Leader Cheetah: ‘It’s Come Full Circle’
From their origins as a spiky dance-punk act, Adelaide’s Leader Cheetah have found their niche in eerie Americana, writes DARREN LEVIN.
Dan Crannitch was 23 when he wrote ‘Bloodlines’, inadvertently stumbling upon the missing link between Neil Young and Interpol, and giving birth to Leader Cheetah in the process. Up until that point he was fronting Pharaohs, a young Adelaide band riding high on the dance punk revival of the early- to mid-2000s.
“Do you really know who you are when you’re 20?” he says from a North Melbourne studio, where Leader Cheetah is shooting a clip for single ‘Our Love’, a country-tinged love song about a million miles away from the spiky, high energy tunes of Pharaohs. “It takes a while to go, ‘This is where my voice feels natural and this is what I want to do for a long long time.’”
Bassist Joel Amos’ shift to Sydney may’ve been the catalyst for Pharaohs’ demise in mid-2007, but Leader Cheetah was already taking shape as early as January that year, when Crannitch, his brother Joel and guitarist Dan Pash started working on songs in the vein of ‘Bloodlines’. (Childhood friend Mark Harding joined on bass.) A year later, they were in a studio in the Adelaide Hills with Galaxie 500 producer Kramer, laying down tracks for first album The Sunspot Letters, and heading out on an east-coast tour with The Middle East as part of the Spunk Singles Club.
In an interview at the time, both bands spoke of their excitement about cramming in a van together; of “swimming in the ocean in every new town and meeting new people with different stories,” as The Middle East’s Rohin Jones so eloquently put it. When M+N caught up with Crannitch and his bandmates back in June, they were doing it all again – except this time they were playing sold-out shows across the country, including The Corner in Melbourne and the Metro in Sydney. Unbeknownst to Crannitch, however, their tour buddies would soon be calling it a day.
“It feels like it’s come full circle,” Crannitch said ahead of the tour. “It’s very much a family affair with those guys [The Middle East]. It’s really nice the relationship you form when you’re touring with a band. It’s a different kind of relationship.”
While The Middle East were grinding out a premature end, the promotional cycle for Leader Cheetah’s second album Lotus Skies was just beginning. With his bandmates off shooting against green screen in another room – “We’re kinda winging it to an extent,” Crannitch says of the clip – the singer opens up about the lengthy process of writing and self-editing that brought Lotus Skies into being. The band spent the better part of two months working on the record with Scott Horscroft (The Presets, My Disco, silverchair) at his BJB Studios in Sydney.
“We put a lot of ourselves into it,” says Crannitch. “[Sunspot Letters] was a good representation of where we were at at the time: we’d only been together for probably a year when we went into the studio, and I think now we’ve just kind of improved as writers and in our abilities, and also just working together – everyone putting in for the common good. We were trying to make the most well-rounded record we possibly could.”
There was a marked difference between Horscroft and Kramer’s production aesthetic, says Crannitch – even though the end product isn’t worlds apart from Sunspot Letters and its otherworldly, alt-country vibe. “They’re got to be two of the most different producers you’ll ever meet,” he explains, “but I don’t think they sound that different as albums. This [Lotus Skies] sounds a bit more polished, and has maybe a bit more definition, but it’s still got that slight dreaminess about it that Kramer did. I don’t know. Maybe that stuff is just in the band?”
The main difference, says Crannitch, was Horscroft’s commitment to melody. He’d sacrifice any seemingly extraneous element – from an overbearing kick drum to a guitar overdub – for the sake of the song. “He’s a workaholic – there’s no doubt about it,” Crannitch says. “I think he’s a very interesting, one-of-a-kind dude. I’ve never meant anyone like him … When we approached him we said we didn’t have a huge budget, but still wanted to put in the time and effort to make it the best album he could. I think in his own way, Scott is a genius. Seeing him get behind the mixing desk and pour his special sauce over it – he just knows how to make stuff sound good on different speakers and headphones. He really nailed it on this album.”
“There’s a big age gap between my brother and I – I’m 29, J’s 21 – and I feel like he’s finding his voice and hitting his stride creatively.”
But Lotus Skies isn’t exactly the stripped-back record Horscroft’s approach might imply. ‘Midnight Headlights’ opens with Tom Spall’s soaring violin, there’s horns on the mariachi-flavoured title track and the poppy ‘Heart Skipped Town’, while Jason Walker’s pedal steel is a defining presence. “Lap and pedal steel, especially when it’s got all that verb [reverb] on it, was really important in giving that space to tracks. I think that’s important with melody-focussed songs. I think Scott recognised that as well.”
Lotus Skies also heralds the emergence of Crannitch’s younger brother Joel as songwriter. He co-wrote a number of songs of the record including ‘Dark Stands Over’ and ‘Crowded Space’. “There’s a big age gap between my brother and I – I’m 29, J’s 21 – and I feel like he’s finding his voice and hitting his stride creatively. He’s coming up with great progressions and melodies, which we’ve been able to incorporate into Leader Cheetah in general.”