Interview: Panama Picture

Panama Picture - Photo courtesy of Panama Picture

Panama Picture - Photo courtesy of Panama Picture

It’s not often that a band is united by its mutual love of another band, but that’s exactly the case with Panama Picture.

Members of the Hamburg-based quintet, which plays progressive post-rock, share a deep-seated mutual love for the now-defunct band Oceansize – a style of music which serves as a point of convergence in their own music writing process.

Drummer Jannes Eschrich is credited as being the person who essentially came up with the idea for Panama Picture, and he recruited the other members – Nele Backhaus, Robin Helm, Tim Gabriel and Stephan Eschemann – at the university they all attend. Additionally, with the exception of the latter, the other four all study musicology in Hamburg.

The band’s lineup has gone through some changes over the past two years, but the current incarnation has only existed since this time last year, which is when the members began to get serious about making music.

“That was the time when we started to record our album, so we wanted to just explode into the [public],” Helm said.

To do that, the band focused on fine-tuning every detail, from the artwork to the sound. Eventually, the Panama Picture debut, “Oh, Machine,” was released in June.

Immediately after, the band went on tour throughout Germany in support of the album. Its second tour, with the Average Engines, began earlier this month and ends tomorrow night in Köln.

All of the members agree that touring is one of highlights of being in a band, particularly because it provides a change of scenery and interaction with old fans and potential new ones.

“Touring is probably the best part because you get to meet…your listeners and you have such big fun,” Helm said. “It’s always nice to play in front of an audience. It can get a little frustrating when you just sit in your rehearsal room every day for months, and you don’t play any shows.”

Backhaus agreed that touring is a good break from the tediousness of writing, but insisted that she still loves a certain aspect of it.

“I also like being in the rehearsal room and practicing again and again and again,” she said, specifying that its rewarding for a song to come together, but frustrating when the band is just jamming and nothing productive comes from it.

“We are very bad in writing music together,” elaborated Helm. “So if somebody has an idea for a part then it’s pretty easy, but… [it’s] not very productive if we decide to write in a group.”

Instead, he said typically he or Eschrich will originate ideas and then work with the band to develop them into songs.

“This takes a lot of time, so we write months on one song,” Helm said, highlighting the perfectionist nature of all of the members. “[And] in the end, the song will be something that every one of us likes. We just want to write music that every one of us is proud of.”

Of course, the point where the band is at now is nothing the members ever imagined when they first began playing together.

“I’d never played in a band which had some songs over four minutes,” Backhaus said of the time before Panama Picture – a statement which is somewhat funny, considering the album’s shortest song is 3:58 and the longest is well over the 10-minute mark.

Initially though, the most overwhelming aspect for her was hearing one of Eschrich’s early song ideas and fathoming how she’d ever be able to play it.

“I couldn’t imagine how I could ever learn it, because it was changing in rhythm all the time, and I was totally overwhelmed and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “But then I tried it sometime and I was totally in it and I loved it so much…[and now] for me it’s quite normal.”

Helm agreed, saying that the members struggled collectively to learn to play with such a large focus on rhythm, and not to just play individually, but to work together to form a cohesive sound.

“Rhythm is a very important part in our music, so we experiment a lot with different time signatures..it was very hard in the beginning to play stuff…but right now it’s pretty fluent,” he said, continuing to explain the effect of that progression. “[Now] I think our music changed in a way that it got more consistency, so we try to write songs that aren’t just patched together, but [have], like, a thread going through.”

Both also noted that although studying musicology doesn’t necessarily improve their musicianship, it has caused them to be more active listeners, which carries over into their songwriting.

“You develop a new ear for music…and you don’t see just the big picture, but you really focus on the small things like dynamics and accents. In that way I would say it made me a better musician,” Helm said, sharing that the love of the big picture and the details combined are what Panama Pictures is all about. “We all just simply love music, and it’s probably the best thing that you can do in your life.”

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