Amherst has played host to a number of now well-known bands over the years, including the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr., and the local music scene in the Pioneer Valley is full of young groups hoping to one day rise to the legendary status that these bands managed to achieve. One such group is the dynamic Red Panda, a relatively fresh, four-piece rock ensemble that recently released its newest five-song EP, “War.”
The group, which released a three-song EP called “Painted Castles” in 2011, plays a very unique brand of music. Utilizing math-rock time signatures paired with stylistically indie rock tones and vocals, songs can vary from slow and dreamy to fast and hard-hitting. One moment they can evoke the jangly rhythms of The Smiths and the next sound straight out of the 1980s Washington, D.C., hardcore scene.
The four members of the group – Jake Reed on lead vocals and guitar, Mark Hillier on guitar, Dave Bazzet on bass, and Ryan Severin on drums – met a few years back at the University of Massachusetts. Hillier, Severin and Bazzet became acquainted during their freshman year when they lived in Van Meter Hall. Reed, who was studying at UMass Lowell at the time, met the gang while visiting Hillier, whom he had been good friends with since high school.
Planning for the group took off in November of 2010. But music didn’t come out of nowhere for the band members.
“Me and Mark met in high school and have been playing since high school,” said Reed, who has played guitar for 10 years and proclaimed, “I’ve been singing since I’ve had a car.”
“I feel like I first learned how to play (guitar) with Jake,” added Hillier.
Bazzet plays a number of instruments. He has been playing “bass and guitar for six years on and off,” as well as the mandolin. Severin is also a multi-instrumentalist who’s played drums since he was about 13, in addition to the piano and guitar.
“Ryan plays everything,” said Reed.
The band members were not able to agree on any specific artists that inspire them when asked, and they also could not agree on a genre for the group. Musical taste varies from member to member, which perhaps explains the group’s diverse melodies and textures.
“We all listen to different music,” Severin said. “I just like all kinds of music from folk to pop to heavier stuff.”
“I like experimenting with different times,” Hillier added of the diverse time-signatures the group jumps between.
As a band, the members are dynamically tight and all of them contribute to the songwriting. They mentioned that they all help each other write parts for their respective instruments.
Since Red Panda’s inception, the group has played a number of local shows. Concert venues have spanned from Amherst homes to The Middle East in Cambridge, which hosted the band’s largest show with about 150 to 200 people in the crowd. The group members said they often go to Fitchburg as well, but their gig frequency fluctuates regularly.
On Jan. 26, the band gathered a crowd that filled the basement of an Amherst home for the release of “War.” All of the band members said that the show was the most fun they had playing live since they formed. Many people in the crowd were friends or acquaintances of the band and had been anticipating the new record’s release.
“Some people were singing along and knew all the lyrics,” said Reed.
The group played a number of songs, both new and old, and then handed out art booklets with a link to the album online, which can be found at musicbyredpanda.bandcamp.com. The album is being sold on a “name your own price” basis but even if one chooses to pay $0, the download still includes a PDF copy of the art booklet along with the five tracks.
Planning for “War” began almost immediately after “Painted Castles.”
“It’s different than the first EP,” noted Severin. “The soft parts are softer and the heavy parts are heavier.”
In addition to containing more songs, there is an increase in production quality on “War.” We hear more of the odd time signatures and both smooth and strained vocals from the first EP, but in a more expansive manner.
Reed had a very specific message in mind for the album when penning some of its lyrics.
“It’s about the war to be yourself … It’s about the feeling you get before coming out as gay.”
Bazzet, Hillier and Reed are all juniors at UMass.
Severin, an Amherst native, is taking time off from school this semester and has been working at a local pre-school in Amherst.
“It takes its toll on me, but we have music day and it’s fun,” he said.
Tommy Verdone can be reached at email@example.com.