Photo by Lauren Connelly
I first heard of Chris Penney when I moved into a big, filthy artists’ warehouse in Sydney.
There were about ten bedrooms, a cockroach infestation and a permanent array of hallway junk. Chris had already packed up and moved to Melbourne by the time I moved in, but on the bathroom wall remained a framed, lead pencil portrait of him on a coin, with the words ‘One Penney, In Chris We Trust’. I often wondered about this character.
Not long after moving in, I went to see the five-piece Melbourne punk band Mesa Cosa play at a nearby pub. Within a couple of songs, one of the singers attempted an unannounced stage dive and ended up on the floor. It turned out that this was Penney, the dude from the picture on the bathroom wall.
‘I just broke my foot,’ he said when he managed to get back to the stage, and then he grabbed a chair and finished the set sitting down. The next day I saw on Mesa Cosa’s Instagram that his leg was in fact in a cast.
A few years later, a friend invited me to see Penney’s new band, Private Function (he still plays in Mesa Cosa as well). It was a bright Sunday afternoon in the front bar of the Newtown Hotel, but Private Function took the stage like it was midnight and they were at the peak of an ice bender. Penney was in a leather jacket, climbing around on tables, screaming his lyrics, thrashing his mullet around. At one point, he spat a thick chunk of phlegm onto the ceiling, then, between psychotic bursts of vocals, licked it back up. Everyone in the room was blown away by the sheer energy of the set. Some were disgusted.
I’ve still never met Chris Penney in person, but since Private Function have been holding it down on the Melbourne punk scene for the last two years, touring interstate, releasing two EPs and a string of music videos with an ongoing storyline, I figured I should give him a call.
‘We always try to put on a good live show,’ says Penney when I recount the stories of watching him break his foot and lick up his own spit. ‘It should be captivating, it should be fun, it should be stupid, it should be violent, it should be happy and inclusive, it should be everything,’ he raves, insisting that PF shows are consistently high energy, regardless of the circumstances. He tells me that recently, the PF bassist, Joe* attached skateboard trucks and wheels to his wireless bass and has been skating on top of the crowd during shows. ‘He cave-manned off the stage,’ Penney laughs.
While PF live shows are notoriously chaotic, intense and confronting for some, their social media presence is essentially a comedy. On Facebook, they’re prone to posting long-winded jokes as status updates and self-referential memes. One semi-recent post is a screenshot of an email sent from Private Function to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, asking if they want to do a show together. Just like every other post on their page, it ends with the all-caps claim: ‘PF STILL ON TOP.’
‘I like playing around on social media,’ says Penney, explaining that guitarist Joe (there are two Joes) is the one responsible for most of the shitposting and is ‘ridiculously good at it.’ ‘Everyone is on [social media] every second of the day so like, might as well give ‘em something stupid to look at,’ says Penney. ‘Should just probably turn it up a bit, you know?’
I tell him that, judging by the band’s social media presence, I was half expecting him to troll me with a totally sarcastic interview. He laughs, telling me that some people aren’t sure how to take the band. ‘People come to the show and they expect to see maybe a really shit comedy show and then you get quite an aggressive, fun punk show.’
Penney’s lyrics are just as irreverent and funny. One song is called ‘I Wish Australia Had It’s Guns Again’, an apparently pro-gun, pro-America, thrashy rock ‘n’ roll track declaring, ‘I shot a gun in America… I felt like a man for once in my life.’ The song ends with the faux jingoistic chant: ‘USA! USA! USA!’
Of course, it’s all sarcasm, says Penney. ‘These are the best gun laws in the whole world right now, it’s stopping all the bullshit,’ he says of Australia’s mandatory gun buyback policy and comparatively minuscule rate of gun violence. I suggest that while the sarcasm is obvious enough to an Australian crowd, it seems unlikely that an American audience will get the joke as it’s intended. But Penney seems to like the idea of the audience not getting it, telling me, ‘I’m keen to play it to a big American audience for sure.’
The cover of PF’s second EP, Six Smokin’ Songs, is another edgy piss-take.
It’s a photo of Bryan, the guy who posthumously became the face of Australia’s tobacco warnings after he was plastered across cigarette packs and pouches all over the country. It’s got the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots of Bryan, intended to show the effects of heavy smoking, but under the image of bald Bryan hooked up to oxygen on his deathbed, it says, ‘Bryan before listening to PF.’ Then, under the healthy Bryan–when he had a moustache and a full head of hair–it reads ‘Bryan after hearing PF.’
It’s a bit of a heavy one, but the joke isn’t so much that PF have made a spectacle out of Bryan, it’s that the Australian Government had already made a spectacle of Bryan. ‘It’s a bit risqué,’ says Penney, ‘but it’s a very inclusive risqué joke, everyone kind of gets it.’
‘Humour’s a pretty hard thing at the moment. There’s a real fine line that you have to walk, always, and you always have to think a bit bigger about ideas,’ he continues. ‘There’s been a few jokes that we’ve had to pull back on. It’s a shame it’s not like the ‘80s anymore.’
But the peak of PF’s humour would have to be their music videos, which are put together by drummer Aidan, who Penney describes as ‘a filmmaker in his own right.’ Every clip seems to be part of a larger narrative, like a bizarre and very morbid Australian daytime soap.
‘I just try to think of stories in my head, little short stories, and try to sing about that,’ says Penney. ‘And that’s what we try to do with video clips as well.’
From what I gather, the broader story is about two guys who are best friends, then one of them stomps the other to death and has to burn his bloodstained boots. He then goes off to bury the body, but when he’s digging the grave, he hits a sewerage pipe and gets covered in shit. Chris tells me that the next song in the saga will be called ‘What’s That Smell?’
By the end of the interview, Penney is in full comedy mode, talking about his favourite TV shows (The Footy Show and Australia’s Funniest Home Videos), how much he loves Queensland (‘Best country in Australia’) and how PF are ‘bigger than Allah.’
‘I’m just ranting now,’ he laughs, before remembering to tell me that PF have a new full-length album currently being pressed on vinyl and they’ll be touring it in March and April 2019.
*When I asked for the surnames of PF members, Penney insisted that their names are Ciggie Pop (vocals), Goonbag Darrell (guitar), Barry Cuda (bass) and Barry Mundi (drums).