What is Hot Panda? It’s not quite pop, not quite psychedelic. It’s totally radical and completely addictive. Hot Panda isn’t what you expect, even after listening to a few songs. And just when you THINK you are “getting it” you will once again be surprised by another shift in indescribably upbeat music. This eclectic Canadian ensemble (consisting of Chris Connelly lead guitarist and vocals, Maghan Campbell on drumbs, Catherine Hiltz on bass and Heath Parsons on keys and accordion) is anything but typical and they bring a breath of fresh air to the Canadian indie music scene. I tried to get inside the band mentality when I interviewed Chris Connelly. We discussed their sound, their view on Canadian music, and favourite places to eat on the road… I was left with the realization that they can only be described one way… Hot Panda.
Danica Stewart: Your band is named after a restaurant? Which restaurant? I’ve heard of Panda Express but..
Chris Cornell: It’s actually named after Panda Express… it was a joke dish that could be served at panda express.. one day we were drinking and joking about dishes… it was either sweet and sour panda or hot panda.
DS: panda chow mein..
CC: szechuan panda…
DS: How did u all come to meet? Have you all known each other for a long time?
CC: We’ve all known each other for quite awhile. Myself and Maghan have known each other for 8-9 years ago… Catherine we’ve known from a long time in Edmonton. We met Heath in Montreal. We used to stay at his place in Montreal.
DS: Describe your sound in one sentence your philosophy, etc
CC: Hmm.. (laughs) I think it’s .. um.. let me try this…artfuly playful pop music played with a punk rock spirit.
DS: Amazing. I was trying to describe your sound to a friend today… and I was saying it’s a mesh of pop and it’s fun..
CC: I’m always refining that answer… cuz it’s always the hardest thing…”what do u sound like.. and it’s always like.. awh MAN!”
DS: You can retract that statement, but i think it’s perfect…
CC: great! thanks!
DS: Have you all been playing music your entire lives? And when did you realize it was something u wanted to do for a living?
CC: Well, Heath and Catherine went to school for music..for myself.. i wasn’t really into music when I was younger. I grew up in alberta and I was into sports. I didn’t really find arts in my life until I was 15/16 years old. I was really into drama… I was just kinda playing guitar on the side… just dabbled with it.. but i was always a FAN of music. Then (laughs) I just decided to start a band. We had a LOT of good stuff happen right away. And we realized this was something we could do.
DS: So when you decided that you wanted to form a band, are these people that were your friends or did you put up the poster with the phone numbers?
CC: These were all friends. which is a good way to do it. It was nice and more organic… it didn’t require that much effort. It all fell into place and it started out not as serious… wasn’t serious…. and that’s why when things got more serious we had a change in members..when you wanna go on tour and travel all the time, it’s a commitment not everyone can commit to..
DS: And so you’ve lost a member and gained a member. A lot of bands give up or stop recording for awhile… but your music sounds more authentic. It really flows from album to album. Is there anything hidden in your songs that reflect the change of members.
CC: I don’t think it changed that much, but we all got older and things change as things go by. And Catherine played with us before. Whenever we had horns in songs she played with us.. and at festivals. She knew us all so it was very natural to bring her in… she also brought in a lot of really good ideas. I think that’s why it was a seemless transistion. There was a point after the first record where things got stale, and having a new member gave a shot of energy to things and made people excited again.
DS: Since you mentioned collaborating (with Catherine before she was in the band) any artists you would like to collaborate with? Or any upcoming collaborations that nobody knows about yet?
CC: No collaborations in the works. We haven’t really done that.. no wait. that’s not true! when you do a record you are always collaborating. John Collins who plays with The New Pornographers and Destroyer.. it was really cool working with him… it’s really neat to work with a new set of ears and a different brain that can contribute.
DS: SXSW.. who are you looking foward to seeing? And are you joining the stage with anyone.
