For nearly a decade, Joji Malani was known as the guitarist of Gang of Youths – the childhood friend of frontman Dave Le’aupepe and one of the musicians in one of Australia’s most earnest, exciting indie rock bands.
In 2019, after they’d released their multi-award-winning second album ‘Go Farther In Lightness’ and toured with the Foo Fighters, the band announced that Malani was leaving; a year after that, he shed some light on his decision, telling triple j: “It felt like I was going up there and going through the motions. I’m like, ‘I do have big ambition, but it’s not within this.’”
Malani’s ambitions have led to jobs producing for the likes of Charlie Collins, his own label Broth Records – and his recent solo career as Pei. “I tried to approach things musically like a child,” he tells NME. “I’ve been so defined in a certain setting for a number of years and so it was just like, I just want to approach it like I’ve never done music before.”
This October, he’ll release the project’s debut album ‘Pei’s Pageant’, an optimistic creation by an artist looking for total creative freedom while also pursuing his own musical interests.
“I kind of wanted to just make whatever I wanted,” he says. “I guess when you’ve been a part of something… you got to consider the minds and the tastes of other people. It’s kind of this void that was always there with me, where I couldn’t fully indulge in certain styles or… go down certain musical avenues. And so that’s essentially what ‘Pei’s Pageant’ is.”
Today, Malani continues the ‘Pei’s Pageant’ rollout by sharing ‘Count to 10’, a smooth, soulful indie track which is more whimsical than Pei’s first two singles, ‘Themesong’ and ‘Honest’.
But it was “an extremely reluctant song”, Malani admits, that his producer and Middle Kids member Tim Fitz “basically forced me to write” after listening to the album and feeling like something was missing.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, you’re into all this certain kind of music, which I feel like, the rest of the album doesn’t touch on’.” At Fitz’s encouragement, Malani pieced the song together. “It wasn’t until I put down lyrics to it and sung that I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually a vibe’.”
“I think people’s understanding of Pacific Islander culture and Pasifika culture is like The Rock and Moana, which is awesome… but it’s all through the lens of America”
Malani is grateful that Fitz pushed him to write it and acknowledges that Fitz saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself. The two have known each other since primary school. Fitz had grown up with his missionary parents in the highlands of Papua New Guinea “and the start of his music education was all like rural PNG,” Malani says, which helps explain why they have always clicked musically – had this “unspoken understanding”.
“We kind of drifted in and out of each other’s lives, during school and after school. But whenever we’d reconnect over music, we’d always be so surprised that we would arrive at similar places – like being into the same kind of music or the same kind of effects, but without having ever influenced each other. I really think that his upbringing and my own upbringing, having spent the first part of my life in Fiji, really informs that.”
The title ‘Pei’s Pageant’ reflects Malani’s experiences with fairs and pageants in Fiji, as well as “the whole Brian Setzer thing of presenting this music as a big band” – evident from the record’s influences of Motown and George Benson’s string arrangements.
“I’ve only ever played live once, and my band was huge. So that’s the whole idea of the pageant. I like the alliteration, and I also liked that it’s a little bit culty. Because I’m also alluding to – not the whole experience – but parts of my religious upbringing.”
The cover of ‘Pei’s Pageant’ features a young Fijian woman who sits side-on to the camera. Fijian dollar notes (which also feature on the single art of ‘Themesong’ and ‘Honest’) are stuck to her and her dress. What’s less immediately obvious is how she’s dressed in tapa – a cloth made from tree bark softened through a process of soaking and beating, with designs applied using vegetable dye. Her body is oiled, which is also a nod to a Fijian custom called fakawela, Malani says, “usually the Aunties” put money on the bodies of men and women in appreciation of their dance performances.
“The thing with culture is it’s so much bigger than you and your story… you don’t get to speak on behalf of everyone”
“It’s a beautiful part of our culture and not a lot of people know about it,” Malani adds. “I think people’s understanding of Pacific Islander culture and Pasifika culture is like The Rock and Moana, which is awesome… but it’s all through the lens of America.”
The experiences of running a label and marketing music have given Malani plenty of food for thought when it comes to embodying your culture and heritage in the art you make. “I think when you’re an artist, you can get really caught up in your own truth… but the thing with culture is it’s so much bigger than you and your story. It’s about your family, your ancestors, and a whole conglomerate of people – you don’t get to speak on behalf of everyone. You have a duty of care to do your research and to represent.”
COVID-19 lockdowns prevented Malani from going back to Fiji while he was making ‘Pei’s Pageant’. “I couldn’t cross examine things with members of the Fijian community that I wanted to represent. I just felt really weird if I was going to come out and say ‘here I am referencing traditional Fijian music’ or whatever if I haven’t done the work, you know.
“In future work, I think I’m going to explore more – touching on or alluding to traditional Fjian music. But with this project, I was very intentional about… being way more subtle, because I’m of the belief that I’m a Fijian person, so whatever I make is inherently Fijian music.”
Malani is aware listeners of ‘Pei’s Pageant’ will bring their own understanding to the music he’s given them, but he hopes it also gets them thinking.
“You can’t control how people digest, interpret your stuff,” he adds. “This album is kind of personal but not revealing – that’s the kind of person that I am. I would hope that I provoke people to think about representation and how it’s not just about representation, but it’s also about how you represent and do the work… I think if you understand the context of everything I’ve done, that’s what makes it way more interesting.”
’Pei’s Pageant’ is out October 10 via Broth Records. The new Pei single ‘Count to 10’ is out now