Songs of Totality: The Enduring Excellence of Tijuana Panthers

As the end of the decade approaches, many things appear significantly different than they did nearly ten years ago. America’s political climate is the focal point of endless debates and change is knocking on society’s door in multiple avenues. In a musical sense, the 2010s have brought on a flood of diversity, propelled by the power of the internet to connect virtually every corner of the globe.

In a time where indie rock has grown to encompass an infinite amount of artistic styles, Long Beach trio Tijuana Panthers have remained a constant. Widely recognized for their fuzzed out guitar jams and raucous, surf-inspired sound, the Panthers – comprised of guitarist and vocalist Chad Wachtel, bassist and vocalist Daniel Michicoff, and drummer Phil Shaheen – have helped form an important pillar of 21st Century West Coast rock music.

Having shared stages with The Oh Sees, Ty Segall and other major players in the garage and punk rock circuits, the Panthers have have dabbled in everything from lo-fi surf rock to artful takes on garage pop, all without ever losing their distinct So Cal style. Though their sun-drenched sound remains as identifiable as ever, after ten plus years of touring and recording, they now find themselves embarking into new territory.

Like many of their contemporaries, the group’s longevity has produced its fair share of triumphs and hardships. From experiencing fatherhood for the first time to overcoming the untimely deaths of close friends, these life-altering experiences are key in the makeup of the band’s forthcoming fifth LP, Carpet Denim, out July 12 on Innovative Leisure. The record is infused with deeply personal sentiments, yet is also familiarly feel-good, coated in their signature fusion of warm, jangly riffs and pulsing rhythms.

As Neil Young once sang, “sooner or later, it all gets real.” The latest chapter in the Panthers discography directly reflects that idea, advertently acknowledging the inevitability of life and the inescapable changes that come with the passing of time. “You just evolve,” says Michicoff. “You’re forced to deal with stuff philosophically, politically and artistically and ultimately, decide what you want out of life.”

Carpet Denim is arguably the band’s most idiosyncratic body of work for its exploration of these intimate themes. Where it is truly unique however, is not in its contemplating of death, alcoholism and aging, but in the concept of what it means to experience these events and keep on living. At the end of every dark meditation, there is a beacon of light which evokes a sense of joy and freedom, evident in the music throughout the record.

The past two Panthers albums, Poster and Wayne Interest, were fueled by wit and a charmingly retro aesthetic. Carpet Denim is equally self-aware and displays the group’s musical prowess as refined, yet still capable of delivering high octane fun. Tracks like “Little Pamplemousse,” “Owl Eyes” and “Different Side of Town” deliver fiery performances on all fronts with their intricately constructed instrumentals and punchy lead melodies. The band also flexes their skills in interpreting classic surf rhetoric with modern flavor on breezy summer jams like “710” and “End Of My Rope.”

The balance in aesthetic and energy is a nod to the group’s songwriting dynamic, to which all three members contribute. A culmination of the group’s collective synergy and growth over the years, Carpet Denim is a mature and masterful exposé on So Cal rock and embracing the adversity that comes as a product of getting older.

Riffs and Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson recently linked up with Panthers bassist Dan Michicoff to chat about the band’s new album. They talked about the inspiration behind LP, working with Richard Swift, the realities of getting older and more. Check out their conversation below.

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Are you still in the Long Beach area?

Dan: I moved to L.A. about 8 years ago, so I’ve been up here for a while.

New record on the way. Carpet Denim, due out this July. How does it feel now that you’re finally coming up on the release?

Dan: It’s exciting. It’s also a little weird because we’re all in our good, respective places individually and we’ve had so many albums come out before. It’s not so much being complacent, our excitement is just a little tamed. We’re keeping our anxiousness at bay, you know? We just hope people enjoy it.

Was the inception of this particular project any different than your last few albums, if at all?

Dan: In a way, we kind of went back to our old way of doing things. On Max Baker and Semi-Sweet, we were limited because of money and didn’t know how to engineer ourselves. Waning Interest and Poster were both produced by Richard Swift, those were a little more thoughtful in terms of how we were going to release it. Since then, we did an EP, which was mainly just getting some ideas we had out there. I write pretty prolifically, so I had a ton of songs and I was ready to go. Phil and Chad wanted to be a little more thoughtful about it. It ended up taking a little longer because we really wanted to feel good about making an album again.

It feels as though this album highlights a sense of maturation that’s been more visible on each of your records. How does the substance of this album relate to where you are now, both in your tenure as a band and in your personal lives?

Dan: I think there was a lot of angst in our earlier albums. Obviously, we were a lot younger. We’re wrestling with more adult things in our life now, like taking getting older a little more seriously and becoming more intuitive and introspective about things. We’ve had friends suffer from alcoholism and things like that. Of course, Swift died recently, which was really hard on us. You just evolve and change. I think it has to do with being okay with who you are now. You kind of mourn who you once were because it isn’t sustainable anymore and you’re forced to deal with stuff philosophically, politically and artistically and ultimately, decide what you want out of life. That’s a murky way of putting it, but it just comes down dealing with things honestly and not just singing about bullshit.

You guys had a close working relationship with Swift, a guy who left his imprint on so many corners of indie rock in recent years. Could you elaborate on what your relationship was like with him? What do you remember most about his approach to production and making an album?

Dan: I’m close friends with the Cold War Kids and initially, they had a relationship. I had some drinking nights with Swift a long time ago and he was like ‘yeah, we should record’ and I was like ‘oh, cool!’ He let me know he didn’t really need to do it, it was just kind of for fun and he wanted to make it sound crazy and compress the shit out of it. We went up there [to Oregon] for Wayne Interest and did like 10 songs on a 4-track. He just immediately made it sound so good. I remember moments where he complimented my bass playing and I was like woah, that was something I didn’t realize I needed to hear. He was kind of like a father figure, you know? There was just a lot of respect for his opinion. He was also one of the funniest dudes I knew.

