Rain on The Humming Wire
Music critics and fans often say the same thing about The Panics: listening to their songs is like immersing yourself in the soundtrack to your own life. In their albums and EPs, people discover the cinematic score to their own lost Australian summers: the bittersweet Antipodean road-trips where they found first love and made new friends, only to lose it all on the way back. Underneath the elegant pop-rock tracks are modern hymns for a generation, anthems of rash joy and quiet heartbreak: all the songs you would have written yourself, if only you had the right words on hand.
For frontman and songwriter Jae Laffer, it makes complete sense that his listeners have forged those personal connections with the band’s music over the years. After all, The Panics’ albums have always been written as time capsules of the band’s own evolution. Each song is another chapter in the story of their lives, ever since banding together in high school all those years ago in Western Australia.
Since their last album Cruel Guards (2007), The Panics have also been crafting something new: an ambitious album that somehow embraces both stark intimacy and unapologetic grandeur. Written on one side of the Atlantic (Salford, England) and recorded on the other (Woodstock, New York), The Panics are now finished with their fourth record, and have brought it down across the Pacific and back home to Australia.
After years away from their base in Melbourne—touring, writing and recording—the album is also a document on Jae’s feelings about transatlantic distance, homesickness and life away from loved ones.
“It’s like we’ve been on this roadtrip for a few years,” he says. “You’re moving around, not sure what’s going on back home, not sure whether you still have a girlfriend—and you find out you don’t. It’s a record where I’m questioning what direction I want to head in next. It’s me, looking back at where I’ve been, laughing and crying.” It is also nothing short of The Panics’ most bracing, panoramic and poetic record yet: Rain on a Humming Wire.
WRITING IN MANCHESTER
After the release of their huge 2007 record Cruel Guards, The Panics found themselves played all over Australian and UK radio, selling a slew of albums (reaching gold status in Australia within six months), winning industry awards, and becoming that rare crossover act that scores high rotation across radio stations and listeners young and old. There was an ARIA Award and they were declared Triple J’s Album of the Year. They won new fans. The Kings of Leon and Noel Gallagher fawned over them. In 2008, The Panics played festivals, supports and headline shows, both home and abroad. In the UK, they played to sell-out crowds, and were lovingly received by the British music press.
In 2009, The Panics based themselves in Salford, England for six months—the longest the band had properly lived overseas. Salford is an older working-class section of Manchester in the UK. “It’s a beautiful, salt-of-the-earth part of the world,” Jae says. “We found ourselves rehearsing in very old brick buildings in these industrial parts of Manchester. A lot of people might hate it, but I see the beauty in those places.”
As always, Jae’s songwriting found him asking the same questions he has always asked with each record. “To me, it’s always been a similar starting point: ‘Where am I at, and what’s happened since the last record?’” This time, Jae knew the songs were going to focus on what was preoccupying the band: dislocation and missing people they’d left behind. “You take this simple life you have, then you uproot and go overseas, and you go through all these amazing experiences. You have your relationships tested, people fall in and out of love, and you go through break-ups because of what you’re doing. It’s a mad kind of ride you put yourself on. But the fun bit is trying to put it into words, and make—hopefully—something beautiful out of wherever you are at the time.”
FIRST SINGLE: MAJESTY
‘Majesty’, the first single off Rain on the Humming Wire, was one of the first songs the band put together. With its rolling-thunder timpani and jangling, jingoistic guitars, the track is a sweeping, anthemic
battle-cry—an ode to the distance between oceans, while questioning the nature of royalty and inherited power. Jae hadn’t intended it to be a pro-Republic anthem by any means, but says it’s how the song has turned out. “At the time, I was writing about all the strange things going through the education process as a young kid in Australia. Whether I was at school or the cub scouts, or even at my grandparents’ house, there might be a picture of the Queen, or a picture of the Pope. People we were singing songs about God; English remnants and relics of songs. Not that these things are terrible, but the song is just me questioning: ‘What are they?’ People don’t talk too often about it. I’m kind of happy I’ve touched on it, because I feel relatively passionate about the idea.”
