Panther’s now a ’70s soft-rock hero. What’re you going to do about it?
by Rebecca Raber
For such an affable guy, Charlie Salas-Humara sure gets off on alienating people. The Panther frontman is always subverting his audience's expectations, and last year he drew ire from fans who felt his second album, 14 Kt. God, went too far afield from the blown-out beats and quirky electropop of his debut. They weren't shy about letting him know how they felt. "Unfortunately we did lose a lot of fans after the last record," Salas-Humara admits. "People were really bummed out. I actually got hate mail that was like, 'Fuck you!'" But if God angered his longtime admirers, then Entropy (out this week on Kill Rock Stars) is going to make them lose their minds.
A combination of crashing choruses, rambling piano figures and jazzy rhythms, the band's third album might be the most shocking local release of the year. It's an accessible collection steeped in the '70s that melds the joyous pop of ELO with the percussive cool of Steely Dan; the effervescent prog of Supertramp with the meandering pacing of the Grateful Dead. All the while, Entropy completely eschews Panther's dance-punk roots in favor of a more focused, piano-driven sound. "Someone said we sounded like Billy Joel," says Salas-Humara, chuckling. "I thought that was kind of cool."
Long considered a live artist as opposed to a studio one, Salas-Humara set out to make a record that challenged his reputation by concentrating on songs. He got serious about writing lyrics and recording vocals (to wit, on some songs there are 12 subtle vocal tracks overdubbed on top of one another) for the first time in his career. And while this doesn't mean he's given up his penchant for wildly chaotic live shows, it does mean that Panther's frontman has hung up his dancing shoes in the hopes that the performance that people will now come to see will be the musical one.
"Those fans are totally gone," he says of those who came to Panther shows expecting the funk-soul-brother dance show of yore. "But no, I'm not worried about it the slightest bit. It's a good process of weeding out the people who aren't true music fans or don't have open minds…I mean, we still do some improv stuff. I loop the vocals. We're still having fun, and it's still a little hectic. We're not Bruce Springsteen now. Not yet."
This isn't the first time this leopard—er, Panther—has changed its spots. What began as Salas-Humara's solo performance-art side project from his band the Planet The—an outlet for Prince-ly falsetto, Merce Cunningham-inspired dance and glitchy beats—has evolved over the past few years into a full-on band. Drummer Joe Kelly (31Knots) joined Panther's ranks before the release of 14 Kt. God, beefing up the band's sound and adding a jazzy swing to its melodic core. Just as it seemed everyone in town wanted to be a one-man band, Salas-Humara was eager to shed that label and take on a collaborator. "Once I started seeing other people do it, I thought, 'I have to do something different,'" he admits. "Because people were just doing it better than me."
Salas-Humara, for his part, is proud of his band's evolution. He readily admits his first record was "half-assed," and thinks it probably should not have been released. So he prefers to look forward. He has ideas for another project that would allow him to write and sing different vocal harmonies and another for an act that would be a platform for horn and string arrangements. But the possibilities for Panther's continued growth are limitless. "When Panther started out, I was just trying to be the most damaged RB act—RB, but like it was being made by someone on meth, someone out of control," he says. "And now it's a rock band."
But fret not, dance-floor enthusiasts—Panther hasn't totally forsaken you. Entropy ends with remixes of three of its tracks by some of the most interesting local electronica talent Portland has to offer: E*Rock, Lips and Ribs and Copy. Perhaps these astral, bleeping 8-bit versions of Panther's newly smooth pop will placate those who miss the band's synthesized beginnings? "Oh no," says Salas-Humara with a laugh. "They're long gone! This is to alienate the new fans."
SEE IT: Panther plays a dual record-release show with the Shaky Hands at Berbati's on Thursday, Oct. 1, at 8:30 pm. $8 advance, $10 day of show. All ages.