Do you have those artists in your life that the mere mention of their name makes your heart skip a beat? For me, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad is one of those bands. I’ve been a passionate fan for over a decade. Over the years, I have had the privilege of getting to know the guys pretty well, and knowing what kind and solid dudes they are has only served to intensify my respect and adoration of the band and makes it even easier to enjoy and promote their music.
Musicians that are steeped in the history and tradition of reggae music, Panda are humble, hard-working independent artists that invest their time, energy and money in making music that spreads joy and fosters positive change in the world. And they do it all the while having to hold down other life responsibilities. Big ups!
It’s been seven years since Panda has released an album and, while the band has kept fans nourished with a handful of tasty singles over the past four years, nothing satiates a hankering better than a meaty full-length LP. Well, Panda fam, it’s finally time to dine at the table, and what a feast we have in which to indulge! Hot off the grill like sizzling jerk chicken, today the band serves up Love in Time, an absolutely delicious collection of progressive roots reggae music. This new release sounds perfectly Panda, while adding even more Jamaican seasoning, elevating their sound to a new level of sublimity.
This release comes as no small feat. Panda unexpectedly lost their stellar management team, which alone could thwart progress despite the most passionate of creative intentions. Additionally, band members live in different locations, have families to raise and, oh yeah, this thing called a pandemic turned life upside down for a few years while robbing musicians of their primary source of income: touring.
During the recordings for Make it Better, their last LP released in 2016, the band had found a nice groove recording in their home base of Rochester, NY, which differed from their previous approach of going to a “destination” studio to record. With an old familiar friend and colleague, Matt Goodwin (formerly of Panda and John Brown’s Body and currently with The Movement) engineering, things were rolling along steadily with the band churning out a series of singles.
“We loved being in the center of Rochester where we could dip in and out and bring in friends and family, all while having the quality control of Goodwin at the controls,” said singer and bass player James Searl. “Goodwin runs a tight ship and works extra hard to make things top notch. It became a stress reliever to know that we didn’t have to do much more than show up to sound good and sound like ourselves.”
The trend in the music industry at the time, which continues today, is to release one single at a time, which the band enjoyed. “It just seemed to make sense to focus on one track at a time and not worry about an album where you do all the drums and bass one day, all the guitars another, etc.,” Searl explained. “It becomes like building a house and all the rooms are built at the same time with, first, the foundation, then framing, electrical, drywall, paint etc., so that the house is all done at once and has consistency throughout. Recording songs one by one, or focusing on completing a whole song in one day from drums to done, feels more exciting. It feels like you can really make each song its own house and story.”
According to Searl, the guys were content to just keep writing and releasing singles so they could just keep “feeling fresh.” In Panda’s experience, due to a variety of reasons but mostly time and money, they typically recorded albums over a long period. By the time the album finally got released, the band was kind of “over it” and even a bit frustrated because they often had other songs ready to go that more reflected the current status of the band.
However, when the pandemic hit, the band was facing an extended separation at the start of 2020. “Our streak seemed to be up to some logistical obstacles,” Searl recounted. “It had been seven months into the pandemic when we realized we were gonna have to go into the studio for a week and just get the foundation for as many songs possible laid down. So, we were back to what an album recording would usually look like, but we didn’t want to wait to release a whole album. We wanted to lay foundations to keep making singles.”
Searl revealed that it was really challenging to meet and try to approach brand new ideas after seven months of not playing. “We realized that there really was a chemistry, but it wasn’t like riding a bike. It had to be finessed back into form,” he recalled. “Straight up, I cried after the first day. Harder than I had cried in years. I thought we had lost all of our juice and all of these songs I really wanted to record just weren’t coming easy to the band. I know everyone felt rusty. It took a few days to really feel ourselves again.”
