The name says it all… Or does it? Strangely disorienting and mysterious, what could it possibly mean? To be honest, I’m still not sure I really know. But it matters not. I was intrigued enough to press play and so pleasantly surprised by what I heard I pressed play again and again. That was winter a couple of years ago, walking round the bustling and frosty streets of Belfast with all manner of rhythms and sounds caressing the inside of my brain. Somehow, it reminded me of that accidental discovery of GNOD about ten years ago. This equally enigmatic tribe resonates with those lo-fi vibes and anything goes ethos.
Please begin by introducing the individuals at the core of the group. What brought you together?
Ron – The core members are Tony Mono (drums, percussion), Fletcher Cornelius (guitar, organ, various other sounds), and myself (bass, effected no-input mixer – known as the pandabox- and occasional mandolin, guitar or vocals). Tony put a post up on Facebook in March 2014, looking for co-conspirators to mix drone- noise with hypno-afro grooves, naming Sonic Youth and Mulatu Astatke as landmarks. We had already played together in several bands (he joined mine, the Grass Widows, after we met backing Paris based singer/songwriter Reza (indie/folk, alt country). He’s a great drummer to play with very subtle playing and a vast knowledge of music from the edge and lots of experience. Fletcher and Tony had been talking of playing together for a long time. They connected online discussing obscure releases from obscure labels. That post came at the right time for it to happen. We initially did one session or two per month, releasing one set per month on BandCamp. After a few releases, we started getting guests along and it took on more of a tribe-like aspect, rather than a fixed line-up. Now Fletcher has gone from being full-time to occasional guest, and we’ve been joined by Tom Ho with his baritone telecaster and some wonderful signal-twisting devices. Also on board is Joel with his 5 string electric violin. To be continued…
Black Panda Beach is certainly an unusual name. Can you tell us about the significance of it as well as its origins?
Ron – Not much of an origin really. There are three of the most common words in cool band names of the last few decades stuck together! Sorry if that’s disappointing!
You’ve lost me! Ha! Ha! Did the three core members happen to pick one word each? Are you Black, the Panda or the Beach?
Ron – It’s totally Mr Mono’s brainchild, and we are all Black, Panda & Beach! Something like the elements in alchemy out of which everything is made. Music would be our Ether, I guess…
Your first recording I discovered was the excellent “Verano” session. How much discipline is involved in the recording process or is it more a case of taking off on a journey and seeing it where it takes you? How does the music itself take shape?
Ron – It really is a journey and we see where it takes us! But preparing for it, via soundcheck, and steering through some of the places we end up, it does take certain mindfulness. We record sessions on a small digital recorder, live in the room and editing is kept to a minimum so it’s a collective and organic construction.
Mindfulness, indeed! How do you actually enter that zone?
Ron – For me, it has a lot to do with breathing. Also, the sort of sounds we make might pop up in other projects but they’re just the small weird bit in between a verse and a chorus. What we do is a bit like pepper soup, if that makes sense? We take our time to set up, but once we’re away it’s straight ahead. Like the scene in Star Wars where he gets through the asteroids alive. Except that we’re also playing the asteroids, so I’ve just lost myself there. Sorry!
I feel each BPB session has its own distinct terrain, a unique journey to itself. The organic approach really comes across in your recordings. How has your own background influenced the music you create? What were your first encounters with music?
Ron – First encounters with music that I remember would be of a fiddle player named Aleister crashing on the couch, my mum’s gigs in local south east London pubs and at various folk festivals I couldn’t name, and me playing Nic Jones’ Canadee-i-o over and over on a Sharp GF-666 tape machine in the sitting room! The Sharp quickly became one of my favourite objects in the universe, with all those buttons and lights. A few years later, in a foreign country, now my home, I was carrying it out to the back of the garden to record birds, and experimenting with the overdub function (aged 8). I also clearly remember Terry Riley’s “Rainbow in Curved Air” LP from the record collection in London. That one’s still with me now, 30 years on!
A few summers ago, I got heavily into dub reggae and found a video of a session by Jah Shaka shot in Lewisham around 1984. I figure maybe I heard those sounds in the area at an early age, and the heavy bass and time-warping delay might have left an imprint somewhere. Not sure, but I like to think there’s something there. As a teenager, I was listening to lots of metal, which eventually led to discovering Led Zeppelin, led to Jefferson Airplane, led to 13th Floor elevators and the Grateful Dead, led to bluegrass, and back to UK folk again. Maybe being displaced as a kid leaves you with an urge to create a space of your own? That could explain a lot. Low frequencies and echo means more space!
Tom – When I first met BPB, I was a very curious of what I had heard being created. I felt a little nervous, but since the very first minute it appears quite obvious… Imagination and wide opened ears. Sounds activate keys to enter new rooms where a new key is to be found. Like theatre or music movie, images come…
Going back to the “Verano” EP, the whole sessions unfolds majestically. “Verano” is full of weird and beautiful moments, music that’s timeless. Back to mindfulness, have you any particular memories of the day? Any triggers that set you of on the path that became the “Verano” session?
Verano was a great moment. There were us 3, and also Axel and Mitra from Vox Populi!
