Pretty weird how things happen in this road we call life. A few years ago, out of pure dumb luck, managed to get an interview with The Wooden Birds and then managed to review (and interview) Leslie Sisson while she was touring her solo project, Sisson. Fast forward to March 2014 and I saw Leslie Sisson in her new band, Panoramas, perform at The Ginger Man. A quick missed calls, text messages and facebook messages later I’m in a lil’ coffee shop in Austin called The Flightpath Coffee House.
I’m sitting in front of Panoramas, a three member soundscape machine consisting of Leslie Sisson (vocals, guitar), Rozie Castoe (vocals, bass) and Karen Skloss (drums.) The topics of conversation are : influences, band naming, SXSW misadventures, the genius of John Paul Jones and vintage 90s films. All of this fuelled with tea, Topo Chico water and a slightly inspiring brew of curiously strong coffee.
I’m going to go for the obvious question: where does the name Panoramas come from?
LS: I’ll answer that question. After playing with Karen in a band called Black Forest Fire, which was more psych-ey and the sound spread more. The music I wrote in the past had a narrower sound. I said to Karen “I want the songs I’ve written to spread out more, pan out more, more…panoramic.” That’s where it came from! Part two of that was that when Rozie, who was a student of mine at School of Rock, was playing in an 80s show that I was directing. I was thinking about putting a Bananarama song in the show and I loved the idea of three girls singing in unison and I thought “I’d love to make a Bananarama sort of act because they were so cool. Wait, Bananarama…Panoramas…Panoramas!” And that’s how it started. I wanted to have a band with these two girls.
You can’t go wrong with several vocalists. I really enjoy harmonising and your live sound. Now a couple of individual questions. Leslie, you used to live in Austin and now you live in New York, as an artist, did you find it jarring or complementing to your work?
LS: It’s certainly jarring, but I need jarring in order to keep moving, because if I stay stagnant, I lose my creative edge. I moved to New York in 2004 and I’ve been living here for 7 years, so close to the seven year itch! I came back here a couple of years ago because of The Wooden Birds were rehearsing a lot more and touring a lot more, so I was coming back more often, then staying for a bit longer, which is great because that’s how Karen and I started playing together. I also started teaching at School of Rock. I kept getting called back to New York for work, because Karen and I are both video editors. Well, I’m an assistant editor, she is an editor. I kept getting pulled back there. It’s been interesting, but I actually write more music when I’m in my Brooklyn apartment than here in Austin, because here in Austin I mostly hang out, drink beer, eat sushi, take it easy but back in New York, there’s a different kind of energy and it’s all frantic.
Karen, you do hit a mean drum, so I was going to ask you who were your main influences?
Karen: Oddly enough, I really loved Georgia from Yo La Tengo and one of the first things that made me felt I could play drums was going to a Low show and seeing Mimi Parker just play such basic drums and how it filled out the song and then I realised the songs I love the most really aren’t about drums being super solo-ey, they have heavy and rocking drums, which is different from Mimi. Georgia Hubley rocking is pretty hardcore.
How about you Rozie, who influenced you for bass playing?
Rozie: My main influence is John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. For me, he is the epitome of bass playing because not only is he a bass player but also a keyboardist. The way he arranged his basslines, sort of blues based. Also, the way he connects to the band at the bottom line of it all. Everytime I listen to a Led Zeppelin song I’m amazed about how he wrote bass and how it just fits under everything, under that chaos going on.
Any particular Led Zeppelin album you like best?
Rozie: Led Zeppelin III, just because of the diversity of that album. My favourite song by Led Zeppelin is ‘No Quarter’ which funnily enough features him more on keyboards but still the musical arrangement of that song is beautiful.
LS: Rozie does a mean ‘Nobody’s fault by mine’ and sings and plays the bass, all the same time. It’s incredible! Just wanted to add that.
Whoa…well, if you ask me which was the best part of Led Zeppelin, I’m going to say the bassist and the drummer. I’d go for ‘Achilles’ last stand’ as my fave song.
Karen: John Bonham, yes!
Rozie: It’s an amazing song.
You define yourself as “panorama gaze”, so I need to ask you : which bands would you pair yourself with? As in: “if you like ____, you’ll like Panoramas.”
LS: My 90s roots! So bands like Bedhead, Slowdive, The Stone Roses, Lush, even the Cocteau Twins…
Karen: My Bloody Valentine!
LS: My Bloody Valentine! Hello, that as well. There’s also Yo La Tengo and some post 90s bands. I saw Yo la Tengo with Juliana Hatfield when I was 18.
I like Juliana Hatfield.
