Hell hath no fury like the slick, searing beats and bellows of Italicore annihilators Pagan. After taking Australia's metal scene by the throat with their unforgivingly chaotic live shows, the quartet have now proved their stature with one of the most gristly and glorious debut albums of the decade: Black Wash. With the opus now terrorising fans en masse and its launch tour right around the corner, we set out to learn a little more about it – and Pagan's impending world domination.
How does it feel to have made the first ever hardcore album that Nonnas everywhere can not only tolerate, but wholeheartedly embrace?
As long as our Nonnas are tolerating it, that is all that matters to us! We have created an album that we are all truly happy with, and that sums up Pagan as a whole. It feels great to finally be able to show Black Wash to the world.
What is the modus operandi of Black Wash? What does the unholy institution of Pagan wish to imbue its listeners with the searing gospel tucked within its gritty, scream-laden folds?
It’s funny because I think we’re very selfish in our approach to making music. We very much write songs that are important and fun to us and are creatively and emotionally fulfilling for us to play. But the contradiction to this is that we put the songs out into the world in the hope that people enjoy them as much as we do. I don’t think that we can really hope for much more than someone hearing a Pagan song and finding something within it that they connect with, be it the lyrics or the riffs or the rhythms or whatever. It’s incredibly humbling and interesting to know that there are other people who get the same rush from our music that we do, but ultimately we just do our thing, and offer it to everyone else who can take it for what it is.
What are the commandments that represent the Church of the Black Wash?
There are no commandments or rules in our church. We want everyone in the cult to march to the beat of their own drum, rather than conform. Our band is not for anybody, but for everybody! We trust that anyone who comes to a Pagan ritual or listens to our music is clever enough to be respectful, make wise decisions and act in a way that is of no detriment or discomfort to anybody else. The Church of the Black Wash is a party, and like all good parties we just want to make sure every single person is has a good time all of the time.
A question for Nikki, specifically: your voice is, no word of a lie, one of the most impossibly visceral and fucked up i things I’ve ever had the pleasure of assaulting my eardrums with. How did you develop your vocal style?
Well, thank you! My vocal style has formed into what it is after singing (or should I say, screaming) in bands for over six years now. Before Pagan, I was the vocalist for a riot girl sounding band, and I was able to find my voice by performing in that band and built up the courage to give screaming a go. At the start it hurt - a lot! I had to find that sweet spot where I could still scream but wasn’t in pain. I realized that for me, 90% of the technique was simply being able to hear myself in the monitors on stage or speakers in a rehearsal space, the rest of was making sure I was on breath and not screaming directly from my throat. My goal from the start was to sound like a demonic version of Dennis Lyxzen and I think I have successfully achieved this goal!
Some questions for Xavier, specifically: since this is for Australian Guitar, let’s get nerdy. What kind of gear were you slinging in the studio for Black Wash?
Amp-wise in the studio I used my Marshall JCM 900 4100 to track one guitar, then a Marshall JMP to track another guitar, then we kind of went back and forth with a Fender Tonemaster and a Hiwatt Custom 50 for bits and pieces. Guitar-wise, my Mexican Fender Stratocaster took one side of the fence and then I borrowed a friend’s Gibson Les Paul Standard for the other. I also messed with a Fender Telecaster that I own and a Gibson Les Paul Junior that we found at the studio for clean bits and other random parts. Kisses to Mike Deslandes for taking the time to get the right guitar sounds in the studio and Sam Johnson and Adrian Lombardi at Holes and Corners studio, because I’m pretty sure most of the stuff I used was theirs!
And what about your live rig?
That’s a fun one. Being a one guitar band trying to hold it down was a bit of a challenge in the early days with a single amp. I used to run my Marshall JCM 900 for Melbourne shows and a little Orange Dark Terror 15watt for interstate shows. Nowadays, I just use both wherever we are. I got myself a Radial Bigshot pedal and now run the Marshall on my side of the stage, but set the clean channel slightly dirty, then I’ll use the Orange Dark Terror over on Dan side with the gain turned right up.
What is your favourite guitar, and why does it tickle your heart with such fervency?
I can’t go past my Fender Stratocaster. I tried out a Telecaster for a while and even put a Seymour Duncan Vintage Stack in it, but it still couldn’t carry the sauce like the Strat. I’ve tried a few Gibson guitars and although I loved recording with them, I just can’t play live with one. They just feel heavy and awkward after years and years dedicated to Fenders. It’s like I’m out in public with a kebab in my hand, but I’ve always been more comfortable with Pizza slice. The Fender Strat has a Seymour Duncan SH-8 Invader at the bridge and some Graph tech string saver saddles. To this day I’ve never broken a string on it. I’ve got 2 of them set up exactly the same. Diversity? Stubborn Italian? You tell me.
