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First Listen: Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad – Cool It

Temperature getting hot, can’t cool it, no no

When the rhythm hit the spot, have to groove it

Within the first moments of hearing “Cool It”, you’ll probably feel your body start to move without warning. The fast paced danceable rhythm matched with lively horns and funky organ riffs is a sound that has come to define Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad’s jammy, fun style of reggae.

It’s hard to listen to Panda and be in a bad mood. From the day I first saw them play in my hometown, my life was changed because I had discovered a special sound that resonated with me that I could forever go back to when needed. What’s exciting is that the Rochester, New York based band keeps things fresh by putting out releases and keeping the musical connection strong.

With the release of “Cool It,” I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dylan Savage (guitar, vocals) about the old school inspiration behind the track, the interesting changes in the way music is now released, and the latest updates from the band.

Let’s talk about “Cool It.” You mentioned to me that it’s a feel-good song. I’m trying to remember if I’ve heard you perform it before, or if it’s super new.

You know, it’s actually new. I wrote it about a year ago, and really I tend to write tunes that are either love songs and feel-good kind of dance songs, or ones that are sending messages. And this one falls more into just a feel-good tune. The first record that I was introduced to reggae with was Bunny Wailer’s Roots Man Skanking record. That one had a lot of really cool upful tunes, and really nice danceable rhythms. So, “Cool It” was written in that same thinking of that album—and thinking of tunes like The Meditations’ “Ram Jam Session” or Alpha Blondy’s “Cocody Rock”. It’s pretty much in that spirit, coming from that kind of vibe.

That’s cool to hear that you were introduced to reggae through the Bunny Wailer album.

Yes, yes. I think from my perspective, it’s an underrated record of his. There’s not a lot of political tunes on it, but really, again, nice danceable upful melodies. That was the one that introduced me to reggae, and I don’t know if it’s nostalgic thing, but it’s always been one that I always try to gain some inspiration from. When I’m writing songs like that, that album always comes to my mind. It’s a great, great record.

I’m sure you’re always surprised to hear how people may interpret songs, but I definitely got a message from “Cool It” about the current climate, literally. It’s getting hotter.

That’s cool, yeah, that tune wasn’t consciously thought of to address the climate—although obviously incredibly important. It’s just kind of a “bring people together” vibe. Bring people together on the dance floor and just have a nice time. It was in that spirit. We actually recorded that with Matt Goodwin here in Rochester, in a studio he works out of called Riot City Studios. He’s Panda family going back nearly 20 years. So it was really just a nice vibe recording that there with him. We recorded the last record Make It Better with him also at that same studio. It’s just very comfortable working with him. We recorded “Cool It” a few months ago in a day and tried to get it out as soon as possible. We’re trying to really do the singles—trying to get content out as regularly as possible.

Right. Releasing singles definitely keeps people happy, especially if we can’t make it out to a show for a while.

We’re looking forward to continuing to put music out on a regular basis. It just kind of seems like the way that people are receiving music now.

Absolutely. It’s different, right?

It’s different. I’ve always been a big fan of albums. I’ve always been like, “I want to do the full album”, but I think I finally have been convinced that this is the way to get music out. So, I’m happy to do that.

Launching everything as one album made sense when the only way for us to consume music was through CDs and vinyl. And now it’s like we’re all on Spotify and iTunes and elsewhere. We live in a digital world and you have to adapt.

Absolutely you have to adapt. I’m adapting to that model now. When you’re doing an album, it just takes so long, and people want music in between. I love the studio process so to me that suits me just fine.

I do have the nostalgia though for albums and how it’s a collection of songs that represent a period of time in a band’s history, or like, the album overall connects with certain feelings and memories. I’ll always be holding on to that.

Yeah, me too. And I hear what you’re saying, definitely. The album format is great. I’m digging the new Steel Pulse record. I’m just really stoked on that one—15 years since the last record. So that’s big and it’s a great record. I’m also digging the new Sly and Robbie vs. The Roots Radics with The Final Battle. So that’s another one that I’ve been digging into, and they’re headlining the Ithaca Reggae Fest coming up here in June. I’ve never seen them before, so I’m stoked.

To me it seems you guys have really stayed around Rochester for a while.

Yeah, we’re doing some stuff around the area, we’re excited to do the Ithaca Reggae Fest coming up, and the Grassroots Festival. So those are going to be some big summer highlights for us. As far as trying to get out there to do more tours, a lot of us have growing families right now, so we’re not out for long periods of time. But you know, we’re definitely excited to get music out by doing the singles right now, as opposed to doing a full record, which for us can take six months to a year. This is kind of the beginning of that process for us.

So you have a new band member, right? Can you tell me more about him?

Our new guitar player is Eli Flynn. He’s a good brother from here in Rochester, New York. We just did the first five or six shows with him recently, and it went awesome. Really, really, really great guy. James has known him for many years, and we as a band have known him for several years and he’s a good fit.

I can’t wait to hear “Cool It” live because it’s so upbeat. I’m wondering if you personally have any favorite songs to perform. Because of course, we have the recordings which are amazing, but what song do you just love playing live?

Wow, that’s a tough one. Actually I’m really digging the song “Stop Fighting”. So that’s a really fun one to be playing recently. That’s kind of newer in the set. I dig playing “Cool It”, it’s fresh—again another new one in the set. So not surprisingly, it’s kind of the newer ones that are making the sets. But for old ones, I dig playing “All Night Music”, and… oh man, there’s just a lot of them.

I get what you mean about loving to play the fresh stuff because even just as a DJ, lately I’ve had this really huge shift in the types of things I play. And I totally understand why bands do new things and even reinvent themselves. I now understand what it’s like to play something over and over and over and just want to…. of course, you love it, but you just need freshness in what you’re doing to keep you going.

Oh, absolutely. Always exciting to have new music and to have some new material that you’ve just written, you know—fine tuning with the groove, then seeing how the audience reacts to it, and seeing how it goes over. I feel like we’ve always tried to just do things, you know, as naturally as possible. We’re not trying to be very calculated, particularly with songwriting. You just try and stay true to yourself, and not get in the way of yourself, and just write from your heart. So I think that’s all we tried to do. I feel like with these new singles, we’re getting better each time, with the production, hopefully with the songwriting. Just from our first record to where we are now, I feel that there’s been a nice improvement. I’m really pleased and happy with that.

Well, I’m so grateful that you guys do what you do. You know, there’s no denying that the sound just impacts us—and I’m speaking on behalf of Panda lovers. Just really grateful that you guys strive to continue to put things out there and make a difference. And yeah, I love it. I’m just so grateful to you guys for doing it.

Oh man, thank you so much. I always appreciate you coming to the Rochester shows and making the travels. I always appreciate your support, for real, big time.

Listen to Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad’s “Cool It”, and don’t forget to groove it!


Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.   


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Kayla joined Rootfire after following this music around the country for years. She has been hosting reggae radio shows in Madison since 2010. Her newest installment is '2 DUB', Saturday nights at 10pm on 89.9 WORT FM. She is the 4x winner of 'DJ of the Year' at the Madison Area Music Awards. You can follow her on social media at: @djkaylakush

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