In an empty bar on a Friday afternoon Backyard Opera met with David Novak and John-Henry Palak of Sydney’s Polish Club. The pair perform scuzzy Detroit garage-rock (think The Stooges, MC5) with a twist of soul (think The Supremes) and are currently touring nationally for their Christmas in December tour.
Amongst growing popularity, their first ARIA nomination and sold out shows performing alongside The Preatures the duo chatted about why simplicity works best and why rock ‘n’ roll needs to hurt.
BYO: To start, what are you guys up to at the moment? I know you just recorded an EP.
JOHN: A lil’ EP thing. No, not an EP, a 7 inch!
NOVAK: Yeah. We kind of don’t look too far forward. There’s a lot going on. We just do what we’re told at this point. Oh, we’ve got the ARIAs coming up in a couple of weeks which is fucking hilarious.
BYO: Yeah, you were nominated, right?
JOHN: First album, first nomination.
NOVAK: It’s weird, I didn’t know that was a thing on the cards, but it’s great. It’s hard to know. I mean, we don’t have anything to compare it to. There’s no precedent, so it’s like, great! Everything is nice!
BYO: I guess social media isn’t a measure of what is actually going on…
NOVAK: I don’t know what is a measure of what’s actually going on. I mean, I guess social media is the best measure because I don’t get out much.
BYO: Haha, best to take the long view – you can’t isolate one element…
NOVAK: They’re all pretty isolated. No one thing reflects the whole picture. You have to add it all together.
JOHN: It’s a composite of many things.
NOVAK: But it’s like, fuck it, why bother stressing out about that stuff?
BYO: But bookers look at Facebook likes, don’t they, to determine things like order on a line-up?
JOHN: Well, it works to a point.
Novak: Yeah, until there’s one band who paid $50 and have like, 3000 Russian followers.
BYO: Yeah, you can get like bots! I know that was a huge thing on Myspace. My friend had an issue with that.
NOVAK: You can buy anything nowadays, it’s easy. And it doesn’t work because then, say you buy 10,000 likes, and you put a post-up and it’s got 3 likes and no comments, and it’s like “Congratulations you’ve got 10,000 people who don’t give a shit about you!”
BYO: Since the release of your debut album have you noticed a change in the turnout at your shows?
NOVAK: The biggest thing was people singing along to the songs, which is super weird. It’s the kind of stuff you expect to happen, and then it happens and you just got to laugh, because it’s hilarious. But yeah, they [live shows] have definitely changed. I think it was when Triple J gave us the album of the week and Like A Version, which doubled our audience.
BYO: I loved your Like A Version – that Flume cover was so good.
NOVAK: Yeah? We wanted to do a bunch of other stuff but it got vetoed –
JOHN: We pretty much got forced to do Flume. Well not forced, but steered in that direction. We wanted to do an old song, but they wanted us to do a new song so, we thought, what’s the biggest new song?
NOVAK: We just went to number one on the Hottest 100 - it seemed to work.
BYO: What else was on the cards?
JOHN: We wanted to do Mariah Carey song at first, but we ended up doing the Flume song in the style of the Mariah one.
NOVAK: I just took the chords that I used on the Mariah Carey song and put them to Flume and it just worked.
JOHN: So basically, it’s a Mariah Carey song.
NOVAK: Two peas in a pod. Same shit, man.
BYO: There’s no rules anymore, Flume is the Mariah Carey of the…
NOVAK: Of the Northern Beaches. I’m pretty sure that’s what he leads with in his press releases.
BYO: I understand you’re in the process of learning ‘Despacito’ for a charity?
NOVAK: Trying to!
BYO: How’s that going?
NOVAK: Not good.
JOHN: Not trying to.
NOVAK: I’m worried that if I don’t do it, does that mean we have to give the money back?
JOHN: I think so, yeah.
NOVAK: Great! Fuck me.
BYO: At least there’s an out, if you need it. If it’s too much of a challenge…
JOHN: Nah, you’ll do it Dave. He comes through in the end. He also shits a lot so he can do it within a week. He does like a month of normal people’s shits in a week. So, I reckon in the last week just cram it.
NOVAK: Thanks, John.
BYO: Tell me about your influences? You guys have a real Iggy Pop thing going on… almost like that Detroit Motor City sound.
Novak: I could name you one Iggy Pop song. I didn’t know he was from Detroit; I don’t know anyone from Detroit. Jack White is from Detroit.
John: I love Iggy Pop. I’m the one who likes the cool music.
Novak: Every interview, there’s bands mentioned that you know and I don’t. I don’t know what that means, but I guess like, it makes it sound kind of different to Iggy Pop because I don’t know what it sounds like so we can get away with ripping it off. I think the sound is kind of a result of just being two instruments, and us not being very good at those instruments.
John: I feel like some of the best musicians are also the worst musicians
Novak: If I got to a show, and someone starts a guitar solo that’s more than 30 seconds long, I get angry
John: No one really likes guitar solos.
Novak: No one likes virtuosos. People who go to rock shows, or pop shows, have no interest in virtuoso musicians or vocal acrobatics and all that fuckin’ bullshit. It has a place; people will go to see something classier or refined.
BYO: Is that why you abstain from guitar solos entirely?
Novak: I can’t play guitar solos!
John: We abstain because we can’t do ‘em. I can’t do drum solos!
Novak: Everything people assume to be a conscious decision is a result of our own restrictions
John: We’re just doing what comes comfortably.
Novak: The only place I’d like to see a guitar solo is at an Eagles concert
BYO: How did you guys come up with your name?
Novak: His parents are Polish, my dad’s Polish. It’s a bit weird because we don’t really have any connection with Poland whatsoever. Like, I’m not fuckin’ Polish. I couldn’t give a shit.