RECORDING IN NEW YORK
The Panics’ previous album Cruel Guards (2007) was recorded in Australia, but was taken to New York for mixing. They acquired a taste for the place, and decided to go back to record Rain on the Humming Wire. “New York is a great place to work,” Jae says. “You don’t want to be in a city like that, doing anything half-arsed. You can feel overpowered if you’re lazy. But if you can keep up, you feel like anything can happen.” Jae says the band also wanted a balance between the excitement of New York and the solitude to focus and work. Most of the recording and tracking of Rain on the Humming Wire was done just in Dreamland Studios, just outside of Woodstock and about an hour outside of Manhattan. All five members—Jae (vocals, piano, guitar), Drew Wootton (guitar), Myles Wootton (drums), Paul Otway (bass, vocals), Jules Douglas (keyboards, guitar, vocals)—literally found themselves in the woods over a month. They rarely saw anyone else but each other, their producer John O’Mahony (Metric, Alberta Cross, Coldplay ) and John’s production assistant.
There are photos of the band recording in Dreamland Studios, all the members gathered around Jae as he plays a vintage piano in a gorgeous, sun-drenched timber-built space. With its original stained-glass windows still intact, Dreamland was less a music studio than a church on a hill, surrounded by forest. “It’s even more gorgeous than that,” Jae says. “At different times of the day, the sun would shine through a different window. I’d look over at our drummer and there’d be a big beam of light coming down onto him. Another part of the day, it’d be on someone else. It was really beautiful.”
Inevitably though, the boys also got cabin fever. “We really didn’t see another soul,” Jae says. “After we’d knock off at midnight, we literally just lit a fire and drank Bud. It was like camping.” He laughs, adding: “We found ourselves, seven young men, out in the forest, kind of going nuts. A month is a really long time in this one little spot. People got ticks. There were rats and woodpeckers and it was pretty full-on. It’s just another phase where you look back and go: ‘I can’t believe that happened.’”
After the tracks were all recorded, the band drove out of there and pulled up into Manhattan a few hours later. “It was really, really refreshing,” Jae says. From there, The Panics took all the tapes down to the iconic Electric Lady Studios, right in the heart of Greenwich Village—built by Jimi Hendrix, and where Patti Smith recorded Horses—got busy mixing the final results, and finally flew back home with the finished results.
THE LONG HAUL
Nowadays, The Panics aren’t just providing the soundtrack to their fans’ lives anymore, but also for TV shows like Ugly Betty and Underbelly. After the release of their 2007 album Cruel Guards, Jae says he kept hearing their songs pop up in unexpected places. “To tell you the truth, I love it,” he says “I love being on the radio—the idea that you’re being played in people’s offices, or that the guy on the tractor’s listening to it. Somehow, in some tiny part, you are part of the day-to-day part of the machine that makes everything goes round. And that ultimately, in some small way, you alter peoples’ day and what happens.” Jae’s favourite moments are the modest ones. “The best time is just when you’re walking past a construction site, or in a drive-through bottle shop, or down at Woolworths.”
Some years ago, Jae said something in an interview, emphasising that he and the band were in this for the long haul. “It feels like it’s worth so many years of work that we’ve put into this thing,” he said at the time. “We’re not an overnight success, we’re a group that thinks long and hard about the direction of the music that we make. We would simply like to be a band that means something to people, a band that is remembered for years to come for being a group that made a great record.”
Even now, Jae says he still feels the same way. “To be creating a body of work that keeps growing, it’s such a privilege. I’ve been around long enough to see that even if you have a really popular song, it comes and it goes. But if you do properly touch people, they don’t forget about it. I just want to justify my time, work really, really hard, and make records that touch people. That’s my goal.”