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Private Function: Still On Top

They're arguably one of the wildest bands on the Aussie music scene and, as they release their second album, it's abundantly clear that Private Function are still on top.

There’s a very good chance that, despite their best efforts, Private Function might just be strong contenders for the title of the best band in Australia right now.

It’s a bold claim, but as far as music goes, is there anything more liberating, energising, and downright enjoyable than a band who simply just does not give a single iota of respect to the typical protocols of the music industry? That’s not to say they’re an outfit who refuse to follow the rules, or that they solely enjoy flouting convention whenever the opportunity arises, rather, they’re a group who use their platform to succeed in the rock world while simultaneously turning the genre back on itself and laughing at it.

It was in late 2016 that Private Function first appeared on the scene. Seemingly emerging from nowhere, the group – featuring former Clowns guitarist (and noted quizmaster) Joe Hansen, and Mesa Cosa’s Chris Penney – turned heads with their track “Dial Before You Dig” from their debut EP Six Smokin’ Songs.

The EP alone was enough to put themselves on the map, with artwork that featured Bryan Curtis, the face of Australia’s anti-smoking campaign, portrayed as being at death’s door until he heard the band’s music.

Image of 'Six Smokin' Songs' by Private Function

The artwork to the Six Smokin’ Songs cassette EP by Private Function (Photo: Bandcamp)

It was this tongue-in-cheek manner in which they conducted themselves that soon became inextricably linked to the group. While they churned out far-too-brief slices of immersive punk rock that evoked memories of icons of the genre such as the Sex Pistols or Radio Birdman, Private Function (who are rounded out by drummer and video director Aidan McDonald, American guitarist PJ Russo, and Canadian bassist Joe Mennell) soon became just as infamous for their online presence and outrageous antics.

In between releasing a cover of Metallica’s “Frantic” on a 3.5-inch floppy disk, holding a listening party for their Rock In Roll EP in the Fitzroy public toilets, performing dressed as Limp Bizkit for a Halloween show supporting The Bronx, and surreal memes that often found a way to work in their ubiquitous slogan of “PF STILL ON TOP”, this mastery of the arts saw fans summing up the band with apt quips like “Private Function is just The Eric Andre Show for people that hang out at The Tote”.

After almost three years as a staple of stages throughout Melbourne and the rest of Australia, Private Function released their debut album in 2019. Dubbed St. Anger, both the title and artwork ripped off Metallica’s divisive album of the same name, yet managed to go beyond the joke that many naysayers – or even fans – may have expected it to be.

In fact, the album was good, very good, and before long, the group’s followers found themselves wondering when – and if – they might be able to repeat the feat.

Thankfully, that question didn’t go unanswered for long, with Private Function revealing in the midst of a global pandemic that they would be releasing their second album, Whose Line Is It Anyway? at the end of August. Armed with an outrageous title, artwork, and vinyl pressing, and sharing one of the (unintentionally) greatest tourist jingles of all-time, it soon became clear that there was no chance of the quintet falling victim to the dreaded sophomore slump.

Speaking from their respective homes thanks to the comfort of a Zoom chat, it’s almost a little jarring to see Hansen and Penney away from the live stage, with the pair speaking far more reservedly than their onstage personas might suggest. As it turns out, this down-to-earth manner doesn’t just save itself for the time spent away from venues, rather, they note that even the initial goals of Private Function were just as humble as they are.

“The plan was just to take the piss out of things, but also to be the kind of band that we would want to go and see,” Hansen recalls of Private Function’s formation. “Let’s be honest, we go to a lot of gigs and a lot of the time we’ll see bands that could be doing something a bit more. So we figured, ‘Why not?’ We’ll do what we want to see, and if people like it, then cool, and if they don’t, well, fuck ’em.”

“The plan was just to take the piss out of things, but also to be the kind of band that we would want to go and see.”

“I find that bands don’t sing about things anymore,” adds Penney. “Back in the day, there’s a guy and he’d be like ‘Pour some sugar on me,’ and you’re like, ‘I understand what that man is saying.’ Or like, [Warrant’s] ‘Cherry Pie’. You’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s talking about a cherry pie. I get it.’

“Now, you see a band, and they’re like, ‘Wake up, purple vindication‘ and they say words, and you’re like, ‘What the fuck are these words, they don’t even make any sense!'”

Funnily enough, this idea is far from a foreign concept to the group, who back in 2017 jokingly noted on Facebook that “a lot of bands have super poetic lyrics and sing about the big social issues and all that but we just like don’t give a fuck about nothin'”.

