Inspired as much by gaudy cabaret shows as they are by gritty hardcore punk gigs, Sydney’s Johnny Hunter are a unique force. Their live set is delightfully unhinged: they encourage mosh pits and the heaving, heady atmosphere typical of skramz shows, but perform in freshly ironed suits and pearl necklaces, bold black eyeshadow and ravishing red lipstick. The concept was conjured up as a direct response to the local shows they’d see thrice a week when they formed in 2017, crowded with cut-and-paste psych rock bands desperate to be the next King Gizzard or Tame Impala.
Disillusioned by the cheap repetition, the group turned their attention to the UK, where post-punk was enjoying a riotous resurgence thanks to the likes of IDLES, Fontaines D.C. and Shame. “We saw those bands coming up,” frontman Nick Hutt tells NME, “and we were like, ‘Why the fuck isn’t anyone doing this over here!?’ I know there were bands in Melbourne doing that kind of stuff, but particularly in Sydney, everyone was either in a psych rock band or an angelic indie band. So we went, ‘Well, let’s just start making the music we’d want to listen to, and play the shows we’d want to see.’”
Spicing up the usual post-punk recipe was Johnny Hunter’s admiration for ’80s new-wave and synthpop. While living with ex-guitarist Ben Wilson (who left the band in 2020), Hutt was introduced to early U2 records – “and I can’t stress enough, early U2 records; back when they would try to make albums that sounded like Joy Division.” Naturally, that rabbit hole led him to an obsession with Joy Division themselves, which in turn led to New Order, and of course David Bowie. Tying it all together with Hutt’s soulful, bassy tenor – which might bring to mind David Byrne and Tim Finn, but is actually inspired by Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison – Johnny Hunter had a winning formula on their hands.
“In Sydney, everyone was either in a psych rock band or an angelic indie band. So we went, ‘Well, let’s just start making the music we’d want to listen to, and play the shows we’d want to see’”
It took a while for them to strike that perfect balance between the grimy and the grandiose. Their debut EP, 2020’s ‘Early Trauma’, leaned more towards punk because that’s what worked best at their early shows. Hutt calls that five-song project their “stepping stone towards an album” – a necessary exercise before they could commit to a full-length. But while taking those songs to bigger rooms and further honing their crafts as songwriters, Johnny Hunter found themselves gravitating towards the melodic, synth-driven elements of their sound.
After all, as Hutt declares, “Pop music makes the world go around.” Citing Lorde as a notable influence, he continues: “I’m always susceptible to writing a pop song. It’s really annoying, because I should just want to write those heavy and edgy songs – and I do try to write them, but I always find myself writing some sort of pop chorus instead, and I end up going, ‘Goddammit! Well, I guess this is going to be a pop song!’”
Johnny Hunter’s debut album, ‘Want’, is packed with those shimmering pop tunes (see the silky ballad ‘Fracture’ or the enormous hooks of ‘Dreams’ and ‘The Floor’). But work on the record began long before work on ‘Early Trauma’ did. Three of its songs – ‘Take Off’, ‘Clover’ and ‘Endless Days’ – precede even their debut single, 2018’s ‘One Of A Kind’. “In our arrogance of youth,” Hutt says, “we were like, ‘These are the best songs ever! We’ve gotta keep them for the album!’” The title ‘Want’ was also locked in early; before they’d even hit the studio, they shot the cover photo – bassist Nick Cerone, mid-smoke, with the word scrawled across his bare chest in blood-red paint – with Triple One member Billy Gunns in his mum’s garage.
“I do try to write those heavy and edgy songs, but I always find myself writing some sort of pop chorus instead, and I end up going, ‘Goddammit!’”
But Johnny Hunter needed the passage of time, and the growth it brought them, for ‘Want’ to truly come to life. When the band formed, they had no grand ambitions, nor serious intentions. “We were all quite immature kids,” Hutt says, “and we were drinking all the time, doing drugs and going out every night… But you realise, when you start trying to make a living, and you’re working a job to try and fulfil this dream and fuel your ambition, that it’s not really all about that.”
It didn’t start out as such, Hutt admits, but somewhere along the line, ‘Want’ became an outlet for Johnny Hunter in “coming to terms with the fact that we needed to grow up”. Even those early songs took new forms when Hutt reflected on them – in hindsight, ‘Endless Days’ is about “how completely naïve I was in my youth”. Hutt sings wistfully about how “divine happiness is hard to come by” and laments his “wasted time”, but it was written in the back of a van en route to a gig in Byron Bay, where the band’s biggest worry was whether they’d be able to track down a kebab joint afterwards.
The shattering of Hutt’s naïveté is chronicled in some of the record’s more recent songs. ‘Cry Like A Man’, for example, committed to memory the first time Hutt came face to face with domestic violence, when he was called in to rescue a friend from their abusive partner.
“I was trying to watch Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and it ruined my night,” he recalls, “but obviously it ruined an entire relationship and countless friendships. The person was just walking around like a macho and totally backing himself, like, ‘What else was I supposed to do?!’ And I was just disgusted. I was like, ‘Man, if you just stopped for five seconds, took a couple of deep breaths and had a little cry about it, this would all be completely fine.’ It was a real turning point for me, where I was like, ‘Oh, this is why the world is the way it is…’”
“We’re empowered to write the songs we do and perform the way we do, because we’re so comfortable in our own skin around each other”
In the actual process of putting ‘Want’ together, Hutt learned a lot about himself. He adopted a unique form of method acting, living in his onstage persona of Johnny Hunter for the entire duration of the production. “I’d wear my suit to the studio and tell everyone, ‘This is work.’ And everyone was like, ‘Yeah man, I know, we’re working.’ And I was like, ‘No, this is work,’” he explains. “It just demonstrated to me that I’m so passionate about this – that [developing this band] is the only real thing I want to work towards… Which is nice to know about myself. It feels like before then, I didn’t really know myself too well.”
It also galvanised Johnny Hunter’s camaraderie, which Hutt describes as a kind of “gross honesty”. He clarifies: “There’s no ego in it. I’m the only real diva in the band, who gets taken down a notch every now and then. But if someone’s being a dickhead, they’re gonna be told that they’re being a dickhead, y’know? I think that really helps in our songwriting [because] we don’t have to worry about hurting any feelings. It empowers us to write the songs we do and perform the way we do, because we’re so comfortable in our own skin around each other.”
Therein lies the spirit of Johnny Hunter. “We want to be the best that we can be for each other,” Hutt says, and ‘Want’ is reflective of that: “It’s a very honest and vulnerable record, and it ignites a serious passion in us as a band. I hope it ignites the same passion in the people who listen to it.”
Johnny Hunter’s ‘Want’ is out now via Cooking Vinyl Australia