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FANGZ: Punk-Rock Protectors of Sydney’s Live Music Scene 


Like a drummer who single-handedly loads in his kit as his band’s lazy lead singer watches on, live music in Sydney has been underappreciated for too long. Where once there was a thriving network of venues and promoters providing a platform for musicians to hone their craft and hatch plans for world domination, decades of shifting trends and poor government policies have slowly undercut such ventures. This has left the players and punters that make up Sydney’s live music community at risk of feeling displaced.

One after another, venues like The Excelsior in Surry Hills, Enmore’s HiWay, and the CBD’s Frankie’s Pizza have bowed out, either opting to provide other forms of entertainment or closing down entirely. While those that remain—often due to a sheer bloody-minded refusal to let local live music die—can find themselves teetering on a knife’s edge of viability.

A few fateful developments have helped lead us to this point. The legislation that invited poker machines into NSW pubs in 1997 was arguably the first body blow to live music in Sydney. It saw many a venue replace its performance space with an odious, neon-tinged room lined with pokies designed to pick pensioners’ pockets. 

Another devastating hit came in 2014, when the city’s overzealous, short-sighted, and questionably motivated lockout laws made things considerably worse, delivering a palpable cooling effect on nightlife of all varieties across Sydney, including live music. And despite the last remnants of these draconian measures ending back in 2021, Sydney’s reputation as a city that can reliably host a memorable night out has years of rehabilitation left to go. 

Most recently, COVID-19 and its aftermath delivered the knockout for many small and mid-sized live music venues. Nationwide, more than 1,300 have been lost since the start of the pandemic, with many of these casualties taking place in Sydney. This number accounts for one-third of the entire sector, which would be a devastating figure for any industry.

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A Chance Meeting

Despite the dire picture all of this paints, there are those who remain admirably defiant in the face of such statistics. FANGZ are a punk-rock powerhouse that embody this defiance proudly, working just as hard to advocate for live music’s cause off the stage as their performances do on it. Steadfast in their refusal to let go of the notion that local bands should be giving it their all in sweaty, packed-to-the-rafters venues across the city, Jameel (bass), Woodie (drums), Sam (guitar), and Josh (vocals) work tirelessly to reinvent and revitalise Sydney’s live music offering in their own grassroots way.

The FANGZ boys are uniquely familiar with the concept of reinvention, having had to undergo the process themselves in order to reach their current form. After years of playing ‘70s-inspired rock within their first incarnation, The Lockhearts, an ill-fated European tour saw the band call it a day in 2018. For Jameel, Woodie, and Sam it looked like their gigging days might be behind them, but a chance meeting with the Canadian punk band Cancer Bats inspired them to try something new.

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“We were sitting at the airport returning the van we’d hired, which we’d also crashed, so it looked like shit,” laughs Jameel. “And there was another van that pulled up next to us. It was the nicest version of our van you’ve seen, with gaming consoles and everything. These Canadians jumped out, saying, ‘Hey dudes, why do you all look so sad? You’re on tour in London!’

“And we were like, yeah, we think our band just broke up. We’re all sad and everyone’s coming down, and old mate’s like, ‘Dude, just start a new band!’” 

So they did. Given that the ‘old mate’ in question happened to be Cancer Bats’ lead vocalist Liam Cormier, it should come as no surprise that his advice turned out to be sound.

Throughout the process that followed, they jettisoned one frontman, recruited another (Josh), and started playing the music they probably should have been making all along. As Woodie succinctly puts it, “It’s punk rock. Much faster. And we’re all much happier.”

Live Shows & Lingerie

Right from the start, FANGZ were determined to make an impact, with the plan to introduce themselves to the world via a four-week residency at Enmore’s Hideaway Bar (sadly, another venue that’s since succumbed to Sydney’s war against live music). Throughout the residency, there was a line of people down Enmore Road every night the band played, which Jameel explains was the thinking all along: “The idea was to take over a small venue and make it seem like somewhere you wanna be. But you have to get there early.”

Before the first night of said residency, however, FANGZ made a secret appearance at the Bull & Bush, a venue located in Greater Sydney’s north-west. This was an opportunity to test the waters before their first real shows, as they’d never played with their new frontman. It’s just as well they did, because it introduced the rest of the band to Josh’s fearlessness on stage. Or rather, off it.

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“We played on a Thursday night. It was lingerie waitresses, us playing, and no one else there,” chuckles Jameel.

“It was a real learning experience because none of us had played on stage with Josh before, and Josh didn’t play on stage. He just walked around the venue singing the whole night.” 

As it turned out, this was an approach that would work to even greater effect once the band were playing to rooms crammed with people singing along to Josh’s every word.

Fast forward to 2020 and FANGZ had established a consistent schedule of EP and single releases (with every track appearing on vinyl, they proudly note), receiving enthusiastic support from Triple J, and playing more gigs than you can shake a cobra at. The band had developed an impressive sense of momentum that showed no signs of slowing. Then out of nowhere, everything screeched to a halt…

Cue Pandemic 

“Oh yeah, that was the best. When COVID came,” Jameel jokes with more than a hint of resignation. “Our new EP, Drifter, had just come out and we had a tour about to start. The first show was in Brisbane with Shihad. It was a big festival and then we were doing eight shows in Japan. In total, that was maybe a 20-date run, including our first International shows. And three days beforehand, we go into lockdown.”