“Bands just sing about concepts now, and concepts are boring,” adds Hansen. “Metaphors and stuff, they’re for cowards. Sing about what you really think. Don’t beat around the bush. [There are] so many bands where I need to look up what a word means, and like, why should I have to do that?”

“I don’t even know what the fuck everyone is going on about anymore,” Penney notes. “I don’t understand what people are singing about.”

Part of the simplistic approach that Private Function employ is likely part of their slow-burning appeal. While it would do them a disservice to say they don’t approach meaningful topics (including that of love on songs such as “Jet Set” or “Am I in Love?”), it’s the memorable lyrics that seem almost custom-made for the live crowd that seem to resonate with fans the most.

The general writing process for one of the band’s songs is similarly rooted in its simplicity, with many of their lyrical ideas being inspired by the thought of a memorable slogan or sign, and the idea of overthinking things being left for bands like Tool.

“80% of the songs form from just us, especially when we’re on tour, just talking shit at the pub,” Penney explains. “‘That’s a funny idea, that’s a funny name,’ we’ll say, and then we’ll remember it and we’ll have a jam the next week and bust it out.”

“One of us will just yell a slogan or a thing and then Chris will start yelling that until it’s got a melody or a rhythm,” Hansen adds. “One of us will figure out the guitar chords, and then that’s a song. What more do you need?”

The product of this approach can easily be seen on early tracks such as the aforementioned “Dial Before You Dig”, “No Hat No Play”, and the crowd-favourite “I Wish Australia Had Its Guns Again”, which despite its pro-gun title, is more of a satirical approach to US gun rights, just delivered with a memorable, chantable title.

The swift composition process behind Private Function’s work undoubtedly lent itself to the fast turnaround period between the band’s first album and their second. However, while many bands have found themselves with time to write and record thanks to the global pandemic this year, the band explain that their recording plans were relatively unaffected by the events of 2020, with their new release falling in lines with their plans of a new record every year.

“We always write songs, and we had a new one ready to go,” Hansen explains. “So we thought, ‘Let’s just record it and put it out’, and we’re already writing the next one. We’re going to keep them coming as fast as possible.”

“We’d like to do one a year,” echoes Penney. “We’re not void of any ideas at the moment or anything, so yeah, we’re going to try and do an album a year.”

“We’re not void of any ideas at the moment or anything, so yeah, we’re going to try and do an album a year.”

Undoubtedly, one down side to 2020 is the toll that has been taken on the band’s relentless touring schedule. Despite being able to hit the road for their “I’ve Been Radicalized” tour in the early months of the year, the live scene has been lacking their riotous live performances which have managed to make them legends of stages. Thankfully, the band say they’re not exactly feeling sidelined by an inability to play live shows at the moment.

“I thought we would, but we’re not really,” Hansen says. “You just kind of have to accept the situation for what it is. I mean, yeah, we probably would’ve been going on a tour as soon as the album came out, but obviously we’re going to have to postpone that. But we’ve got enough to keep us occupied right now.”

“There was actually a moment where we tossed up the idea of maybe not releasing the album during quarantine, for like one second,” Penney notes. “But I’m so happy we didn’t, because it’s absolutely helped keep me sane during this time, being at home. I’m really happy I’ve had something to work on rather than sitting around and not touring. It’s good to have a project.”

That new project, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, feels like the next natural step in the life cycle of Private Function. Recorded by Matt Duffy (Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Bench Press, Moody Beaches), the record features the same approach to their craft as previous releases, including fast-paced instrumentation and lyrics that don’t take themselves too seriously.

While the vast majority of the tracks featured on the record were composed specifically for the new album, some of them had been in the works for quite a while, with an early version of closing track “Grabbing My Butt” even making an appearance on Facebook two years previously.

Each one of us just wrote a few songs, we played them together with the idea of a new album, didn’t spend long on them – pretty much a song a week,” Hansen says. “13 weeks later, we had an album, and we recorded it in a couple of days.

“We don’t think too long about what we’re doing. If it doesn’t work within half an hour, it’s not worth doing.”

“We don’t think too long about what we’re doing. If it doesn’t work within half an hour, it’s not worth doing.”

The end result is something that serves as a testament to the formula that Private Function have crafted for themselves. Even when it came to the writing and recording process, the group explain that they took something of an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach.

“We didn’t really change anything [for this album],” Hansen states. “I mean, every song is really its own thing, and a lot of the songs sound pretty different to one another. I think we’re just a better band now, and better at getting our own ideas into a tangible thing quicker, and faster, and better.”

