Irony and trolling are the bread and butter of 21st century online culture, wielded for comedic, artistic and, sometimes, political gain. This has worked out well for Melbourne punk band Private Function, who have built a reputation on the stuff – as the gleefully cheeky guerrilla marketing strategy for their new album, ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’, has shown.
The promotional campaign raised eyebrows when the band pressed bags of unidentified white powder into a limited edition vinyl record (“These ones sold out in about five minutes and we couldn’t believe the SPEED at which they sold,” the band quipped on social media).
The cover art of ‘Whose Line…’ is also familiar to every kid who went through the Australian primary school system: a five-dollar note folded in a way that makes it looks like a whale giving head.
“I think [bassist] Joe Hansen came up with it as a t-shirt design. And then we decided ‘Wait, that’s a way funnier statement to put on the cover of an album’,” frontman Chris Penney tells NME.
“The speed bag idea was my idea. It was lucky we happen to know Noah, he runs Salty Dog Records and he works at Zenith down the street. So we talked to him and he was like, ‘Yeah, we can do that’.”
NME is speaking to Penney while he walks through Melbourne’s Merri Creek, just after stage three was implemented and as stage four rested on the horizon. Despite there being a general consensus that Lockdown 2.0 is hitting harder than its predecessor, Penney says he remains in good spirits.
“I’ve been writing a bunch of songs, so I think we’re almost a quarter of the way through another album. We’re gonna try and record it by the end of the year, which is great,” he said.
In more concerning news, “I got all my super out. I got $10,000 of it out and started playing poker with it and I’m up two grand!”
Penney wouldn’t have it any other way, though: it was better to rush it, he says, than be forced to put the album on hold for who knows how long. Besides, mistakes give it character, and Penney says it’s their best album so far.
“I’m so stoked with the timing,” he says. “I’d be going absolutely stir crazy if I didn’t have all this stuff to work on in lockdown. It was pretty simple, bloody professional, do it all in one take and then get out of there.”
‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ offers a far more melodic listen than its predecessor ‘St Anger’, dialling down what may be seen as traditional pub punk for a more accessible sound, as heard on singles like ‘Albury Wodonga’. Nevertheless, it still maintains the energy crucial for a good Aussie punk record. According to Penney, a lot of the new musical direction was thanks to drummer Aiden McDonald’s creative hand.
“He’s a bit of a musical mastermind, like Brian Wilson. He’s the one that pushed a lot of different melodies, a lot of four-part harmonies,” he says.
Other notable moments on the album include the 36-second finisher ‘Grabbing My Butt’, ‘Evie (Part 4)’, featuring Dicklord’s Jade Louise – a “Meatloaf-inspired” number, Penney says – and a cover of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’.
The band made the impromptu decision to cover Kravitz after hearing the track on Triple M. “Lenny Kravitz came on and we realised this song rocks way more than it should,” Penney explains. “It’s a great rock song but I think the time it came out  makes it cheesy and weird. But if it came out in the ’70s, it stands the test of time.”
They may have covered Kravitz, but don’t expect Private Function to go all in on a rock ’n’ roll career. Rather, ‘Whose Line…’’s more accessible sound is just one bigger step towards the band’s pipe dream: pivoting to soft rock.
“We wanna release a yacht rock album,” Penney says, giggling after every fifth word, “where we hire a houseboat or a yacht for a week, and record a yacht rock album on the yacht.”
A piss-take, considering their track record? Maybe, but Penney thinks they’d give it an earnest go. He doesn’t see the band reaching superstardom – “We’re not the best punk band” are his words, not mine – but what kind of punk band yearns for the limelight, anyway?
“We wanna release a yacht rock album where we hire a houseboat or a yacht for a week, and record a yacht rock album on the yacht”
Private Function had to cut their run of shows short as states and territories began restricting movement around the country. Footage from past gigs show Penney racing around the stage with a microphone and flinging himself into a frenetic crowd. It’s going to be a while before anyone is able to do that again, or before that kind of energy will be seen at any venue.
Livestreams won’t cut it either. Private Function have done a few online performances, and they’ve tried to up the ante: For Isol-Aid, they got creative with a green screen, and for a baked session, bassist Joe Hansen played a Guitar Hero guitar which had been rejigged to play the right notes.
But on the whole, Penney isn’t thrilled about the current digital alternative to gigs, which are removed from “the reality of the venue”, as he puts it. “I genuinely don’t believe anyone cares. I don’t think when a page puts up a livestream, the fans of the page care,” he says. “Unless the concept behind the stream is different, I personally am not interested.”
There’s an underlying nihilism in Penney’s approach to making music, which certainly translates to the band’s meme-loving online persona. It stems in part from Penney’s belief that every song that could ever be written has been written. Furthermore, every song that’s been written well couldn’t be written better by Private Function.
“I think of us – how can I say this without sounding like a wanker? – like an art collective before a band”
What’s there left to do? Focus on crafting the original idea behind the song.
“I think of us – how can I say this without sounding like a wanker? – like an art collective before a band,” Penney said.
“If you can start digging the well of ideas which doesn’t end, you can come up with anything, go on forever. But every song is already written, especially in rock ’n’ roll. Music is absolutely the last thing we think about in the band.”
There’s a case to be made that forging ideas is where a good punk band should focus their efforts. When gigs are a distant memory, when strong anti-establishment sentiment ripples across the world, all you can do as an artist is to keep making art without distracting from the real issues at hand. At their core, this is what Penney says Private Function set out to do. Combine that with an affinity for taking the piss, and you’ve got yourself a foolproof method for turning heads.
Private Function’s ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ is out now