Similarly, what is your favourite guitar part on this record, and why should listeners be on the edge of their seats for it come July 6th?
Favourite guitar parts are like drinks at the bar, man. It’s hard to choose. Sometimes I feel like the classic Campari & Soda is my favourite, and “Silver” to me is the Campari & Soda of the record. Just the choppy, back and forth sliding the whole way through does it for me. I’ve also been getting really into classical music lately and something about that rubs off on the chord choices. Then there’s the double shot Fernet Branca. The album finale, “Il Malocchio Si Chiude”. It’s dark, heavy and refreshing. From start to finish, the riffs in that song are very chilling and it came out so heartfelt and powerful on the record. It’s got a special place in my heart. Nikki really came through with her vocal performance too.
My exceptional ears have noticed that production qualities on your shredding are similarly exceptional; unlike what is common for hardcore and metal bands of Pagan’s calibre, your parts are often very clean and crisp, and work to really bolster Nikki’s vocal and allow that to shine brighter than a freshly polished chukka. What is your philosophy when it comes to such additives as distortion and the like?
It’s interesting because Nikki has this kind of natural distortion in her voice. I don’t run any distortion pedals and just rely on a volume pedal and the amps, so somewhere down the line I remember making the conscious decision to turn off the gain channel on my Marshall and run a cleaner sound to compliment the tone of Nikki’s voice. A little more clarity works well to make the balance optimal. In saying that, I’ve always got a little Tone City “Angel Wing” Chorus that stays on, and an Omni Booster pedal on hand to help cut through the Hell.
When it comes to riffing out in the live soirées, do you believe much in the dogma of improvisation, or, like the most crisp and light of crostoli, do you keep to a strict recipe for each song?
A strict recipe is preferred for the new tracks. But some of the older ones you have to have a little play around to spice it up, just for your own sanity and satisfaction. Although I’m conscious of this because if it gets a little too out of the box, maybe I’ll start to get weird looks from Matt (our drummer) and Dan (Bass). I think Dan likes to know when I work my way up the fretboard so he can throw on an additional overdrive and boost on his Bass to cover me and fill the whole sound out. Teamwork!
The art of Pagan’s live performance is one that can only be understood by witnessing it in person. But in the interest of brewing hype for such an art, how might you describe what you have in store for these shows? How will these Black Wash ceremonies differ from the average hardcore/metal gig?
A lot of dancing, a good drop or two of Italy’s finest Chianti and a lot of good hair. I also don’t think that at any other hardcore metal gig has the tarantella ever been performed!
So we can plan ourselves accordingly: what is the dress code for this tour?
No dress code this time around! But let’s keep it clean and sharp shall we? Imagine the scent of Old Spice floating through the crowd and maybe some Bvlgari and Gucci to tantalize the bartenders so they fill that glass of prosecco just a little over the line for us all with a wink and a smile.
How many rosaries should the average punter do to absolve themselves of the sins you must surely be subjecting them to?
Don’t even bother. No amount of petty Catholic nursery rhymes will clean off the stains that you will leave covered in after a Pagan rock'n'roll show!
Will offerings of good faith be accepted at these processions, or should our platters of prosciutto and Campari shots be sent elsewhere?
Oh please! Mama Mia! I’m (Xavier) the only carnivore in Pagan, and now you have me thinking back to past Christmases with old Johnny Santilli wrapping the cantaloupe in fresh Prosciutto. Che belissimo! And as far as Campari goes, we’ve tried multiple times to get a sponsorship deal with these guys. The well-articulated E-mails I’ve seen Danny Bonnici come up with are just magical, but alas they have yielded no positive results or even a response, to be honest. Either way, we never say no to Campari and we never will. It’s the fucking best!
Another question for Nikki: does your history as an actress inform the way you compose yourself onstage, or are your vicious and impassioned characteristics attributed solely to the murderous riffs that surround you?
It’s definitely a bit of column A and a bit of column B. If I hadn’t have studied acting, I don’t believe I would feel as comfortable on stage as I do in Pagan. Acting not only taught me how to perform on stage but also how to engage with an audience. A lot of my classes at acting school focused on vocal safety which is now invaluable advice I use daily in Pagan. I have a lot of vocal warmups which I learnt years ago and I still use before every show, because they really do work! I think a good performance is one where the performer is in the moment, so the way that I compose myself onstage is just a reaction to what is happening around me. It’s not something that I preempt or overthink. I believe that the audience can see through that mentality instantly and I would never want to come off as a fake or as though my actions premeditated.
Friday August 11th - Crown & Anchor, Adelaide
Friday August 18th - Crowbar, Brisbane
Thursday August 24th - The Tote, Collingwood
Friday August 25th - Brisbane Hotel, Hobart
Thursday August 31st - Lansdowne Hotel, Sydney