Continuing, he reflected, “That’s something you forget as a musician or a creative person — how much a part of you that part is. You don’t realize it when it’s not active until you re-approach and then it’s a feeling of ‘Where have I been for seven months? Who was I? Where did I go?’ And that musical spirit makes it apparent that that is the real you, and someone you can’t neglect. And we didn’t neglect it, we were all writing and having music in our lives, but we hadn’t been a band for seven months after being one for about twenty years. We learned once again not to take that consistency for granted. It felt so good to finally get it together and sound good. That’s a lot of what made it on the record.”
Since they were going to be working remotely anyway, the band decided they wanted to try a new approach with these song foundations, such as recording riddims for guest singers and collaborating with new producers. To get the ball rolling, they sent their recordings to three different “camps” of musicians, engineers and producers: Zion I Kings, the hightly-esteemed team who have produced and mixed tracks for, among many others, Protoje, Akae Beka, Midnite and Lutan Fyah; Alborosie, the international reggae superstar known for his long string of hits and albums over the past two decades; and Danny Kalb, a longtime partner of Panda known for his productions of The Movement, The Green, Ben Harper, and many others. In fact, according to the band’s press release, working with Danny Kalb on the “Steady” single in 2014 helped lead to the idea of a more synergetic approach because it had been one of the rare times they had worked with an outside collaborator and “the process and result were so powerful for the band, that they strived for similar vibes this time around.”
Beyond Kalb, who seemed like a given based on their work together in the past, Searl said that in searching for collaborators to help them produce, they wanted the creative input to all be very different. He explained, “For us, Zion I Kings represented that real roots that sounded modern but closer to what we really treasured about raw and unpolished roots and dub of the past twenty years. We had been fans of a lot of things they had all been involved but it wasn’t until I interviewed JAH D for Rootfire for a ZION ITES DUB album that I put together how wonderful it would be to have them give a shot at mixing some of this new material.”
With Alborosie, Searl disclosed that the Italian-born singer’s music had inspired him to write a riddim for one of the songs on the album, “Champion,” and when he mentioned this to Panda’s manager at the time, the former manager said that they had just started managing Alborosie as well and that he does tons of production. Hearing this, the band put out “the feeler” to him and he agreed to mix five songs, or as Searl termed it, “put on his special sauce.”
How did the three “camps” vary in their approach to the music, their methodology and ultimately what they produced?
Searl detailed the differences. He began, “Zion I Kings was very collaborative and encouraging. We sent them six tracks and each King mixed two. They would then check in with each other about the mixes and ultimately send them to us. Sometimes they would say that they heard something they thought was missing and they would add in a take and check with us to see what we thought, and it was always welcomed.”
Continuing with some specific examples, he said, “Jah D recorded Kette drum and sticky on the opening track in a way we wouldn’t have done. Tippy I Grade added Melodica and Moog to an unreleased track. They seemed to be intent on just mixing the track and didn’t want to claim production credit, though we were certainly collaborating on how the songs would sound. They were careful and adamant about helping guide some songs to new places while wanting to make sure the band sounded like Panda.”
Their experience working with Alborosie was much less give and take. They sent him five songs; he sent five songs back. They then sent him notes on his mixes, expecting a back and forth that they were used to with other engineers that would sometimes go ten or eleven times until the final version was done. To their surprise, however, Alborosie stood firm, saying, “You sent me songs that were 90% done. I added my 10%. These songs are done.”
“There was a bit of a standoff, but we talked it out and understood a bit more where we were all coming from,” said Searl. Then, admiringly, he expounded, “He made detailed comments on our notes and why he would not honor them. He gave us a great education on the sonics of Jamaican reggae in a way no one had before and we will forever appreciate it, because he was right.
“He said ‘You guys are playing reggae, and you are good, but this music is going to play on playlists in-between Jamaican reggae and you are not covering certain frequencies that need to be covered. The bassline needs to be in this register… The piano needs to be in this register…The drum fill is rushing here so I cut it out… I don’t like the bassline on this song so I changed it… You say you don’t want bubbles on two songs but I put bubbles on two songs because that’s what I did.’
