But You Didn’t: Confidence Man Interviewed

Patrick Clarke meets Janet Planet of essential pop newcomers Confidence Man to explore the deeper meaning behind their perfectly crafted artifice.

When Confidence Man arrived last year, surfing a tidal wave of glistening bangers, it was as if they were a band conjured in some kind of perfect-pop laboratory. They are fronted by Sugar Bones, a muscular hunk in hotpants, and Janet Planet, a woman in a custom baby-doll dress, who perform manic synchronised dances on stage, and backed by two mysterious musicians in black veils (Clarence McGuffrie and Reggie Goodchild). Musically they sit somewhere between Deee-lite and Girls Aloud, and their colossal live shows and string of unbeatable, attitude-laced singles set them miles apart in an instant.

To some extent they are a band created for a singular purpose. Beyond the pseudonyms, all four members of Confidence Man were seasoned performers in much more ‘serious’ outfits like Moses Gunn Collective, The Belligerents and Jungle Giants in the Australian psychedelic scene before they decided to engineer their perfect pop side-project. Their attention to detail extends as far as their social media promotions and public statements, all presented ‘in character’, such as the ‘official’ statement from Janet Planet as to the band’s origins that greeted the press release for their new single ‘Don’t You Know I’m In A Band?’:

“These guys were real saddoes playing by themselves and I needed someone to play music with me. They were obsessed with trying to find someone cool and they saw me dancing in a club and were like, ‘We want that girl!’ I knew if we were going to get anywhere, we needed a hot dude with a six-pack at the front of the stage to even things out because they were so damn ugly themselves. We were hanging out at the public pool one day and there was this hot pool guy cleaning the pool and dancing to the music in his head. He looked pretty good in hotpants and while his moves weren’t conventional, they had a certain flare [sic]. And now, we’re like mum and dad and these two are just our petulant kids.”

When we speak to the ‘real’ Janet Planet at The Social, the London bar part-managed by their new record label Heavenly (Sugar Bones is recuperating from a recent bout of illness and is back at their hotel), she is less guarded about this finely curated public face. She takes us through the true origins of the group.

“All four of us were living together, and we were all in these other bands,” she says. “We would get drunk at night and then write music, like deep music and dance music. So we just started doing that to the point where we had five songs and thought, ‘Actually this is really good, we should just release it.’ There were certain aspects [of this that appealed to] certain members where someone would be like, ‘I want this.’ For me it was a case of, ‘I want these costumes,’ ‘I want this kind of synchronised dancing.’ I always knew what the live show would look like.”

That is not to say, however, that Confidence Man are simply a cold and calculated music machine; the project was borne from genuine passion. “We thought, ‘If I want to party, I want to listen to something like this’, rather than thinking, ‘We’re a dance band, this is what the music should sound like,’” Planet continues. “We didn’t actually really know what it should sound like. Confidence Man isn’t purely dance or techno because it’s seen through the eyes of a rock band. That’s why it has never been fully dance; we don’t know how to write dance music. We want to listen to music like this, and that’s why it’s good, weird pop.”

Such was the strength of direction underpinning the band’s early enterprises, it didn’t take long for them to find their feet. Save for a very early show in glittery gold outfits that garnered them a to-their-minds unflattering comparison to ‘deep Abba’, they had their aesthetic all figured out and little doubt as to the band’s sure-fire success. “For the very next show we [dressed] all in black and white, and within a week we figured out what we wanted to be. It wasn’t a year-long process or anything.”

Nor was it long until Heavenly Records came knocking. The band hadn’t even played their first show before the label made contact, having come across their first single ‘Boyfriend (Repeat)’ via a serendipitous chain of Facebook shares, and they were signed within weeks of their first performance. However sure of themselves the band were, it was still something of a surprise how quickly it happened. “We were like, ‘What the fuck?!’ Particularly being somewhere like Australia, which is really isolated, hearing that someone like Heavenly wants to sign you is fucking crazy. Even in Australia, everyone knows who Heavenly are.”

From the outside it’s not hard to see the appeal. ‘Boyfriend’ encapsulated everything that is so brilliant about a group that arrived almost fully formed. Not only does ‘Boyfriend’ boast a supreme, elastic beat and an irresistible, galvanising chorus, but to perhaps the fullest extent of the group’s three singles released thus far, it fleshes out the seamless semi-fictional character of Janet Planet that really helms the group. Her lyrics are immensely witty within a knowing sphere of artifice, confrontational and snide as she explores the exasperation she feels with an overbearing other half.

In person Janet Planet is not quite so cantankerous. "I’m not that grumpy!" she protests. But it’s a persona that’s based on an exaggerated truth: “I think any girl our age would probably identify with the girl in ‘Boyfriend’. They’ll have experienced this kinda needy guy that doesn’t understand that he’s not the best option. I feel like some boys our age think that if they want to be with you then you should be with them and that’s not necessarily true. Girls aren’t into you just because you’re into them. I feel like the characters that are in our music, you kind of know them anyway. I feel like I know girls who would actually be just like that character. They’re relatable people that are in daily life.”