Mitra is Iranian, she sings in Farsi-Persian and that brings something very strong to the atmosphere. As luck would have it, it’s the only session we did with an acoustic guitar instead of electric, and I’m not sure Fletcher had planned that to go with the signing but it worked very well indeed. Open tunings. The other navigator to join us that day was Alex June. She’s singing with a Boss delay on her mic that she played as much as the synth. All at once. You can’t always tell what’s coming from her effected-mic from what’s being done on the keyboard. She’s a pretty amazing person. It’d be great to do more with her but she’s also very busy. It was a 3-way thing, a great balance between us (BPB), Vox Populi, and Alex, where everyone is reacting to what everyone is doing but also leaving lots of space.
The one thing I most admire about listening to your discography is the breadth of sounds and ideas it encompasses. “Morchia Antistatica”, “Bottin des Chats”, “Horizon Tubulaire” and “§#&*µ” being the subsequent sessions following “Verano”. Each has its own unique path and sound. Do you have any particular highlights from these sessions? Moments where peak Panda Style engulfs the room?
The funny thing with the Panda Style is that sometimes we think we’re there, and it turns out to be a bit flat. Other times, I might think we’re going round in not-quite-circles looking for it and then we listen back and realise it was right there! There are great moments of levitation every now and then too.
So “Morchia Antistatica” was late November. Short, cold, wet days. Huddled in the cave. Flectcher’s way of dealing with whatever is on his mind is to make a loud and ugly noise. We all had stuff on our minds. I was going to use the word cathartic to describe it. Then I checked Wikipedia. It’s very funny. In French, the word has a symbolic meaning. It refers to ancient Greek theatre and the process of cleansing the soul by putting it through different emotional states. In English, apparently it has a far more literal meaning: a substance that accelerates defecation. Same thing, but different! Both work.
“Bottin des Chats” was the first session with Tom on guitar. Flectcher left the ship after “Morchia” and we had been on hold for a few months. We posted an ad looking for someone and got a few replies, first from a very accomplished jazz player and that didn’t really work. Then Joel, electric violin, and that was cool. We have a few quite good unreleased tracks from the first session with him. Then Tom. It worked straight off with him. He plays a baritone telecaster and speaks the same noise language as us. “Bottin des Chats” is the sound of a good surprise, the joy of something unexpected working out. By the way, “Bottin” is the French word for a phonebook, hence the track titles.
Since “Horizon Tubulaire” it’s been Tom, Joel, Tony & myself. The next session might feature someone on vocals. We’ll see. Tom’s little sampler is quite good for filling that space too.
Another component of Black Panda Beach that strikes me is the array of artwork and visuals that accompanies each of your sessions. Who creates? How important is the cinematic accompaniment as part explored through “Horizon Tubulaire” session?
The photos often come from Tony. We might all suggest something, but he usually nails it. The videos started out as a way of spreading the music using funny bits and pieces I catch with the camera in my phone. I figured people are more likely to watch a 10 minute (short) weird video, than listen to a 10 minute (long) weird piece of music. Of course it’s also part of a great big plan to twist minds and bring about the next stage of evolution for mankind!
It has been a prolific eighteen months and to date all of your sessions have been shared virtually, which makes the music readily available for little or no cost. But is it not important for you to have permanence? A winding trail that folk can remember fondly as Black Panda Beach?
I’m not exactly sure what you mean by a winding trail to remember?
A physical legacy that captures the twists and turns of your development!
Oh right! Well, we’d love to have our music put on vinyl of course! It would be a very special thing if that were to happen. But I’ve always loved cassettes too. The idea of all that music inside a little case! I’m sure cassettes have a sentimental value to many who grew up with them. Many of my friends were cassettes when I was about 12 yrs old!!
If resources were not an issue, which remains your preferred carrier of sound these days and would you like that format engraved with your music?
Whatever the medium, it would be great to think/know/find out that some people want to take a bit the Beach back home with them! It was quite something when we got paid for downloads on BandCamp. It’s not only a money thing. Sure, band life can become easier with some financial support. But the music we make means something to us and when people pay for it when they’re not obliged to, it’s a way of letting us know that it means something to them too and that’s a beautiful feeling.
DIY versus label support! Where do you stand and are you open to collaboration? What would you expect in return?
Any label that’s prepared to make the jump with us is more than welcome to get in touch! Seriously, I think we’d all be very happy to collaborate with a willing label. Not sure about what to expect in return, obviously to deal in an honest fashion, not be told there are 200 copies then find out 2,000 were sold! Seriously though, I’d love to meet the guy that could shift 2,000 copies of “Morchia Antistatica” session!!!
Aside from your improvised sessions, have you played to an audience? Is that type of live experience currently important to the collective? If you were to venture out of your cave, would you ever try to backtrack and replicate a specific recording or is forward motion the only course?
Finally, about playing live, we’re just starting to talk about it now the vessel seems to be stabilizing nicely. I’m not sure we’d try to replicate things exactly. But we would probably revisit things we’ve recorded, as in, starting out with the same sort of settings on what recognizable parts there could be, bass line and beat for instance, then we’d have to see what happened. Maybe, if we were all in the same moods, or different but resulting in the same balance of moods, then maybe we’d do the exact same thing without setting out to. I’m hoping we will soon!
I can’t end without saying a big thank you to the Yoshiwara Collective for showing interest and support. We’ll have to do something live to celebrate the forthcoming cassette and that will be another big thank you to come…
Patrick Toal & Danny Angus
All Black Panda Beach releases are free to download from https://blackpandabeach.bandcamp.com
In memory of Tony, who left us on 22/11/2015. May your drum sticks rest in peace. The memories and music will live on…