“We were kinda like, Holy shit, wow, bro. But he was loving and firm about it. Albo was like, ‘I eat reggae. I sleep reggae. I shit reggae. I fuck reggae. You guys need to humble yourselves and listen to me.’
“So we did. Because that was the whole point of reaching out. That is real collaboration. That was the scratch we needed itched. Instead of just saying, ‘You guys are so great, oh it’s so good,’ which is often what we hear, he was really honest and helpful about it.
Concluding, Searl added, “We were never skeptical of his approach. We were asking for honesty and trying to expand the sound. But we were not ready for that official producer/musician division of where we play the music, he produces it. That seemed kinda old school, like something we had heard about in books, but in all of our experiences, there was always a lot of back and forth. We absolutely love the way our tunes sound with his special sauce.”
As for Danny Kalb, Searl affectionately said, that he is the “familiar very true and true formula” that they always want to keep diving deeper with. “He is gentle and encouraging in a way that will push you to deliver your best. He will be honest with you about how to honor the vulnerability and sincerity of certain performances while asking you to do better on others you might have thought you nailed. He brings an ethereal quality that really complements the emotions of our songs and we will always be happy to return to that stream for a drink.”
So how did the band shift from their vision of recording music for three separate releases to what ultimately became this single LP, Love in Time? Searl conveyed their reasoning and how this decision unfolded with a bit of anxious waffling. Essentially, “time and life took over.” Different guests got back to them at different times. Different tunes were finished in drastically different timelines, and they started to feel a little scattered about how they would go about releasing albums.
So, for the time being, they shifted back to the approach of releasing singles, which included the tracks “Hold You Tonight” and “Narita,” both of which were part of the same recordings.
Then, shortly after those songs were released, they lost their management. This had a major impact, as they were part of the architects and supporters of the three-album vision with multiple guests and a big part of the release plan.
“As we kind of sorted our professional pieces back together after many good years of great management, we began feeling pretty anxious about the timeline of when and how we would continue to release what we thought was the best and truest work of our careers,” Searl recounted. “We loved the singles but the response and rollout didn’t feel cohesive. It felt like releasing singles, which once seemed like the best move, was not tying together what an intense experience this musical project represented.”
Seeking counsel and support, the band decided to approach their “forever supportive family” at Easy Star Records, for whom they had previously released two successful records. Yet rather than pitch the three-album deal, they wondered what the label would think about helping them curate a cohesive representation of all of the love that went into this project.
“Easy Star was open and insightful about the path ahead and they really helped us find our way back on the road we had felt a bit stuck on,” said Searl. The end result was Love In Time. “Every bump along the way went into it becoming something we all are happier about than we could’ve imagined when we stepped into the studio in October 2020.”
This elation is justified, as Panda’s first LP since 2016 is an honest to goodness treasure, a collection of eleven sonic gems that should thrill longtime fans and likely bring the band a slew of new ones. Along with the irksome considerations the band endured regarding the business aspect of this release and the numerous considerations that went into the back end creative process, not to be overlooked are the contributions on the front end from six different guest vocalists which elevate this from a great record to an exceptional one.
Known for their political and social commentary, the album opens with a quintessential Panda song, “Most Men,” which speaks to the bullshit and hypocrisy of organized religion while also making references to American Imperialism. It takes a special kind of songwriter to create a melodic and catchy chorus out of the lyrics:
Most of the illusions they’re building on prophecy, yeah,
Profiting off of good people’s compassion and care
Most of solutions they sell you are probably profiting, yeah,
Off of good people’s compassion and care
Searl said the song “is just about everything I’ve ever wanted to say in a song about living in the world we live in…the arc of life as I’ve discovered it for myself coming where I’m coming from.” He added that he had written the track “in Highland Park, over unmarked children’s graves, at an AIDS memorial monument adjacent to a Vietnam memorial, while looking through tree branches that had lost their leaves for fall.”
