‘Very heavy pop songs’ influenced by cults and the Occult: An interview with Pagan

Given they’re self-monikered as ‘real-life/pretend vampires playing real-life/pretend rock and roll,’ you might be surprised to hear Pagan describe their music as: “Just very heavy pop songs.” But that phrase is a perfect explanation of why the Australian rockers are swiftly building a cult-like following around the world.

Last month we were lucky enough to witness Pagan perform ritual numero uno on British soil, at The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch alongside Phoxjaw. And prior to the show, we were even more lucky to have a chat with the band to dig further into the roots of the intrigue behind this exciting new band.

The Melbourne quartet, led by the engaging howled vocals of Nikki Brumen, supported by the huge riffs of Xavier Santilli, booming basslines of Dan Bonnici and driving drums of Matt Marasco, put on a hell of a show that – along with this year’s debut album – shows why so many people are swiftly being put under their spell.

Not only do they create very heavy, groove-led music, but the content of their music is also fascinating. When we originally interviewed the band back in June, Dan described Nikki’s writing influences as “True crime, occult and horror films and all those nice wholesome things,” so we were keen to get Nikki’s deeper insight into her inspirations.

She told us: “The album in itself is very personal for me, it was about a break-up I went through and looks at the start of the break-up, the middle and the end and how it all fell apart. But then in hindsight, looking at that relationship I realised how controlling the person was that I was with.

“Around the same time I was reading up a lot on the Jonestown Massacre, and I use a lot of metaphor in some of the songs about how and why it is that certain people need to get up and lead a bigger group – like a cult leader for example – and how it is that those people really can be brainwashed like that.

“So those kind of themes sit in the album, and I use a lot of metaphor around what it’s like to be a woman. So the emotional landscape of women opposed to men, hormone changes and how it can be built as a negative thing to be sensitive and emotional, whereas I think it’s a really positive thing because you’re being really honest about your feelings. So I’ve incorporated a lot of metaphor around the cult thing but really personal issues throughout the album as well, so it was very therapeutic to write it.”

Bizarrely, the day before we interviewed the band a BBC feature revealed the plight of a woman who was rebuilding her life after surviving the Jonestown Massacre, which was intriguing timing. Check out the video for Imitate Me below to get a taste of the Pagan sound.

As you can probably gather from Nikki, the vocals play a very prominent role in the whole Pagan experience. When asked about their creative process, Dan explains: “Usually Xavier or I will skeleton a song. The process is pretty typical rock band, which we’re going to try and move away from in the next record, but on this album, Xavier and I would write a bunch of riffs and put it together in a skeleton then Matt will think of drumbeats.

“It’s pretty standard but it tends to change a lot too, in that what one of us generally adds ends up being very different to what we initially anticipated. That can be hard sometimes as you get pretty attached to something, but then it also wouldn’t sound like Pagan if that process didn’t happen.

“The biggest thing for us is we just try to write stuff that feels very organic and natural, and leave heaps of room for Nikki to do her thing vocally. We’ve played in bands previously where the vocals were a bit of an afterthought so this time we’revery conscious of that – they’re just very heavy pop songs at the end of the day.”

As alluded to, the band’s debut album Black Wash was released in July, and it’s an absolute banger that showcases the band’s rare ability to create seriously heavy music that also just makes you want to boogie. When we first interviewed the band, Dan told us the expectation of the album’s release was like: “a parent seeing a child leave home for the first time,” so we were keen to get their thoughts since its release.

On the album, Nikki told us: “It’s sort of done better than we expected it would, which was amazing. We were all super proud with what we created and knew we couldn’t do any better than it was. But it’s amazing how it’s been received and the opportunities that arose from there. We put lots of hard work in and it came out well.”

The band tell us that social media has played a major part in spreading the Pagan word and, in particular, Spotify, thanks to its ability to help listeners find new bands.

Nikki told us: “The digital age generally helps, but Spotify for sure as you can see how many followers and streams a song has, and unlike Facebook and Instagram where you can buy followers. So it’s very honest.”

While Dan adds: “You can see very honest statistics about who’s been listening to us, and we’re really lucky that we got added to some really cool playlists which helps a whole bunch. We just got added to one called Complete Chaos which has 95,000 followers, most of which I presume haven’t heard of Pagan before. It really breaks the barriers down and creates one big world of music.”

To prove the latter point, looking at Pagan’s Spotify page now their ‘related artists’ points the listener in the direction of the UK’s own Palm Reader and Svalbard, Danish band MOL, Zeal & Ardor and three bands I’ve never heard of: Clowns, Outright and High Tension – who I may go and give a listen to after writing this interview up. And that really shows the power of the platform in helping you discover new music with ease.

The band completed a UK tour through November, beginning in London then taking in Bristol, Manchester, Bournemouth, Leeds and Milton Keynes before coming back to London after a few shows in Europe. And on London specifically, Nikki told us: “It’s exceeded my expectations, it’s so amazing and so many good food places and coffee shops.”

While Dan expanded: “Culturally it’s really lovely, the architecture is beautiful. It’s funny too as an Australian, there’s sort of a stigma about Australians that go to London. It almost put me off coming, and it wasn’t high up on my places to travel. But to come here it’s just really beautiful, and I love how different suburbs are from one to the next.”

If you missed out on seeing Pagan when they were in the UK, or if you’re reading this in Australia, then believe us you really have missed out. On the Pagan live show, Nikki tells us: “It’s not just going to see a band, it’s a performance. We’ve really put a lot of thought into making an actual show, the set and making it as seamless as we can and just a bit of a party. Disco vibes and loads of dancing.

And Dan adds: “I think people are usually surprised at how dancey the show is as opposed to being ultra-aggressive. It’s the kind of environment we like, rather than people trying to kill each other. we want them to have a good time and to remember the show and think about it for weeks afterwards.” Check out the video below for a taster of their live show.

You can see in your New Year with a ritual of Pagan worship at Crowbar in Sydney, while the band will also be playing Unify Festival in January, then touring Australia in April.

If you’ve not checked them out yet then we firmly recommend you go and give Black Wash a listen and, if possible, go and see them play live because it’s one hell of an experience.

You can follow Pagan on FacebookInstagram, YouTube and Twitter, and Black Wash is out now on Spotify and all other digital platforms here.

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