A Chat With Pagan

With a few new singles under their belt and an upcoming tour with party legends Totally Unicorn, we caught up with Nikki of Melbourne group Pagan to talk true crime podcasts, the art of a guttural scream and her songwriting process.

Your new single is loosely based on the Lawson family murders. What inspired you to write such a conceptual track?

It’s funny that you ask, because one thing about me that a lot of my close friends know is that I’m obsessed with reading true crime stories and listening to true crime podcasts.  I was listening to this one and it was about the Lawson family murder. The story – it just really affected me, it was awful. I don’t listen to true crime in a way that I think it’s something okay that these victims suffer – it’s nothing like that. From a human point of view, I just can’t believe that people can be like this. If you read about it in fiction, you’d never believe that someone could really do that. But hearing about stories that actually happened, that really interests me.

I heard this episode, and there was a blues band who wrote a song about the Lawson family murders. It was a really cool song, it was really haunting, and they played the whole song on the episode. I was like, ‘that’s really cool’ – i’d never thought to write about a story I’ve been really interested in. I had all these images in my head, and when I wrote it it became quite symbolic. After the music had been written I reworked it all – I usually rework my songs a lot of times, about 13 times before I feel okay about them. So I just kept working on it, and at the start it was weird – I never really intended it to be about that? I’d just listened to that episode and was reading up about Charlie Lawson and yeah, all of this imagery came to the surface. I think it’s really worked as a song.

It follows on from ‘Good Grief’ as well, which also features some intense themes. Aside from your interests in true crime, do you take your inspiration from personal experiences?

Definitely. That song is about a really personal experience – something that happened to me. It was something that I needed to get off my chest, and writing that song was therapy for me. Just to be able to write the words and express it in that way has helped me so much. The video clip does actually really reflect that, which is cool. My friend Bonnie who directed the clip just approached me and wanted to make a clip for us – and how could you turn that down? It was a dream scenario. I love working with her, I’m an actor as well, so I work with her a lot.

It really does represent some of the themes in the song, which is really great. She’s not very into hardcore music at all, so she just had this idea and wanted to do it. The majority of my songs are about personal things that have happened, and they’re really an expression about that. It’s interesting because one of the other bands that I play in – Little Lamb and The Rosemary’s, I don’t write about stuff like that? But with Pagan it’s a completely different way of writing. It can be quite confronting, but in a good way.

What is involved in your songwriting process? It’s such a different experience for every artist.

Basically, the guys will get together and write the music – and I’ll come along and help them with structuring the songs. I’ll record it while I’m there, just on my phone so I’ve got something to play over and over. I’ve got a place in my house where I always sit with a particular notebook I use. I just play the song until I get some sort of a melody, then I’ll put some of my lyrics together. It’s weird, the only way I’ve ever written songs is by constantly reworking them until I feel okay with it. I’ve never written a song and been fine with it on the first go.

I’ll then take the song to rehearsal and sing along while the guys are playing – that’s the first time they ever here it. I’m still quite vulnerable as well? Because if they turn around and say,’ well, we didn’t really like that’, the thought of that really scares me. Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet. They’re always super supportive and like what I come up with. That’s defintely the process in a nutshell. It’s pretty daunting, because every time we write new music I always know that I’ve got to go through that process again – and I know how long it takes for me to get to a good place with a song. So I always try and pre-empt how much work I have in front of me. But it’s work that I like doing, which is a good thing.

How have you developed your singing and screaming style over the years? I’m personally quite curious as to how your learnt?

Everyone thinks the same thing, even I thought the same thing when I started.  But the only way you can learn to do it is scream against really, really loud music. For me, if I sat in my bedroom and did it right now, just screamed, I’d probably hurt myself. But, if you’re up against loud music and as long as you can hear yourself, you won’t damage your voice. It’s weird though, you’re not screaming at full volume? It all comes from down in your pelvis, almost. It comes out through your body – you’ve got to be able to really support it with your breath. And as I said, you have to be able to hear yourself. I’ve played shows where I can’t hear myself and I will fuck my voice – because you push that little bit too hard and not realise. If I’ve been a bit sick I’ve been prone to losing my voice, but as long as you’re really safe with it, can hear yourself and know your limits, you’re fine. It only comes with experience and practice. Which is annoying, because you really want to be able to do it straight away!

Each of your single releases feature tarot card artwork. How did this come about?

My twin sister does all the designs for the tracks, she’s a tattooist. An amazing artist, a really beautiful painter and has a really great eye for drawing. Basically, Dan I think? (I feel bad if it was actually Matt) came up with the idea of tarot cards, because he likes looking at the really dark side of things. From a marketing perspective of our band, we thought that It’d work really well. So my sister will ask what the song means and I’ll tell her a couple of sentences and she’ll put together the image. I’ll sometimes help her with a concept, but that’s basically the idea. We’re also numbering them because maybe the numbers mean something as well? Just a little clue in there (laughs). I think with any art, it’s really important to think about very aspect of how you’re trying to promote yourself. We all take that really seriously, so we always think about the visual element as well as the sound of our band. It’s important for it to all be a neat package – like part of a brand.

You’re gearing up for a tour with Totally Unicorn through this month and next. How’s the band getting prepared?

It’s so exciting. It’s our first tour all together. I just can’t wait – I’m honestly so flattered and so stoked that they asked us. They’ve also just announced the local supports in all the cities, and some of them are just amazing. It’s such an honour to play with those bands and Totally Unicorn. They’re just incredible and the nicest guys, you can just tell that we’re going to have such a fun time.

We’ve just been really trying to get tight as a band, so we’ve been rehearsing a lot and were also working on a new song. Just getting really excited for it too. I’m just so stoked that we get to play with a band like them – they’re just amazing. And their new album is incredible as well. I feel really lucky.

Pagan support Totally Unicorn on their Dream Life tour. They’re also playing Yours & Owls Festival in Wollongong.

Friday 23 September – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Saturday 24 September – The Brisbane Hotel, Hobart
Thursday 29 September – Newtown Social Club, Sydney
Friday 30 September – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Sunday 2 October – Yours and Owls Festival, Wollongong
Friday 7 October – The Foundry, Brisbane
Saturday 8 October – The Great Northern, Byron Bay