“Birds of a feather flock together” is so much more than just an old adage for Royel Otis – it’s become representative of their entire existence as a band. When Royel Maddell and Otis Pavlovic first started making music together, they entered the studio as a pair of relative strangers solely bonded by the most unlikely of influences: a shared love of the Alessi Brothers’ 1976 yacht rock anthem ‘Seabird’. Niche would be putting it lightly.
Maddell and Pavlovic’s favourite song, though, initially represented everything they wanted their own music to sound like. As they began exchanging ideas for a potential project, their earliest recording sessions saw them laying down Alessi-like super smooth guitar lines and doo-wop harmonies, albeit with an even greater intensity. But their resulting EPs – 2021’s ‘Campus’, follow-up ‘Bar & Grill’ and the forthcoming ‘Sofa Kings’ (due March 31) – have focused less on rearranging elements of the past, instead offering catchy-as-fuck singles with a revved-up BPM count. The Sydney-based musicians have since continued to follow their inspiration in the moment, rather than relying on the one they mined back when they first started.
Royel Otis are now at an important and potentially transformative junction in their journey as a band. When we meet in a north London café, the pair are winding down from a six-week stint of touring and recording across the UK and Europe. It’s a trip that has seen them “speed-dating” producers, hitting the studio with Speedy Wunderground boss Dan Carey – who has worked with Fontaines D.C. and Wet Leg – and James Ford, Arctic Monkeys’ longtime right-hand man. “Many of my favourite Australian acts have never gone further than playing in Sydney, which is quite sad,” Maddell tells NME. “So to be able to work together in the UK has been a real dream.”
Four years ago, on the eve of a gap year trip that would see Pavlovic travel across the UK, Croatia and France, he emailed some rough demos to Maddell, who he had briefly spoken to at gigs and bars across the Byron Bay region. When Maddell, who had spent a couple of years in New York making music before returning to Australia, started to work with Pavlovic’s material in private, he soon realised this was the collaboration he’d been chasing his whole life: clean and warm songs bursting with an easy confidence. Once Pavlovic returned from his travels six months later, it was game time.
“We’ve been trying to create an environment where we give each other space to fuck up and learn from it,” Maddell says. “Every time we get in a studio, we like to throw out all of our wild ideas. It can be kind of…” He pauses before Pavlovic, the quieter of the two, picks up Maddell’s train of thought: “Vulnerable,” he says. “But we’re having fun. You’ve just got to agree to back each other.”
Pavlovic continues: “We’re making sure that we’re not overthinking stuff, which is a feeling that becomes infectious when we work with people. Some music can be so serious, or deep and meaningful, but with us, everyone is invited to the party.”
Maddell and Pavlovic’s breakthrough moment has come at a time where there’s a real appetite for guitar-driven indie-pop, which will be reflected across US festival line-ups in the summer. California’s Just Like Heaven features leading early 2010s-era artists including MGMT and Empire Of The Sun, while Grouplove are making their live comeback at Georgia’s Shaky Knees festival in May. A recent viral tweet, which was even shared by R&B superstar SZA, summarises this collective mood: “MGMT, Lykke Li, The Ting Tings, Passion Pit, M.I.A., Santigold… sigh. Everything felt so vibrant during those years.”
With its peppy and efficient melody, Royel Otis’ breakout hit ‘Oysters In My Pocket’ could have easily come from any of the genre’s forebears. But for Maddell, who grew up playing in local punk bands, the band’s stylistic choices have become a talking point among his peers back home. “We love pop music, but some mates of mine who have been in bands have been like, ‘Oh, you’ve sold out now?’”, he says, pausing to tend to his Guinness. “But I’m like, ‘Well, did I? I love pop – like the stuff we’re making, plus Kylie Minogue – and I know you do too, so relax a bit’.”
Maddell takes another swig of his pint. “You know that Slowthai and Mura Musa song [‘Deal Wiv It’]?”, he asks NME. “What I take from that track is that [Slowthai’s] proud that he’s changed.” He quotes the lyrics of the track’s chorus (“They say, ‘You’ve changed’ / Fucking deal with it”) before adding: “And he’s right! Fucking deal with it!” He wraps up his point with a defiant nod.
With a 20-hour journey back to their homeland ahead of them after our interview, the band order in another round of drinks. The calming acoustic music playing in the café begins to work its magic, as Maddell starts to reflect on the band’s ambitions. “We’ve made sure that we’ve got no back-up plan beyond making music,” he says. “I trust Otis on such a deep level. With him, everything is so easy.”
There’s a brightness to Royel Otis’ future that perhaps wasn’t so obvious before. Led by beachy single ‘I Wanna Dance With You’, the release of ‘Sofa Kings’ will precede a string of Australian arena tour dates with Alt-J. The band will also return to the UK later in the spring to begin work on their debut album.
But for these two best friends, simply maintaining their devil-may-care attitude when it comes to making music is all that matters. “Whatever happens, will happen,” says Pavlovic. “We’re in it together now.”
Royel Otis’ new EP ‘Sofa Kings’ will be released on March 31