TVD Recommends: Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad at Tropicalia, 9/12

The music of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad (GPGDS) flips roots reggae upside-down and shakes free traces of perceived Americana. Their sound is a derivative of island rhythms, although some listeners might, first, recognize their blues influences.

Later this month GPGDS or Panda, is releasing their first album since 2012. The album, Steady, breaks from the clinical sounds of a jam band, but the men of the band gleefully stick to archetypes of the grand genre of Jamaica—rocksteady shin-kicks, protest lyrics, and herb-smoking. Coming off their previous album Country, Tony Gallicchio, Chris O’Brian, Dan Keller, James Searl, and Dylan Savage infuse their latest with American folk motifs. Steady is an indirect study in musicology, particularly the relationship between reggae and working-class American music. They perform on Friday, September 12 at Tropicalia.

Singer-bassist James Searl took some time out of his schedule to humor me with questions ranging from re-animated dead folk singers to song title references from Steady. The album will be released on Easy Star Records, September 30. Panda, already mid-tour, continues through the US until early October. 

If your music was packaged with a mission statement, what would it be?

Music is healing. Let’s rock and let’s groove to this rhythm.

Tell me how you got in cahoots with Easy Star Records?

Dub Side of the Moon was a profound recording. We used to play it as the house music before all of our shows back when we started playing out as a band that was focused on spreading reggae music to the future. One thing about reggae that we all recognized was its miraculous ability to sound ancient and futuristic all at once.

Easy Star seemed to understand how powerful of a concept that was in their reinterpretation of the classic album Dark Side of the Moon, of which Panda was familiar with every note of the Pink Floyd version. We kept doing our thing, and they kept doing their thing, and after a while, the meet up was inevitable. There have been so many natural connections that have brought us together. It feels very special. Their support has certainly given us the confidence to know that we are on the right track in our lives and that reggae music is the truth.

At what moment in your life did you all realize that you want to make reggae music? Since it has traces of American roots music, was it an evolving sound?

Everyone in the band can attest to the fact that while we all listened to so much different music in our youth, Bob Marley was the most consistent throughout. No matter what genre we got into (grunge, punk, hardcore, hip hop, jazz, drum ’n’ bass, funk) Bob Marley was always being listened to.

All of the energy of these other genres could be found in the Bob Marley music. We didn’t realize it was reggae though. For me, it was when I happened to come across a free Wailers concert when I was 17. From the first note of “Natural Mystic” played by Family Man on the bass, I realized that this was as pure as music could get for me, and that was a crucial moment in my life. I then went to see John Brown’s Body (JBB) in my home town of Rochester, NY. I told Chris (Panda drummer) to go. JBB was from Ithaca, NY, about an hour and a half away from Rochester. They really made me understand that you could play respectable reggae and not be Jamaican, which, for very interesting-to-explore reasons, was a major hang up for us previously. From then on, we wrote and played reggae music, because it seemed like the best music there was to play. Funkier than funk.

We are from Rochester, NY. We are folk musicians at the heart of it. Reggae is the vehicle to deliver our folk songs. It seemed only natural to include sounds that we grew up with as part of our music. Improvisation is also a big part our lives. No one wants to live by a script. I think a lot of that American roots gives way to living in the moment, and that is a part of our music for sure.

Which are your personal favorite styles of reggae to play?

We started out being a strictly one-drop band. There is nothing that hits harder in my opinion. However, recently we have had epiphanies about the rockers rhythms that were coming into mid-seventies Jamaican reggae, and which led to the birth of hip-hop. Those are heavy rhythms.

If Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie came back from the dead, guitar in hand, into your studio, and wanted to jam, which songs would play with him?

Wow! What a concept. I think we would get into strumming some G, C, D tunes with a few Em thrown in for depth, and we would improv some verses. I would ask him to play “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad.” I think Dylan (Panda guitarist) would ask him if he wanted to jam “California Stars,” which Wilco and Billy Bragg made from some lost Guthrie lyrics. I think he would dig it.

Because my Mom sang it to me, I think I would also like to play “You Are My Sunshine” with him. Mostly I would just want to meditate on some cowboy chords with the brother because the meditation really lies in the simplicity. Great questions…

Which musicians inspired you to combine elements of Americana with island sounds?

We visited Jamaica to play music in 2007. On our first night, all of our plans fell apart. Our good brother Dave took us to this backwoods chicken spot to get some food. It sounded like they were playing beautiful old country/western records on the sound system as we were walking in. There was a full moon. We ordered our food and walked out back. They were not records being played. It was live music being made by a fellow who went by the name Jamaican Cowboy. He, a rhumba box player, and our boy Dave played some of the most magical music we had ever seen.

