By Brian F. Johnson
Reggae bands aren’t known for musical diversity in their catalog. So this spring when the Rochester, N.Y.-based Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad released their latest album Bright Days — a collection of mostly Bakersfield-sound Americana tunes — many were alarmed that there was hardly a reggae beat to be found. But this isn’t necessarily strange territory for the band who in 2012 released the acoustic roots album Country.
“We didn’t sit down at a round table in a smoky room and say, ‘We’re going to try to confuse our fans all the time, as much as we can,’” said bassist/vocalist James Searl in a recent interview with The Marquee. “To go into the studio one day and say, ‘Hey let’s break out the slide guitars and the lap steels and a hollow body bass and let’s play some folk Americana music.’ That’s not a curve ball at all to us.”
Searl went on to explain that the Bright Days session actually came at the tail end of their 2014 release Steady and was the brain child of their producer Craig Welsch (10 Ft. Ganja Plant). “Craig literally came to us and said, ‘I heard your first two albums and I don’t think the engineer did you justice. They’re o.k. but you can do better. Why don’t you come by and record a couple tunes and I’ll show you what I can do.’ And so we thought that was pretty bold, but we took him up on it and we went there and right away we recorded like five songs, from Steady. We didn’t even know what we were going to do with it, but it was the best recording experience we’d had up until that time,” he said. “So we booked another week and we went there and we finished Steady.”
As they neared completion of that session, Welsch came up with another bold idea that would have sent many bands running. He suggested that the guys spend one day in the studio at the end of the session with acoustic instruments and attempt to record a set of songs that they hadn’t fully worked out, hadn’t rehearsed and hadn’t recorded yet. Furthermore, Welsch suggested that the studio owner Milt Reder, a man who plays guitar in a Beatles cover band, accompany Giant Panda on the entire recording. “We thought that sounded crazy to have somebody that we don’t know play with us, but Craig said ‘I’ll work for free and you should just try to do this,” Searl explained. “So that night we went to see Milt play and he played lick-for-lick every George Harrison line and, long-story short, we ended up sitting down in the studio with him.”
Searl said that the band members would loosely explain these unfinished songs to one another and then run through them with very little rehearsal. “We’d just kind of explain the basic structure of the songs to each other and go. Milt would hear it and immediately have it, like he’d been playing the tune for 30 years. The guys in my own band took longer to pick up some of the songs than he did,” Searl said. “And that’s the story of Bright Days.”
While the band enjoyed the process and came away with what Searl called a great listening album, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, who have been playing reggae live since 2004, weren’t prepared to change their entire live show experience. “The live show is the live show,” Searl said, explaining that what happens in the studio isn’t always going to be reflected on stage. “We play reggae music because we feel reggae is the best way to present a song to a live audience that wants to dance, and it’s not just because we want people to have a good time, but because physiologically it’s the best kind of music to make that happen. That’s why we like it.”
And with that thought the group took the old standard of making an album and then touring behind it for two years and threw it out the window. They’d keep Bright Days as another chapter in the band’s sound, but they wouldn’t be re-working their live sets, or changing what audiences have come to know from the group in terms of their concerts.
That decision makes it seem as if the band is changing the paradigm of the record/tour/record/tour model, but Searl said that it’s actually not an idea that they came up with, and in fact, it’s a nod to one of the group’s biggest influences over the years.
“We can’t take credit for it,” he said. “Myself and the rest of the band, we are huge Grateful Dead fans, and I think that the Grateful Dead kind of had the same ethos. Not only did they want the concert experience of their band to be unique and unlike any other, they were willing to throw in any kind of music in the right setting to make that happen. One of the biggest influences in us releasing the Country album and Bright Days were Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, which were big curve balls in their time, I suppose.”
Searl said that some day, the ultimate goal would be for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad to open for themselves the same way the Dead did several times in the late ’60s, early ’70s, playing an acoustic set, before a few other bands, and then returning to the stage for a full electric set to cap the evening. “That would be our ideal set up,” he said. “Not because we want to be the Grateful Dead, but because that’s the most fun you could possibly have.”
Whether they reach that ultimate goal or not, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, either live, or in the studio, aren’t suddenly going to get set on one path and stay on it forever. Searl said that there are too many opportunities for them to continue to broaden their base of musical education, musical exploration and ultimately musical connection, with each other as well as their audience. “We’d throw a lot more curve balls if given the opportunity, because we just love music,” he said. “We’re interested in all sorts of different kinds of music and our taste’s change and grow as we get exposed to more things and we want to be a part of all of it.”
Arise Music Festival
Sunrise Ranch| Loveland, Colo.
(Festival runs Aug. 7 – 9)
Go If You Dig:
- 10 ft. Ganja Plant
- John Brown’s Body
- Easy Star All-Stars