The Panda Band: ‘We Lost A Lot Of Momentum’
From ‘Sleepy Little Deathtoll Town’ to hibernation – The Panda Band’s Damian Crosbie fills DOUG WALLEN in on the past seven years.
Everything is up for grabs in the psychedelic bustle of The Panda Band. It’s restless, questing pop in the mode of Beck or The Flaming Lips, loading dizzy sounds onto songs that are grabby in their own right. The Perth quartet first turned heads with 2004’s jazz-spiked single ‘Sleepy Little Deathtoll Town’, which ranked #73 on the Hottest 100 for that year. A pair of EPs followed before 2006’s This Vital Chapter followed through with a vast, candy-coloured vision.
Since then, The Panda Band have seemed in hibernation. There have been tours at home and abroad, but mostly the guys have been toiling over a follow-up that’s only now seeing the light of day. That would be Charisma Weapon, self-recorded in a home studio and self-released as well. Mixed by Magoo, the album runs riot through images and sounds as frontman Damian Crosbie leads the charge. In the midst of a national tour, Crosbie weighs in on the challenges of writing challenging music and how the intervening years have treated the band.
Why was there such a long time between the last album and this one?
It’s a big combination of members leaving and coming back, trying to get funding to record it as well as we wanted to, and losing our manager. [Laughs] Just loads and loads of stuff. We lost a lot of momentum. Then when we got back on track, we just spent a while doing it. So it all added up.
Did the band ever come close to parting ways?
Maybe. If you lose two members out of five, you’re like, “OK, are we still the same band?” There was definitely that feeling, but it felt like we’d set out on this little adventure and these were Panda Band songs and it needed to be done. There are always thoughts when you’re frustrated and tired, but you’ve just got to think about the satisfaction of the release and all that stuff. All the good stuff.
When you mentioned getting funding to record the album, do you mean working day jobs and saving up?
Y’know, in hindsight I can’t even tell how we did it. I’ve been working on this full-time for ages, and I haven’t had a day job. Which has been tough, but it means you can’t turn into an alcoholic, which is good. I think we’ve just played some good shows here and there and saved the money up. [Laughs] Yeah, how have we afforded it? I don’t know. I guess it’s mostly from shows. We did some odd Queensland shows in the last couple of years. It all helps.
When did you guys tour America?
I think it was the end of 2007 that we went there. And then came back in 2008.
That seemed to go quite well.
Yeah. Obviously it’s a massive country to tackle, but the reception’s good. We couldn’t work on our visas, so we were just scraping by. We stayed for as long as we possibly could. It’s such a big place to take on that you really need to keep hammering away at it.
Was it weird having a song as successful as ‘Sleepy Little Deathtoll Town’ so early in the band’s career?
I guess you just feel lucky. It didn’t feel weird. It just felt lucky that people were taking notice of the songs. It lets you do more and you get to tour. You put a lot of effort into the songs and music and recording, so it doesn’t feel weird that it’s paying off. This is what we were hoping for.
How long had the band been together by that point?
I think four months or something like that. We had to put the band together quick, because we got a bunch of A&R stuff happening at the start. We were just a little bedroom recording thing, so we thought we should put the band together and make something out of it. It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest. But I think that’s how it went. A few months, then play a show, and then EP and then album.
It’s a really interesting song. It sounds influenced by Dixieland or something. Where did that come from?
Well, I had a television in my room back then. I think for a lot of songs I just got ideas from watching documentaries. ABC and SBS would have awesome Sundays full of strange programs. I think I’d been watching The History of Jazz or something . It’s hard to remember exactly now. Just try some different chords and see how that affects a pop song.
And bring in horns…
[Laughs] Yeah. Y’know, seemed like a good idea at the time. Did the job.
Both albums have that channel-surfing quality, where you’re bringing lots of different things in and out and it’s often quite fleeting.
Yeah, I try to hone in on specific sounds for songs, but I just get bored with 11 songs of guitar, drums, and bass. I end up writing on instruments I don’t know. It seems more fun and a bit more like accidents, whereas with guitar you get into this routine of sitting down and choosing the same chords. You’ve gotta get out of it. Otherwise it ends up sounding the same to me. I guess it’s trying to attack that.
