The mission is obvious: Don’t overthink it. That’s evident in the urgent garage-pop perfection on Phantastic Ferniture’s self-titled debut album, and in the unconventional path the band has taken to releasing it. Phantastic Ferniture is the project of old friends Julia Jacklin, Elizabeth Hughes, Ryan K Brennan and Tom Stephens, who wanted to shake the shackles of their meticulously crafted solo work to experience a second, giddy adolescence.
“I’d gone straight into folk music,” says Jacklin, “so every experience I’d had on stage was playing sad music with a guitar in my hand. I thought, I would love to know what it’s like to make people feel good and dance.”
Phantastic Ferniture’s spiritual home may be the garage but they were born in a bar, specifically the hallowed basement of Frankie’s – a beloved pinball and pizza shop in Sydney. One late night in 2014, on Jacklin’s birthday, a group hug manifested amid the pinball machines, with all ten participants vowing to form a band. “Only four of us remembered the next day,” notes Hughes.
So that there could be no backing down, these four grifters booked a gig four months in the future at the Record Crate in Glebe. They advertised it as ‘Phantastic Ferniture’s Christmas Extravaganza First and Final Gig’, then got back on with their lives. “We thought, that’s ages away, we’ll definitely have songs by then,” Hughes recalls.
On the night of the show, she and original bassist Tom Capell (later replaced by Stephens) were learning songs in the parking lot. “We realised in soundcheck that we were playing the same songs but in different keys,” Hughes says. An hour later they were on stage before a bemused crowd, playing ‘Take it Off’, ‘Fuckin ‘n’ Rollin’ (twice) and ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ by Mariah Carey. It was glorious and from the guts; in other words, everything they’d hoped for.
United by fern puns and a love of leisurewear, the band met up whenever schedules would allow, writing songs and playing smatterings of dates to an increasingly devoted audience. Eventually it was decreed that this was no side project and an album should follow. Whenever the band members could get into the same room, Brennan took the producer’s role (as well as the drummer’s seat): at Sydney’s Studios 301, Defwolf and One Flight Up, with additional vocals tracked at The Sitting Room in New Zealand.
The brief? More spontaneous and less technical than their solo projects. “That was the fun part,” says Jacklin. “Ryan never played drums in bands, Liz had never been a lead guitarist, Tom didn’t play bass and I’d never just sung before’. Liz adds, ‘We wanted a low level of expertise, because a lot of good music comes from people whose passion exceeds their skill”. True enough, but Jacklin’s vengeful vocal work in the climb to each chorus of ‘Bad Timing’ (with reproachful backing vocals from Hughes) has a sophistication that eludes most singers.
Jacklin also felt relief at not having to imbue deep meaning into the lyrics, so that tracks like the psych-pop ‘I Need It’ and blissed-out ‘Take it Off’ operate from a more primal level. “My first instinct was to go simple and sexy, like a lot of good pop music,” she says. Hughes agrees: “It’s ‘walking down the street, walking into a nightclub, feeling confident’ type stuff”
Then there’s ‘Mumma y Papa’ and ‘Dark Corner Dance Floor’, exuberantly youthful and brimming with newfound dark power. Only a few are precisely autobiographical, such as ‘Uncomfortable Teenager’, which draws on the adolescence of Jacklin and Hughes in the Blue Mountains (although they didn’t properly meet until they were both backpacking in Peru), where they pined for the big city action of Sydney.
These days, Phantastic Ferniture are resolutely a Sydney band. Hughes and Jacklin first lived together in Glebe in a large share house / rehearsal space that was home to a revolving cast of musicians, and are now housemates again years later, in Annandale. They got their start playing at open mic nights at the Excelsior and at bars such as Sam I Am in Glebe (if you didn’t catch them back then, well, they’re grateful), and the video to ‘Fuckin ‘n’ Rollin’ was filmed around Glebe’s Blackwattle Bay. In fact, they’re on something of a crusade to prove that Sydney isn’t just home to the ibis and the lockout laws. If anything, the city’s like a game of Whac-a-Mole: every time it takes a beating it bounces back.
“Sydney is integral to our existence,” says Hughes, namechecking Cobra Club at Waywards, the Lansdowne, Oxford Arts Factory and the Botany View as band favourites. “The music scene is more present than people give it credit for. You just need to participate and rock up.”
That Christmas Extravaganza is now an annual occurrence in Sydney, and there’ll be a smattering of shows around the album’s release on the band’s own Make Out Records (it’s also out via Polyvinyl Records, Universal Canada, and Transgressive Records internationally). With Stephens currently focusing on his solo project Tesse, the lineup of Phantastic Ferniture could best be described as ‘transient’, but nonetheless, Jacklin and Hughes find it far too liberating to be relegated to the sidelines.
“This band is unlike anything else we’ve ever done so there’s no rules. It feels like we just have to let go and let it take us where it wants to go” says Hughes.
“It feels really good,” Jacklin says with satisfaction. “It’s like having an alter ego.”