It’s on stage, however, that one gets the fullest picture of Confidence Man’s distinct aesthetic. It’s a strange but brilliant sight, with Janet and Sugar straight-faced and deadpan while they power through a stampeding set of joyous pop songs, their synchronised dancing at once a well-oiled machine yet laughably loose and limber. “We figured that we’d have this stupidly happy sound, and then if [we] were more deadpan, it’d make it more serious and intense in a weird way. It’s [a] diverse [crowd] in age as well, like there are quite a lot of older people that seem to get off on the fact that it’s a lot of fun. Like they can go out and be stupid and embarrass themselves, but no one is embarrassed because everyone is doing it.”

However rapid Confidence Man’s ascent to greatness, however, it has not all been smooth-sailing. So good were their early live sets that influential Australian radio station Triple J named them the nation’s ‘Best Up-And-Coming Live Band’, and posted footage of their performance of ‘Boyfriend’ at Byron Bay’s Splendour In The Grass festival, sparking a furious backlash from an influx of crashing ‘this-isn’t-real-music’ bores, evidently upset at the lack of noodling solos and old-timey riffs. “If this is the best up and coming live band in Australia then we as a nation are fucked” whinged one; “This is a deadest fucking joke. Better acts on every night of the week in Perth and probably any other city. Disgrace.”

Planet laughs when I relay a couple of these comments. “Yeah, it’s mainly just Australian dudes who play in rock bands and think we don’t play instruments. It’s just silly because we’ve all played in bands anyway. I suppose with this band we had an active position of ‘we don’t want to play instruments’, which I guess is why people are so offended. Initially I didn’t understand why people would have such a problem with fun music, but then I realised I didn’t care because we’re doing own thing; I don’t think we can be comparable to indie rock bands or even dance music because we’re so in our own plane anyway. I suppose what they classify as a ‘band’ is someone who has guitars. If you’re saying a band is something that has a guitar then we’re not that, but if you say that we’re not the best electronic live act then you would be wrong.”

“There’s something I read online that said, ‘Modern art is something you could do, but you didn’t.’ I suppose that’s what this essentially is. Yeah, you could go and write music like ours, and go and do live shows like ours, but you didn’t. You also have to have the desire to create something like that. You have to be a fun, excitable, creative person. People seem to think you need to do all this hard touring [to be taken seriously], but if you know exactly what you like I don’t think it really matters. You don’t have to do all the shitty stuff to make it. If you have a good idea, and your music is good enough, you’ll make it anyway.”

Of course, these quite bafflingly vociferous detractors have completely missed the point. The artifice and vapidity that the haters have leapt immediately to attack is precisely constructed to be as such; it is exactly the reason why Confidence Man are so excellent. I first came across the group when fellow tQ favourites The Moonlandingz expressed their love for the band and provided

an appealingly wonky remix of ‘Boyfriend’ (to which the Aussies replied in kind with their ‘Cool Party’ rework of ‘This Cities Undone’). There are parallels to be drawn, I suggest, between the two groups in their exploitation of the joys that come with existing in a world of your own creation.

Janet Planet agrees. “It’s almost like performance art. When I look at them, and then with us, we connect really well because we’re trying do performance in a way where it’s not just music – it’s a whole look and a branding. Also, it’s kind of freeing when you get up on stage and you’re not completely yourself. You have the freedom to be this other person, which is really fun. It kind of brings you out of yourself. My mum always says when she sees us live: ‘Why are you doing that? Your dress is too short!’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t give a fuck!’ It gives a lot more freedom to be someone fucking awesome. I think it’s way more interesting to see someone who is doing something a bit weird, more than being themselves. I think I’ve seen too much of people being themselves now, I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit of theatrics.”

The band’s debut album is out in April, and will be backed with a massive global tour from April until August and a series of festival spots. It’s essentially a given that they’ll be outstanding shows and the forthcoming LP is excellent, which gives this summer an air of ‘end of phase one’. The masterplan that was this pop group seems to have been executed perfectly, but do the band have one eye on their next phase? “I think we’ve sorted it out. I think we now know where we want to go [with the] next album. [We’ll be] expanding the characters. Most people just think of my character as being this bitchy, sassy girl. Same thing with Sugar Bones as this self-deprecating, sad dude. But we know that we have to expand these characters to go anywhere further. I feel like all of our songs have already covered those parts, and if we stay with those characters we can’t really go anywhere from here so we’re going to have to expand them and go further, and take it deeper. Musically things can be more melodic too. I suppose taking that angle, and going more musical rather than going so straight, like ‘talky vocals’ and having more normality in songs.”

As for their live shows, Janet Planet has grand ambitions. Were money no object, I ask, what would a Confidence Man show look like? So instantaneous is her reply that it’s obvious she’s already been pondering exactly such an eventuality. “So Sugar and I would ride in on white horses and then we’d do a horse dance. We’d be attached to the ceiling by harnesses and we’d be swinging, synchronised swinging. We’d have like fifty million dancers all doing the same shitty dance, we could even have elephants and stuff…”

She stops herself with an apology: “I’ve honestly thought about it too much. I’ve imagined having waterslides and shit, maybe performing in the ocean underneath the water with the whole crowd in scuba gear watching us. You could take it so far; that’s the awesome thing about [Confidence Man], there’s no level that’s too far. OK, maybe we won’t get underneath the ocean, but I’m definitely gonna get a fucking horse!”

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