Cowboy, AKA Alex Vaughn, had full cowboy regalia on. He played an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and to this day was the most powerful singer I have ever heard. He played everything from originals, to Willie Nelson, to Luciano. It was a perfect blend of reggae/Americana. Totally natural. It was one of the more inspiring moments I can remember. We spent 3 Saturdays playing with him at a local joint named Selena’s for brunch. He was mesmerizing to be around. He passed away two weeks after we left Jamaica.

If you were to walk out of a record shop with five vinyl records, which would they be?

I wish I had a better 45 rpm collection. I love the way that Jamaicans released singles with B-sides instead of albums. One record that I am very lucky to have is called Packin House. It is by Little Roy and Friends. It is on my turntable right now. There is a record called Area Code 615, recorded in 1969, that is amazing. It is Bob Dylan’s Nashville band playing instrumental. They were really young and playing songs like “Hey Jude” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I lost that record. SHAME. Sunny Ade JuJu Music. Dub Trio Exploring the dangers of and Sly and the Family Stone Fresh. There is too much good music out there. We all need more records.

The song “Wolf at the Door” seems like a socially conscious song. Who or what is the “Wolf” ?

Yes, that song is. It was written around the time that people were getting fed up with Obama because he wasn’t bringing the “change” that people were expecting. Well, what did they really expect? People are lazy. The Wolf is everything that we are not actively resisting. Monsanto, weapons companies, lobbyists, corporate criminals.

The Wolf represents that there are many forces out there that are actively working against the interest of humanity. They either don’t know or they don’t care. Meanwhile, there are in fact many people out there trying to get the word out and fight these forces of…well, evil. The fantasies people love watching on HBO and reading about in surrealist comic books are in fact real. It is happening right outside your door. Open it up and go fight that shit. Be that change. It is as much a message to myself as it is to anyone else.

In your song “Mr. Cop,” the lyrics tell the story of police intervention on some herb usage. Is that song from personal experience?

We have had our brushes with the law. Each as absurd as the rest. You know what it is, the cop knows what it is, and it IS ridiculous. Nothing different from meeting the troll on the bridge.

I think we can all see in the news media these days that many things, including the idea of the police, have been exploited for capitalist and racist gains. The science is out there to reinforce the facts of corruption plaguing this nation. It is a real shame too, because the US was an example that people around the world looked up to and strove to emulate. We carried that torch for a very short time in the scheme of things. A wasted opportunity if you ask me.

What’s your least “favorite song” on this album? (Sorry, not sure if anyone has asked you this question yet. I couldn’t resist…)

Funny question. Recording this album was interesting. For starters, it began on a dare. Craig Welsch the engineer/producer said to us, “You guys are a great band, and no one has captured that in the studio. Your other albums are garbage compared to the band that you actually are. I am working at a studio with the most beautiful vintage gear, and I want to get you guys in there and show you how great you can actually sound.” We thought that was a pretty bold statement. So we were like, “Ok Craig… Prove it.”

So we went in to record three songs. “Whatever Cost,” “Wolf at the Door,” and “Move.” Those were brand new songs at the time, as in, we were still working on them. Immediately when we heard the mixes, we realized that Craig might be right. The combination of beautiful vintage instruments being engineered by a veteran like Craig allowed us to just play. When we heard the tunes, we recognized that the instruments and the finesse of live recording was doing half the work and it started to sound like the music we grew up listening to.

I wrote the song “.45” many years ago. It has had many different versions. My only hesitation with LOVING this song is that I am scared that it comes off as a PRO gun song, which it is not. The song is satirical. “Good God I feel so alive when I’m strapped with a big gun.” That line is about overzealous cops and yahoos in general who think they are tough because they have a gun. They think they have the right to push and bully others around.

I remember after 9/11 seeing automatic weapons and machine guns in the airport. I remember thinking about how that was a fear tactic, and seemingly not a question of utility. I don’t think it would ever be a smart decision to fire an automatic weapon in an airport with crowds of people. I do believe that they had those guns to make people feel safe, but all they did is terrify me. I wish that this topic had passed, but it is right in our faces as of now.

This is not my favorite song on the album, because I feel that it deals with a negative subject. There is enough bad news around that we don’t necessarily want people to have to engage with negativity so literally in our lyrics…but hey, “Nice Feeling” is the next track…and that song was written by Dylan and his daughter on a beautiful day. So, with all this madness going on around us, it is important to get out and enjoy the sunshine. That is how we all win.

GPGDS - Press Photos

Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad
with guests Mighty Joshua and Dub Architect

14th Street NW, Washington, DC  20009
(Enter on U Street, downstairs)
Doors: 8 PM
$10 adv
| $12 door 

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