Their debut release 'New Concepts In Sound Recording' illustrated both PanAm's eagerness to take the piss and their lo-fi preferences. The hard rocking 6-track EP released last year caught ears for reasons quite opposite those the title suggests.
Safely shielded from any software manipulation it had been recorded on an 8-track desk in songwriter/guitarist Paul Barrett's bedroom (and much of the rest of his flat). Musical and production inspiration stemmed from '60s icons including Hendrix, Cream, The Beatles and Jethro Tull.
It still does, and on July 10th the Auckland three-piece will launch (through FMR), their very first album which they have catchily titled 'PanAm'.
If, like us, you loved the EP and feel you have waited a long time for the album, then you will be pleased to know that it plays for a long time. Fourteen songs at last count (things are still subject to change it seems), and while a few are tight three minute indie pop rushes, others make it well beyond the four minute barrier. Cigars In The Suitcase threatens to close at the 2 min:30 sec mark, only to morph into a wild two minute live jam close out.
And so they are on stage, juggling the R'nB-based songs that lend themselves to extended improvisation with the fast guitar soloing and hard out drumming of catchy PanAm pop like Interstate Boy and Japanese Girls. Left handed Barrett plays his well-loved standard Strat upside down, long time collaborator Cole Goodley thrashes his vintage Gretsch kit and Jarrod Ross chimes in on Telecaster bass and occasional vocals.
The PanAms, all in their early 20s, share a West Auckland school heritage, Ross's band even supported the others' first band back then. Barrett and Goodley played in and out of various bands, mostly working together for the last decade. Exclusively a guitar player before his audition three years ago, Ross was seconded into the band on bass - primarily because the others knew they could get on with him. The dynamic created is PanAm.
Only two songs (Long Grass and Song One) appeared on the earlier EP. Selecting the songs was a difficult process given Barrett's songwriting productivity. A process of distilling six years of writing and development of the band and about three years of recording, then getting that down to 14 tracks which supposedly belong together.
"The material available could have produced a number of radically different albums," Barrett says. "It was a gradual process of negotiation between what we want and what Flying Nun thinks is appropriate. What they think are the quality tracks and what we think are the quality tracks are sometimes different, but sometimes the compromise works out. It depends on the style of production as well, that varied a lot over the whole year."
"Some songs you'd think we were a completely different band and I reckon that's good," slips in Goodley, though it's Barrett who mostly handles my questions.
"This is our chance to show we don't have only one sound. I find that a stylistically continuous album, one that sounds like it was all recorded together is a turn off."
As with the EP, tracks were made in Barrett's home studio, though the newer ones are recorded onto a 24-track Roland VS-2480 Digital Studio Workstation they purchased with their advance when signed to Flying Nun.
"Everyone uses Pro Tools and that's why I'm not - basically. Two or three of the tracks are the original 8-track stuff. For instance with Natural, try as we might we could never beat the feel of the take on the day and it's really lo-fi so we have stuck with the 8-track. Even the stuff done on the 24-track has been done with the same approach, we want it dirty as hell.
"We spend a lot of time listening to Jimmy Hendrix, Cream and people like that," adds drummer Goodley. "We really like that semi lo-fi style of recording, big old school marching band bass drum. We just like putting a 58 a couple of feet back from the bass drum. The kick and snare can't be heard occasionally because something else is over the top of them, but when you can hear them they're real sounds."
"People that don't listen for drums go, 'The drums aren't loud enough', takes over Barrett. "People who are drummers go, 'Those drums sound amazing - I wish I could get a real sound like that.'"
Goodley happily admits he is a problem for live sound engineers, his quarter century old Gretsch bass drum doesn't have a hole in the front skin.
"They are so used to just putting a pillow under a mic in the drum which is so easy for them."
"Just like we get shit from sound engineers when they hear our masters!" adds Barrett. "Recordings where things spill over and everything's fighting for room on the record are almost more like real life than these overproduced records with everything in its place and sounding synthetic."
While digital tweaking is out, overdubs certainly aren't outlawed - but the PanAm sound doesn't need a lot of filling out anyway.
"We've always been told we have a really full sound for a three-piece," says Barrett. "I think Cole plays a lot like Keith Moon or Mitch Mitchell or someone like that. We've experimented with a second guitar player and I felt completely claustrophobic because I like to have lots of open chords, just lots of noise. As a three piece everyone has their space to be as full on as they want and there still is room for dynamics - still sparse arrangements, but I guess that wall of sound kind of thing.
"Translated to recording there have been some tracks with layer upon layer of guitars, but I've generally found the best sounding tracks are the ones with maximum one guitar overdub, or one extra rhythm guitar and a couple of melody lines somewhere."
The recording work has been shared around but in order to avoid chaos Barrett handled the final mixes.
"Having written most of the songs I've levelled it all really. We've always bounced ideas off each other but someone needs to pull it together to give it some kind of aesthetic. The hardest thing with mixing is knowing when to stop, when you are onto a good thing.
"Not just the rest of the band have helped but the other people I've shown it to. People you can trust to give you a non-destructive view are as much part of the production process as anyone who has fiddled with the faders.
"It's been a good learning curve I s'pose. When we were doing it with the 8-track before we were signed there was never the pressure that this is going to be the final mix and is going to be released. This time it's more about making those hard decisions."
PanAm have a 22-date national tour taking them as far south as Invercargill during July. They want to get to SXSW in Texas next year to hopefully launch the PanAm international flight.
"Bands here fall into the trap of thinking they have to make a big commercial record to get any kind of critical mass of audience," finishes Barrett. "And after the summer it comes out people turn around and wonder why the hell they bought it. We want to make the kind of records that don't give in to those production values and having an overseas market would give us the best opportunity to do that."