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Talking government and garishness with Aussie R&B stars

We caught up with Grammy-nominated Melbourne band Hiatus Kaiyote before their London show to talk about the problems facing musicians back home and their performance at the Opera House

“Australia in general, in a creative way, is actually really quite original and accepting of new shit. But maybe the industry side is, you know, less brave?” Nai Palm, one quarter of cross-disciplinary band Hiatus Kaiyote, self-defined as “multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster shit” is talking about Australia’s music scene. Originally hailing from Melbourne, the band is made up of Naomi ‘Nai Palm’ Saalfield on lead vocals, bassist Paul Bender, drummer Perrin Moss and Simon Mavin on keys. Last week, Hiatus Kaiyote returned to home soil.

On May 31 they took to the stage of the iconic Syndey Opera House alongside Sampa the Great as part of the city’s Vivid LIVE event, which celebrates “ambitious popular music”. Prior to their show in Sydney, Hiatus Kaiyote came to play in north-west London at legendary London venue The Forum, a space that’s played host to musical greats from Bobby Womack to Amy Winehouse and Rihanna. There, Dazed pinned them down for a chat.

The band’s spearhead Nai Palm enters the room larger than life, an expressive ball of fiery energy. In these last hours of downtime before the show, her look is more conventionally casual than her usual aesthetic, which has seen her previously decked out on stage in insane outfits that look like gold-plated body armour or orange scuba goggles matched with headgear that gives a nod to bridal headdresses from the Caucasus and huge earrings bigger than your head. The list of notable costumes is endless: a mishmash of stylistic references to just about every culture from across the globe.

Prior to the London show the singer is relatively underdressed: jeans patched with a moon and star motif on the knee, heavily embellished leather jacket, leather cap. But the signature style is still there. Striking black eyeliner, number one undercut, arms illustrated with colourful tattoos, chunky rings adorning her fingers and double nose-piercing. Nai Palm is impossible to miss, even off-duty. The rest of the band members, on the other hand, are casual to the extreme: sweatshirts, Vans, even a woolly scarf – these guys are definitely the beige background foil to Nai Palm’s exoticism. For the Sydney show, Nai Palm doesn’t disappoint. She’s onstage in a bodysuit and feather boa headdress.

Nai Palm’s image isn’t the sole reason that Hiatus Kaiyote stand out from most of the groups emerging from Australia’s music scene. Their sound is something tangibly different and it’s what’s seen them embraced by a global audience. While still linked with the underground, at this year’s Grammy awards they were nominated for best R&B performance, a category traditionally dominated by more mainstream American artists like The Weeknd and Jeremih.

Gaining international acclaim is becoming ever more important for Australian artists in the country’s current political climate, and the band are keen to outline this. “Luckily for us we kind of blew up overseas and it gives us that freedom to move around and get our chops up, but for people just starting out it's a lot more difficult,” Nai Palm tells me. During our interview, the band spent a lot of time getting fired up about the damage that’s being done to the creative scene in Australia right now due to government restrictions on late night and live music venues: the notorious lockout laws as they’re otherwise known. “Other musicians and music lovers are just like ‘oh man, what's going on in Australia right now?’ But, you know, the powers that be, they don’t seem to really appreciate that,” Bender explains. The musical scene, from production through to musicians, especially in bigger cities like Sydney, is being strangled by those laws, a problem that the band explains is getting out of hand. Despite this, Hiatus Kaiyote have made it.

Prior to the London gig, the quartet were super excited to get back to Australia. They’ve never played at the Opera House before, most bands haven’t. When asked about how they felt about putting on a show at Australia’s most iconic venue, in typical Nai Palm style, her reaction was an exclamation of “monumental!” While the guys, true to Hiatus Kaiyote format, were totally chilled. “I'm sure the sound's gonna be super fun… Opera House.” Moss mused, seemingly unfazed. “It's pretty huge, not designed for us, but hopefully that's OK,” laughed Bender. “We’ll make it work,” Mavin finished self-deprecatingly, accompanied by an eye-roll.

Sydney Opera House and Hiatus Kaiyote are hardly a typical pairing, but that’s the whole point of Vivid Live. The event gives space to artists who might not otherwise get the chance to perform in such an iconic setting, and experiencing diverse musical genres with the mind-blowing acoustics of the Opera House is an experience that’s hard to forget. The bands’ laidback attitude belies how massive they really are: the global popularity, the events they’re invited to play at and the international recognition they’ve received all point towards a band who look ready to become ever more popular and established as important contributors to the world’s music stage.