LS: I love Juliana Hatfield, she’s a huge influence because she was the first chick I ever saw that could rock in the guitar and sing like an angel. She also could harmonise with Evan Dando, I thought she was so bad ass. She wasn’t shoegaze at all, but great rock pop. Wait, The Breeders, duh, hello! Them as well. So I’ll say: “if you like Galaxy 500 and you like the Deal sisters, you’ll like Panoramas!”
Do you have any releases planned this year?
LS: Yes, we do! We’ll be back in the studio. We did some studio time back in October 2013 and recorded 4 songs, just drums, bass, vocals and guitars, no harmonies yet. We only had a small window of time but we used that to springboard into getting shows and tell people who we are. We are working with Louie Lino, he’s produced a lot of great bands. He was a part member of Nada Surf and I met him through Matt Pond when I was playing with Matt Pond PA. He mixed The Wooden Birds’ Two Matchsticks. Insanely talented and insanely amazing human being. I don’t think I’d work with anyone else ever again. We are finishing it and I think it’ll be a five song EP. We are going to record a few extra tracks as freebies and I was telling Karen that there was this guy at The Ginger Man show, a friend of mine, who recorded a bootleg of it and I listened to it today, gave him some input, cleaned a few things here and there and I think he might release this before we release our record. A bootleg before even a record! It’s really cool because he was running late and managed to get something that sounds good. You were there, that crowd was amazing.
Yeah, I saw you had an entire fanbase being created like magic in the front row!
LS: It’s very raw because we couldn’t hear anything in that stage and now I know what to do if I don’t hear myself: sing quieter!
Here’s a very odd question, anyone who wants to take the lead go ahead. Let’s say you can re-score any of the following 90s films: Stargate, Heat, Jackie Brown, Empire Records or Reality bites. Also: how would the soundtrack be like?
LS: I would love to do Stargate, with a Panoramas only soundtrack. I think we’d knock that one out of the park!
Karen: I love Jackie Brown but I don’t know if we’d be a fit to that movie!
LS: It might change the whole entire feel of the movie! Make it more dramatic.
Karen: I’d say “let’s give it a try!”
Rozie: I was born in ’95 so I missed the boat on that. Probably Stargate though.
LS: I’ll get our people on right away!
We’ll get Kurt Russell to cameo on any videos. If you could cover any artist, which one would it be and which song would you cover?
LS: I’ve been meaning for us to cover Yo La Tengo’s ‘Nowhere near’. We’ve already covered Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t help falling in love’. My thing is I like taking a song I adore and give it our own twist so the cover has its own identity while doing the song justice. Rozie and I did a ‘Lucky Star’ cover and I love covers more than anything because it helps me re-evaluate my writing, playing and singing. I’d also like to cover The Radio Department and it might be too close to our own sound. The song is ‘I wanted you to feel the same way’ which I’d like to do very spacey. I’d love to make an album of people that we love and are our friends and we do them an honour. Hopefully an honour and not butcher it!
Karen: A friend is very demanding that we do a Broadcast song. Broadcast is definitely an influence and it would be fun to do.
Rozie: I’d love to do ‘Transmission’ by Joy Division!
LS: We could do that! That’d be fun!
Rozie, how do you manage to be “in tune” with Leslie and Karen, considering there’s an age gap between you?
Rozie: I never really connected with my age group that much. Now being 18, I graduated High School earlier and I’ve been in the “adult working world”, if you want to call it that, for six months. Musicians don’t have an age. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you come from, you connect in a different way, in a different language. It’s you becoming comfortable with them what makes the connection. It’s like a different level of communication when you are on stage.
It’s a language made of 12 different words, if you want to say it that way.
Rozie: Yes. Exactly.
LS: That’s beautiful.
It’s the coffee! Anyways, on topic, how did SXSW treat you? The best and the worst?
Karen: Well, the worst was the worst. It was really so sad. We saw that after the show. We saw the lights down the hill. The whole aftermath of the accident.
LS: That’s my route back home, Red River and 11th, that’s how I go. We saw it. Hundreds of cop cars.
Karen: We were like “what’s that?” You could see glistening down the hill, the lights looked beautiful but we knew that many cop cars anywhere wasn’t good at all.
LS: That was definitely the worse. We had some friends who saw it happened.
Karen: They were helping afterwards.
LS: So tragic and traumatic. Definitely the worse, but what do you think was our best, Rozie?
