By tomorrow night, the rest of the snow covering the streets of Harrisburg should melt away as reggae and jam band scene favorites Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad drop some hot-as-fire reggae on the crowd at the Abbey Bar. The five-piece band has developed a huge, dedicated fan base with their authentic brand of jam-leaning, dubbed-out reggae, but also dabbles in Americana and country with their two releases Country and Bright Days. They’re set to release a new electric reggae album this spring. I got a chance to speak with drummer Chris O’Brian ahead of the show and we talked about reggae, Phish, weed, cops and country music.
Mike Andrelczyk: Your current tour is called the Steady Stitch & Pass tour. I couldn’t help thinking that’s a reference to the famous live Phish album. Are you guys fans?
Chris O’Brian: Yeah man, we love Phish. I’ve seen probably a hundred Phish shows. I got in when I was like, 14. I can go see them and they could play the worst show ever and I have a blast. My first two shows were the first two shows of ’98 at Nassau Coliseum on April 2nd and 3rd. Total game-changer, you know? I was done, man. I was obsessed. The Grateful Dead and Phish are a huge influence on how we try to do our thing. We’re not gunning for that radio hit – obviously, that would be great – but we’re trying to make fans and play good live shows and spread a thing in a more grassroots way. And it’s happened so far. The snowball is rolling down the hill. We’re pressing on. We’ve got some pretty amazing fans and a pretty solid discography behind us.
MA: I’m a Phish fan, too, so obviously I love their reggae song “Makisupa Policeman,” but I think your song “Mr. Cop” is the next best reggae song about a cop.
COB: (laughs) Yeah man, we couldn’t help it. Part of me cringes, like, “Oh great,12 years in and you’ve finally made your ganja anthem.” But it is what it is. And people love it and it’s fun to play for sure.
MA: Speaking of cops, let’s say you’re playing a show in Canada, when the border police find out you guys are a reggae band, does it turn into an insane situation to try to cross over?
COB: Yeah man, it’s a shame about the Canadian border, because Canada is a great place and we’ve had a really great time there every single time we’ve gone there. We got stopped, like pretty much extorted, going into Vancouver once. They were like, “Pay us $600 and you guys can go in. We’re seeing something here on your licenses, but $600 and you’re good to go.” Meanwhile, you drive into Vancouver and you can buy some of the finest marijuana in the world just walking down the street, you know? And if you’re crossing over from Washington, marijuana is legal. So it seems a little overboard.
MA: Yeah, I mean, if you can buy weed in Vancouver, they’re going to need someone to play some reggae.
COB: I remember being so perplexed the last time we did the West Coast of Canada, like everyone on both sides of this invisible line is OK with this.
MA: So crazy. You guys are from Rochester. What’s the deal in New York? Is it decriminalized?
COB: We’re up in Rochester. It’s decriminalized. There’s definitely medical stuff happening, like we passed a medical law, which part of it is you’re not allowed to smoke it. So, we passed a totally bogus medical law. Millionaire business men and the people who know there’s millions of dollars to be made are definitely ready to have warehouses ready the moment the switch is hit. It’s just a matter of time, and until then we sing “Mr. Cop.” (laughs)
MA: I just learned about Lee Perry recruiting his ’80s band from Rochester musicians. There’s some reggae history in your city.
COB: Yeah man, there’s a huge connection. We hang out with those guys. I just saw Ron Stackman the other night playing with his band The Majestics, like killin’ roots reggae. Lee lived right here in Rochester.
MA: I wonder what brought him to that area. I wonder why Rochester?
COB: I don’t know what the original draw was, but once he was here, he was locked in with these guys and making music. [He was] living right on the main drag – Monroe Ave. You picture Lee Perry being one of the crazy dudes standing around reading a book.
MA: I learned a little more reggae history from your website. I was reading about Winston Grennan and the one-drop beat.
COB: Our bass player James Searl is an amazing writer and really well educated on the whole reggae scene from Ghana to Jamaican slaves to the whole world history of reggae. He has some really great articles on Rootfire.net.
MA: This will probably be the last Phish reference in this interview. I can’t promise anything, but let’s see what happens. Trey [Anastasio] had this quote when Phish was going through their funk phase and he said “Real funk isn’t played by four white guys from Vermont.” Do you think real reggae can be played by anyone or does authentic reggae need to come from Rastafarians in Jamaica?
