“It's a more stripped back sort of tour,” says Jarrah McCleary, the driving creative force behind Panama. The Australian electronic musician is finishing a whirlwind 11 gig tour of the United States, the band’s first. “Our main focus is interaction with the audience and connecting.”
It's easy to see on Monday night at Bardot in Los Angeles. These shows fall under the banner of School Night, a weekly concert showcase that has roots in New York. What that means for Panama is that it's a chance to recruit from School Night's established audience; people that are there every week no matter what. Jarrah seems nonplussed, not anticipating anything different for this particular show.
“We always enjoy those shows,” he says. “I'm not sure what to take from tonight, but the venue seems really cool as far as the history to it. It's beautiful, I always love seeing old venues that are preserved and put to practical use.”
Bardot during School Night is simultaneously beautiful and inconvenient, and in that way it's a very Los Angeles venue. The spaces are awkwardly connected, long and narrow with a bar positioned directly behind the tiny 12 foot stage. There's room for about 2 rows of standing audience before they have their backs against the booths. Still, those narrow spaces are stunning: wine red walls and ornate Spanish-style doorway trimmings and an open-air ceiling that gives way to the night sky. If you looked up, you'd see the iconic Capitol Records building lit by the full moon.
When Panama takes the stage for their headlining set, the crowd is thoroughly warmed up and ready to dance. The space is such that Jarrah and his two support musicians, a drummer and a synthesizer player, are basically restricted to their immediate spot. Still, this is groove-based dance music, and it demands their dancing. It demands it from everyone.
Panama starts with “How We Feel,” an infectious slow burner that Jarrah launches into without a moment's hesitation. Claustrophobia is not a factor. He rocks in his stool as if he’s in hour 2. Seeing him perform live, the biggest thing you notice is his singing. Without the polish of a studio, you hear a lot more of the character behind his voice: the deepness, the warmth, the Australian accent. Jarrah is well aware of the specific studio-to-concert challenge facing bands that make dance music.
“It's been an absolute challenge. It's taken a few years to really get right how to translate it,” he says. “It took me quite a while to figure it out and we ended up stripping back some songs. For a band, it's fun to be a little flexible for your sanity.”
The stripped back sound isn't totally apparent because his keyboards sound huge. It's fun just to see him jam on the keys and mash out a solo full of funk and groove. It feels like a thick wall of sound until you pay attention and realize it's just the drums and keyboard for long stretches, with the mysterious Moog synthesizer doing its thing. On their two EPs, especially their most recent effort “Always,” Panama sounds precise and hypnotic. At Bardot, they seem more like a band that just jams.
“We find that making mistakes now is actually great for creativity. We decide, let's evolve on that mistake. It's a lot more fun because it's not safe. Sometimes it's okay, we might just do a bridge and a little bit of a jam.”
The setlist is a tour of their soundscape: the nostalgic, unhurried haze of “Destroyer,” the dramatic, pulsating “It's Not Over,” and the celebratory disco of “We Have Love.” There's even a new one, characterized by echoing, ringing guitar, the kind of riff you expect from maybe Nick Zinner. But the crowd pops loudest at the opening riff of their EP title track “Always,” and it's here that Panama looks and sounds their surest. It's an effortless, natural, all-cylinder song. If their goal is audience interaction and connection, the peak is “Always.”
Their most ambitious move is to close on a live rendition of a remix, which came off as significantly more intricate to execute. It was all hands on deck with bass and keys and a variety of synth flourishes. It didn't have the contagious joy their other songs have, but it was a nice, modern cap to a night of electronic retromania.
At the end of their 7 songs, Jarrah soaked in the applause. What’s next for Panama is a similar rapid fire tour of Europe, but the rest isn't set in stone. There are new songs to write, but if this is the debut LP remains to be seen.
“At this stage, I'm just writing songs that I'm happy with,” says Jarrah. Happiness is a major ingredient that comes through their work, and there will be time and room to decide the moves later.