Hot Panda crafts catchy pop
If Edmonton native Chris Connelly, the frontman of art-rock quartet Hot Panda, sometimes sounds a bit downbeat about his new hometown of Vancouver, it’s only because he’s tapping into its self-deprecating spirit.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, catching himself complaining about the locals’ infamous insularity. “Vancouver is beautiful. I love how, whenever I’m in a bad mood, I can just take a walk by the ocean and the mountains and I instantly think, ‘Things are going to be okay.’ ”
Hot Panda’s third album, Go Outside, which came out in July, is its first record since the band’s relocation last year from Edmonton to Lotusland, headquarters of its label Mint Records. And our city has influenced the group’s new material in more ways than one.
Connelly was, for example, unexpectedly inspired by his very first Vancouver winter.
“Most of this record was written when I first moved here,” he says, nursing a beer at one of his favourite neighbourhood haunts, the Foundation. “It was a really tough winter, and I just stayed home a lot, sitting around by myself writing music. And then I felt like I got into a bad place with that, where I wouldn’t leave the house or talk to anybody. So ‘go outside’ became a phrase I would tell myself. Like, ‘Just go outside, do something, see what happens.’ ”
In keeping with the openness that the title suggests, Go Outside’s slightly daring cover features a naked man diving into a pool in the middle of the jet-black night. Taken by local photographer Robert Fougère, the photo may be a turn-off for anti-penis prudes, but for Connelly it resonates with the record’s central themes.
“The shot’s provocative and attention-grabbing, and it’s very much about being unapologetic and throwing yourself out into the world,” he explains. “But when we started going forward with the photo, we were like, ‘Wait, we should probably ask this guy if he’s okay with having his penis on an album cover.’ And he was super cool with it.”
True to Hot Panda’s philosophy of adventurousness, Go Outside is a diverse collection of exploratory indie-pop, ranging from the xylophone-peppered “Maybe Now?” to the snaggletoothed lo-fi rock of “Negative Thinking Patterns”. Inspired particularly by early Brian Eno records like Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), it’s a more cohesive effort than Hot Panda’s previous releases, Volcano…Bloody Volcano and How Come I’m Dead?.
“I kept listening to the Velvet Underground’s Loaded,” Connelly says. “And I’ve always read that the band named it that because they wanted to make an album that was loaded with hits. In a similar way, I wanted this record to be better-crafted, catchier, and poppier.”
Growing up, Connelly was profoundly influenced by unconventional tunesmiths of the Britpop era, like Pulp, Blur, and Manic Street Preachers, perusing West Edmonton Mall every week for new issues of NME, Mojo, and Melody Maker. He still feels their sonic imprint today.
Despite Hot Panda’s pop-centric focus for the new record, the band’s self-described punk-rock spirit has not been compromised either. Jagged-edged instrumentation, off-kilter vocal melodies, and an ability to not take themselves too seriously has earned the group’s members comparisons to experimental postpunk bands like the Fall and the Talking Heads.
“Punk to me is very soulful and raw,” Connelly explains. “It’s when you’re just emoting and you don’t care if you sound perfect. Like, I would say that James Brown sings with a punk-rock spirit, because he’s just letting it rip and not worrying too much about hitting the right notes. I think that’s the element that people love about rock music. That’s why it’s powerful to watch someone like Iggy Pop perform, because he’s expressing himself in a very genuine, non-self-conscious way.”
Connelly has taken his self-expression to another level with Hot Panda’s politically acerbic tracks “One in the Head, One in the Chest” and “Future Markets”, tackling lyrical subjects he shied away from in the past, like political extremism and the rotten state of the economy. But he’s diving in headfirst now, taking cues from the star of their record cover.
“Things are definitely on the verge of changing big-time all over the world, and I do have strong opinions,” he says. “So I think I almost owe it to myself to speak out about how I want my country or the world to be. It kind of goes back to the ‘go outside’ thing, if you look at it on a bigger level. You shouldn’t keep everything inside—you should let it out. I think everybody’s at their best when they put themselves on the line.”