- Terelle Jerricks
By Greggory Moore, Long Beach Columnist
Panther Heart hasn’t been much like other bands in Long Beach.
First there’s the size of their lineup and the numerous instruments in play. Then there are the ethereal, wordless, sprawling sound tapestries and the concepts behind them. Add in the fact that they create at such a deliberate pace that they’ve been at work for years on a project they’re only halfway through, rarely playing live more than a couple of times per year and Panther Heart is a bit of an musical outlier.
It’s not a modus operandi that suits everyone, and it’s partly responsible for the band’s major lineup change. Of the nine members who saw through the multi-year completion of Parts 1 and 2 of the four-part Panther Heart Defeats the Dire Wolf, only drummer Ryan Serrano and founder and multi-instrumentalist Christopher Lyles remain. And with six new members in the fold, the time is ripe for putting Dire Wolf on the back burner and embarking on a new endeavor.
But first, a bit of history.
Panther Heart was born out of a 2008 solo show featuring Lyles on looped lines of harp and accordion, with his freeform music complemented by his paintings and projections. Soon friends in the Long Beach music scene took enough of an interest to come aboard, evolving Panther Heart’s music into a more elaborate—though still pretty much whisper-quiet—sound.
That changed somewhat in early 2011, when they introduced to a standing-room-only crowd at Zephyr Vegetarian Café an expanded lineup and a broader, at times even muscular sound, along with the band’s most expansive visual element to date. But this was nothing compared to an EXPO Arts Center audience they got in June 2012, when the band debuted Part 1 of the Dire Wolf saga, Legend of the River Ghost.
As explained in the program notes that night, the Dire Wolf story takes place in an ancient forest, where a traveler drifts into the wrong territory and is drowned by fearful residents. His soul becomes trapped in the river, from which a wolf drinks and is then driven to murderous madness by the pained spirit it has imbibed.
The concept came to Lyles from a frequent encounter with a woman in his Willmore District neighborhood.
“I don’t know what her deal was, but she was always angry,” he says. “I’d smile and try to say hello to her every time, but she wasn’t having it. She just had this anger in her eyes, [behind which] you could see was a lot of pain. And I’d see the way she interacted with her children, cussing them out and treating them like shit. Then, I’d see her children treating other children like shit. It became this cycle. So when does the hate stop? [The Dire Wolf saga] is about how sometimes we do hurtful things to each other that get passed on.”
In October, Panther Heart released Part 2, The Hunters, and on Jan. 31 they debuted the music live in front of 150 people at the Cultural Alliance of Long Beach space in the Bungalow Building. It was the typical Panther Heart audiovisual spectacle, but it was also a farewell for this Panther Heart lineup.
Which brings us to the retooled band’s new project, Panther Heart and the Undenying Connectedness of All Beings, which Serrano explains is based on “a social experiment, where [various] couples of (I guess you could say) different degrees of relationship have been brought in to participate in this ‘study.’ Chris basically interviewed each member of the couple. Some [of the couples] were partners, some were friends, some were acquaintances—different types of relationship. Each member of the couple was interviewed [alone] on the nature of their relationship, and then the pair was placed together to express themselves to each other non-verbally with glitter and paint, in their underwear. We watched the films and derived from each couple dominant themes based on what they said and how they behaved.”
Now the band is in the project’s writing stage, giving sonic expression to what they extrapolated from their experiment and “playing off the unique aspects of each relationship to build unique songs,” after which they will edit the film to complement the completed music.
Lyles and Serrano say the new lineup is in “the awkward stage” musically, still building the rapport the former lineup displayed. Plus, with several of the new members committed to other projects—for example, Daysmel Muniz plays guitar with Mr. Moonshine, while Ellen Warkentine continues to be involved with getting LOLPERA (“an epik opera about LOLcats”) out into the world—getting the ball rolling is likely to come at typical Panther Heart pace.
“A lot of people who are in the group now have been kind of leading their own projects and [have] not necessarily done anything this conceptual,” Serrano says. “[…] It takes a while to cultivate a synergy with the conceptual nature of this kind of project.”
Panther Heart’s not being an all-consuming project suits Lyles and Serrano. Serrano’s plate is full with non-musical projects like Foodscape Long Beach, the Earth Steward Collective, a fledgling Long Beach grocery co-op, cultivating, and his own ecological landscape designed business specializing in permaculture.
For his part, even though Lyles has forsaken all non-arts employment, since he’ll be in the Boston area for four months beginning in May, then perhaps eventually move to Montreal, it seems Panther Heart will continue to create based on their own unique rules.
But however things fall out, Lyles and Serrano are determined that the band’s Undying Connectedness project will see the light of day, and they feel the band’s shift into sunnier territory will be rejuvenating.
“So much of the nature of [the Dire Wolf project] project is tragedy and death, about observing the detrimental effects of cultivating hate, looking at how it’s literally eating away and killing positive aspects of our psyche and our being in how we interpersonally relates,” Serrano says. “This new project is really about embracing and celebrating these connections […] that people make. So in a way it’s about the amplification of those things that in the other project we’re talking about getting killed. In this project we’re looking at all those positive attributes that people are sharing with each other.
“Sometimes there’s negative, too, but we’re looking at what it is that sparks a relationship, what it is that draws people together, these c(h)ords that are tethering people together. The nature of a relationship is harmonic and multi-layered. You have this beautiful symphony that’s unique to each interpersonal dynamic that you go through in life.”