Royel Otis don’t sing about love, and the band will tell you that this is intentional. “We set out to not write as many romantic songs,” says Royell Maddell, one-half of the Aussie indie duo that includes bandmate Otis Pavolvic. “We've still got them, but we've just tried to mess it up a bit.” Since their 2021 debut EP, Campus, taking those diversions has resulted in breakthrough songs like “Oysters in My Pocket,” the band’s big unexpected hit, a brightly hued ode to throwing all your cares away that sounds like the closing scene of your favorite John Hughes film. “Oh, well, that’s miles away!” the boys shout amongst cheering and yipping, a chant that could apply to virtually any challenge, romantic or otherwise. It’s the perfect gateway to the band’s overall sound: ‘80s-fueled guitar-driven songs that swerve into yacht rock, jangle pop, or beach music at a moment’s notice.
But listen closely, and even in the joy, the wanting for connection is still there. On “Oysters,” there’s a breezing carelessness to rejection: “Tried to give my number away / But I haven’t heard much.” On “Bull Breed,” which relives the euphoria of a night filled with drugs and alcohol, the yell of “But I still miss ya!” feels like a Freudian slip. “That song’s not romantic at all,” Royel admits. “The lyric was kind of a joke.” And they’re right about messing it up a bit: The gentle thump of 2022 standout “Egg Beater” tells the story of a known fuck-up convinced of both his love and the idea that doesn’t deserve it: “I hate the air you breathe, but still want you, sugar lumps.”
It’s not that Royel Otis aren’t tortured about romance. But when they do sing about it, it’s as earnestly self-aware as it can possibly get: unpretentious and needing, desperate yet still cloying. On the band’s excellent third EP, Sofa Kings (out today), Royel Otis sing about the things that come with that guttural yearning for love, and what that might feel like at different degrees, from careless freedom to self-flagellating obsession. We went track-by-track with the band to talk about each song that brought the EP together.
Listen to it when: your Friday night is just about to get started.
Key lyric: “If only I’d speak, if only / ‘Cause I want your love / Save my body, step on me”
Royel says: “It was actually one of the first we ever did. We were demoing around with it before we released Campus, but then it wasn't until we were just going through old demos in the studio that we were like, ‘Oh, this actually sounds great. This could be cool.’”
Otis says: “When we were recording it, we had done two different bits separately: ‘You’re far more cooler…’ we had that bit, and then we had the [bridge], ‘But I don't think we can take it much more.’ But we didn't sing it together, so we didn't know if they were working together. So it was kind of an accident where it came in, but it ended up working.”
Royel says: “Beautiful accident. When writing that first verse, ‘You’re far more cooler,’ I was trying to make it sound like a Neil Young song, I don't know how to do Neil Young, but I was picturing Neil Young singing it rather than what it ended up being.”
Otis says: “It’s kind of putting yourself on the line. You’re obsessed with this person and making a complete fool of yourself.”
Royel says: “Most of our songs sort of have that. We like to have the contrast between songs that sound romantic, but when you read the lyrics, they’re self-deprecating.”
Listen to it when: you’ve got an unrequited crush on your mind.
Key lyric: “So if you ever need to find / Someone to get along with every time / Don’t take another chance with me / I’m not the man I’m supposed to be / But you’re so fucking gorgeous”
Royel says: “‘Sofa King’'s pretty much the same story as ‘Egg Beater.’ Being comfortable just letting everyone else run the race… everyone else trying to get to the end as fast as possible, while you're just kind of in a constant state of observational learning. But then there’s the compliment [“You’re so fucking gorgeous”]. It’s like, if you feel like taking a chance, you can.
“I Wanna Dance With You”
Listen to it when: you’re looking for a jump-start to your morning.
Key lyric: “Should've known by the way I'm throwing down for you / Should've known by the way I'm looking out / That I don't know myself banging over you / That I don't know myself hanging it over you”
Royel says: “You’re messing it up because you've again drunk a bit too much or something. And you're just trying to drink a little bit to get that confidence, but you took it way too far and you're stumbling over everywhere, but still a little bit of charm still gets through. I was trying to write a Johnny Marr guitar line because I love The Smiths; Johnny Marr is probably my favorite guitarist.”
Otis says: “It's got that whole jangly, almost banjo-style picking guitar parts and sliding and hammer-ons and stuff. And it's all just very ‘diddly, diddly, diddly.’”
“Letter from Roy”
Listen to it when: you need to spend a few hours in the feels.
Key lyric: “I might just lay on the floor / I must look pretty dumb now / So tired and weak / You’re still the girl I adore”
Royel says: “That's also a callback to being happy to be stepped on as long as you're getting the attention — willing to just stick it out in a bad relationship, as long as you still feel somewhat safer and secure. I'm not the best of singers, so we messed with [the vocals] a bit. We'd been out all night and we recorded that when we got home. When we got back to the studio and hit play, I was kind of distant from the mic, so we did another one closer to the mic and smoothed out some of my insecurities.”
Listen to it when: you’re in the car with your besties.
Key lyric: “Going Kokomo / Our life’s a beach so let’s let go / Don’t stress yourself / Might even play this on the radio”
Otis says: “That song was really funny. When we wrote it, it was in a writing session; our managers set us up with a guy named Rob Brinkman, and we just got in for a day and started writing this song. And when we were writing, we were just throwing out ideas. The lyrics for the chorus used to be ‘Going Kokomo, a la carte, ceviche, espresso.’ We weren’t taking the piss, but just throwing random lyrics at it. And then we realized we really liked it.”
Listen to it when: you might be feeling a bit lonely.
Key lyric: “Creep up on the window seat / Spiders crawling underneath / Sung like silk through razor teeth / Come home to me”
Otis says: “It’s just about sinking your teeth into someone's life that you are into, this kind of lovely song from afar and they don't even know who you are. I feel like it’s almost a fantasy in your own head. ‘I see you alone at home driving past, because no one's home, raindrops on the streets I miss, don't go to sleep.’ So it's kind of like you're out the front of the house.”
Royel says: “Picture the romance and wanting them to come home, but you are sitting in a car out front, not in the home. At the time, we were talking about ‘Every Breath You Take’ by Sting and The Police, and how everyone thinks that's a romantic song, but it's about a stalker.”
Otis says: “It’s very romanticized. We’re not actual stalkers.”
Listen to it when: you’re winding down a long day.
Key lyric: “I want your love / Taken by your love”
Otis says: “I think that was the same night [we made] ‘Letter from Roy,’ after the party when we came home, where [producer] Chris Collins lives. And it was his last day there before he moved to a new house. We just kind of got a mood there, piano and guitar. I think Royel started it, and then we just ended up playing with little instrumental ballad things.”
Royel says: “That's Otis on the keys with that one, which is amazing, because Otis seems to come up with really good stuff on piano. Doesn't know how to play piano really, but it seems to work! And it was sort of a tribute to the beauty of Chris' place and all the times we had there, which were amazing.”
Otis says: “‘I want your love / Taken by your love…’ Being truthful, that was just the first lyric that came to our minds. I'm pretty sure we just got on the mic and that's kind of what came and we just didn't really overthink it.”