Maybe you grow up backward when you start to play music. Running comes before walking; loud and fast come before slow and quiet. When you pick up a guitar, you have to learn how to turn it up before you can turn it down, have to see how far you can push it before you determine exactly how far you should push it.
Or maybe you don't do it backward. After all, everyone comes into the world with a scream. It takes awhile to figure out how to control it.
Ask Panda singer-guitarist Jeremy Yocum. His first band, when he was 13, played nothing but Black Sabbath covers, songs as subtle as a kick to the junk. His second outfit, when he was 14 or 15-- he can't remember which--was "kind of a Rush-wannabe band." They played their first show at a rehearsal studio in Carrollton, Stage Right, opening up for Doosu, their rock-and-roll high-school competition at the time. "So I used to do loud rock," Yocum explains.
He doesn't anymore. That stopped in 1996 when Yocum picked up Ida's I Know About You--a heart-squeezing set of minimalist pop, lovely and languid as a summer afternoon--at the now-defunct Last Beat record store on Elm Street, while he was taking a break from his job at the also-now-defunct City Java next door. "And it just kinda all went downhill from there," Yocum says, laughing softly, mocking himself a little. "Now, I've got a small shrine to Bedhead in my house. And slow, pretty, contemplative music seems to be what drives me most of the time."
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The most recent result of that drive is Panda's debut, the six-song Twenty String EP, a sweet-and-low soundtrack for filling ashtrays and emptying wine bottles, 34 minutes that are more fall and winter than spring and summer. It's a disc that welcomes you to the great indoors, hazy hymns with heartbeat bass lines and raindrop rhythms, low-key lullabies built out of whispers and smoke. As bassist Ryan Goolsby and drummer Bradly Brown gently urge the songs forward, the snowflakes from Eric Elterman's viola and accordion and Stephen Kimbrell's guitar quietly pile into a 6-foot snowdrift. They become a wall of sound on "New Moon" (the only song written as a group; Yocum wrote the other five in his bedroom), which is soft as a Kleenex and strong as a Clydesdale.
Front and center, Yocum's breathy voice sinks into each word like a sofa, relaxed, but not really. "I have given it too much thought," he sighs as much as sings, the syllables so drawn out they might be in a game of Pictionary. "I have made the trap and now I'm caught." Yocum's voice, and the way he uses it, makes Twenty String feel as though it could be a mix tape, a collection of songs carefully compiled with one listener in mind.
Which, as Yocum would admit, is probably as big as he thought the audience would be for Twenty String. Even after the EP received a few favorable reviews, he stuck to his opinion.
"One guy I talked to in Seattle said that he didn't want to review it because he didn't like it because it was boring to him," Yocum says. "He had A.D.D. It was kind of relieving for me, actually, to hear that, because that was always my prediction, that people would be bored with it. When we got nothing but positive responses to it, I kind of got freaked out, like it was some conspiracy. It just didn't seem real.
"I've always kinda had the opinion that people are bored with slow, pretty music," he continues, letting out a short laugh. "But even when it was a three-piece, with me and Bradly and Eric, we got a lot of positive responses. There was a small core of, like, five to 10 people that would come out to every show that we played. And we were just playing coffee shops and stuff like that. As soon as it became a five-piece, people started to pay more attention. I guess when there's a bassist and an electric guitarist, you start to get a little more volume, and people notice noise more."
It also helps that Panda, unlike its namesake, has been much more visible lately, especially since Twenty String's release. But getting to that point has been as slow and quiet as one of the band's songs. Yocum and Elterman have been playing music together since they were 16, continuing when they enrolled at the University of North Texas. There was a two-year break when Elterman went to New York to finish his schooling; he earned a degree in studio engineering and music business. When Elterman returned, the duo began gigging around Denton, first under the name Calico Jane. Yocum and Elterman went through a few more band names (including one that I couldn't spell if you spotted me half the letters, and Yocum admits "didn't go too well"), picked up Brown, Kimbrell and Goolsby along the way, and 10 months ago, began playing as Panda.
The majority of the playing, however, has been limited to Denton. The group has ventured to Dallas a handful of times, including a May 9 performance at the Dallas Museum of Art. But its unique setup--orchestra bells, a sampler, an accordion and viola all figure in, not to mention Yocum's acoustic guitar and quieter dynamics--has led to "a nightmare with sound problems," as Yocum says.
"The first time we played in Dallas was at the Liquid Lounge, and Ryan wasn't playing with us quite at that time," Yocum begins. "It was our first show with Stephen. We were using a laptop for our electronic tracks at the time. But, uh, the laptop and the vocals were louder than everything else--even the drums. And then the parts where the laptop drops out and the band comes in, nothing was there. It was the most terrible sound we've ever had. I think part of the problem is that a lot of sound guys want to push us to where we're as loud as other bands. When you have acoustic instruments and you start pushing it that loud, you get nothing but feedback. Eric's mike on his viola starts picking up everything else from the band and it just muddies everything." He pauses. "I can understand why a sound person would be just a little bit irritated by our setup." He laughs.
The band's set at the DMA, as part of a show put together by The Adventure Club's Josh Venable, was an exception. In fact, performing in a museum is probably the best atmosphere for a Panda set, the best environment--outside of a pair of headphones--to study the sweated-over details in the group's songs, not unlike the careful brushwork present in the paintings a hundred feet away from the DMA's atrium. Quiet music doesn't go over very well at, say, Club Clearview, when even the loudest bands struggle to compete with the dance music from next door.
Not that Panda isn't club-friendly. As the band tightens as a unit, Yocum is discovering that Panda is moving away, slightly, from its original sound, picking up the pace, turning the volume knob a click or two to the left. It's still a long way from a Black Sabbath cover band, though.
"We've completely written our next record," Yocum says. "We haven't started recording it yet, but we've written 10 or 11 songs that we're gonna start laying down in a few weeks, I think. And those songs have tended to be shorter and louder. We're still not anywhere as loud as most bands that I go see. You know, you can still, like, carry on a conversation without losing your voice while we're playing. Which sometimes, I wonder if that's a good thing or not." He laughs. "But no one's gonna walk away from our shows with hurt ears. Bradly and Ryan have started to get a lot tighter as a rhythm section, and it just naturally tended towards more energetic music." He pauses, then decides to correct himself. "When I say that, it's just more energetic than it was before. It's still pretty calm and laid-back, I'd say."
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