Some bands just get it. Unfortunately, making great music has never been enough. With the demise of the major label record machine, bands are left to come up with their own clever means of promoting themselves. Hailing from Chicago, Panda Riot have mastered the art of mixing great music and fantastic videos, in an effort to get your attention. Lazy music journalists want to pigeon-hole them as “shoe-gaze”. While there is a density to their music that pays homage to early shoegaze, there’s a decidedly modern feel to their music. Panda Riot guitarist, Brian Cook took some time with TDOA writer Amy McCarthy to discuss the scene in Chicago and his run-ins with Michael Stipe.
TDOA: Apparently, thereʼs a story floating around about Panda Riot and Michael Stipe at the
Athens Popfest in 2009. Letʼs hear it!
BC: Athens is a beautiful little town with a deep musical history. When we played the Athens
Popfest we would we bobbing our heads next to Apples in Stereo or we’d go out for a
smoke and start talking to someone and realize that they were part of Olivia Tremor
Control. Its has a really unpretentious vibe. So getting back to the question, we were in
the middle of a 2 week tour and we played a show with Twin Tigers which was really
fun. As we were getting ready to play our set someone whispered to us “Michael Stipe is
So we played our set and he later came over to our little merch table and bought both of
our CDs (She Dares All Things and a CD-R of what was roughly to become the Far and
Near EP) It was really an honor to know he dug our music and to meet him. He hung
outside for the next bands set, but we were still way too intimidated to go up and talk to
TDOA: Where does the name Panda Riot come from? I imagine a sweet parade of attack
BC: The name Panda Riot actually came from a friend’s band at the time. They had recently
formed and decided on a different name. We were talking to them and they rattled off a
list of rejected band names that they didn’t go for and Panda Riot was one of them. On
a side note the band name game–where you come up with new band names and
imagine what the band might sound like–is a game we play a lot, especially when stuck
in the car on tour (like our friend Christian’s imaginary German electronic band, Sex
Ox). Panda Riot just felt like the music we wanted to make. I don’t even think we had
written a song at that point.
TDOA: Iʼm sure you guys (and girl!) have been talked to death about your cover of “Paper
Planes,” but I just have one question: what was your vision for that song? I mean, you
managed to make the catchiest damn song around catchier!
BC: We had never really done a cover before Paper Planes. To us the best covers use the
original version as a jumping off point. The Paper Planes song had become so
saturated with remixes and covers that we decided if we did it it would have to really be
ours. We wanted to really slow it down and take out the club aspect but still make it
bouncey. That’s all we had in mind before we made it. The version that you hear on the
internet is just from a live session we did with WOXY radio. We have never properly
recorded it, but i think the spontaneity of the recording is fine with us.
TDOA: Speaking of girl, Rebecca, whatʼs it like being in a band with two dudes and a
RS: Well, now Melissa is in the band so we’re 50/50. That drum machine can be really
sexist, though, always shooting down my ideas, telling me I’m too emotional, and yelling
at me to bring it beer and chicken wings.
TDOA: Can you talk a bit about the much ballyhooed “shoegaze” scene in Chicago? From
whence did it come and do you perceive it as a “movement”?
BC: Well Rebecca and myself (Brian) started out playing as Panda Riot in Philadelphia. When we moved to Chicago we added Justin on bass and later Melissa on aux percussion, which made us dancier and more beat driven. As far as the shoegaze scene in Chicago goes, we weren’t really aware of many bands into that type of music at first. But now we’ve been beginning to hook up with other ‘shoegazey’ bands like Apteka and Sissy Mena. Up until recently, it’s like all of the shoegaze bands have been working in parallel without really connecting. But, we’re hoping to change that.
TDOA: How did you come to use a drum machine rather than a live drummer and are there thoughts of adding a drummer at some point?
BC: We’ve always loved early hip hop like EPMD, Rakim, and things like that. So when we started Panda Riot we new we wanted to have that drum machine feel to it. We didn’t want to be a “rock” band in the traditional sense. We were more excited about making people dance. From time to time we consider adding a live drummer, but we’ve found that programmed drums and live drums don’t really compliment each other the way we’d like them to. That being said, Melissa has added a really nice organic feel to our live
sets. She plays various tambourines, Bells, shakers and the occasional snare which really blends in nicely.
TDOA: Most of the reviews Iʼve seen have called your music dreampop. Do you agree, or is there some combination of genres you think better describes your work?
BC: It doesn’t really matter to us. If people hear aspects of our music and want to label us dreampop or shoegaze that’d fine with us. If you wanted to know what we consider ourselves i guess you could call it swirl-pop.
TDOA: The Motown Glass video is absolutely incredible. Like, best Iʼve seen in a very long time. Where did the concept come from, and who did all the drawing?
RS: Brian and I originally made films together, and we knew we wanted to do a video for one of the tracks from the Far and Near EP. When our first record, she dares all things, came out, we never really had the time to do a proper video for any of the tracks, so there’s just a couple fan-made videos floating around.
We started with the idea of us in front of a green screen with random images behind us.
At the time Brian was working on the cover art for the EP drawing images with a tablet.
BC: It was weird but I hadn’t drawn anything since I was a little kid, but I was really enjoying it. Looking at the cover art we decided to combine it with the idea of the green screen. We went to a fabric store, bought $25 worth of green fabric had everyone come over one day and just filmed ourselves playing. Then I drew all the buildings, trains etc and used Apple’s Motion to composite it.
TDOA: Your Myspace page and Website have different lineups – who exactly is in Panda Riot currently?
BC: Brian (guitars and drum machine), Rebecca (vocals, keys, and guitar), Justin (bass) and Melissa (auxiliary percussion and backing vocals)
TDOA: What do you want TDOA readers to know about Panda Riot? Some good, quirky trivia would be nice!
BC: Hmm…quirky trivia:
- The earliest Panda Riot songs (really pre-Panda Riot songs) can be found in a YouTube
video called “Dolphins and Porpoises” that stars our friend Dante and a bunch of paper
airplanes (way before the MIA song).
- We have a 0 tolerance policy when it comes to panda imagery
- 50% of the band are getting PhDs (Justin- Psychology, Rebecca- Philosophy)
- We often use a William S. Burroughs style cut-up machine for lyrics.
- Our cat Seymour is the secret dictator of the band.
TDOA: What’s next for the band? Aspirations of signing with Sub Pop, Warners, etc.?
BC: Our plan is to keep putting out EPs as often as we can. We could have put out a full length instead of an EP, but we really enjoy the format of an EP. They are like little novellas. Doing EPs gives us more freedom to experiment and make each one have a distinctive feel. We also recently finished our first film score for a short film called “Apocalypse Story,” which should be hitting the Festival Circuit by mid-summer. We’d love to do more of that in the future as well. I’d say we’re more focused on making music than on getting signed, but if someone approached us and wanted to put out a record we’d be all for it
To learn more about Panda Riot, visit their website here.
Yes, the rare “TDOA must really, really like them” fourth video. And frankly we could have added quite a few more. Visit YouTube my friend….