INTERVIEW: Panama

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All of you would have played a musical instrument going through school. Whether it was a recorder in grade five, or a violin in grade seven, or if you were really cool you would be rocking out in high school with an electric guitar or a bass. Jarrah McCleary of Sydney band PANAMA was a music kid from way back, beginning to play classical piano at the age of six and moving up from then on, spanning the genres as he grew. Now as an adult, McCleary has recorded PANAMA’s first EP in Los Angeles and talks tome from his humble Sydney abode about the ups and downs of being a musician.

How did you end up recording your EP in Los Angeles?

Cam and I – Cam’s the bass player in the band – were over there for SXSW in the States travelling around in 2011, and when we were over there we normally just go around and meet people and just see who could possibly work on the record. And we went over there and met a bunch of dudes and stuff and it was amazing, but we didn’t meet anybody and we ended up going back to Australia. And then at the time we heard of this guy called Eric Broucek, and Eric had just moved from New York to Los Angeles, and we were supposed to meet him when we were in the States, but he was in the process of moving. Anyway, Eric and I got Skyping together and I got to meet him online and we hit it off, he was a young guy, like nearly 30, so it’s really, really cool to have someone that age working on your record I suppose. We just got along, we like the same music and books and we even look similar [laughs]. He’s like six foot three, and I’m six foot two. So that’s how we got aquinted and then one thing led to another, and from there within about three months I was over there.

Was Eric Broucek interesting to work with?

Yeah, like I said we got along really well. I stayed in Los Angeles for a couple of months working with him. First we were working out of his studio in Los Angeles, and then we moved kind of out of the city a bit so it was nice. It was really cool working outside of Sydney, I’ve been writing the record for a couple of years, so at the time it was like [sighs].

Jim Orso (Hot Chip/Holy Ghost!) played drums on some of the tracks for the EP, did he have any interesting ideas for you guys whilst you recorded?

Jim and Eric sort of have an interesting working relationship together, they’ve already done a couple of records together, so as far as when Jim came in he was really great! I mean, he’s great to talk to and get along with, he’s a touring guy for Holy Ghost, which is cool, and he just recently did some work with Hot Chip. The drummer form Hot Chip couldn’t get a Visa or something for some reason, so Jim got the job when they toured America. So he went and did that, and I was lucky enough when I was over there, to go and see them. So Jim kind of, introduced me to the guys and he ended up playing some songs on the [Hot Chip’s] record. I wasn’t there when he did them, he just told me “yeah I did this,” but I got to meet them which was nice enough. It was a special evening that one.

Panama embarks on their first national tour in February as well, are you excited to finally be touring Australia?

Yeah it’s gonna be good. Some of the guys are in other bands which have all done some national tours, but Panama’s first which is good. These shows look exciting so yeah, should be good.

Is there a place you’ve always wanted to play at in Australia?

Well, as far as tour goes we’re doing Valentine’s Day in Melbourne at the Worker’s Club. I’ve been told good things about the Worker’s Club, I think our guitarist has played there before in like a twelve piece folk band, so that should be great [laughs]. so we’re doing that on the 14th and playing the Rocket Bar in Adelaide. I’ve played that one before, but not with Panama, I remember doing a support slot for Panda Band years and years ago with Dirty Secrets back in the day, which was fun. And in Perth we’re doing the Perth Festival, and that’s gonna be exciting because Flight Facilities is doing it as well along with Mitzi. It’s kind of a  Future Classic stage that we’re on, so there’s a lot of Future Classic artists which should be good. And then Friday, the week after that, we’re doing a show with Flume, Midnight Juggernauts, and Van She in Sydney, I think that’s gonna be the highlight.

You’ve been playing classical piano since you were six, what made you change genres once you grew up?

I did classical for years, but I’ve always had an interest in composing. I think I wrote my first song when I was about eight or nine, obviously inspired by classical music. And then I played in bands, I was in a metal band in high school, I played guitar and grew my hair long and was really into that. After that I joined anther band which was a musical, comedy improvisational band. It was this three-piece band and I played the pian, and we would make up songs on the spot. We’d get the audience to shout stuff to us like subjects, and we would just make up a song on the spot. And from there I made a piano rock band, and that was just like pop and rock music, like Billy Joel, and I started an indie rock band which is Dirty Secrets, that’s gone obviously pretty well [laughs], and then I got interested in Panama. So I’ve done a lot of different things I guess [laughs] music is just what I’m interested in, and it’s good because you can draw from these things for inspiration.

Where did the name Panama originate?

The record I did for Panama, I did and I was in Dirty Secrets at the time, which is the indie rock band, and I spent two years writing the next record which was gonna be with Dirty Secrets and I was writing it in Sydney. I had this whole flat, I was working and writing music on my laptops and it got to the two year mark and I had all these songs, and basically it was time to record them. As you know I went to the States to record them with Eric in Los Angeles, and Eric listened to the songs and was like, “man, these aren’t Dirty Secrets songs, this doesn’t sound like Dirty Secrets. I don’t know what name you’re gonna come up with but you need to come up with a different name!” So I spent the whole couple of months brainstorming what name. It’s hard because there are so many people in the world who are in bands, so there’s a good chance if you’ve got a name, someone else has already got it. I wanted a name that you could sort of see in your head, like it had it’s own image, and when I thought of Panama, I thought it could be open to interpretation, like Panama doesn’t just sound like a rock band. So if I was to write music in the future that sounded totally different, I could still use the name. Kind of like artistic flexibility I suppose.

What’s up next for Panama after the national tour?

In the future we’ve got another single coming out, which is exciting. I’ve actually been over to the States since and done another record with Eric in San Francisco, but we’re just sitting and waiting, it’s just a matter of when it’s the right time to release it. So there’s definitely material there to release, I hope this year we’ll see a couple of releases and if people are excited about it and there’s momentum, then we’ll do it more quickly [laughs].

Words by Lauren Payne

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Brisbane based photographer and writer who will judge you first and foremost on your music taste. Likes mint slice and a damn good cup of coffee.