25th Mar2013

Panda Riot: The Northern Automatic Music Interview

by Todd

Panda Riot - Photo

Dear Kevin Shields,

While I absolutely adore your new album, I have a question. Why did it take you over twenty years to release a new record, while Panda Riot made an album of equal brilliance in two years? Their new record, Northern Automatic Music eschews the lo-fi aesthetic that all the kids seem to love these days. Instead, it embraces your philosophy of layering waves and waves of brilliantly written melodies on top of each other, to create a wall of sound that begs to be played at high volumes, while still remaining engaging when played at a whisper. They are based in Chicago and recorded this album by themselves on a tight budget, creating a soundscape that shares your ability to make noises seem to come from every direction, creating that simultaneous sensation of bliss and vertigo in a way that other bands can only dream of. Kevin, I’ll do you a favor and talk about the creation of an album that will sit on my shelf, next to MBV with their guitarist, Brian Cook. Please take notes.

Your pal,

Todd

Todd: The new record is brilliant. How long did it take you to write the songs on this album?

Brian: Thanks! The basic composition (voice, guitar, drum machine) for these songs came pretty quickly. The parts for ‘In the forest’ were written in about 30 minutes for example. But the whole album from start to finish took about 2 years. Most of the time was spent on getting the sounds right, adding little parts, taking stuff out, recording and re-recording guitars and drums, etc.

Todd: When we interviewed you back in 2010 (!) you indicated that you eschewed using a drummer because you didn’t want to be a “rock band in the traditional sense”. What made you change your mind?

Brian: I realize now that I was talking about the approach to the rhythms and drumming style. The addition of real drums was intended to give the songs a more powerful feel. As we started experimenting with José we found that a less is more approach is best with the live drums. He stands up and only plays a floor tom, a snare and a ride. Sonically, we spent a long time playing around and seeing how the electronic and acoustic drums could compliment each other. I always hated the sound of a real kick drum, so the album is all drum machine kicks, where as the tom sits above that frequency in a nice way.
Obviously replacing a drum machine with a real drummer makes a difference in the sound of the band, but how did it impact the songwriting approach on the new record?
The songs still have a hybrid of programmed drums and real drums. All of the songs still start with a guitar track and a drum machine. Songs like Serious Radical Girls and Amanda in the Clouds are a really good example of having drum machines and real drums playing off of each other. In the Forest is actually a blend of programmed drums and real drums as well, although you would never really know that by how it sounds.
The most exciting thing that we started doing on this album was treating live drums the same way we’d treat a drum machine. For a lot of the songs, José would listen to an unfinished song, play various drum parts for about 10 minutes and then we’d sit back and cut them up and essentially sample and re-arrange them. We both found it interesting to work that way because it allowed us to come up with parts that we would have never thought of if we just did straight takes. We like to take elements of electronic music and try to pull them off in a more organic way. The song “Someday” for example has José playing 2 different drum fills that we then sped up and layered over a 3 drum track. Rhythmically it gives it that real/unreal feeling.

Todd: Where’d you record the new album and what were you trying to accomplish sonically?

Brian: We recorded this album in a warehouse by ourselves. Its a pretty raw, totally acoustically untreated space. I recorded everything and then mixed it all on a laptop in Logic Pro. Because of this, we were free to experiment and do whatever we wanted. Sonically, I wanted everything to be as clear as possible. I didn’t want that smoke and mirrors vibe of a lo-fi recording. Because it was me alone recording everyone and mixing it did take some time, but it was necessary for the way we worked. A lot of the songs evolved and were written as we were recording. There was no plan or projected date of when something was going to be done. A lot of the demos for these songs in no way resemble the final versions. We’d maybe start with a guitar and a drum machine part, record real drums over top, cut them up, drop the original drum machine and add a new one, etc. So songs we’re being built up and stripped away throughout the whole process.
We spent a lot of time on the details–what tambourine sounds better on this part, where the mics should be and which ones sound the best on an amp. Everything was recorded with multiple mics. For one guitar part there’d be 8 mics on 2 or 3 different amps. The same is true for everything else, handclaps tambourine, shakers etc would be mic’d and recorded with at least 4-8 mics.

Todd: You’ve brought the vocals up in the mix for this record. Would you rather explain why you were burying the beauty before or just explain the decision to bring it to the front, now?

Brian: I think our approach to vocals varies from song to song. Maybe it’s just the way the songs are composed this time that make them feel this way. There was nothing conscious about that. Sometimes we treat them more like an instrument and sometimes they pop out of the mix because of the nature of the song.

Todd: Your videos have always been a great artistic vehicle for the band. Can you talk about the Black Pyramids video?

Brian: Rebecca and I started out making films. We don’t really have time to do that much anymore, but when we get the chance we’re all for it. We shot that video in the same warehouse where we recorded the album. We used this discontinued Fisher Price toy camera from the 80’s. It records these really pixelated, ghostly, noir-ish kind of images. I modified the camera so we could record it onto flash memory. The lack of detail of the image makes it very interesting to work with. Once you get used to working with what the camera is showing and not whats actually there its pretty fun. For example, in the video Rebecca is singing into a lightbulb! But the camera makes it look like some kind of awesome glowing microphone.

Todd: You did a split single with SPC ECO with Dean Garcia. Did you get to meet/talk to Dean?

Brian: We were briefly on a label called XD, and Dean’s band SPC ECO was also on that label. We had heard that Dean really liked our stuff and since we are fans of Curve, we asked if he would take a listen to a track, Serious Radical Girls, and do a remix for it. Thankfully, he said yes, and the remix he did was so spot on, everything we thought it should be. He’s a genius.

Todd: I’m having trouble keeping up with the Pitchfork barometer-of-cool. Is it ok to be shoegaze again?

Brian: Allegedly, especially because you have that new MBV album out. Probably cool enough for all the suburban kids to stop being in psych bands and start putting on the shoegaze sound. Honestly, we like some shoegaze elements, but we’re influenced by so many things. If it helps us out that shoegaze is popular again, then great. If it’s not popular we are still going to make the same music we make.

Todd: While I love the sonics of this record, the songs themselves are quite beautiful. I suspect they would sound amazing, played acoustically. Were they written acoustically and/or have you played them as such at any time?

Brian: They are all written on electric guitar. There are certain things we couldn’t do or would have never come up with if we started with an acoustic. Sometimes we do play a song on acoustic afterwards to see if it translates in a simpler, starker form. That’s important to us to see it that way because we never want to hide behind effects. Sometimes Rebecca will play a song like In the Forest or Serious Radical Girls on piano to figure out some vocal parts and I think they sound amazing like that.

Todd: It seems as if there’s a bit of a buzz about Panda Riot in the Far East. True? Any thoughts to travelling abroad to play there?

Brian: It’s true, we have a record label from Japan (vinyl junkie) and another from Taiwan (white wabbit) putting out this album. We might end up playing there depending on how things go.

Todd: Selfishly, I’m going to ask if you plan to play Dallas in the near future, since you’re label is based in Ft. Worth. But for the rest of the world I’ll ask if you plan to tour with this record.

Brian: There’s no plan to tour right now, maybe in the summer. We really love making new songs so that’s what we’re going to do for the time being.

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