The Future Classic indie electronic band Panama dropped their Always EP earlier this year and just kicked off their Northern Hemisphere Tour, consisting of stops throughout the US and Europe. We recently had the chance to catch up with Panama’s lead man, Jarrah McCleary, while he was in Philadelphia to talk about the reality of being a band in an electronic culture, their plans after touring, and more.
How’s it going?
Really good. We just drove in the car for 7.5 hours from Buffalo. We played there last night and New York the night before.
How was that?
New York was awesome. We played at Baby’s All Right, a fantastic venue. I think it’s in Williamsburg. It was sold-out. It was good.
Yeah, not us, the venue [laughs].
[laughs] So, let’s start off with the origin of your name. Where did “Panama” come from?
Well, I was working with Eric Broucek in Los Angeles, my producer for the first two EPs. At the time I hadn’t come up with a name, so it’s kind of a name I came up with in America.
I was writing and studying screen music at the time as well in Australia. I kind of thought it was more of a visual name than other names I’ve had in the past when I used to play in a lot of indie rock bands. I thought I’d like a name that matched the sound of the music I was making at the time, which wasn’t rock music.
You’ve said in the past that you like to leave the name up to translation. What does Panama mean to you?
Panama means to me an openness to express myself in a multitude of different genres, different ways. It just leaves it open to be creative in any way I see fit. In the past, I haven’t had that freedom credibly and Panama being a solo credit project, it just leaves the door open for me to continue without having to change band names. It’s crazy having to change things and start all over again. I just wanted something that was an open platform.
How did you get involved with Future Classic?
We had a song on the radio. Our first single came out and we were unsigned at the time of our first EP. I came back from Los Angeles and the song pretty much started getting played right away on Australian radio.
Triple J is the national radio, and they started playing it. Future Classic contacted us on SoundCloud, and they were like, “Hey Jarrah, how are you? We like your song.” They ended up listening to some others and signing Panama, which was exciting. It’s been going well ever since actually.
Future Classic has a lot of DJs on their roster as well. What is it like being a band in a DJ-centric dance world right now?
It’s hard. It’s really hard. I mean, I’ve done a remix and that got really well received, a remix for a band called Clubfeet. I think it was featured on a Majestic compilation. I just found that to do something that only took me a couple of days, the amount of exposure and response I got from it was incredible. While coming from a band perspective, it costs me a lot more money to invest in doing it in a traditional studio sense and writing songs in a traditional way.
It’s like you’re doing a lot more work for something that sometimes has less reward. It is difficult, but I guess I do it out of love and because I’m kind of that generation in between. I like to have different sounds. Some songs are definitely more in the electronic realm while some others could have been born in the 80s. I definitely stand on the line, and unfortunately for me, I end up spending more money.
Well, it appears to be worth it.
Yeah. It takes longer, but that’s what I want.
What are your thoughts about the Wave Racer remix of “Always,” which hit over 2 million plays on SoundCloud?
It was really well received. The single also has over 2 million plays on SoundCloud, and it’s been going really well. That track’s done amazing — the responses we got from both the remix and the single. I think Wave Racer has done a remix of Foster the People as well. I haven’t heard that yet, but I think that’s pretty cool.
I love the alternate version you did of “Always” at 301. I just saw that video today.
Oh shit. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was all live. We didn’t have any laptops involved or anything. That was improvised right before rehearsal. We had Chad, one of the guys from Future Classic come down, and he was like, “Hey, let’s try doing something different. Why don’t you guys try an alternate version and jam it out for me right now in the rehearsal space.” Well, we tried it out and said, “Let’s do this tomorrow.” We had time, so we went with it and it was captured on film.
Well, it was beautiful.
It was lucky [laughs]. It was a lucky take I suppose.
Do you think you’ll ever do that same version again in future performances?
Yeah, I think we are intending on doing it on stage. Maybe when do some daytime performances or if we’re limited with instruments. Like, let’s say if we only have a piano and electric drums, we’ll do it. It depends on the environment, but we’ve definitely got it ready.
And the lyrics? Is there a story there?
Yeah, yeah. There’s always a story behind my lyrics. It’s a personal song about a relationship, basically boy and girl kind of stuff.
Yeah, I feel yah. You have quite the music background. Tell us about growing up and how you eventually arrived at Panama.
Well, I’ve been playing in bands since I was like 18, writing music since I was 7, and playing classical piano since I was 6. So I’ve been doing music my entire life. I guess Panama is the first project I’ve done by myself. Before, it was always collaborative with other musicians. So yeah, it’s great to get all the feedback about Panama being good.
It was kind of nerve-wracking putting it out there, putting myself out there. It’s not like I could blame someone else if it went wrong [laughs]. I would blame myself. I guess I’m getting older as well and there’s this pressure to put something out before I get too old. I guess a lot of people can relate to that, the fear of getting older.
