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Australia’s next breakout indie heroes

February 19th, 2024

If Triple J asked you to do Like A Version, what song would you cover? It’s a question that finds its way into conversation at least once in every Australian teen’s hangouts, confirmed to NME on good authority by Royel Maddell and Otis Pavlovic, the duo that make up Royel Otis. In January 2024, that scenario came to the band – who operate somewhere between indie, pop and psychedelic rock – when they had their shot at the radio station’s coveted weekly cover slot.

Royel Otis on The Cover of NME. Credit: Danny Draxx for NME

Their answer? The song of the moment: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’, which is enjoying a second wind thanks to its masterful inclusion in 2023’s Barry Keoghan-starring Saltburn, soundtracking the film’s jaw-dropping, NSFW climax. With flamboyant synths and Pavlovic’s compelling vocal delivery, their playful take on the track took off on social media, dominating TikTok feeds and even catching the eye of Ellis-Bextor herself. Since being added to streaming services, it’s already gained a whopping 7million plays on Spotify, surpassing the majority of the band’s releases to date.

“‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ definitely wasn’t on my mind,” says Pavlovic with a wry smile, reflecting on Julia Jacklin’s 2015 cover of The Strokes’ ‘Someday’ as his favourite Like A Version growing up. Pieced together one hour during rehearsals the day before, the duo explain how the track felt “more off the cuff” than any of the other contenders on the list, which were all in the realms of “2000s disco and dance”, according to Maddell. The decision proved to be a stroke of genius.

Royel Maddell of Royel Otis (2024), photo by Danny Draxx
Royel Maddell of Royel Otis. Credit: Danny Draxx for NME

Whether it be the DMA’S reimagination of Cher’s ‘Believe’ or Denzel Curry’s monstrous take on Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Bulls On Parade’, history has shown how Like A Version can move mountains for an emerging artist. A month down the line, YouTube view counts continue to skyrocket for Royel Otis, having already surpassed 2million; their TikTok now boasts over 10million views. And the timing could not be sweeter, as their debut album ‘Pratts & Pain’ is finally unveiled to the world.

Following three EPs and packed out festival appearances at Reading & Leeds, End Of The Road and Australia’s Splendour In The Grass, things are moving at a brisk pace for the duo, who met as childhood friends in Sydney. Speaking to NME over an extremely early morning Zoom call from Syracuse, New York, the band have sacrificed a chunk of their Australian summer for a brief run of US press duties. “It’s crazy how every state has a completely different vibe,” says Maddell of their first stateside visit. “I liked it in LA. It’s spread out, it’s got that Sydney vibe to it,” Pavlovic continues. “But New York? It’s nothing but skyscrapers.”

Though this might be their first taste of the US, it’s London that has become an adopted second home for the band, who recorded ‘Pratts & Pain’ with super-producer Dan Carey over the course of three weeks in his Streatham studio. After “speed-dating” various A-list producers that included Hot Chip, James Ford [Arctic Monkeys] and Rich Turvey [Courteeners, Blossoms] it was a deliberate choice from the band to enlist Carey. Despite predominantly working with British and Irish artists (including Fontaines D.C., Wet Leg and Squid), Royel Otis are not the first Australians he’s encountered.

Otis Pavlovic of Royel Otis (2024), photo by Danny Draxx
Otis Pavlovic of Royel Otis. Credit: Danny Draxx for NME

“For starters, he wrote ‘Slow’ by Kylie Minogue,” exclaims Maddell of the 2003 single that reached Number One in the UK and Australia. “That, to me, is fucking incredible. But Fontaines and Wet Leg – Australians really love both those bands.” Carey’s magic touch adds a murkier element to ‘Pratts & Pain’, departing ever so slightly from their sun-kissed early sound that was produced primarily by “Triple J sweetheart” Chris Collins, as Maddell explains. “With Chris, everything sounds sunny and beachy, especially because of where he lives in Byron Bay. Whereas with Dan, you feel like you can hear the south London part of it.”

The album’s penultimate track ‘Always Always’ is perhaps the clearest example of this, conveying feelings of longing over its melancholic chord progression. Unsettling noise-rock creeps into ‘Sonic Blue’, juxtaposed against the upbeat grooves of ‘Adored’ and the gang vocal crash course that is ‘Velvet’. It’s barely a surprise that lyrics like ‘Fried Rice’’s “Make me a mop to clean up the scene /The pump is gonna work with the bang gang team” were often written at the nearby pub from which the album takes its name, The Pratts and Payne.

