Along with groups like the Hot City Bump Band, Johnny Rocco Band, Stylus and the Renee Geyer Band, Pantha broke free from the pub rock sound that dominated Australia during the 70’s and introduced audiences to more of a funky sound by fusing rock with influences such as Soul, Funk, Latin & Jazz into their music. They also became part of a small number of groups to release albums in this style, many of which have now become quite rare and collectible to a new generations of record collector’s interested in discovering more about soul-funk albums that were released in Australia during the 70’s.
I was lucky to make contact with Paul Curtis, the lead vocalist and percussionist of the Australian funk-rock group “PANTHA” a while back and I asked him if he’d be interested in shedding some light on the group and the 1975 album “Doway Do, Doway Do”.
1. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about the origins of Pantha and how the group was formed?
Pantha started in Melbourne when Jack and I were playing in a band around the local pubs, we were mainly playing covers of blues and soft rock stuff. It wasn’t til Roger joined, that we got any real direction. He had been playing a fair bit of jazz and wanted to fuse it into a more popular mode. We loved the idea of combining funky stuff with Latin energy and flare. At that time we got pretty inspired by Santana and the album ‘Caravansarai’. Roger had a couple a friends who where into percussion, one being Peter Lee, who ended up playing percussion with the group. After a while of doing pubs and mixing up popular covers with some of the more funky stuff we gradually began including more of our own original’s, which were high energy and rhythmic with Roger’s speed guitar over top. The whole thing was you had to get people moving and dancing otherwise pubs wouldn’t book you. We changed drummers at this stage to Adrian Payne and added Danny Bourne who was an amazing Rock n Roll player in the style of Fats Waller. He began listening to people like Chick Corea and quickly adjusted to a more jazzy style
2. What was your musical background before you Pantha and had you played with any guys from the group prior to the band forming?
As I said Jack and I had played a bit together but I’d grown up in NZ so all these guys I met through the grapevine. In NZ I was in a band called Farmyard. It was a Jazz rock band that put out a couple of original Albums. We did Ok by NZ standards but the music scene over there was pretty small so I moved to Australia when the band I was in ‘Funky Truckin band’ broke up. It‘s interesting that even then I liked funky stuff but it was mixed with blues like Edgar White.
3. Can you tell us a bit about the Australian funk during the 70s?
Once Pantha’s lineup settled we got a manager by the name of Graeham Mckee. He was a young guy just starting out in the scene but he specialized in Funk bands, he also managed Hot City, Powerhouse ( a trio of African Americans) and I think he had something to do with Marcia Hines. He was a good hustler and got us work around Melbourne to start with.
The funk scene was just coming alive in Melbourne in mid 70s but there were still only limited places to play. I remember Prospect Hill was a great venue and we would pack that place out with 400 or 500 people, also the Station Hotel and Hard Rock Cafe. We still had to throw in some covers at start to get the crowd with us, stuff like ‘Come Back Baby Brother’ and ‘Cisco Kid’ by War suited our style and used to go down well. We also would do League Clubs which could be a lot more challenging. The audiences tended to want more Rock stuff and as we began playing more and more original music in the Pantha style so these places had trouble latching on.
4. Were there other bands the group was listening to that had a direct influence on the style of music you played and the songs you wrote?
We definitely were influenced by other bands, as I said Santana always was an inspiration but we’d listen to a lot of African bands too like Hugh Masakela, Jazz Rock bands like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and of course Reggae by Bob Marley amongst others. I know Roger’s playing style was influenced by John Mclaughlin. I think the main thing is to realize that as a band we realized that music has the capacity to elevate people into another level so we’d listen to music and live a life style which was completely out of the norm so that the music we created would take people on a journey to a different place.
5. Can you remember any specific albums that really stood out to you and the group during this period?
Santana’s ‘Caravanserai’ definitely but also the group Osibisa .
6. How long had the group been together before you started to write and record music for the album?
The Pantha that recorded Dowaydowaydo had been together about 18 months before we recorded the Album. Basically the album was selected from the music we played at our gigs. We had about 3 sets worth of original material that we could choose from. Wizard was the first label that Pantha wrote for. I think in those days it was a relatively small label and had not yet had success with Marsha.