CC: Aw man.. u know what? I don’t even know who is playing yet! We are playing a bunch of shows when we are down there. The crazy thing about it is you play as much as you can, so there isn’t much time to see anyone you aren’t playing with…but we are playing with Andrew W. K.. He’s playing right after us at a party that we are playing. I remember seeing him years ago and thought he was really great. He put on an amazing live show. I’m looking forward to playing with him.
DS: So when you go to these festivals, is meeting the fans important, or do you prefer to be anonymous ?
CC: I think it’s great to meeet people. it’s cool. You never know who people are. Just by meeting people, you meet people who can help you out later down the line. …. if people talk to you and think you are nice, they are more willing to help you in the future…and a thing like SXSW you never know who is at your show….
DS: Ok, let’s move onto the F-bomb. Your music has some explicit lyrics. (laughs) Would you want your album to be sold at big box stores? Or do you prefer the idea of smaller record stores?
CC: Well, i think if it was sold at those types of stores….i can’t really picture people buying it there… it doesn’t really seem to fit that… i think boutiques or online… it works.
DS: i think that’s a good thing.
CC: Yeah, it’s not something I think people want… I don’t think it would be good for us.
DS: Who have you, discovered over the last while who is an unknown artist that deserves more airplay.. who is underrated
CC: Hmm.. well there is a band in edmonton, there is a band called “the Wet Secrets”… that are amazing that are one of the best bands of all of Canada, and nobody really knows who they are outside of Edmonton… and they are a band that i think … it would be good if more people knew who they were.
DS: Well they are on my radar now! Do you think that canada is suffering in the indie music industry or is Canada doing okay for promoting indie bands?
CC: I think Canada is doing a really good thing. There are a lot of really good bands in Canada right now, which is kinda new.. that didn’t always exist. When I was growing up, Canadian music wasn’t that cool. Now we are doing well. A great example is The Arcade Fire just won for best album.. that’s CRAZY! …. there are a lot of bands that are big on a global stage..not big like, Canadians cringe when they hear big.. not like Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. Bands like Feist, Broken Social Scene and The New Pornographers.
DS: Yes.. they are all amazing! When u think of an ideal venue for your band, would you open for a band like The Arcade Fire? Or would that be intimidating?
CC: No man that would be the best! That would be great! It’s fun to play for bigger bands. We’ve done a bit of that. You get to play for more people, but you also learn from bands like that. what it takes to put on a show.. and what it takes when you are playing with a band like that.
DS: So…dive bars… or do larger venues inspire?
CC: I think 1000-2000 people are the ideal sized venues. If you play bigger shows that that, there is a bit of a disconnect… when you play a smaller show, you feel like the show is for you.that you are a part of it.
DS: So will hot panda ever have lazer light shows and smoke machines? Or is that something you refuse to subscribe to?
CC: (laughs) Oh i don’t know… my instinct is to say no, but it could be cool…
DS: Walk me through a typical hot panda day on tour.
CC: Normally, we wake up and the first thing we do is .. (laughs) SHOWER if you can.. shower every second day… other day…. then normally breakfast.. it’s great to get breakfast in the city you are in.. sometimes even the night before, you can get ambitious and ask people “hey what’s a good place?”…people always recommend places… then you drive to where you are going. sometimes you have to do things like an interview or stop by a radio station… you get to the venue, load in , do a soundcheck, have dinner… get a hotel, you do your show… and then do the whole thing again.. you dont’ get to see a whole lot of stuff in the city you are in.
DS: Is there anything you haven’t gotten to see that you wanted to see?
CC: We went to europe.. and everyone thought it was so cool.. but we didn’t get to see venues or hotels or a van…. I don’t really mind it when you are in saskatoon or winnipeg, cuz you’re like “meh.. what’s there to see?” but when u are in Paris or Amsterdam or Berlin… you want to go see stuff.. and it sucks to be so close to places like that and not be able to see it.
DS: And with food.. I’ve been reading your critiques..any spots you want to hit in Toronto next time?
