An interview for the Mess+Noise ‘Storytellers’ series. Excerpt below.
ANDREW MCMILLEN revisits our occasional “Storytellers” series, whose premise is simple: one song by one artist, discussed at length. This week it’s The Panics Jae Laffer talking about ‘Cash’, a song from their 2003 EP ‘Crack In The Wall’.
Four years before striking it big with their breakout, ARIA-nominated single ‘Don’t Fight It’ in 2008, Perth-based rock band The Panics released their third EP, Crack In The Wall. A stopgap between their 2003 debut LP House on a Street in a Town I’m From and 2005’s Sleeps Like A Curse, its seven tracks saw the still-young band yearning to find a sound of their own. Chief songwriter and singer Jae Laffer is the first to admit that their previous releases sounded like “guys imitating their heroes”, while doing a good job of it.
Crack In The Wall’s second track, ‘Cash’, is instantly appealing. The song opens with a finger-picked acoustic guitar riff, which remains a central motif even while Laffer’s bandmates build around that earworm riff. I meet with Laffer at The Hi-Fi in Brisbane in late 2011 after their soundcheck. In a few hours’ time, he’ll lead his band through a set which focuses largely on their 2011 release Rain On The Humming Wire and its precursor, 2007’s ARIA-winning Cruel Guards.
For the moment, though, Laffer is happy to cast his mind back seven years and relive ‘Cash’, a song he demonstrates and narrates for a few minutes while I film him near atop the venue’s staircase. After being interrupted by a couple of Hi-Fi staff, we relocate downstairs, where he continues to strum his guitar while we talk, eking out all manner of half-formed ideas and subconscious melodic curiosities. At one point I pull out my phone to play ‘Cash’ and jog his memory about a particular sound effect; he admits he hasn’t listened to it in a while.
‘Cash’ was off Crack in the Wall. I wrote it in 2004. We call it an album; it’s got seven tracks, and it feels like an album. But ‘Cash’ is a good example of what was on the record at the time. I’m trying to think of what we were listening to at the time. There was definitely a little bit of Radiohead in our life, that kind of thing. We’ve been big fans of English music for a long time. I can just remember simply doing that [guitar riff].
The title ‘Cash’ came because Johnny Cash died around the time we were rehearsing the words and writing the tune … At the time, I think because we were so into the Johnny Cash stuff that he was doing – the American Recordings stuff – we started calling the song ‘Cash’ because it had a country feel to it … It wasn’t about him; it was about his kind of character. It’s kind of autobiographical. It’s a hazy song but there was that uncompromising kind of spirit of someone like Johnny. The lyrics started to pour out like [sings], “He took his own life in a fire/To warm his hands, to feel it right.” … [It’s about] the people who give all for art, or for life, or whatever it is. That whole song kind of drifts along that. It’s just the timing of his death, what we were listening to, and just coming up with a riff that had a vague country feel.
Were you surprised when I asked to talk to you about this song?
Yeah, because I’ve never talked about that, apart from at the time when … it was on the radio a little bitt. It’s nice. People still request it. It’s a hazy kind of subject but it also seems to be full of purpose, and it’s catchy as hell. There’s something intriguing about the whole thing. I like it for that reason.
I think of it as the ultimate Panics song, in some ways. It sums the band up well, lyrically and musically. Do you agree with that?
I don’t know. Because we’ve had a bunch of albums now I could probably think of half a dozen songs which sum up maybe that time, or a couple of years. It is quintessential and I think it’s the style of lyric and also it’s the soft-meets-really-thumping sound as well. We’re known for a few ballads, but at the same time the guys are all-out rockers as well … When we mix them together with my voice, which is – I’m not Tom Jones, I kind of rap along like that. That’s just how I sing. You’re right.
What do you recall about how the song came together? Was it that guitar bit that started it off?
Definitely. I can’t remember what we were listening to at the time, but it seemed to be very “of the moment”. I remember thinking that about the riff … It was one of the ones where you start playing it and realise you want to finish the song quick because you want to get it on the radio. It had one of those feels to it. It was cool like that.