Yeah, I think we all face that to some extent.
What’s it like living in Sydney? What does the scene look like right now?
The scene is really good. That’s where we’re based, and Future Classic as well. There are a lot of musicians on Future Classic that are based in Sydney. Some are in Melbourne. Yeah, it’s all around, and in the west I suppose, Redfern, Alexandria, Newtown. All the musicians seem to be in or around there. I don’t want to say it, but Surry Hills as well. Surry Hills is sort of like the Williamsburg of Australia I guess.
Ah, cool. I actually went to Sydney when I was a kid. We went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.
That’s awesome. The Great Barrier Reef actually has a lot of things going on. There’s a lot of protesting at the moment. I think there are a lot of companies dumping certain types of chemicals that they claim are clean. The reef is dying off, so people are trying to save it.
Are they still allowing tours to go out there?
Yeah, but as far as the government and what they’re able to accept and restrict is a grey line. That’s pretty much all I know about it. I should probably know more as an Australian [laughs].
So what’s your favorite show you’ve played?
Festivals are usually my favorite thing to play because they’re so fun and there are so many people and the vibe is good. But then, personal shows are also really fun as well. That 301 studio session was really special. The way it was set up, people were sitting down and you could just hear the song in its entirety and just the sound of it was a lot more intimate. We were a bit quieter and I was able to sing so the words could be heard and I felt like it had a lot more meaning behind it. More weight behind it.
It definitely sounded like it.
See, that’s great. That’s cool. I would definitely love to do performances in the future that were in a space like a studio.
You should. Any traditions before you play a show?
Yeah, I usually try to get a good night’s sleep, which hasn’t happened on this tour because of the driving. By the time we finish playing, it’s usually around 1. We have to get up around nine, so getting eight hours of sleep isn’t always going to happen, and I’m a guy who relies on my sleep.
Back in the day, did you ever make a mix CD for your crush?
I didn’t make a mix CD. I actually wrote a song for my crush. It was actually one of the first songs I ended up writing that was electronic. Man, I wish I had that now. I must have been 18 years old or something. I made it, burned the CD, then put it in a little box, and then she got it. I got a phone call and stuff.
That’s a good thing.
[laughs] Yeah, it definitely could have come out creepy. It could have gone two ways, but it turned out good.
That’s awesome. So how was it translating the EP into a live performance?
The second EP has been a challenge. We used to be a bigger band, but now we’re stripped down to three, just for the intimacy, the sound, and going back to the songs. I guess before, there were a lot of instruments, a lot of stuff going on. We wanted to take it back to the songs, try to get back to the lyrics. Panama is a lot about the words and the music. I like that I can play a lot of the songs on the piano and sing and it sounds good. We kind of build tracks from that really.
If you could tour with anyone, who would it be and why?
Mhm. Touring, other people, yes, well, I would have said I would of loved to…geez. It’s hard because we step into electronic but then we do band stuff as well. So it’s hard to think of other bands. We’re actually playing with Chvrches in Chicago. That will be cool. So yeah, I’m not too sure really. I just put one foot in front of the other, and everything else is just a bloody surprise [laughs].
So, this is random. Who was your least favorite teacher growing up?
Mhm, that’s a good question. I have lots of teachers I didn’t really like. I left school quite early actually. I had a hard time in high school and primary school. Yeah, there are a few I don’t want to name. They might be dead by now anyways [laughs].
Well, hopefully not.
Yeah, well life does go on. I had troubles with certain teachers that were old, and I guess they were moody and stuff. I wasn’t the best student. I think I had a hard time paying attention, and they would always want to point me out. I would be talking and they’d call on me and get me to stand up, and I would have no idea what was going on [laughs].
What’s the craziest thing someone has done at one of your shows or festival?
Nothing comes to mind, but I’ve always been afraid of a random bottle coming on stage and hitting somebody. I’ve had other bands that I’ve seen it happen to. I think I’d be fast enough to catch it [acts like he’s catching a bottle]. We play a game called cricket in Australia, which is like baseball. I’ve been playing since I was a kid, so I would probably just catch the bottle and throw it back.
So what does the rest of your summer look like, and what we can expect from you for the remaining of the year?
Well, we’re touring the states, doing some exciting shows. We’re finishing up in Los Angeles and then we’re flying to Europe. We’re doing some festivals there. We’re going a lot of places, Portugal is one of them. We’re playing in Paris for our own show. We’re playing Reading and Leeds festival as well and a few other festivals in Europe that I can’t remember off the top of my head.
Once we’re done with that I’ll fly home from London to Australia and continue writing the album. I’m kind of in the middle of doing that at the moment, but then this tour came up because the record came out in the states later on than Australia. Summer is good for touring. If I could I would be writing all the time, but right now it’s time to be on the road. It’s important that the fans hear the music. But if I could, I would be writing all the time.
Words: Jessica Ekman