You know the story of the macabre and downright horrific Lawson family massacre of 1929? In which Charlie Lawson murdered his wife and six of his seven children and left them in their smart family attire with their arms crossed and with rocks placed under their heads before Charlie killed himself? Well, if you didn’t, you do now! I think it says a lot about the dark, heavy nature of Pagan that new single, ‘Wine and Lace’, chronicles this story. Pagan have only been together for two years now, but age has nothing to do with how visceral and intense this band is. Crust & hardcore fused with elements of black metal makes for hell of a niche sound, but it’s a great sound nonetheless. Speaking with Nikki Brumen, the vocalist for this bat-shit insane “blackened rock & roll” outfit, we talk about Pagan’s sound, how they market & present themselves, on playing to the indie crowds Of Yours & Owls festival, and on her love for Watain.
With your vocal style, Nikki, I’m wondering if you and the band are fans of Converge or Deafheaven at all? As the throaty, abrasive and intense nature of your screams definitely reminds me of Jacob Bannon’s vocals and a little bit George Clarke’s style.
It’s really weird as none of us are huge fans of either band. I know that Dan [Bonnici, bass] is a big fan of both Converge and Deafheaven, but no, not intentionally. But I wouldn’t say that either of those bands are a huge influence, but we do get the comparisons. I think with the Deafheaven comparison that may be because I really love noise and black metal and from what I know of that band, they also love those styles. So with our occasional blast beats and our “blackened” sound that we have, I can understand why. But it is a big compliment to hear you say that, especially Converge for me. I listened to them and bands like them a lot when I was growing up.
Cool! Pagan has a weird mixture of black metal and hardcore; I haven’t heard a lot of bands do that, personally. It’s a very niche sound. So I’m wondering if maybe that’s why the band has gained so much traction in just a short amount of time? Would you agree?
Yeah, I definitely think so. When we started, none of us wanted to sound like any band in particular. We all just had similar taste in what bands we liked and which bands we thought were cool, but no one said we wanted our band to be like X, or like Y. With my other band, Little Lamb & The Rosemary’s, I find it hard to describe what exact style we are. A fair question that people ask is ‘What does your band sound like?’ I always find it hard to answer, as we’re not trying to sound like anyone. Personally, Dan and I are big into black metal. Xavier [Santilli guitar] loves Kvelertak so he may draw influence from them at times. There’s no exact genre and that’s maybe where our mish-mash of genres comes in. Like you said, maybe it has worked to our advantage as we have ended up sounding somewhat unique.
For sure, it’s a great sound. I think that’s why ‘Heavy Repeater’ went to #1 on Triple J Unearthed’s Punk/Metal chart and having the first Pagan live show sell out I’d attribute your sound to the initial success the band has had. With those two milestones, do things like that ever stroke the band’s ego? Or perhaps that it’s a proof of concept that you’re really onto something with this band?
All of it has really given us the confidence to keep going. With the guys, they’ve all played in bands for over a decade. They’ve been doing this since they were teenagers. They just got over playing heaps of shows, and playing shows to really small crowds, as you put so much energy into your band and your music. Of course, you love doing it, regardless of how many people are there. But with them doing it for so long, it was all or nothing. Having that mindset from the start, made us all be very clear about how we want to market ourselves, and whom we wanted to record with. Working with Mike [Deslandes, Coerce, The Nation Blue] was a dream come true. I think that people got excited that the guys were doing something musical again. Plus, I think many people sadly aren’t used to seeing a woman fronting a hardcore band and so that excites some people; seeing women play in heavy bands.
Oh, it is rare and it can be a big sausage-fest a lot of the time. Of course, with Melbourne, we have High Tension, Outright, and a few other bands out of state like Manhunt as well. I spoke with Shontay Snow from Saviour earlier this year about UNIFY 2017, and she said that it does come down to how many women want to actually play in bands. As the editor Of Killyourstereo.com, I coordinate with a lot of labels & PR and I find that women usually fill those positions, but when you reverse it to the bands, it can get so male dominated.
Yeah, it’s so interesting! I have had so many girls say to me after I perform that it’s inspiring and that they wish they could do it too. I think there are a lot of girls that just get intimidated sometimes, and I get intimated too. I can take it quite personally when people put you down, and you can feel vulnerable at times due to their being so fewer women playing in bands. But it is so nice to see that younger women can find bands like us inspiring and want to pursue it themselves.
Whenever people – usually guys – bring up the argument that women can’t play as well I just point them to Skillet’s drummer, Jen Ledger or to All That Remains’ Jeanne Sagan. Just because their reproductive organs aren’t on the outside of their bodies doesn’t mean that they can’t be great musicians.
Yeah, exactly! I always say that we usually have more to be angry about. So if you need someone to scream lyrics, a girl can do it well as she’ll have more to be angry about. That’s the way I see it anyway.
For sure! Changing gears from that, I wanted to talk about Pagan playing Yours & Owls Festival later this year. Does it feel weird to have a band like yourselves playing alongside Stonefield and Lady Hawke, among others? The only other band that’s like your band is Totally Unicorn so people will really remember your sets, I think.