So just getting out of your comfort zone?
Yeah, yeah. Just leaving it up to mistakes that might come out of it.
What about writing lyrics? There are really colourful ones on the new record.
Well, it takes me ages. That’s another reason why it takes so long. Because we have a bunch of music: I just want to have lyrics that mean something and that I can keep singing for years. I put a lot of effort into it.
They’re pretty abstract as well, though.
Yeah, I try to strike a good balance. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? I guess there’s songs that I’d get and the type of lyrics I’d like to hear in other people’s songs.
Some seem to be more narrative than others, like ’51 Swimsuits’.
I know what you mean. ‘Alligators’ is kind of like that too. It’s like a little story. And some of them are just a feeling you have or a situation you find yourself in. You try to let that out and put it into words in some fashion that hopefully makes it easier to get through.
We’ve talked about having all these different sounds. Is that why you wanted someone like Magoo mixing it?
[Laughs] Yeah. When he met our new drummer the other week, he said, “I didn’t think anybody would be able to play that record on drums. It was the impossible drumming record.” There were a few days where he had to draw on extra levels of patience. He’s had such a diverse history of things he’s worked on, so I think he’s the perfect fit to find what we’re trying to get across.
Why are the drums so hard to replicate?
Because I did them all. [Laughs] And I’m not a drummer. There’s lots of programmed stuff. I wasn’t thinking of it as a band album. I didn’t care if it sounded like hip-hop or whatever: it’s not going to when I’m finished with it, because I’m going to do a different, poppy thing. But when it comes to drumming, you’ve got to keep the same feel. Sometimes the subtle things fill out the sound a lot and keep the tempo going. You get to playing the drum kit with it and it’s like something’s wrong. And trying to get to the bottom of that is often a nightmare.
“We were just a little bedroom recording thing, so we thought we should put the band together and make something out of it.”
That goes back to what you said about trying instruments you don’t play.
Yeah, I mean, there’s things you don’t even think about. Like when a drummer plays, I’ve learned now he’s got his left foot going on the hi-hat and keeping time. I was recording and listening to snare sounds and not realising that was a combination of a snare and a hi-hat. There’s things like that that you pick up along the way. If you don’t know about it, it’s just going to sound different from a recorded drum kit.
You recorded the album in your own home studio. Was anyone working with you as producer?
No. Another reason it takes so long. It was just us. Well, it was basically me. We had some A&R interest and we were showing them and they were giving feedback. I was just trying to balance how people saw it. It’s good to get other people’s perspectives on it. That was about the only other influence.
But you still ended up self-releasing it. There weren’t any labels involved.
No, in the end. There was a lot of back and forth, and it just never got there in the end. It stretched things out way too long. You end up getting really frustrated because you’re getting all these positive words but the actions aren’t being followed up. It’s been tough.
Well, the record sounds great. You hear different things in it every time.
Yeah, it’s pretty dense. I know that’s often a criticism as well. If it does reveal itself over a few listens and keeps offering more, that’s positive. Rather than something that’s shallow and easy to get your head around but doesn’t stay with you. I’m always trying to strike that balance.
‘Charisma Weapon’ is out now on Bam*Boo.
‘CHARISMA WEAPON’ LAUNCH DATES:
Wed, Aug 10 – The Brass Monkey, Cronulla, NSW
Thu, Aug 11 – The Vault, Windsor, NSW
Fri, Aug 12 – Northern Star, Newcastle, NSW
Sat, Aug 13 – The Gaelic Club, Sydney, NSW
Wed, Aug 17 – ANU, Canberra, ACT
Thu, Aug 18 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC
Fri, Aug 19 – Barwon Club, Geelong, VIC
Sat, Aug 20 – Hotel Metro, Adelaide, SA
Fri, Aug 26 – Rosemount Hotel, Perth, WA
Fri, Sept 2 – Player’s Bar, Mandurah, WA