All band names are shit until you hear the music and you’re like “Yeah!”
BYO: You’ve both been in larger bands – you started in bands that were four pieces?
Novak: I had a high school band for 10 years but we never did anything or released anything or played any shows, and then John was in a bunch of bands and we reigned him in as a drummer and got rid of the other two.
BYO: What made you want to streamline your group? Was the democratic process a bit shit in those bands?
John: Well, nothing ever happened [with the band]. We played gigs. We changed the name about 6 times. It was just like a hang-out band.
Novak: It was very ‘of the time’. Delicate vocals, a lot going on.
BYO: And you prefer playing loud and energetically?
John: I think it’s just all I know how to do. It’s not a preference.
BYO: Do you practise much?
Novak: I fuckin’ hate the guitar; I never played in my spare time.
BYO: Then why’re you doing it? What is playing guitar for you?
NOVAK: A fucking necessity. I mean, what else we going to do? It’s drums and vocals, it has to be guitar or it’s going to be terrible. The only other thing I could do is play bass guitar…
BYO: Did you pick up a guitar reluctantly?
NOVAK: Yeah! My parents asked me when I was a kid, “Are you sure you don’t want to play an instrument?” and I was like “Yeah, I’m fine.” It was Year 6 or something where they make you learn Wild Thing in class and Wonderwall and Nirvana and I was like, this is easier than I thought it would be but I still don’t enjoy it. But, my favourite quote about guitar – because I know so many – Jack White said: “If you don’t feel like you’re struggling and fighting with your guitar, then you’re not doing it right.”
BYO: Singing surely came naturally to you… you’ve got a huge voice. When did you start singing?
NOVAK: I was in the choir in primary school. I got asked to be the captain of the choir. I dunno, my mum was a singer so I sang a lot, but not for anything, and then John was like, “Why don’t you sing louder?” And then I started screaming, and now I’ve found my happy medium!
BYO: If you had the option, would you just sing?
NOVAK: Yeah. I fucking hate the guitar. I’d rather just do one thing.
BYO: From your debut LP to the Okie Dokie EP, it almost sounds like you finished recording one and then sped over to the next studio, plugged in and carried on.
NOVAK: That’s almost literally true.
BYO: Does it take longer to record than write?
NOVAK: We did ‘Okie Dokie’ in 4 days, we did the album in 8 days. So no, not really.
BYO: Your album is like 15 or 16 tracks though!
JOHN: Actually, 21 or 22.
BYO: What happened to the extra tracks?
JOHN: We gave one away, the other ones…
NOVAK: We turned two into songs on the EP. And a couple we just didn’t fully finish. I think we probably had around 50 rough songs.
BYO: Have you guys always had such comfortable chemistry?
JOHN: Well yeah, with Polish Club it’s always just been easy to put out songs.
NOVAK: But I’m worried about the day when it stops.
JOHN: Nah, our music is too dumb to stop.
BYO: The last track on your album, Red River Rock; why’d you choose that to close it the album out?
JOHN: I just like it. And my dad plays on it as well, on the accordion.
BYO: It’s a great end to an album.
NOVAK: Rolling Stone disagree.
JOHN: Yeah, we lost half a star or something for that.
NOVAK: They said it was a few songs too many, and if it hadn’t been for that song it would have been another star.
JOHN: It brought my dad a lot of joy, doing that song!
NOVAK: He was chuffed.
BYO: What do you think is more important? Originality or authenticity?
NOVAK: Who gives a fuckin’ shit about originality?
JOHN: Everything’s been done.
NOVAK: There’s only so many chords. There’s a billion bands out there, it’s 2017, rock ’n’ roll was invented over a century ago.
JOHN: A bit of danger doesn’t go astray either.
NOVAK: The aim is always to not be boring. I don’t really think about the records, I don’t really think about the song writing, I think about the live show. The performance.
JOHN: Even our content and media.
NOVAK: Everything has to feel like it’s from us. Because it fuckin’ is.
BYO: How do you make sure everything stays fun?
NOVAK: Because we’re having fun, and we’re doing it. That’s it. If it’s not fun, might as well go home… maybe fun’s the wrong word, but there’s always a feeling of “this is worth my time.”
JOHN: Someone out there likes our garbage.
BYO: Is “Gimme Money” about just literally, wanting money?
NOVAK: It’s also about people who are scared of selling out and getting opportunities that aren’t filled with artistic integrity – I don’t care.
BYO: I feel the same, I feel like it’s almost a coming-of-age thing. Is it cynical to think that?
NOVAK: Yeah, maybe, but who cares? It is what it is. And it’s like, who are you to judge anyone who’s trying to make money without hurting anyone. It’s not anyone’s fuckin’ business!
BYO: It’s a curious thing because bands are partly in the public domain; I feel like fans feel they have some claim to the band.
NOVAK: That’s fine, if people have a problem with anything, they can send us a Facebook message and we’ll read it and respond to it. I don’t worry about any of it because everything we do is borne of what we want and who we are. There’s no pretence to anything, there’s no pretending to be anything that we’re not. It’s like, fuck it! What’s the easiest way to make money to pay for the next record and just be a band in 5 years’ time, or 2 years’ time! So, good on anyone for making a buck off it, it’s a fuckin’ miracle!
BYO: Do you think you guys will ever add another member?
NOVAK: I’m sure there’ll be other stuff on songs on the future. But it’s expensive to tour with more than two people. We’ve added a sound guy, for the next thing we’re adding a tour manager… We’ll be adding more people to Polish Club, but they won’t be playing instruments.
JOHN: The less people we have –
NOVAK: The less money we lose –
JOHN: And the better the hotel room we can stay in.