CAVE Interview Series: The White Panda
(Original article published on CAVE Magazine, June 25, 2013)
When you go to a concert, and see two guys wearing panda masks, one of two thoughts likely comes to mind.
“This is going to be awesome” or “shit’s about to get weird.”
The White Panda are a rare case where both thoughts apply.
As childhood friends, Tom Evans and Dan Griffith (Procrast and DJ Griffi, respectively) began their careers independently, but joined forces in late 2009 to re-invigorate an already thriving mash-up scene.
After three successful albums and widespread social media attention, the group became one of Soundcloud’s most played artists in 2011. With that attention came tours with Mac Miller, MGMT, and a performance at the renowned Lollapalooza festival.
On June 10th, the duo dropped their fifth full-length album Bearly Legal featuring mash-ups from Rihanna, Game of Thrones, and everything in between.
I sat down with the guys to discuss their humble beginnings, evolution as friends and artists, and plans for the future. Our discussion is presented below.
1. You guys were obviously childhood friends. How did you drift apart, and more importantly, how did you re-connect?
Dan: I wouldn’t say we drifted apart; we just went to college in different cities. He was in Chicago, and I was in LA.When you’re away at college, it’s easy to get caught up in the lifestyle and the new friends you’re meeting. Whenever we were home during breaks, we obviously hung out, but it wasn’t day-to-day contact like childhood.Really, I think it was a combination of being home and being into similar music. We liked Girl Talk.We’d actually done some jam-rock stuff together in high school, but the fact we were both getting into dance music and sampling, and were both in major cities like LA and Chicago definitely helped.
2. I’m sure you’ve been asked plenty of times, but where did the name (and idea of masks) come from? If you could go back, would you stick with the same name and approach?
Tom: Absolutely. Our image and branding are two of our biggest assets.
The name itself came from a text message conversation. I was in the library studying for finals, and we were talking about a name. Remember, this was before we were anything. I think one of my ideas was “ziaonisis”. You know, like a combination of “nyionins” and “zion”. Weird stuff like that. Eventually, Dan shot over “White Panda”. I don’t know what inspired it, but it seemed kinda catchy. So, we stuck with it.
A few months later, it starting getting some traction on the internet, and people started asking about shows. In addition to figuring out how to perform live, we thought we should add a visual element. So, we were walking around Hollywood, trying to decide what we could dress up in, and stumbled across these panda masks. Or, I should say, our first panda masks. They’ve developed a bit since then.
3. When someone hears “mash-up”, a common misconception is that it involves no real musical talent. What do you say to those people, and how do you describe your music?
Tom: As far as production goes, I wouldn’t group us into the same category as the common meathead producer, or the soundtracks on the radio, or guys like Tiesto and Kaskade who perform to thousands of people. With us, it’s a different kind of production. We’re not trying to portray ourselves as those kinds of artists.
The notion that “this doesn’t take any musical knowledge or talent” is kind of naïve. There’s a lot that goes into these mash-ups, whether it’s rhythm, cadence, key signatures, or whatever. You can’t just put a rap song over another rap song and you’re done. You have to think about what you’re adding with the vocals, and how they enhance a track. Remember, the listener has already heard the song a thousand times. What’s going to keep them listening again and again?
We’re also both classically trained musicians, and started our friendship in a piano studio at age seven. Music has always been essential to our lives, and there’s a lot of training and development that allows us to do what we do.
But, no question, it’s a different kind of production than people typically associate with a “music producer”.
4. You’ve obviously incorporated countless genres in your music. Is that an important part of keeping things fresh, creative and personal?
Dan: To us, the appeal of the mash-up is combining two worlds. It’s seamlessly tying two genres to create something new. I also feel like we have very diverse musical tastes. I listen to a lot of genres in my off time, and so does Tom. Plus, I think people would get bored if they heard rap on rap, or top-40 on top-40 mash-ups.
Tom: Girl Talk is a big one. In a lot of ways, he pioneered the genre. I remember listening to him drop “Tiny Dancer” and feeling like I’d never have the technology or resources to do that.
We’re almost always on tour, so we really value stage presence. There’s more to a show than just the music. The visual element, vibe, and energy are all important. Guys like Deadumau5, who use visuals, really get that. Daft Punk is a huge influence, too
6. Tell us about Bearly Legal. What about this record makes it so special?
Dan: There are a lot of things we’ve learned, whether it’s new software programming or production techniques, that we use on this album. It’s more technically advanced than our previous work. We’ve made a point of making an extensive catalogue of 70’s disco, classic rock, 90’s music, and contemporary stuff. We tried to make it as diverse as possible. We even threw in the Game of Thrones theme song. That’s the only show I watch where I never skip the theme song.
Bottom line, it’s a cool summer album that people can check out and enjoy. I speak for both of us when I say it’s the album we’re most proud of.
7. Was there a certain event, moment or conversation that changed the course of this group?
Tom: There’s been lot of pivotal moments. I still vividly remember our first show. That was huge. I remember sending our first track (“What You Know Bout Little Secrets”) to the music blogs and just hoping one person would give it exposure. It ended up getting on Hype Machine and moved its way up the charts. Dan and I used to listen to Hype Machine all the time, so that was thrilling. As it started moving up the charts, we just kept refreshing the page. Eventually, it made it to number one. To this day, we still see people on social media talking about the track. We also did Lollapalooza last year, playing in front of 15,000 people.
So, there are a lot of big milestones and it’s hard to pick just one. Every few months something new seems to happen.
8. Talk to me about the artists you’ve toured with. You’ve obviously been out with Mac Miller and Mike Posner, and shared the stage with Benny Benassi and MGMT. When did you have that “wow….this can’t be real” moment?
Dan: I never get star struck around famous people, but the most surreal moment was playing Lollapalooza in front of 15,000 people. When we dropped the first track, a literal wave of people starting jumping with their hands up. That sent chills down my spine.
It’s also exciting working with artists like Mac Miller. I don’t know how old he was when we met him. 17? 18? Just some kid looking for Snickers at an after-party in Philadelphia.
It’s been fun from day one, and we try to keep it as humble as possible.
9. What are you guys listening to right now? Anything that readers should go download?
Tom: We like a lot of mainstream stuff, so I’m listening to the new Daft Punk and top-40 radio. The first track on our album features a group called Small Pools. They don’t even have 1,000 twitter followers yet, but they have a Passion Pit sound. Check them out.
10. When you’re not playing music or touring, what do you like doing in your down time?
Tom: We don’t have as much down time as people think. We do almost 100 shows a year, and spend a lot of time on the road. When we’re home, life still revolves around music. Obviously we take time off, and I take care of my dog, but for the most part – we’re in front of a computer working on music.
As I mentioned, we first met in a piano studio. I stopped playing piano in high school, and have pretty much neglected it ever since. Recently, I got a bunch of synthesizers and recitals that gave me trouble. So, I’m trying to get back into classical piano.