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Peter Farnan is a man who has seen music from all sides and maintained a creative career that has taken him from the avant garde to the mainstream and into the arts and academia. Whilst best known for his work as guitarist, songwriter and co-founder of multi-platinum ‘80s/90s group Boom Crash Opera, Farnan’s working life in music dates back to post-punk pop outfit Serious Young Insects, who shared the hallowed stages of St Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom with the likes of The Models, The Ears and a nascent Hunters & Collectors. In recent decades he has worked internationally in theatre and film as a composer and sound designer. He has also researched modern song composition and teaches sound design at Melbourne University, and he has written about music for publications like The Conversation, and also a piece about his Ballroom days in David Nichols and Sophie Perillo’s 2020 collection Urban Australia and Post-Punk: Exploring Dogs In Space. His previous release was the 2017 collaborative project entitled Pesky Bones, Vol One which featured multiple vocalists singing his songs and productions, including Paul Kelly, Deborah Conway, Tim Rogers, Rebecca Barnard, Sean Kelly and Charles Jenkins.

Home sees Farnan returning to his art-pop roots with music that is idiosyncratic and personal, and which is some ways echoes some of the artists – The Beatles, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, XTC – who first inspired the musical life he has led.

Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips caught up with Pete Farnan over a zoom call to chat about his career, gear and the new album ‘Home’.

Peter Farnan first came to prominence in 1980 as singer/guitarist and co-founder of post-punk art-pop outfit Serious Young Insects, who followed the likes of The Boys Next Door (soon to become The Birthday Party), The Models and The Jetsonnes (a nascent Hunters & Collectors) onto the St Kilda scene, based out of the Crystal Ballroom. In 1979 Farnan had produced the first demos of Sam Sejavka’s band The Ears, around whom the film Dogs In Space was based; by 1981 he and Serious Young Insects were touring the country with the likes of Midnight Oil and appearing on Countdown.

Out of Serious Young Insects came the endeavour for which Farnan is best known to mainstream rock audiences – the multi-platinum ’80s/90s hitmakers Boom Crash Opera. Formed around the writing partnership of Farnan and late-period Insect, Richard Pleasance, Boom Crash Opera were an instant smash; they won Best Debut Single for their Top 5 hit ‘Great Wall’ at the Countdown Awards in 1986 and were off on a ride that saw them working with the biggest producers in the world, including Jimmy Iovine and Nick Launay.

By the end of the millennium, and with Boom Crash Opera ceasing to be a creative force, Farnan moved into the world of theatre and art music. Farnan has spent the better part of the last two decades working as a composer and sound designer. He has worked at venues ranging from La Mama in Melbourne to the Barbican in London, and on productions including Woyzeck (Malthouse Theatre, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), Boy Gets Girl (MTC – nominated for a Green Room award) and The Sapphires (MTC/Belvoir – the original stage production – and its remount with Belvoir/Black Swan). He was also music producer, MD and occasional songwriter on the 2013 feature film The Boy Castaways, an intriguing art house movie that featured songs and performances from Megan Washington and Tim Rogers.

Peter is currently composing for an opera project based on Mathew Condon’s A Night At The Pink Poodle with libretto by playwright Shaun Charles.

Farnan has said of his theatre, and of writing songs for theatre in particular: “I am not a huge fan of the strictures and style of the ‘Musical’ but I agree with Weill that ‘musical theatre is the purest and most direct form of poetic theatre. The presence of music lifts the play immediately to a high level of feeling and makes the spectator far more disposed to pursue the poetic line.” By ‘music’ Weill is referring to song. I try to write songs that work on a more generalised poetic level. I try to open out the field of possible meanings rather than narrow them down, while at the same time aiming for immediacy and directness.”

In addition to his theatre work and his own songwriting, Peter also teaches sound design at Melbourne University, where he has done research into the structuring of popular song via a Masters. He has taught songwriting extensively at the post-grad level. He written about music occasionally for The Daily Review and The Conversation, and about his Crystal Ballroom days in David Nichols and Sophie Perillo’s 2020 collection Urban Australia and Post-Punk: Exploring Dogs In Space.  And he has maintained a presence on the local music scene, whether that be still occasionally playing out with Boom Crash Opera, accompanying Rebecca Barnard in her Joni Mitchell show, or increasingly performing solo.

Peter released his first solo album, Maybe This Is Normal, in 2009, and in 2017, a collaborative project entitled Pesky Bones, Vol One which featured multiple vocalists singing his songs and productions, including Paul Kelly, Deborah Conway, Tim Rogers, Rebecca Barnard, Sean Kelly and Charles Jenkins.

Five years later, and over forty years into a diverse and highly productive career in music, Peter has now delivered his second, and perhaps most personal solo work. These are the songs of a mature performer with lyrical concerns to match, who has carried his edgy musical sensibility through the years.

“My new album attempts to combine the personal and the political in an art-pop frame,” says Peter. “I love pop; ‘pop’ in its purest sense – a tight form that strives to communicate, meaningfully, with infectious energy and imagination.

“I love the brevity, compression and economy of the pop song form. When it’s effective it can infect the listener with complex feelings and ideas. I want to set off truth bombs.

“The songs on Home wrestle with the passing of time, buried histories, community, political populism, pernicious religion, the end of the world, the end of the street, the start of something special, mortality and blissful release. They are both reassuring and slightly unsettling, humorous and dark.

“My partner and daughters sing throughout; a sweet, ghostly choir, they are sometimes reassuring, sometimes disturbing. My former bandmate Richard Pleasance makes a brilliant contribution to ‘As The River Flows’, playing guitars, cello, bass and unsettling noises. Elsewhere my oldest daughter forms a mini orchestra on viola and violin. Drums are supplied by stalwart Melbourne drummer Ben Wiesner (ex The Audreys) and up and coming genius/talent, Soren Maryasin. Otherwise I play all instruments and produce.”

With the release of Home, Peter Farnan will next take his new work on the road, opening some shows later this month for old pals The Models in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Album launches have yet to be organised, but they will come, like Home itself, all in good time. Stay tuned.

Friday November 25: Open Studio (with Rebecca Barnard)





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