At this point, it’s hard not to feel a significant pang of remorse for how the FANGZ story might have unfolded if everything had continued going to plan. But what’s impressive is that at this pivotal moment, FANGZ decided they weren’t going to let outside forces dictate their path. And it’s this approach that has served them well in the years that have followed.

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“We found out lockdown was landing in three days, so we had a band meeting the night they announced it and the day after we went to Zen (Studios) and recorded four live sets in the room,” explains Jameel.

“We asked a friend to come in and do an eight-channel mix, and we recorded them all, because we were thinking, ‘Well, this is our tour now.’ We’re just going to put out live videos on YouTube.”

“It’s an online tour. We were just trying to keep something of a scene going as well,” Woodie adds. 

This turned out to be a wise move. With residents in Sydney (and many other parts of the country) confined to their homes, there was no shortage of demand for content. But with lockdown’s ultimate extension, the band eventually ran out of pre-recorded material. As such, it was time for FANGZ to take things up a notch. 

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COVID Killed the Radio Star

“The next thing we did was start our own TV show.” Jameel’s tone suggests he’s entirely aware of how absurd that sounds. “We’d just get a different band in each week and record them doing an acoustic set. I’d literally hit record on four different cameras and then walk out and they’d do a performance. We’d also interview them while observing social distancing. And finally, each member of FANGZ would come in and do a skit. I’d cut it all together and we’d put out a show, just trying to keep the momentum going. Plus, the other bands didn’t have that ability to put out a song, so I’d give each of them two acoustic tracks they can put out as content too.”

This sense of looking out for other bands has continued to be key to the FANGZ approach post-COVID. As they explain their ambitions, it’s clear they have a sense of the importance of community and that it’s not enough for one band to succeed. Most importantly, they want to preserve the experience of kids discovering their new favourite act down at a local show for years to come. 

The First FANGZstock

Not only did this mindset carry the band through COVID, it’s seen them flourish since everything has opened back up. Massive support slots—including a full circle moment with Cancer Bats where Liam joined them on stage to regale the audience with the whole tale—have kept the band very busy. Despite their schedule, this desire to create a community and willingness to help others build momentum of their own never left. In fact, it all came to a head in December of last year with the launch of FANGZstock, a mini festival the band hosted, bringing together many of the acts they’d befriended on their numerous tours around the country. 

“You know what I have a problem with?” asks Jameel. “Say we play at Crowbar for this single. Then next time we play at Crowbar. And then we play Crowbar… or any venue — not that I don’t love Crowbar — but as a fan of any band, you want to feel like you’re going along for the ride. You want to see them progressing and feel excited any time they do something, which is what I feel because I’m such a music fan, right?”

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You can sense mild frustration as he continues: “I remember local bands I love, when it started to feel like they were repeating the same thing. And that was maybe the ceiling or they were just going through the motions. I don’t wanna feel that. I don’t think it’s good for us as a band. But also, as a fan, I wanna see something new. So how do we reinvent? The self-curated festival seemed like something different. We hadn’t done that, plus we get all our mates’ eyeballs on this new bunch of bands in the scene.”

Having regularly played Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Maroochydore, and Melbourne, along with regional shows in Canberra, Wollongong, and more, the band knew comparable music scenes full of talented acts existed all over the country and figured there was untapped potential for something greater through cooperation. 

“The question was, how can we bring that together on a bigger scale?” explains Woodie. “We thought, well, these are all the bands that we’ve toured with that we think are really cool. So let’s bring all those local scenes together for something on a bigger scale and hopefully the audience will grow as well.”

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After months of planning, FANGZstock kicked off on Saturday 9th of December at the Lady Hampshire in Sydney’s Camperdown. ‘Discover your new favourite band’ was the theme of the day. Playing across two stages, acts like LOSER, Closure, Mac the Knife, Neighbourhood Void, Starcrazy, Lady Lazarus, WELL? and many others joined the band for a celebration of loud guitars and musical camaraderie.

Despite FANGZ having to plan and run everything themselves—not to mention the fact they maintained a shoestring budget with tickets costing as little as $20—the day went off without a hitch. In fact, it was so successful that FANGZ have plans to do it again this year, with the potential of taking FANGZstock on tour. 

The Future of FANGZ

“There’ll definitely be another one,” Jameel says. “I’d love to do an east coast FANGZstock tour of Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne this year. That’s my ultimate goal.”

Such a tour is already in the works and will sync up perfectly with the band’s plans to release their first full-length album, boasting the appropriately tongue-in-cheek title, FANGZ SHUI. Woodie assures us the art will be “just slightly off-centre.”

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FANGZ look set to have a big year ahead and they’ve earned it. While they might disagree, it’s not an exaggeration to say they’ve taken on an almost godfather-like role for bands coming up in the punk-rock scenes of Sydney and beyond. Driven by a sense of generosity and a passion for ensuring live music lives on to fight another day, they’re providing an example for the younger acts that appear in their wake, creating a new roadmap as they go

As Jameel puts it, “Australia’s very quick to claim AC/DC on the international stage, but we’re not quick to give the next AC/DC a place to play.” The boys from FANGZ are certainly doing their part to resolve this, and when asked what advice they might have for bands looking to follow in their extensively travelled footsteps, Woodie doesn’t hesitate: “Don’t play a Thursday, Friday, Saturday all in Sydney. Actually tour. And get a photo of the Big Merino, touching the balls.”

Credits:

Words – Rob Edwards
Photography – Rhys Bennett / FANGZ