“I say it in a lot of interviews, but I think a big part of Private Function is ‘concept over quality’,” Penney adds. “You know, put concept before the songwriting, I guess. Have an idea before you… I mean, “Albury Wodonga” is an idea before it’s a song. It was the kind of thing where you try and write a crappy tourist song for Albury/Wodonga, but instead we had the idea and it was just, ‘Let’s just a write a song about it instead’.”

“We’ll think of the song name and what it’s about, and say, ‘Okay, what would that song be?’ Then we write it,” explains Hansen. “Basically, we think of the tracklisting first, and write the songs retroactively to fit. I think it works better that way.”

A look at the tracklisting confirms this approach. Tracks like “Give War A Chance”, “Irresponsible Dog Owner (I’m An)”, and “Stop Liking What I Don’t Like” all feel like they were composed based on how they would look on the back of the sleeve.

Meanwhile, recent single “Albury Wodonga” has managed to come out of left field as a perfect anthem for lockdown, serving as something of an ode to the twin cities which have been split in twain thanks to border closures necessitated by COVID-19.

Even as they spoke via Zoom, Hansen was fresh from a chat about the track with regional network Prime7, while Penney was one day away from a discussion with Triple M The Border. “We love national pandemics, lockdowns, and using them to push record sales,” Hansen quips dryly. “We plan on using it more in the future.”

Fittingly, another one of the album’s tracks seems almost custom-made for the aforementioned Triple M airwaves, with “Evie Part 4” (which features uncredited vocals from Dicklord’s Jade Louise) continuing on with the naming convention of Stevie Wright’s “Evie” series, yet is delivered in a far more serious manner than its title might suggest.

“It’s an homage, if anything,” Penney explains. “It’s an earnest song, 100% – there’s no irony or satire to it. You know how the best movie adaptations of books are movies that get an idea from the book and expand on that, rather than trying to recreate the story? That’s what we did; we got the idea and expanded on the story that was already there.”

“It’s like the Total Recall movie compared to the book,” Hansen adds. “Like, the movie’s way better than the short story. So our song’s Total Recall and Stevie Wright is the Phillip K. Dick one, whatever that’s called. See? No one cares, but our’s is better.” [Editor’s Note: For those wondering, the Phillip K. Dick story that inspired Total Recall was called “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, and it was released exactly eight years before Wright’s “Evie”.]

Meanwhile, trainspotters will be quick to notice the tradition of a cover song making the cut for the new record as well. While previous albums have included songs originally recorded by Metallica, Sweet, and Midnight Oil, Whose Line Is It Anyway? sees Private Function delving into the early Nineties to offer their rendition on Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way”.

“We were driving back from a gig once, and it came on the radio, not long before we were about to record,” recalls Hansen. “We thought, ‘This song’s funny, let’s just cover it.’ We didn’t listen to it, we just played it how we thought it went. So if there’s any mistakes, that’s why.”

“I think it was probably because we were really hungover or something, but I remembered it rocking way harder than I remembered it rocking when I was a kid,” adds Penney, before realising the song is in fact six years older than he thought it was, thus making responses given to other interviewers a bit nonsensical. “It holds up.”

With Whose Line Is It Anyway? out today, the group have inadvertently found themselves in something of a poetic position, with the release date lining up (no pun intended) with the arrival of S&M2, a live record from old foes Metallica. Despite this, Penney admits that while the chances of the group beating the metal icons on the charts are slim, it would be a rather fitting victory.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen, but you never know,” he says. “It’s pretty interesting because everything’s up in the air right now because of the pandemic, like, are people going out? Are people buying albums?”

Of course, a quick peek at the band’s socials have shown that fans are still indeed buying albums.

With numerous pre-orders of the new record already in high demand, Private Function were forced to announce a second vinyl pressing of the album in the days before its release. It’s a similar story for their previous discography as well, with limited edition copies of St. Anger being snapped up faster than the opening of “Heavy Resistance”.

But what is it that makes the band’s work so sought after by fans? Likely, it’s due in part to the apparent effort put into the designs that emblazon their records and cassettes, or their limited-edition 8-track tapes and floppy disks. Even the new album is famed for its cover artwork, with the front sleeve reminiscent of the schoolyard “life hack” which urges folks to fold their five-dollar notes in such a way that it shows a whale supposedly engaged in oral sex.

Private Function - Whose Line Is It Anyway?

The artwork to Whose Line Is It Anyway? by Private Function (Photo: Supplied)

“We kind of put a lot of thought into the art and titles, but at the same time, we don’t,” Hansen admits. “As soon as a good idea comes, we’re just like, ‘Yep, cool, done. Easy. Run with it.’ So just whatever is funniest to us at whatever the time we need it to be is what we run with. Same with the first album, same with this album.”