Continuing with a somewhat solemn vibe, albeit with a more celebratory message, the next track, “Chants,” is a hypnotic musing on the power of music in the face of trouble, originally written for Searl’s son. An example of musical genius, the cadence of the chorus resonates like a chant in itself.
I believe in chants
I believe in miracles
Teach yourself to dance
Help yourself to feel it all
I believe in love
I believe in spiritual
Give yourself a chance
Help yourself to heal it all
Several additional factors make this a truly special song. First, it features Panda former tourmate and longtime friend and mentor, the inimitable Clinton Fearon, who rose to fame as a member of the esteemed 1970s Jamaican roots reggae group, The Gladiators, and remains one of the most adored reggae musicians in the world today. Additionally, the track includes the enchanting sounds of the anteteben, a Ghanaian bamboo flute, played by Dela Botri, who has been a close contact, collaborator, and teacher to Searl for over twenty years.
Searl recalled how inspirational making music with Botri had been while studying abroad in Ghana along with longtime friend, the aforementioned Matt Goodwin. As part of his college project, which was to create an original album with a Ghanaian band, Goodwin sought out Dela Botri who was a professor at the University of Legon and had given some demonstrations to their abroad group with his traditional high life group, Hewale Sounds. “Matt was cool enough to let me also be part of the band and write some songs to work with the group for the album. We practiced and wrote everyday under this tree on the campus of Legon. I was playing balaphone and Matt was playing guitar. The most impactful experience of it all was how easy it is to make music with people who love to make music. These men and women in Hewale sounds treated us totally equal and with loving respect. They were so positive about our songs and collaborating in a way I had never fully experienced. Dela was the leader. He had so much energy and collaborative spirit. It was probably the most fun I have ever had making music with anyone anywhere. There was one song that we would play about God and every time Dela sang ‘Gy Nyame,’ the wind would blow hard through the tree as if it were part of the song. It was real feeling and real connection to the divine energy that seems to be present if you can tap into it.”
I wondered about Searl’s intention to play upon the homophone of the title of the track, i.e. “Chants” vs. the word “chance,” and he related this tale:
“When I order coffee at a coffee shop and they ask for my name , three out of ten times, they think I say my name is Chance when I say James. Nobody believes me. It’s real. I was explaining this to the band in Shortstop Deli after a show one night, and in the middle of the story, the sandwich guy yells out “Jace??” And I jumped thinking they had just yelled, ‘Chance.’ False alarm, but everyone died laughing and refused to believe me. So, they call me ‘Chance’ now. The song is about the power of chanting in song, but yeah, there is a big chance vibe out there.”
From here, the tone of Love in Time lightens up with its title track, a roots reggae ballad sung beautifully by the band’s other talented lead vocalist, guitarist Dylan Savage. His saccharine voice soothes along with the uplifting lyrics, which celebrate benevolence and faith.
The tempo quickens with the next song, the memorable “Lifetimes,” a reggae/cumbia mashup about staying hopeful throughout the ups and downs we endure in the cycle of life. Searl sings the chorus with such an interesting cadence to fit the music, at first, I thought he was singing in a foreign language. About the lyrical inspiration, Searl offered, “This tune was written while I was dealing with some melanoma of my right big toe. I was watching my toe die, worried about dying myself, and trying to make sense of it all. What about the things we will never find out about? How things finish? The FOMO of impermanence.”
About the musical inspiration, he added, “Uma Galera, good friends from Miami but themselves from different parts of South America and the Caribbean, influenced the music of this song. We played a show in Miami with them and afterwards they took us to a party where everyone was jamming and there were a lot of cumbia rhythms being played. It was so much fun, and part of doing this song was an attempt to collaborate with them, but Jenny the percussion player never got back to me! Neither did the horn players. Love ‘em to death still, but that’s what happens trying to collaborate six times out of ten. Some people just don’t back to you. So, we asked Derrick Cabral of The Elovaters to lay extra percussion down. We didn’t mention anything else but he came back and said ‘Oh man this is fun — love those cumbia rhythms.’ We definitely don’t know anything about cumbia but it was cool that the intended influence of that night in Miami came through.”
