer up my servitude to the regions of the deep!” There’s something initially ridiculous and funny about it. The state and national news services predictably paid a lot of attention to his green leotard and trident rather than his carefully prepared and lovingly enunciated words. But after a while his small, dancelike motions and hymnals of aquatic fealty become almost heartbreakingly beautiful—“Strange, but nice” as one young onlooker was noted to yawn. His shoreline audience has doubled in the last two years. The nation has nicknamed him ‘Aqua Man’, but locals still know him as Gary, manager of the Shake Shack. Janet just calls him Dad.
For Cool Accidents
Step-Panther’s Strange But Nice is available now where all rad records are sold | streamed