COB: You know, that’s a classic line and I love it and I love the cow-funk [Phish’s style of funk]. But I’m going to respectfully disagree [with Trey], because those dudes get funky. I mean, no they aren’t playing ’73-era James Brown, and no one ever will, just like no one is ever going to play just like Bob Marley and the Wailers. But, the truth remains that reggae was invented in like the late ’60s, and it spread all over the world. There are reggae bands in every corner of the world. It’s funny, when Giant Panda started, there wasn’t a ton of reggae bands in North America in comparison to the vibe now. That question had more weight on us ten years ago. Now there are a dozen reggae bands in every state. So, I say yes, anyone can play reggae, and anyone can play funk music. We’re not Jamaican. We’re not from where reggae came from. We’re not particularly singing about the same subject matter that a lot of the traditional roots reggae bands are singing about but, we are singing about real life issues. We’re just not Jamaican, and it’s not the ’70s.
MA: You guys released a few Americana albums. Why did you decide to go into that style?
COB: We’ve just been doing it forever. We play acoustic guitars when we’re not on the stage. When we’re in someone’s living room and we all want to jam, I’m beating on a box instead of a drum set. I think that the thing that really made us be like, “OK, let’s book a studio date and do this,” is when we were on tour with G Love and Special Sauce. We were jamming with those guys every night after the shows and G just kinda like dared us to. He was like “Y’all gotta go cut this man. You’re crazy.” We were like, “OK, G Love is telling us to go do it. Let’s go do it.”
MA: As a drummer, what are some of the challenges between playing reggae and Americana?
COB: Just going from the rock, funk, jam band thing that I was doing by default as a child, to reggae was a serious switch. I kind of got used to that and after about a decade could say without choking up that I’m a reggae drummer and I can hold my own playing reggae. Then we did this country thing and I’m like, “Guys, I’m back in the dark, I’m back in the beginning.” It’s completely different, like more than rock to reggae in my opinion. We went into that pretty casually. Country – the first of the two Americana albums we’ve done – was super casual. [We recorded it] in Colorado in our boy Joel’s new studio. So we just got right and jammed out. And we kinda lucked out that the grooves were awesome. It’s cool to be able to play anything and not pigeon-hole yourself as like, “Oh, that’s that reggae band.” There’s no reason to, because we like to play other music and people like to hear other music. So, yeah we are open to that. Again, thank you, Grateful Dead.
MA: You guys have a new record in the works. Is there a name?
COB: I don’t think we have a solid name for it yet. There’s some ideas bouncing around. But it’s recorded and we got some heavy duty guys mixing it and producing it. We’re really happy with the way it sounds. I think this is our best album yet. We should get it out by the spring.
MA: Is this one a blend of styles?
COB: This is an electric reggae album. That’s the easiest way to describe it. We’ve got a bunch of new tunes and many that we’ve never played live. We’ve never really been able to hold back more than a couple so we’ll see how many shows we play between now and then and how many slip out.
MA: Traditionally you guys have made records that focus on one style at a time. Do you think you’ll ever make a record that bounces around between different genres?
COB: I’d like to think so. We almost put out Bright Days and Steady as a double disc. A lot of people are receptive to it, but some people totally don’t want to hear a bluegrass tune in the middle of their reggae album. We definitely had some honest, honest fans be like, “Yo, cool that you guys did that. Not really feeling it.” (laughs). It’s like, “That’s cool, man. You’re what we call a reggae purist, and I love you.” You know? I am not a reggae purist. You’re not exclusively hearing roots reggae at my house. But more power to those people. And we’ve definitely have fans that are like “I don’t get down on that reggae stuff but Bright Days is a cool album.”
Chris O’Brian’s favorite reggae and country songs:
Who Colt the Game – Bob Marley
Bob Marley is the king of reggae. He always will be. He’s the tops. If I ever need to show someone some amazing reggae I put on “Who Colt the Game.” There’s an amazing dub cut where it’s like Carlton Barrett’s hi-hat cymbal is just, like, chopping your head off the whole time. That’s one I put on. I start freaking out and ranting, my girl is like, “Yeah, I got you. I know. You love it. We can’t even hear it because you’re freaking out so much.” According to [bassist] James [Searl] the historian, it’s about how someone shot Prince Jammy, the old-school reggae producer, and I think that tune is a reference to that.
Mary Anne – The Wood Brothers
On the Americana acoustic-based tip, me and my lady and my two boys are hopelessly obsessed with The Wood Brothers. They are the current household heroes. I could put on “Mary Anna” right now and my son would stop crying. It’s hysterical. They are so good, man, and their live show is like earth-shatteringly emotional and amazing. Those guys are our gold medalists right now.
Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad performs at The Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg on February 4 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door.