“I’ve never been in an easier band, this is very streamlined,” Penney adds. “It’s just like, ‘Bam, bam bam, done.'”

“If someone in the band doesn’t like something, we’re just going to do another record in six months anyway.”

“We never really have any creative disagreements,” says Hansen. “I think it’s good because we put things out so frequently that if someone in the band doesn’t like something, we’re just going to do another record in six months anyway. So it doesn’t really bother anyone.”

The biggest takeaway from the new record is undoubtedly the headline-making limited edition vinyl variant which supposedly features bags of speed pressed into the record itself. While the question of the legitimacy of the drug was deflected somewhat, the album serves as one of the first records pressed in Australia that are presented in such a manner.

Image of Private Function's new special edition Mystery Bag vinyl

Private Function’s “Mystery Bag” vinyl. (Photo: Chris Penney/Instagram)

It’s not the first time that artists have released records with items inside. In fact, The Flaming Lips released a collaborative record that included blood from each of the featured musicians, and Jack White’s Third Man Records have shared numerous records with varying objects pressed inside. However, very few Australian bands have actually taken the Private Function route and offered such an intriguing collectible.

The record itself sold out within 15 minutes, with fans paying a premium for these special edition records which the band were quick to note would not ship overseas.

“I always wanted to do a record like that, because I’ve never seen that many, which is odd,” Penney explains. “I know you can do it, but it’s quite rare. People don’t really do it and we just thought it kind of works with the whole idea of Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

“But it just seemed like the perfect idea, and the simplicity, like “‘Why wouldn’t that exist in vinyl? Why the fuck not? Why? It’s too easy.’ So we just ran with it. We ended up spending way more money on it than we should’ve.”

Such a release is hardly a surprise for a band like Private Function though. After all, this is a band who have released – amongst other things – a coin pressed by the Perth Mint, and branded barbecue sauce (which was just an ETA bottle with “PF” written over the name with a black marker).

But such ideas aren’t just the group flexing their surrealist muscles, rather, it could easily be seen as either a commentary on the ridiculous merch items offered up by bigger artists than they, or an example of the sort of rock and roll excess showcased by bands like the iconic Spın̈al Tap. Regardless of how you look at it, Private Function say it’s all part of their long-term plan.

“It’s not like the be all and end all of the band though,” Penney explains. “I’m going to become such a dickhead here for a second, but on the surface level it’s a very two-dimensional band, but then there’s definitely a layered, intellectualism behind the entire project.”

“Totally, we’ve got our next nine albums planned out already,” adds Hansen. “So they’re going to come out over the next four years, so that’ll be a good. A couple of movies as well.

“We’ve already figured it out, we’re going to release the greatest Australian rock and roll album of all time, and that’s going to come out in 2022.”

Though the reference to a movie almost appeared as if it was a throwaway gag from the pair, Hansen and Penney are adamant that fans will “absolutely love” the movie, which currently has a tentative release date of 2021 or 2022.

While it’s clear that Private Function have spent the last few years of their lives curating a band whose following is as intense as its music, there’s no denying that they’ve managed to ruffle a few feathers along the way.

Whether it’s the general confusion they evoke from folks unsure whether it’s the band or a private event being held at a venue, or the comments that flew as a result of the band hosting Rage last year, Hansen and Penney explain that they’re not in the game to be loved, rather, it’s apparent that they’re serving as the true definition of artists; creating with the intent of inspiring a visceral reaction.

“If we can elicit real feelings out of people, that’s better than most bands can do,” Hansen explains. “I think it’s sick, I love it when people don’t like us.”

“If we can elicit real feelings out of people, that’s better than most bands can do. […] I love it when people don’t like us.”

“Hatred is good,” Penney adds with a laugh. “It’s the funniest thing as well. People say ‘Oh, they’re such cocky pricks.’ And it’s like, we didn’t invent this! This is like a trope of rock and roll. Go to Sanity and just flick through a couple of albums…”

“People are stupid. Rock and roll isn’t real. It’s like this dumb mythology,” echoes Hansen. “If you see a band, that’s not real life. I’m not walking down the street playing guitar, drinking a beer, and writing songs. It’s not real, it’s fake.

“Rock and roll is like this classical Greek tragedy. Everyone thinks they’re great and then it all comes crashing down and everyone hates you. It’s like Homer’s Odyssey, and shit.”

No matter which side of the duct tape fence you’re on, it’s clear that Private Function won’t be going away any time soon, and with Whose Line Is It Anyway? already on track to become one of the best Australian albums of the year, it feels as if they’re just getting started.

Private Function’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? is out now via Damaged/Caroline Australia, with physical copies available via Artist First. PF STILL ON TOP!