“Sadly it’s closed down now, which is heartbreaking,” says Maddell. “Pretty much after every session, we would go there and do a lot of lyric writing… between games of Trivial Pursuit!” Whilst the band’s creative process took place in this Streatham microcosm, Pavlovic explains how they spent plenty of evenings further afield in the capital, with a mixture of their own friends and Carey’s. “We were staying in Hackney for quite a bit, and we spent a lot of time at The Toucan in Soho. There’s good Guinness at The Toucan…”

“Tame Impala are amazing… but we don’t want to be compared to them!” – Royel Maddell

The uber-intensive approach is well and truly the way of working for Royel Otis, who are done with any virtual writing process that involves back-and-forth online calls. “We used to live 20 minutes away from each other, so it’s changed a little bit,”, says Pavlovic. “I don’t think it was until [2022 EP] ‘Bar & Grill’ that we found our sound… trading ideas and mashing them together,” adds Maddell. “Now we wait till we get in the studio. When something’s sent to you digitally, you forget about it.”

Nevertheless, Carey’s “intimidating” home studio was a step up from anything Royel Otis had come across before, mediated by his ever-present dog, Poppy. Struck by the Doctor Who-esque wall of synths and blinking lights that overlooked the studio, Maddell and Pavlovic watched in awe as Carey worked his magic on their album, like something of a “mad scientist.” The special chemistry that they unlocked through pub trips realised its full potential through the studio experience, initial overwhelm turning to fluid songwriting as ‘Pratts & Pain’ came to life.

Royel Otis (2024), photo by Danny Draxx
Credit: Danny Draxx for NME

Speaking to NME in early 2023, the band expressed that their Australian contemporaries had struggled to break out of greater Sydney’s guitar music scene, which Maddell and Pavlovic were privy to, hanging out at gigs and bars all over Byron Bay. It was Maddell’s retreat to New York and Pavlovic’s travels around Europe that catalysed their first musical interactions. Taking a step back, it appears, was the key to unlocking the magic they would then create in Sydney, first gaining notoriety through their early EPs.

Recalling the likes of MGMT and Passion Pit through early singles ‘Only One’ and ‘Without U’, it was their 2022 single ‘Oysters In My Pocket’ that first exposed Royel Otis to a global audience. Taking the pace up just a notch, the vigour of this sound perhaps ignited the rawness of ‘Pratts & Pain’. Coupled with the soaring synths and nostalgia of their early material, they’ve been able to find a place as both indie-pop darlings and cutting-edge rockers, not too distant from the likes of Wallows and Foals.

“Genesis Owusu is a real gentleman. He’s really championed us from the start” – Otis Pavlovic

“We kind of skipped Sydney… our first tour was over in London,” recalls Pavlovic, explaining how the mere prospect of seeing the world was a no-brainer. “In the UK and Europe, you guys have such a nice passion for going to see live music,” says Maddell. “A lot of people – of all ages – don’t even know our band, and they turn up to the show. Whereas in Australia, that doesn’t really happen. In Sydney, you’ve got to know the band before you see them.”

While Tame Impala have reached seismic heights in their native Australia – with bands like Spacey Jane and The Jungle Giants not far behind – Royel Otis have done things their own way, as they prepare for a sold out tour down under, including three nights at Melbourne’s Cornel Hotel and two at Sydney’s Liberty Hall. “There’s probably an Australian indie sound. I feel like we’re not completely in it,” Pavlovic says nonchalantly, while Maddell describes the challenge for any new Australian band in 2024: “Even though they are amazing… all we want to do is try to not be compared to Tame Impala!”

Royel Otis (2024), photo by Danny Draxx
Credit: Danny Draxx for NME

Forging out his own path to a similar degree of success is former NME Cover star Genesis Owusu, who joins Royel Otis as the only other artist signed to Sydney-based label Ourness. “He’s a real gentleman,” Pavlovic says, a sentiment echoed by Maddell. “Even before we released stuff, we had lunch with him and he’s really championed us from the start. Getting in the studio with him as well, that’s been talked about a lot… I think our schedules clash too much!”

As the ‘Pratts & Pain’ era begins, this jam-packed schedule will only get busier for Royel Otis, who will return to UK festival stages this summer following a headline tour of North America. While Pavlovic turns to video games to zone out, Maddell is a sucker for a film on the long plane journeys which are becoming all the more regular with touring life. He recalls the unexpectedly emotional experience of the Mark Rylance-starring comedy golf caper The Phantom of the Open, which sent him into tears five times.

Whilst Maddell is most certainly the film nerd of the two, the pair have both watched Saltburn, with Pavlovic praising how “beautifully” it was shot. In time, their ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ cover will surely come to be merely one flicker of success in a long and illustrious career, as ‘Pratts & Pain’ confirms their status as a key voice capable of propelling guitar music into the future.

‘Pratts & Pain’ is out now on Ourness

Listen to Royel Otis’ exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Words: Rishi Shah
Photography: Danny Draxx
Label: Ourness

This content was originally sourced and posted at NME »
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