From well-received early singles, to sparkling remixes, to their debut LP, Northern Automatic Music on Saint Marie Records, Chicago’s Panda Riot have continued to evolve from beachy cuteness to a dream pop band demanding to be taken seriously. And they are to be taken seriously. With all the hard work evident on their most recent album Infinity Maps, seems like the critics are finally catching up as well. We sat down with the chief architect and sonic sculptor Brian Cook, to talk about composition, pedals, sampling, as well as future plans. Press play and follow along, won’t you?
DKFM: It can’t be JUST us… this album seemed to take an absurdly long time to finally be released into the world. Tell us about the journey to release?
Brian: It takes a while for the vibe of an album to wear off. We could have made an album right after Northern Automatic Music and it probably would have sounded similar, but thats not what we were after. I Â spent about a year teaching myself to build guitar pedals and then actually building them. I ended up building about 50 different pedals for this album. I built them based on what the song needed–even it was just one little moment in a song, I’d build a pedal just for that. It took awhile too because we have our own studio. We were experimenting more with the recording and the composition. Â When we record something into the computer it isn’t just about taking what’s there and making it sound better. We’d try to push things beyond that. For instance, we may record a drum part, then chop it up in the computer, listen back and then try to recreate that version live; record it and then merge the 2 versions. So you end up having a mixture of organic and inorganic elements.
DKFM: It seems that there are more layers, more competing textures, that there’s just more going on in Infinity Maps than you’ve attempted before. If anything, seems like an incredible attention to detail. Talk a little about the recording and mixing process.
Brian: From a technical/gear perspective, I built out a computer that could handle and process large numbers of tracks smoothly. We also bought a pair of Mackie Controls, which is a digital control surface that talks to Logic Pro. Having 16 faders and not having to mix with a trackpad or mouse is super freeing. It really bridges the analog console approach to the digital realm. Moving faders, twisting dials feels much more natural. And once you have the ability to manipulate recorded elements fluidly with a computer it can become an instrument in its own right. All this equipment–the Mackie Control and the Mac Pro are from 2010 or earlier. The pre-touch screen stuff is brilliant and cheap nowadays.
DKFM: Tell us a little about the unique guitar textures you’re getting on this album. What goes into making the Panda Riot sound?
Brian: I had a pretty specific approach to recording and mixing the guitars from the start. I would do a take and then send that signal back through a different amp, pedal, mic combination a bunch of times. Â The cool thing about that is that it doesn’t end up sounding like 100 overdubs since all the tracks are derived from the same performance. When it came to mixing I’d have about 8 different textures of the same part (x2 takes) to play around with, so for rhythm guitars I could then blend all those together. Â It’s similar to working with a drawbar organ in a strange way where it’s one big sound but you can play around with the harmonics and texture.
The chaining of pedals and understanding what the best order is to exploit a certain sound also takes a long time. But it’s that very precarious chain of events that’s special. You twist one knob and the whole thing could fall apart. Twist another and it’s magic.
DKFM: Infinity Maps is notable for solid songs, bookended by luscious short song snippets in between. Was that a fortuitous use of existing material on the cutting room floor, or a conscious decision to give the LP even greater depth and colour?
Brian: Overall the idea was to treat everything as a moment. Some moments or feelings are more fleeting than others, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Everything was composed based on what the album called for.
One of the things we were focused on was thinking of songs or parts visually like a film. You have moments, scenes, establishing shots, lighting etc. With that in mind, it was pretty clear what each song needed to be.
Chimera, Infinity Maps and Parachute use elements or were directly sampled from elements of Aphelion for example. Parallels samples Arrows. Glass Cathedrals samples Night Animation. I’ve always been a fan of early hip hop and sample spotting. It’s cool to hear a piece of music show up in a different context and take on a new feeling or meaning.
DKFM: How do you think the album’s been received thus far?
Brian: We’ve gotten a really great response so far. It feels good to have it done and out there. And people seem to be picking up on the aspects that we spent a long time trying to bring out.
DKFM: You headed out on tour, bringing the Panda Riot roadshow to the West Coast last year. Now that the album is getting traction everywhere, making any fresh tour plans to amplify the signal?
Brian: We did a small tour on the East Coast in June which went over really well. We are planning on playing out a lot more. The songs off this album translate really well in a live context which is a relief. Because when we were writing the album we never considered how hard/easy it would be to play live.
DKFM: What’s next for the Panda Riot Express? New video productions for the existing songs? New songs in the works?
Brian: We are planning on releasing Infinity Maps on Vinyl in the Fall which we are pretty excited about. We’ll have some new music videos between now and then too.
DKFM: Finally, what one thing should everyone know about Panda Riot?
Brian: We are all descended from outer space aliens.