Any good stories you’re willing to share?

Dan: There was one night we were jamming on a song, I think it was “Time,” and we went on playing for a pretty long time. When we looked up, he had completely fallen asleep. That was a fun moment. We literally tucked him in the studio and left. He just had a free spiritedness about him. I remember him saying things like ‘you guys are overthinking this song, just remember Bob Dylan wrote all the songs already, so you could do whatever and it doesn’t matter.’

For Carpet Denim, you linked up with Johnny Bell. How did that connection come to be and what excited you the most about what he was bringing to the record?

Dan: We’ve known Johnny for a long time. His band Crystal Antlers were hitting it pretty big back around 2010 and we were bumping into them in Long Beach all the time. I think we gave Johnny a ride home from San Francisco after his band ditched him (laughs). We’ve all been surfing with him for years too. He’s been working with Innovative Leisure for a long time; we did our EP with him and really liked what he did. He just gets our sound and what we’re going for and if we have and idea, he gets the reference and knows how to execute it and make it sound like us.

The first single you dropped, “Path of Totality” is a fun, high energy song that really sets the tone for the record. It nods to some dark subjects, but the lingering feeling I got from it was overwhelmingly positive. What was the inspiration behind that track?

Dan: Phil wrote that song, There’s been a lot of people in our lives that have died because of alcohol related things and he’s had other people in life struggle with alcoholism. I think it’s just a cycle that addiction brings and we’re all on some sort of spectrum with it. It’s cool you got a positive feeling out of it because I think that was his intention, like ‘we can get past this.’

Overall, the album revels in that classic West Coast garage sound, but one thing that jumped out at me was the varied atmosphere of a couple tracks, “I Don’t Mind” and “Generation Singular” are two that come to mind. The way the different rhythms in the music intertwine with each other produces a subdued funkiness. Is that something you were conscious of when writing and recording?

Dan: Probably two or three years back, Chad had like six really solid songs for a new album. They felt like Tijuana Panthers. They were good as is. I had all this other “experimental” stuff where I wanted the drums, like on “I Don’t Mind,” to really be pushing and groovy. Phil also has another band and whenever he would present a song to us, it would be similar to what he does with them and we would just make it our own. On “Generation Singular,” he said ‘I want a song with a beat like this,’ and I just improvised the bassline and that was the song. When we feel like we have the core Tijuana Panthers song, then we’ll add a bunch of crazy stuff and have fun with the production.

This record references some major emotional high and low points, whether it’s becoming a father or even dealing with death. When you guys first started releasing music, you were really young in a lot of respects. What’s it like now to have these life experiences, some good and some bad, as a reference point when creating? Would you say these perspectives have shaped your music in a positive way?

Dan: I don’t know. I feel like as we’re creating the music, we kind of do those separately. That’s how we’ve always lived. I get really moved by the books I’m reading and the movies I’m seeing. Phil is like this too – he latches onto a concept like “Path of Totality” and he can relate the crossing of the sun and the moon with alcoholism and run with that because they connect in his head. A lot of the time we have the song and these ideas and we just have to fill them out and make sure they fit together.

“710” is a cool, down to earth cut that pays homage to your hometown, which is where you guys grew up and first met. Was that the intention of that specific song? What has your connection to the area you guys grew up in and So Cal as a whole meant to you as you’ve progressed in your music career?

A: Off the 710, there’s a lot of industrial and smoggy, not necessarily healthy areas, but it connects you to Long Beach, which for us, is full of happy memories. Whenever I go back down there and pass places with my fiánce, I’ll point out things to her. You can’t help the visceral feelings you get as you pass through certain stop lights, like I remember riding my bike there, skateboarding over there. I’m getting a little sappy, but I think that’s the truth. We’re kind of old-man-grateful. We’re not singing about being pissed off at the world anymore, we’re just happy we didn’t die in all those times that we could have doing bad shit.

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You guys are slated to go on tour with together PANGEA later this year. More and more, I’m seeing musicians saying things like, they’d prefer healthy food on their rider instead of free drinks and stuff like that. How has your guys approach to touring changed as you’ve gotten older and what still excites you most about going on the road?

Dan: I think you pretty much nailed it. I had fun with all the free booze and but my body can’t handle it anymore. We enjoy going to whatever the local city is because craft brews are everywhere now. Going to new cities too – it’s nice to get down to the south, places in North Carolina and Florida. Those are destinations that typically aren’t on my mind all the time, so when you get the chance to go, you find these small pockets of coolness. The work is also exciting. I feel a little disconnected about it right now, just because it’s all emailing and waiting, listening to test presses. When you’re actually holding the records in your hands and putting the amps on stage, that’s what I like about it. And when people are showing up, you’re connected to someone physically and not just through Twitter.

You guys have been playing together for well over a decade. When you first started out, did you envision yourselves still together this far in the future – writing some of, if not your best and most inventive songs to date?

Dan: I didn’t, we all didn’t. I think we got a little excited when we first started because all sorts of bands and friends’ bands were making it, so we were trying to give it a go. It has gotten difficult and changed throughout the years for normal reasons, but yeah, it is something to be grateful for that we could maintain something special.

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Listen to ‘Carpet Denim’ out everywhere July 12 on Innovative Leisure. For more info on Tijuana Panthers and upcoming shows, visit their website. Images provided by Tijuana Panthers.

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