CC: Oh yeah! lots of stuff in toronto! Obviously Sneaky Dee’s.. they have amazing nachos
(We get off on a tangent talking about great food places in Toronto… my stomach is now grumbling)
DS: When you are home/on the road.. what do you miss the most about being on tour or being at home?
CC: I miss things like my girlfriend.. friends… just being part of a community.. going out and being with people you know. I miss that. But when i’m home for too long i miss the adventure and the unknown that comes with being on the road. i like that things never go according to plan, it’s never dull.. sometimes being at home becomes a bit too much of a routine.
DS: What is something about Hot Panda that your fans don’t know, that you want them to know?
CC: (laughs) Something they don’t know…aw man.. what do i want to tell them? That’s a tough one.. hmm… well, something about us right now is that Catherine has mono.. and you can’t tell from the shows.. but after the shows she’s in the back of the van, sleeping.. she just gets up and plays, then gets back into the van and crashes.. she doesn’t want to make a big deal of it.
DS: I think you should let the fans know.. maybe you’ll get cases of free redbull.
CC: And people will be like “whoa, she plays like that AND she has mono!”
DS: Social networking.. helpful or hindrance for bands?
CC: It can help and hurt. It’s great because there is a diversity of things. But i also think that you have to look through so much stuff … because there is so much stuff out there. And then there’s the nature of clicking through things. People have lost the ability to be patient. You hear a 30 second clip of something… and if in that thirty seconds it hasn’t grabbed you, you move on.. and that’s not really fair. It would be a shame to decide whether or not you like someone based on the 30 seconds that you have heard them.
DS: Well I was actually hooked on your clips withing 30 seconds.
CC: Well some people are sometimes surprised by us. They might think we are part of a song that they heard. They are surprised when they see us. They form an opinion based on one part of one song that they heard sometimes. So I think sometimes we might dissappoint them or impress them at live shows.
DS: Since we judge music instantly, but want to make a lasting impression…if Hot Panda was an outfit… and ensemble head to toe, what would Hot Panda look like?
CC: What would Hot Panda look like… I think it would be really loud and colourful, but when you look closer you’d be like “oh wow. he’s just a normal guy.”
DS: And what is on your playlist right now?
CC: I’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone. I’ve always liked her stuff but never went too in depth into.
DS Any canadian artists that you are rooting for at the moment?
CC: Yeah! I really like that new Destroyer record that came out. And having worked with them, it’s good to see them do well. I ran into a friend of mine from that group in Vancouver .. and he just got back from New York and he was just on Jimmy Fallon. And it was so cool cuz he was just on tv.
DS: And where can fans find your music?
CC: You can get them at most independent record stores… also online… but the BEST way to get it, the best way to get it from any band is at a show. Because that is where the most money from sales go to the artist.
DS: So are you willing to sign records fans buy after the show.
CC: Yeah, sure if they want to we will.
DS: Where do you draw your inspiration from? Life experiences? People?…
CC: Personally I like being out of my comfort zone. Trying new stuff. Never being in a box… I think as a band we are colour outside the lines kinda people. I like the idea of people being surprised by our stuff. I like that people don’t quite understand us.
DS: For me, I could not describe you to a friend of mine. I literally said “it’s like this band had a baby with this band and hooked up with this band..”
CC: I really like that! That’s the thing we totally try to do. I find that when someone completely understands something it becomes boring. There is something nice in that. A lot of bands that are like that.. bands that are quirky and have a sense of humour.
DS: It’s word association time. Tell me the first word that comes into mind when i say the following. Keep in mind Hot Panda mentality.
CC: Okay I got it (laughs) I’m in the zone!
CC: maple leaf
DS: Rolling Stone Magazine
CC: ah.. The Rolling Stones
DS: Neil Young
CC: Oh! um…. what’s… Winnipeg!
DS: The beatles
CC: Eiffel Tower
DS: the f bomb
DS: Van (laughs)
CC: OH! (laughs) smelly!
* You can catch Hot Panda playing at Rancho Relaxo March 11th as part of Canadian Music Week