7. Can you tell us a bit about the recording of the album?
Recording the album meant going up to Sydney from Melbourne. I remember we had gigs to play as well so it was pretty hard out. Basically we recorded the rhythm section with us all playing‘live’ to capture the energy of a gig then overdubbed guitars, keys and vocals. I think recording kind of defines you a lot more because you listen to things really closely and can sit back and be objective. We realized that we were very different from other bands of the time mainly because we focused on rhythm and used unusual tonal ideas rather than having the vocal right out front they tended to be mixed into the band like an instrument.
8. Doway Do Doway Do !?!! was released on the Wizard label, which also released soul-funk albums by Hot City Bump Band and Marcia Hines, was this a conscious move by the label to record this style of music?
Yeah I think it was a conscious thing with Wizard to focus on particular bands and Artists to get a flavour.
9. Did they have much to do with the recording of the album?
They provided a producer for the album but Roger Pell was very clear about what we wanted so he took control of the direction.
10. What was the response from the label when they heard the finished album,
did the label get behind the album and promote it when it was released?
I think the response was good and they definitely supported us as best they could. I think out of all the bands on their label though we would have been the hardest to market because we where so alternate. We developed a sub cult following but the album was not commercial enough for easy marketing. I remember later they continued their support for us and tried to open us up to the market by recording a couple of singles ‘Happiness’ and even using a Canadian producer to help record a more commercial song called ‘Melinda’ which made it onto the charts and got quite a lot of airplay.
Wizard and our manager Graham did a great job of getting us promotional gigs at the time. We where lucky enough to be the front band for the Doobie Brothers ‘Stampede’ tour of Australia in 1976 and also did openers for Osibisa, Jose Feliciano and Gloria Gaynor.
11. You were label mates with the Hot City Bump Band and had the same management; did you ever tour or play gigs together?
You would think we would have but no, that didn’t happen much. Hot City stayed in Melbourne and so after we moved to Sydney we didn’t see them much. I remember seeing them at a gig and dancing the night away to them. Chuck and Maggie were great front people.
12. Rob Ellis, who was part of Hot City Bump Band, ended up playing bass with Pantha, was this before or after they recorded the album “Come together”?
Rob joined Pantha after Hot City broke up so it must have been after their album.
13. How long was Pantha together and what did you do musically after the group broke up?
The band was probably together about 5 years and went through several lineup changes. Pretty soon after ‘Doway Doway Do’ was released Danny and Adrian left, which was a shame because I think it affected the sales of the album, and we had to start again with a new drummer, Barry Cram and keyboard player, Jose McCloughlin. Our style stayed the same and but we got a bit more rocky. Later, Jack and Barry left so that when Ob came on Bass and Peter our percussionist went onto drums while Merry Took came onto percussion. We always kept the Pantha feel going and still played songs from Dowaydoway but wrote lots more songs that had more commercial appeal. After the band broke up I did some gigs on my own around Sydney then went overseas for a couple of years to jam and listen to lots of different music. I’m now back in NZ.
14. The album is called “Doway Do, Doway Do”. Can you explain origins of the name?
Basically Dowaydoway is a rhythmic ostinato that underpins the whole song. The idea is like an African chant but with an Aussie twist.
15. Who designed the cover art on the album and do you know if they did other album designs?
The Album was designed by an Artist friend of Roger’s called John? I remember before the album he came on the road with us to Adelaide and just hung out with us and sketched ideas. If you know the characters in the band he has really captured some of their quirky idiosyncrasies. The artwork tells you a lot about what the band was like.
16. Are you still playing music or involved in the Australian music scene these days?
I’m still playing music and teaching music. Once it’s in your blood you can’t give it up. I still like Alternative music styles and love how music today has so many influences from around the world in it.
17. Any last words you would like to add?
Yeah thanks for putting me back in touch with other Pantha people. You never know we may do a reunion tour! Will let you know.