Rozie: My favourite moment was on the first show, down at Hotel Vegas, the chaos of it all. We were literally loading equipment through the window. There was some rain, we wanted to get something to eat because it was 2 hours until we played so we are sitting in a restaurant and Leslie gets a call “the Suicide Girls don’t want to play outside so they want to go on at eleven so we want you in 15 minutes.” So we had to run back over to Hotel Vegas, they pulled us through the back door, you know, the boiler room, somehow make it through the crowd and nothing is set up on stage…
Karen: “When are you going to start playing?”
LS: “Are you ready to go now? You have five minutes! Go! You ready? Ready to check your bass?” We didn’t even have a bass there.
Rozie: We set up in five minutes and then played. It was just one thing after another, a really cool experience.
Karen: It was jam packed and The Who was playing on the speakers as we were setting up. The soundtrack to our little movie.
LS: The best part about that show is that it was a crowd of people we didn’t know. It was jam packed, maybe because of the rain outside but we could’ve scared them away and they were totally into. It was a different crowd, even police officers. They were diggin’ it. I love it when girls love girl bands, that really makes me happy. I was really rushed and anxiety ridden but got that adrenaline rush. That was my favourite show, besides that Ginger Man crowd for the encore.
Karen: Well, I did like that. It was a genuine SXSW moment: lugging your equipment through the rain. I was very excited to play in the Levitation showcase, as it had a lot of bands we really gel with and admire. It was cool to be included in that bill.
LS: The people who run the Levitation Psychfest are insanely kind and they treat their bands perfect. They fed us…
Rozie: Catered with French food!
LS: We stayed there most of the day until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. It was so much fun. Sean Lennon played!
Karen: Sean Lennon watched us! He smiled at me afterwards.
LS: He sure did! I saw his head in the audience! That’s also my favourite moment. My third favourite moment is that Rozie and I did this thing in a gallery and we took our loud, wall of sound songs and shifted it down, I hope! It wasn’t packed and Matt from Nada Surf did a solo set, his only set during SXSW. It was my favourite set that I saw and it was very special for the people who saw it, kind of an underground uptown show. Cristina Barretta, my friend who did the cover of my solo album, had her artwork on exhibit there. School of Rock was great too. I liked all our shows, they all had something different special about them, which is something cool about playing so many shows back to back, you never know what you are going to get.
Rozie and Karen live in Austin and you live in New York. How do you manage to write and rehearse? Do you send files to each other?
LS: Yes, that’s how we do it. I guess I got practice from playing with Matt Pond PA and The Wooden Birds because that’s how we did it. The Wooden Birds started originally in New York, then Kenny moved back to Austin and did things remotely, with him sending me tracks so we could collaborate. I own a house here and rent an apartment in New York and somehow I’ve managed to go back and forth during this last years. It would be nice to stay in one place so we could keep gelling, but I think it’s good for us right now that I keep moving back and forth. Karen disagrees; she’d rather have me here all the time. I can see it in her face! Every time I see you, you are “well…”
Karen: I want what it’s best for you, darling.
LS: I want what is best for us! It’s challenging but bands do it all the time right now. Maybe I’ll be here more often.
Karen: There’s some jam software app that’s coming out, supposedly. They talked about it during [SXSW] Interactive.
LS: So you can play remotely?
Karen: Yes, because it deals with the delay but only goes up to 500 miles, so New York is a little too far away but they can perfect it. Great to deal with distance.
It sounds like a better app than Flappy Bird or whatever it’s called.
Karen: You can even do studio, so you don’t have to fly people in.
LS: Well, that’s just crazy! I did some stuff in my solo album where people send files and it worked out…
*The Breeders’ Cannonball starts to play loudly in the coffee shop’s PA, we all laugh*
LS: Synchronicity is coming around!
Karen: Ask and you shall receive!
LS: We still have this natural rawness when we track together in the same room, which is the way it should be. Then we look back and kick the stuff if it’s needed.
So, final question: if you could choose one Panoramas’ song to be your calling card to a newcomer, which one would it be?
LS: They all are a bit different right now. I want you guys to answer this one.
Rozie: I’d say ‘Please’.
Karen: People seem to respond to ‘Please’ the most. Calling it a “calling card” might not be the quite right but it might the one that’s jelled the most. Specially live.
LS: It’s the carrot. It’s the bait! That sounds weird, but it’s the one that pulls people in.
Rozie: It’s the way it should be.
LS: There’s all that underlying panoramic theme of spreading everything on and expanding our sound that takes this almost singer/songwriter-ish pop songs and psyches them out.
That’s pretty much, anything else you want to add?
LS: That’s it, thank you!
Right there, under a majestic Texan sky dressed in the royals colours worthy of a Monet photo, I bid goodbye to Panoramas. They have the confidence to catch that updraft that comes with the odd gust of wind of that day in March.
Words & Photos: Sam J. Valdés López