The Panics - unlikely heroes of Manchester rock

With songs of isolation, pain and medication, The Panics could be native northerners. But the band was shaped by an altogether sunnier environment, they tell Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

While most bands strive to meet their heroes in some far-off future, The Panics' frontman was supporting Noel Gallagher before anyone in the UK had even heard of the Australian five-piece. If you still haven't heard of them, that will soon all change.

We are here to talk about their debut album Cruel Guards. Not that this is actually their debut – it's just their first release outside Australia. Back home they are one of the best-known guitar bands; they sold 100,000 copies of this album and picked up a J Award and an Aria (the Antipodean equivalent of a Brit Award). Now they are set to join the competition of the many bands trying to conquer Britain, having left Melbourne, their base for the past four years, to spend time in Manchester. It must be strange for such an established band to start again from scratch. Not that the band resent playing the small grotty venues of London to get heard.

"Are you kidding?" says singer song-writer Jae Laffer, eyes glinting with enthusiasm and optimism. "This is so exciting for us. We became one of the bands people have definitely heard of back home. It made us think, 'Let's go and do the same thing over here.' "

Here, with Europe on the doorstep, the possibilities are limitless, compared to the restrictive isolation of Perth, their hometown, where the nearest cities are a four-day drive away. "We considered it would be a place where we could get really good without anyone noticing. We could rise to the top in our little area which would ultimately mean nothing."

Laffer is still excited about hearing the band's debut single "Don't Fight It" played on XFM. "One of the biggest moments in my life is when I've walked past a building site and heard my voice coming out from behind the cement mixers with a bunch of really aggressive-looking men standing about." Has he ever had the urge to shout out 'that's me on the radio'? "I've done that once in a café and immediately regretted it when I got the look of 'who do you think you are?'"

Dressed casually in a plaid shirt and jeans, Laffer isn't the sort to lap up the limelight. He's a softly-spoken kind of guy, and it shows in their expansive, epic, melodic indie-pop with a laid-back soul vibe and sweeping strings akin to those of Ennio Morricone. It makes a refreshing change from the punchy, synth- driven, shouty pop bands that are so rife in today's charts.

"A lot of groups here sound very Eighties and there's a disco beat there, but I'm glad we're not part of it. We're the polar opposite, really. I guess I'm quietly spoken, and I'm kind of that way in front of the microphone, too. I like who we are – a bunch of sensitive nerds."

If they sound miles away from anything currently in the pop charts, it's down to the Perth suburb where the band members grew up. Rather than being informed by any local music scene, their music draws inspiration from the landscape and its isolation. Home for Laffer was atop the hills of a mountain range stretching down to the coast.

"On one side you could see our city and on a clear day you could see the ocean. If you look on the other side, there's not a house or anything, just a forest as far as the eye can see. It's a great spot to grow up – you could just turn around and run into this complete wilderness. I'm really glad that we grew up there because it's unique – the isolation of it is in the theme and in the sound of our songs."

The band formed at their high school dedicated to theatre and music, with art classes on a Saturday – "for art freaks". At 13, Laffer and brothers Drew and Myles Wooton (guitar and drums) started writing songs together in their lunch breaks from day one. Multi-instrumentalist Jules Douglas was the next to join, leaving bassist Paul Otway to complete the picture later. The boys bonded over a love of Manchester bands The Smiths, Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, and they took their name from their favourite Smiths song, "Panic". They had no idea this would be the first of many various pointers leading to Manchester becoming their second home.

It was Gaz Whelan, the drummer from the Happy Mondays who, with his mate Pete Carroll, first spotted them after playing The Big Day Out in Perth. The pair were planning to set up a label and, when Carroll became their manager and Little Big Man Records was born, the band found themselves spending time in the northern city.

"All our heroes are from Manchester," says Laffer, who has managed to meet a fair few of them in the past couple of years. The band supported Morrissey on tour, but it was the solo show Laffer performed for Noel Gallagher in 2007 that would make so many young bands envious. Not only did he support his hero, but Gallagher invited the budding star for drinks backstage.

"Here's my high school hero, who also happens to be from Manchester, being really nice to me and talking to me about music. I feel blessed in those kind of moments."

It was at 12 that Laffer first discovered his passion for writing. When his mother took over the running of the local library, he was allowed a private spot under the big glass dome on top of the library looking out over the town. There, during his school lunch breaks, he taught himself to play guitar and write lyrics.

"My first songs were all about people in the town. I remember taking things I'd heard in conversations and singing about my surroundings which is still what I do today."

He applied his love of stories to his song-writing in Cruel Guards, which tackles themes of conflict. "I like to paint a little picture and talk about the landscape, to drag out my feelings and put it in a short story."

The title song is a story that, when its metaphorical context is unpicked, reveals a personal portrait of anxiety, depression and medication. Its key line is "It's always calm right before you do any harm", and Laffer wrote it during a troubled period following a difficult relationship.

"I ended up taking antidepressants for a couple of years, which is really weird for me because I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky character but I was having severe panic attacks – the kind where you drop your shopping and have to crawl out of the supermarket. It's when you find yourself just staying in and drinking too much and spending too much time in your own head. The cruel guards were the medication I was taking. Drugs take away the bad stuff in people's lives, but they knock the top end off as well and blur your whole world." He may be unusually open about the experience, but that openness has advantages. Not only does it create compelling, sincere songs, it's a much more effective therapy than medication. As a result he is serene and doesn't regret his past. "A song's a therapy, really. That's why I feel lucky to be blessed with the urge to write words down because it gets things out of your system and if you can nail it in a catchy pop song, isn't that great?"

With everything set in place, what are they hoping for next? "I want to be the maker of one of those songs that sticks around forever and people go that was the pinnacle of that time. Hope I'm not sounding big-headed but I won't be satisfied until I reach that point. Nothing feels impossible any more."

Cruel Guards is released on 1 June on Publica