Playing Poland – Hot Music from Down Under

Jay Martin talks to Max Harman, the grrrrl behind vocals and keys for Aussie indie/punk band The On Fires about how playing Poland changed her band, and her life.

“I was working in corporate IT, and on my holidays had hiked to Machu Pichu, in Peru. Sitting in this beautiful, ancient place, I suddenly realised, ‘I have to sing!’ So I went back home, quit my job and called the only musician I knew, Marty, and said, ‘hey, you wanna start a band?’ That was in 2003, and that was how Asleep in the Park [the band’s first name] got started.

In 2007, we were invited on a tour of Europe to promote Australian women in rock. We did 15 shows in 10 countries in 18 days, including Krakow. And the Polish audience just went nuts! We hadn’t had a response like that before – the audience was just so much more expressive than anywhere else we’d played. We were in Poland for 12 hours – but we knew we’d be back.

We came back in 2009, and then again in 2010. These Central European audiences were so enthusiastic, it just lifted us to a different level. All of a sudden we were jumping off the stage, climbing off things, and they were going beserk. Western European audiences kind of stand back and watch us, they’ve seen everything before. But these guys were head banging, ripping their shirts off, running into each other – it was almost primal, like male deer butting each other. That’s what it looked like.

After one of our 2010 Polish shows, someone came up to us and said, ‘you guys aren’t asleep – you’re on fire!’ And we decided then to change our name to ‘The On Fires’. We realised that our initial name was more about where we’d come from than where we were, which was definitely harder and more energetic. And a lot of this was thanks to the responses we’d gotten from Central European audiences. They really changed who we are as a band.

One of the things with us is that our music appeals to both sexes. We have more than enough testosterone to keep the boys happy, but enough pop and fun for the girls who want to dance, too. And that’s why we work. The girls really respond to me up on stage, too. I love the thought that some girl might look at me and say, ‘I could do that’ – not because I’m great, but I hope my performances inspire them to be more expressive and brave.

For many Polish people, I think Australia is a bit like the moon – an interesting, faraway place they’ll never go. So being from Australia adds to the mystery. And I think many Polish people think we must be really big if we’re Australian and we’re touring Poland. There was one guy we met who had seen a paragraph in a forbidden book about Australia when he was a kid growing up under communism. It made such a strong impression on him that, twenty years later, when he heard there was an Australian band playing, he came to watch us. Just to see this band from this foreign, forbidden place.

Being musicians gives us an entry into local life – people do literally open up their homes for you. One guy was going to be in London when we were here, but said we were welcome to use his house. Another person put us up in this beautiful beach house. They’ve never even met us, just seen us on our internet site. And they cook for us! These fantastic traditional dishes – I love food, so I’m in heaven!

My favourite experience was in a town called Mysłowice [near Katowice], where we had a night off after a gig. We were doing our email and washing and stuff, when one of us went out and got talking to some people, who invited us to their grandmother’s 90th birthday party. It was the wildest party I’ve ever been to! All these dishes were brought out, and we were treated like the honoured guests. We sang Happy Birthday in English, and when we sang, ‘happy birthday dear Babcia’, they all just screamed! When the 90 year old went home, it was like a Greek wedding, everyone clapping, and then copious amounts of vodka came out, and the uncles all started doing a conga line, including outside the building and under the tables. There was so much dancing and laughing with so many generations. If only we had parties like this! We still write to half the people. It was the highlight of the tour!

Central Europe makes us feel so good – it’s made its way into our hearts. The connection with the people here surpasses anything we’ve ever had anywhere else. You know, we’ve played London, Berlin, but we’ll always have Mysłowice.”

The On Fires play the Seven Festival in Węgorzowo on 10 July. Follow other gigs at theonfires.com.

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