The tempo remains up with the next track, a joyful romp sang by Savage called “Love Each Other.” The song is enhanced by the presence of brass and features a dope little ragga/hip-hop interlude courtesy of Rochester homie, Skribe Da God, a former Panda percussionist and longtime advisor/contributor.
Next comes, “Champion,” an anthem featuring a vocal collaboration with Jay Spaker, aka Double Tiger, guitarist/singer from John Brown’s Body and a recording artist in his own right. Spaker’s signature voice gives the song a very welcomed Panda/JBB mashup vibe, but it almost never came to be because Searl had originally envisioned Alborosie in that role. He explained, “Alborosie agreed to mix, but would not guest on ‘Champion,’ which kinda broke my heart initially, until I texted with the homie Double Tiger and realized that he was the guy for the riddim . I sent him the track and he delivered back what you hear on the record in three hours time! He delivered it better than absolutely anyone in the world could and that’s how God works with music. It is not ours and we don’t make all the choices; the choices make themselves. Double Tiger totally makes that song what it is and I would have it no other way.”
I asked Searl if he had written “Champion” with any specific group of people in mind, or just as a general song of encouragement. I’m glad I asked, because, as usual, Searl had an interesting backstory to the inspiration of the song that I never would have guessed:
“Champion invented the hoodie in Rochester NY. It was a major factory and employer and everyone we knew was rocking champion in the late 80s, and then it got acquired by Hanes and moved most production overseas (sweat shops). So, Champion was another Rochester company that went away, along with Kodak, Xerox, and other spots people were losing their jobs from.
“Most songs have multiple meanings and layers of devotion to them. Other songs reveal their subjective origins to the writer long after the song has been created and sung hundreds of times. ‘Champion’ is a workers-of-the-world-unite song. It’s an encouragement song to anyone who is working out there and not owning a part of the product they are working to create.I’m hoping that someday most employment will operate in more of a cooperative setup for all instead of so many working so hard to create profit for so few.
“There is a great book out there by Jack London called The Iron Heel. Read it and then also look into the millions who have been killed globally in the hundred years since it’s been written to get an idea of how dangerous it is to the 1% to have such ideas. Lately, there has been a lot of worker unrest and the noose is loose. This song is some motivation to cut it off and work to own your own shit.”
And has he mentioned that songs often have multiple meanings, he added, “It’s also a song about Matt Goodwin sinking a game-wining can-jam shot before a show in New Hampshire as the sun was setting. I asked him how he always wins and he said he was taught to visualize winning as a high school soccer player for the Naples NY team who went on to be legendary state champions. Goodwin is in his town’s Hall of Fame for being such a champion overall.”
The rally cry of “Champion” is followed by “Keep it Nice (Wah Dah Wah Deh),” probably the most infectious song on the album, although, admittedly, every song on Love in Time is so catchy that they have all spent varying amounts of time lodged in my consciousness. The track features a Jamaican DJ/recording artist Anthony B, who provides not only much-welcomed vocal contributions, but provides one of the best moments on the album when he shouts at the opening of the track, “This is Anthony B with Giant Pand-aaah Guerilla Dub Squaaaad” in his Jamaican accent.
Just a simple song to level up the vibes, Searl said that the track had “come into the mix” a long time ago from Savage. They were on the road playing it in about 2007 and their great friend, Matt McHugh, was with them and asked Savage what the patois meant, and Savage responded, “It means like, real irie!” The band loved that and would repeat it all the time.
I asked Savage about his recollection and he said, “I first heard a version of that expression/lyric years ago through the Burning Spear tune, ‘(Invasion) Black Wa-Da-Da.’ My understanding is that ‘Wa Da Da’ is a greeting, an expression of love and gratitude. That lyric always stayed with me, and when I started playing around with the ‘Keep it Nice’ riddim, it fit nicely, so I naturally borrowed a part of the phrase to express that feeling of love and gratitude that is the essence of the tune.”
