Panda Riot, the Chicago-based dreampop/shoegaze aficionados, are back this week with a whole new release. Infinity Maps is released tomorrow, June 9th, and my review will be up on release day. Let’s just say that it’s an epic album and was well worth the four-year wait. The band agreed to answer my questions about the new album, how they go about writing music as a band, some of their history, and much more. As we celebrate the release of another amazing album in 2017, give the interview a read and order yourself a copy of Infinity Maps. The link is after the interview below. Also, check out their tour dates also below!
Hello all in Panda Riot! Can you all introduce yourselves and talk about what you do in the band?
Brian plays guitar, drum machine programming, recording, and mixing. Rebecca does voice and guitar. José plays drums. Cory plays bass.
How did you all get your start in music? I’m not meaning the band here but rather your individual background.
Rebecca: I started playing the piano when I was 5 and continued to take classical piano lessons throughout college. And I also played a bit of guitar in high school, but it wasn’t until after college when Brian and I started working on music together that I began to be more creative with music and to see myself as someone who could write songs.
Brian: I started off making films and found myself really enjoying making soundtracks for them. Initially, when I first started playing guitar, it was always with an ebow, which is kind of strange when I think of it now, but I guess I was never into “guitar sounds.” So that was the starting point. I always really loved 90’s era hip hop so naturally I started figuring out how to program drum machines.
When you put out Northern Automatic Music, you were asked a lot about your move from Philadelphia to Chicago. Now that you have set down roots in the city, how has the Chicago environment suited you as a band and has it influenced your sound at all?
Your environment always influences you, but it’s often in ways you don’t realize so it’s hard to say how Chicago has influenced our sound. Probably the most direct way that Chicago has influenced us is by giving us José and Cory! And another thing that’s great about Chicago is that we are able to have a large loft/warehouse space that really frees us up to experiment whether it’s composing, recording or mixing. That alone has been huge in terms of how we approach making songs.
How does the writing process work in Panda Riot? Is this a democracy or is there a central writer or writers in the group?
Brian is definitely the leader, but we all contribute to the songwriting. Typically, Brian comes up with a guitar part/chord progression and drum machine beat. Then Rebecca writes melodies and lyrics and helps shape the composition. Then José and Cory add their bass and drum parts. But throughout the process, the song continues to develop so that the end result doesn’t always resemble the original idea. Everyone ends up contributing in different ways.
Looking back on Northern Automatic Music, how do you feel about that album now that you have had some distance? Are there any tracks that you particularly connect with now and like playing live?
Northern was our first album with José and having a real drummer influenced the sound a lot. Black Pyramids, Camden Line, and Goodnight, Rich Kids were really fun to play in a live context because they have a lot of energy that translates well live.
I really love Infinity Maps and its unique selection of tracks, with long-form pieces set alongside shorter songs. Can you talk about how you went about choosing tracks for this album and how you chose the track order?
As for the shorter songs, there are a lot of moments in life that are beautiful and it’s the very temporary nature of those moments that make them meaningful. We didn’t necessarily want to put everything in a four-minute box because sometimes something happens and it’s fleeting, but that’s the right amount of time for it to happen.
As for the track order, Brian had a loose feel for what he envisioned early on. In a lot of ways, the original ideas were more like a visual structure and the tracks were based upon that structure. Then, if a part was missing, we’d write a song for that moment. Because of this overall vision, we had to choose songs that fit being a “good song” didn’t necessarily mean the song was right for the album.
I like to ask bands about a few tracks on their newest release so we can get a bit of an in-depth look at those tracks, the writing process, and sort of some info behind how you think about music in general. Can you talk about the writing and recording of “Double Dream” and “Gold Lines”?
Double Dream started with a guitar part and a Blade Runner type synth part. José and Brian have a lot of the same taste when it comes to earlier hip hop. They were talking about drum beats and sampling and thought it would be interesting to play around with the idea of playing parts as if they’d already been recorded and sliced up.
Gold Lines actually started as 2 different songs. One was the rhythm track and the other was a more ambient guitar song. We merged the 2 and Rebecca came up with the vocal part right away.
What inspires you all to make the music that you make? This can be other artists or locations,etc. Also, if you have a philosophy about art or music, what is it?
Rebecca: Because I do philosophy full time which is hyper-analytical, music for me is a space where I don’t want to overthink things. For me, music is a mode of expression where I can tap into intuition without trying to make everything have a totally clear meaning which is not to say that music doesn’t have meaning but just that the meaning of music is not something that can be translated into clear words and concepts. For me, music is more impressionistic and about sharing with other people an experience of being in the world as an embodied, living, breathing corporeal thing.
Brian: Specifically, I like thinking about the structure of films and applying it to music. Like when a song goes from verse to chorus, thinking about that visually in terms of scenes, cuts and location. As far the type of music I make, it’s really what feels natural.
What gear do you all use both live and in the studio?
Mac Pro (2010) Logic Pro X
For amps, we used a bunch of Vox Amps and an old Fender Twin. The main guitar on this album was an old Harmony from the 60’s, but we also sometimes used a Danelectro or a Jazzmaster.
As far as recording goes, we used some Neve Clone Preamps on everything and a Pultec style EQ. We also used a bunch of weird microphones and a couple decent ones. And Brian learned how to build guitar pedals, and so he ended up building a bunch probably over 50 pedals for this album. They are cheap to build so sometimes he’d build a pedal just for one part of a song and then never use it again.
So what’s next for Panda Riot?
We have some east coast tour dates coming up which we are really looking forward to. We are also hoping to make a bunch of videos/visual projects to accompany the tracks. It’s nice to shift perspective and go back and forth between music and visuals. They feel very similar and both influence each other.
6/15 Detroit at UFO Factory
6/16 Philadelphia at Ortlieb’s
6/17 NYC at Tran Pecos
6/18 Boston at Plough and Stars