Kind of, but it’s so exciting! There are so many bands that aren’t playing music like us on that line-up. I do hope that people can take something away from it and not just see it as screaming or be scared off by it. Though that’s fine, they don’t have to like our music. It’s such a great opportunity as we also have our tour with Totally Unicorn and they were able to get us onto this extra show. It’s also kind of unique as well and sorry to press the point again, but it does have a lot of female musicians on the line-up as well. If it was a usual hardcore festival, it wouldn’t like that. So it’ll be great to give Pagan’s name out there to people who may not normally listen to us and I’m sure that Totally Unicorn feels the same way.
Plus, there are a lot of big bands playing for that indie crowd so as you said, the potential exposure could work very well for you guys. Now, with the band’s releases, especially how they are listed on your Bandcamp Page as those numbered tarot cards. As you have the same artist for those new songs, your sister Olivia Brumen, and with the roman numbers for each, I’m wondering if they represent the track listing for a full-length album…?
Well, you’re pretty observant and it’s a good guess…but I don’t know how much I can say. You’re on the right track with that, though. Those numbers are definitely there for a reason! But yes, the artwork looks great. My twin sister Olivia has been a tattooist for ten or so years now and is a great visual designer.
Oh, don’t worry I totally get what you’re saying about the tracks [laughs]. Also, the artwork for the songs does look really cool, and forgive my lack of terminology, but the shading of the lines does sort of look like it’s on skin too.
Yeah, she is amazing at it. She does a lot of fine art paintings too. She would also ask me what the songs are about, so she can draw the artwork, and I don’t like to talk too much about my songs. As they are so personal, but you do have to get over your ego. It was so important that the images relate to the songs, and she came up with these amazing images for them.
They definitely fit the songs theme, that’s for sure. You touched on something really interesting just them that you don’t like to talk too much about the song meanings. I was talking with Tom from Ceres the other day and he told me that if he had written the lyrics just as a diary entry, he’d be so embarrassed if anyone read them. But in context, with a rock song behind the lyrics and vocals, it’s fine to suddenly put so much of yourself into the lyrics.
Yes, it’s so bizarre, and that’s such a beautiful way of saying it, too. With Pagan, the guys write all of the music and I write all of the lyrics. I’ll go away on my own and write the melody and lyrics, and I’ll re-work it until I get it to the best of my ability. I also have a book filled with lyrics that I will never let anyone read. I have never let anyone read through it. I am an open performer, and I’m not afraid to be expressive, but that is just all so personal with things that people may not know or want to know about me. On the surface, I can sum up simply what the songs are about.
I think most singers and lyricists would agree with you, that when you remove the musical context, it can feel so…naked. One thing I really appreciate about the band is the macabre nature and use of the seemingly pagan themes in how the band talks and presents themselves online and in the press, calling things “cursed” or “hexed”, and the like. However, my question in all this is do you think that may be seen as a gimmick by some?
I am completely okay with people thinking that! I have thought about it a lot. Dan writes a lot of it, he’s our social media guy in the band. Dan is just really funny, and because our music is so dark and heavy, I think it so important to find the humour in it. I think in anything, you have to find the humour. For me as an artist, that’s really important for me. If people think that it is ever gimmicky than at least they’re getting the point [laughs]. It’s just more fun and relatable, and if you’re doing such serious music, you need some humour somewhere in there.
I appreciate the honesty there, I really do. I think so many bands and fans can get into a perception that up on-stage or in interviews, they must be as serious as their music. Presenting your band like that will really help in the long run I think, as it shows you are just ordinary, everyday people.
Yeah, of course! There is definitely a time and place for that seriousness. For example; Norwegian Black metal. Some of the bands that started that are just so serious about what they do. I love that passion and intensity but Pagan as people aren’t really like that, so I like to let my guard down. But yes, I do like the gimmick side of the band as I said earlier we have strong ideas about how we want to market ourselves.
No, well said! Understanding that early on is so key, I find. Finally, you mention black metal before, and I’m wondering, as a fan of the genre, what are your favourite black metal artists? They don’t have to be strictly Norwegian!
I really love mainstream ones like Darkthrone and Mayhem. If we wanna get technical, Venom and bands like Bathory that started the movement. One of my favourite black metal bands is Watain, a Swedish black metal band. I went to Norway a few years ago, and I got an issue of Slayer zine, like a real one! It was this old magazine that was made back when Norwegian Black Metal was huge. I was reading it on the flight home and I read about Watain. The way their singer spoke about their theatrics on stage was so hilarious. He was so serious, saying things like “If you are in the front row and not getting covered in pig’s blood, you’re a fucking idiot. You don’t deserve to be seeing our band”. That’s just…amazing. I don’t condone animal slaughter but I think it is so funny how someone could be so serious and passionate about their art. I really like their music, though, and they are really good at performing live.
That’s fucking amazing, what a dude. I take it saw you Watain when they came here for Soundwave a couple years back?
Yeah! I went to their sideshows and saw them at Soundwave. I actually met Eric at Soundwave and he told me that they ended up blowing their whole budget on these inverted crosses they’d lit on fire during their sets.
They blew the whole budget on the pyrotechnics and the stage show. Just to do that to get the right vibe, it is just so awesome!
Fuck, that band is ridiculous. That’s like Gorgoroth levels of theatrical! I think on that note Nikki, we’ll leave this interview there. Thanks so much for jumping on the phone with me. It’s been a blast!
No worries Alex, thank you very much!
Pagan are going on tour with Totally Unicorn this September. Tickets for the tour can be bought here.
PC: Benn Wood