After “Keep it Nice,” Love in Time then downshifts to the beautiful “Light,” an ethereal number thanks to some dreamy keys courtesy of Panda’s guitarist, Eli Flynn. Not a typo. As Searl explained, “Eli is responsible for the dreamy keys effect. He has been working hard on his own productions and had a lot of the layers exactly how he wanted them right on the demo that he made. I even congratulated Tony (Gallicchio, keyboard player) on such silky organ sounds in a text one day only to laugh later together realizing it was a patch that Eli had put down. That was a cool part about making this record. We could surprise each other and get lots of stuff done on tracks that another might not have heard right away. When the music all started coming together, a lot of us were like, ‘Whoah! Who did that? That’s the vibe! Didn’t expect that!’ and that’s kinda what it was all about in the end.”
Panda picks up the pace again with the next song, “Revolution,” a scorcher with a notable feature from the one and only Josh Swain of The Movement. Searl clearly has a deep admiration for gifted vocalist and songwriter: “Josh was always at the top of the list just as a friend. Been loving Josh as a person for so long, it just feels good to exist together on a recording forever.”
Continuing, he elaborated, “That goes for everyone on the record. I can’t emphasize enough how much the intent of having others on these tracks was simply to exist together in such a medium. Tony’s wife sings supporting vocals on some songs. We say supporting instead of backing because there is nothing backing about it. It is support for our songs and we couldn’t be more grateful. We are all there together in that moment, even if it’s a multi-track moment. There is some power there.”
The 10th song on the album, “For You,” a heartfelt love song, does not utilize the talents of a guest vocalist, but it does implement the skills of a longtime friend of the band, Kurt Johnson, on the lap steel guitar, bringing in that country flavor reminiscent of Panda’s earlier Americana releases. Searl revealed that he ha d written this song for his wife in the earlier days of their relationship when they were dating, and it was eventually played on a harp at their wedding by Mikaela Davis. “I was standing in the river that turns into Tauganock Falls in Trumansburg in between seeing some shows at the Grassroots Festival, and I was getting up the courage to finally ask her to be with me forever.”
For the version on Love in Time, Searl said, “We decided to record it inna one-drop reggae style (the song was originally in 3/4) inspired by a song I had heard in Hawaii called ‘HAWAI’I’ by Ana Vee that was all over the radio when I was driving around there. We have a sweet version without lap steel as well, but as we were thinking about how to incorporate all of our friends near and dear on the record, I realized I wanted it to get that ‘Sleepwalking’ feel that I associate with a lot of crossover old-school Hawaiian music. Kurt Johnson is a great friend of the band for many years and is phenomenal in all regards. He also coincidentally plays with Mikaela Davis Band, so there was a full circle there. He did a really good job bringing the relationship, the musicality, and the arc of the instrument with the band all together for a great feature on a super meaningful track.”
Finally, the album concludes with on a lively note with the “Eyes Can See,” a bubbly, feel-good rocker with 80s style keys featuring a dancehall passage from Blakkamoore that I could hear being played poolside on cruise ships throughout the Caribbean for years to come.
In summation, Searl reflected on the long winding road that Panda traversed from conception to release, marveling at how it all turned out despite the twists and turns. “The vision crafted itself. Recording music involves thousands of decisions. Each one can drastically change the final product. Every time, hard work and clear intentions have been the guiding force that has us feeling surprised in the end about how close we get to what we set out to do initially. It’s pretty wild. What is finally released really is a cohesive representation of what we were trying to accomplish. There was mystery all the way, but in the end, the intentions paved the path of the one road through.”
Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad will be joining Rootfire for a Love in Time Listening Party on our Stationhead channel this evening at 7pm ET.
Great article Dave! Cool to read about each song after listening to the new album in its entirety today while floating in a pool:) I laughed reading that Alborosie “eats, sleeps, shits, fucks reggae”
I love getting all the background info of this great music REGGAE
Wow this is awesome thank you!