Jarrah McCleary grew up in the bushland of Australia’s Northern Territory. The clichés were true. It was a home riddled with dingoes, aborigine people, and crocodiles roaming amidst the sticky heat. His neighbors, the aborigines, had learned to blend with nature, and in turn it became part of them, an intrinsic characteristic noted in McCleary and his latest musical project, Panama.
His move from the bushland to Perth, the most isolated city in the world on the southwestern tip of Australia, led to a surge of creativity. Here he discovered a new land to roam, a place where music embalmed him like the sticky summer heat of the northern country.
Several years since he landed in Perth and started an Elton John-style piano band, McCleary’s newest gig of white boy funk music steeped in stripped back synth and low-fi vocals is sweeping through the southern hemisphere.
Panama’s debut EP, It’s Not Over, was released in early November, recorded with Eric Broucek of LCD Soundsystem and his buddy Jim Orso of Holy Ghost! assisting on drums. If Peter Gabriel had a love child with Cut Copy and took a lot of MDMA, the result would be PANAMA.
The now five-piece group started off as the brainchild of McCleary, lead singer of the recently defunct Australian electronic group, the Dirty Secrets.
The EP’s highlights are also Mcleary’s two favorites: “It’s Not Over” and “Magic.” McCleary spent the least amount of time on the two tracks, composed in less than two weeks just before he embarked to LA to produce the EP. Infused with white boy funk, dance electronic akin to Hot Chip and nostalgic for Yacht Rock.
McCleary’s incredible down to earth vibe and delicious Aussie accent made this gringo a fan. We spoke over the phone worlds away, while the sun was setting in New York and rising in Sydney the next day.
VICE: Good morning Jarrah!
Jarrah McCleary: Ey there, what time is it there, like six or seven?
Yea, it’s happy hour at the office. So I’d love to hear what it was like growing up in the northern country.
I’m from Darwin in the bushland. I used to have a pet dingo there actually, the funny thing about dingoes is they don’t bark, they howl.
The indigenous of Australia have a lot of pet dingoes up there. I think as a child our pet dingo got stolen, they’re quite popular there.
I just have to ask, did a dingo eat your baby?
Nothing… so tell me more about Darwin.
Growing up in a place like that with not a lot of fun things to do, there was a lot of freedom. I started playing piano when I was five and got really into classical music. I wouldn’t worry about neighbors or gangs like you do in America. We didn’t have that. It was you just do what you want when you want. You would come home in the evening and Mom would have dinner on the table. Darwin was just totally itself and quiet, then I moved to Perth, the most isolated city in the world.
What was life like after the Bush?
When I was 16 I got my driver’s license and drove from Darwin to Bunbury, which is two hours south of Perth, about a 4000-kilometer drive. Australia is such a beautiful country and when I first moved to Perth the first thing I did was start a band and toured around Australia. When I write I think about the long road ahead. When I moved to Perth, they had bands that were doing very well and encouraged you to do very well. It was a place you could actually survive off touring your band.
That’s a hell of a drive, damn.
[Laughs] Yea, my first love besides music was traveling.
Tell me about some of the tracks on the EP, I really like “It’s Not Over."
I wrote “Magic” in the two-week period before I got on the plane to produce the record in LA. I wasn’t thinking about it like with the other songs that I had a couple of years to work on, but I think I may have overworked them. In a way you’re marrying them.
What inspired your lyrics? They sound really nostalgic and hopeful…
With “Magic” and “It’s Not Over,” I want to say I put the lyrics in front of the music. I just said don’t worry about the project, let the production fix that. “Magic” was very personal, my old band “Dirty Secrets” had just broken up and I was feeling like "what is there left for me to do?" The song itself is very uplifting, but it came through a very sad place at the time. I tend to write uplifting songs, but I guess I'm kind of a sad guy.
What is your writing process like?
I find the thing that works the best is to write honestly. It’s the thing that resonates most when you listen to it, you can frame the picture any way you want if you give them an honest approach. If you can do that you’re alright in my book.
What were some of your early musical tastes?
I got started in classical, then I discovered my Dad’s record collection. He used to sell records as a young man. He had a massive vinyl collection. I guess it was more heavy rock that I picked up, like Led Zepplin or Captain Beefheart. When I got into my 20s I started playing in bands. The first band I had was a piano band, it sounded like Elton John or something. It wasn’t a cool sounding band but I was just feeling it at the time.
What happened to your former band Dirty Secrets?
We pretty much wrote rock music and it just got to that stage where the band moved from Perth to Sydney, the other side of the country. Perth’s great because you can get your own identity, band wise, and you’ve got niche bands and everyone’s supportive and you hit that point where you either move over to Sydney or you don’t. The music I was writing changed. I came to the realization that I was going to pursue this.
How did you come to form Panama then?
I write the music myself, but it’s a five-piece at the moment. The band itself started in LA. I was over there recording with the producer, Eric, he was based out of NYC with BFA Records. We hit it off straight away. I still hadn’t thought of the name of the band, and then I came with up Panama.
Have you ever visited the Panama Canal?
No, I’ve never been to the Panama Canal, I’ve never been past Texas in the states. It just popped into in my head, I think I was watching that movie with Ryan Gosling, Drive, and it just popped into my head. It would be great to cover a band that covers genres, it doesn’t sound like a rock name.
Who are some of your personal favorites?
My favorite band in the world is America; they create music that spans decades. Not a lot of people know them.
What was your recording process like with Eric?
My manager introduced us to Eric. I remember Skyping with him and looking at his face and he was super young, 29. I thought it would be great for someone to see eye-to-eye, being the same age and stuff. He sent back demos and at first I was a bit unsure. I was like ahh, he really stripped the songs back and simplified things, and it scared me a bit to see the songs so exposed. Looking back, it was such a smart move to get to the core of the music. He stopped the songs from being cloaked by something that isn’t real; he was trying to get to the core of it. He made me stick to being honest.
Tell me about your experience recording in California.
I was over in Cali doing the record for eight weeks. I stayed in Koreatown, which was pretty rough actually. I didn’t expect America to be so… I don’t know…
Coming from Australia, it was very different. I came across it in 2011. There were a lot of homeless people around. Where I come from it wasn’t common to see. I had to adjust to that. Eric was over in Echo Park, right near Silver Lake. I was just absorbing everything. I had this massive two-story flat I was living in, everyone had moved out so it was really weird. I was in this drug addict place by myself and hearing gunshots going off outside.
How would you describe your sound?
I think the sound of Panama comes from an honest place. It’s not always sitting in one particular place, it comes from a feeling. It’s not trying to be too much, it’s not trying to tell you how it makes you feel.
What’s your opinion on how the EP turned out?
I’m incredibly proud. My favorite tracks on the EP are “It’s Not Over” and “Magic.” The music and the lyrics partner up perfectly for me. If the production is the clothes and the song the person, it fits perfectly.
So where will the road take you now?
We are going to go to the UK, I think Europe is what they want to do. The truth of the situation is that the fees are lower in the U.S. We get less money in America than the UK.
When you’re not making the funky dance beats what do you do?
I like to collect old basketball cards. I like to collect old pieces of vintage gear. My dad’s a collector, he collects pieces of vintage furniture; he’s got a massive shed full of it. I get that collecting addiction from him. I’m not a hoarder though, but I think my dad may be.
Photos by Mitch Mclennan