Melbourne’s most captivating cult: Pagan are red, wild and free

Pagan have stormed into Australia’s heavy scene without a care in the world. The Melbourne outfit are innately free-spirited and confident, stamping and snarling to their own blackened disco beat and commanding devotees at every turn.

For every unplanned move though, Pagan – Nikki, Xavier, Matthew and Danny – have offered up something equally intentional throughout the process of promoting their 2018 debut album, ‘Black Wash’.

The synchronised four-piece have carved out an unmistakable image inspired by cult iconography and a love of black, red and disco. It’s this trio of tastes which seeps through in their artwork and live shows, with each performance soaked in red wine and glitteringly blooded hues.

While Pagan, as people, may not subscribe to any of the deeply religious beliefs otherwise associated with their namesake, they are beginning to stand for something just as powerful.

“We definitely did that intentionally,” Nikki tells us ahead of their red-themed ‘Holy Communion II’ in Melbourne. “When we started the band, we definitely went in with an idea of having a logo and having a strong theme across all of the artwork and merch, creating that cult imagery idea.”

Arguably, it’s Nikki’s confidence that radiates brightest when Pagan play live. A feeling the vocalist evokes naturally with a long background in DIY punk music and training as a stage actor at Melbourne’s esteemed National Theatre.

“Since the beginning, I’ve definitely marched to the beat of my own drum,” she reflects. “I’ve never really wanted to fit in anywhere because I’m very comfortable in my own skin, but the band really does reinforce that.”

“I always knew I wanted to be a performer. Being in my early 20s, I always knew I was going to be in a band. I was in a band before Pagan; a very DIY punk and riot grrrl-sounding band. From that and the acting training, I definitely developed the confidence to stand on stage and not be shy or get nervous.”

Nikki recalls a poignant moment watching Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Karen O perform when she was 15. “I’d never seen anything like it. She was wearing an outfit she’d made, she was wearing a ring pull from a can as a necklace and had a teddy bear or something on stage. I remember because I was younger, watching her and wanting to be like that one day. Not like her, but that expires me to get up there and be me. She’s my number one inspiration in music.”

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Nikki bursts with pride when we approach the topic of Pagan’s live shows, “I’m in a space where I can move how I want and no one’s going to judge me, and I think that’s really important.

“When I perform, I don’t care about the way I’m moving because I’m just moving the way I would genuinely move to music. I like that how [our] crowd [moves] is a reflection of that and that they feel they are in a safe space to do what they want to do and be themselves.”

This hip-shaking attitude has helped Pagan put aside any egos and focus on the positive aspects of being in a band, “You develop a friendship that isn’t like anything else, you go through all these really special experiences together. You go through all the highs and lows, but it binds you together.”

“We’ve always been very comfortable around each other, but throughout the years we have all found our voice in the band.

“I’m more confident on stage and I think that’s a natural progression as well. I think that really came through finding Pagan’s sound. Throughout the years of playing together live and recording, I think as a result we’ve all become a lot more confident as musicians and therefore [as] performers on stage.”

There’s no avoiding the European appeal that outlines Pagan’s sound, and the band’s immediate success overseas suggests their Australian brand of hardened rock and roll could become a permanent fixture in Europe and the UK.

Nikki agrees, “The first time we went to Europe, I couldn’t believe it. There were so many people rocking up to our shows and they knew the album back to front. They wanted to buy all the merch and get photos; it was so overwhelming. I do think our sound really does fit the Euro and UK audiences a lot.”

Our all-red shoot with Pagan flows just as fast and as effortlessly as their live shows. It’s Matt (drums) who takes the ritual’s reigns on set – his confidence as sharp as his collared shirt – while each member maintains an air of individuality.

For Nikki (vocals), her flamboyant faux fur and jewelled fists are thrown into the spotlight. She’s first to take the plunge in front of the camera and chooses statement pieces that speak for themselves.

As Pagan’s only smoker, Danny (bass) assumes his position with a lighter in one hand and a subtle sense of mischief in the other.

Xavier (guitar) is perhaps the most unassuming member during the time we spend together, but his accessories (a polka dot phone case with a dog’s photo on it – not actually his dog) confirm he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

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There’s no doubting that Pagan are likeable characters but enabling yourself to stand out in a crowded scene isn’t achieved without turbulence.

“For me personally, because I have the confidence and self-belief in what I do, it drives me to keep going forward even if people are patronising,” Nikki says, as our conversation turns to Pagan’s experience of the music industry to date. “It makes me want to work harder because I know I should be up there [on stage].

“I actually know that I can perform and scream a hell of a lot better than a lot of people. I think having that attitude is important because it gets rid of the fear and not get upset if it’s not received well. I know I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and I put in a lot of work to do it.

“And as a band, we’ve got a very good collective attitude. None of us are competitive with other bands, we’re really supportive and we’ve built really amazing relationships with other bands who I think are all genuinely nice people.

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“It really does help us navigate the music industry and get through it, because it can be really competitive and awful, like with any art form.

I don’t think that attitude helps anything, when people are competitive. You’re comparing yourself to your friends who are also in a hardcore band from Melbourne, that’s going to hinder your creativity and make it a lot harder.”

Pagan’s focus now sees them plotting album two, with Nikki confirming work on the new record is already underway, “[The goal] is definitely to write a second album, which is something we have been working on, and just to continue to grow.”

Pagan are currently touring Australia as part of The Evil Eye Tour, before heading over to Europe and the UK throughout May. Pagan hit the road again in September, joining The Amity Affliction on tour across Australia.

All photos by Jay Wennington

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