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By: Dave Cooper
Photo: copyright Luke Thomas Harman (2016)
Jonathan Edwards is a founding member of both the rock band Panic Room and the acoustic ensemble Luna Rossa. Here he sits down with Echoes and Dust’s Dave Cooper to talk about the past, present and future of both projects and the challenges faced by bands in an increasingly competitive and problematic environment.
(((o))): Let’s rewind the clock a little: what led to you deciding to make your acoustic album Essence, rather than an album of entirely new material?
Jonathan: I think it all started with the album launch for Incarnate in 2014. We wanted to make an event of the launch and planned to play the new album over the PA to fans who would be hearing it for the first time, but we also wanted the event to include an element of live performance that would contain something new that people hadn’t heard us do before. So, as our chosen venue – the beautiful converted church, The Gate in Cardiff – was especially suited to acoustic music, with its grand piano and wonderful acoustics we decided to arrange some of our back catalogue acoustically to perform at the launch. The event and the live acoustic performance went down so well that it inspired us to include an acoustic ‘reworking’ section in our live performances generally and when that was also so well received it got us to thinking that we could record an album of acoustically reworked Panic Room songs. It also felt like it was the right time to take a musical breath and take stock of where we had come to… we’d finished working with [guitarist] Adam O’Sullivan and were essentially a quartet again. Dave Foster’s name had come up in discussions about the future, but we weren’t really sure whether we wanted to add a new permanent member to the band, so recording a slightly skewed version of a ‘greatest hits’ album with just the four of us and a guest guitarist seemed like a good holding pattern.
(((o))): The Essence project was the first time you elected to use Kickstarter as a means of funding. What led to you making this decision, and how did you find the experience of dealing with the Kickstarter model?
Jonathan: The reason for trying the Kickstarter route was really an uncertainty on our part about whether there would be enough support for an album of acoustic reworkings of previously recorded songs. It was the first time that we’d re-recorded any songs and, although performing some of these new arrangements at gigs had been a really positive experience, we weren’t sure whether a whole album was something that people would want, so Kickstarter was a risk-free way of testing that out, to see if there was enough support within our fanbase to cover the costs of the album. We were overwhelmed by the support that we received!
(((o))): You raised your original target incredibly quickly – well ahead of your deadline. In fact you nearly doubled it! That must have been extremely gratifying?
Jonathan: Yes, we were really taken by surprise by the speed at which we firstly reached our initial target and then by how quickly we went on to nearly double it! People’s generosity and support of our music was quite touching and inspirational, and it was great to be able to go into the studio knowing that the cost of making the album was already covered.
(((o))): How did you decide which songs to re-visit? Did any of the final selections surprise you? Were there songs that you originally wanted to include that fell by the wayside?
Jonathan: We’d already included an acoustic version of ‘Song For Tomorrow’ and ‘Screens’ in the live set, so those were two of the first songs that we decided to include. There’s always been an element of improvisation and re-arrangement in our live performances and it seemed natural to carry this through to the arrangements for Essence and in the event things just flowed really well. Even things that started out as off-the-wall ideas, like doing a dub version of ‘Black Noise’, worked out really well once we started playing them in rehearsal. In some ways, it was the songs that were already quite sparse, like ‘Firefly’, that gave us the most pause for thought, but the decision to strip that back even further for the new arrangement was definitely the right decision. There weren’t really any songs that we considered and rejected for the album; pretty much everything we worked on made the final cut. When we had 10 songs arranged we decided to throw a couple of new songs into the mix as well (‘Denial’ & ‘Rain & Tears & Burgundy’) and with those added we had an album’s worth of material.
(((o))): Do you have any particular favourites from the new album? Are there songs that you feel are particularly improved in their new ‘skin’ (sorry!)?
Jonathan: I’m particularly fond of ‘Promises’, ‘I Am A Cat’, ‘Apocalypstick’ and ‘Firefly’ in their new incarnations. I’m enjoying the performances on Essence more than the originally recorded versions at the moment. It’s made me hear the songs in a new way and they feel really fresh again.
(((o))): Essence is a sort of alternate greatest hits record in a sense – a re-examination of your back catalogue. Looking back at the Panic Room discography, do you have particular favourite tracks, or indeed albums as a whole? Are there any songs that didn’t turn out quite as you hoped? Hindsight is tricky, I know!
Jonathan: [Laughs] It’s really weird being asked to pick favourite songs or albums that you’ve actually written and recorded! But at a push, I’d say that SKIN is my favourite Panic Room album as an entire collection of songs; there are songs on other Panic Room albums that I prefer to certain songs on SKIN, but overall I think it’s my favourite album to date. I think a lot of how I feel about the album is to do with the circumstances of its recording. We were working with a string quartet for the first time, which was challenging and hard work – writing the string arrangements and integrating them into the sound of the band – but I couldn’t have been more pleased with how it worked. It was also a transitional album for the band: the first with Yatim [bass] and the last with Paul [Davies, Panic Room’s original guitarist]… it was recorded at a dark time. The differences that led to Paul leaving were starting to show, and that made things difficult and unhappy for all of us, Paul included. Despite that I think everyone’s playing on it is amazing and we managed to produce a fantastic album.
(((o))): Of course, Essence marks the recorded debut of your new guitarist, Mr. So & So and Steve Rothery Band regular Dave Foster. How does it feel to have Dave on board?
Jonathan: Although recording Incarnate with Adam [O’Sullivan, session guitarist] was a great experience, we did feel after the tour dates that the band needed a change, but weren’t sure about taking on another permanent band member. We asked Dave Foster to work on Essence with us as a session player, and then to join us for the accompanying tour – almost as an extended audition! But it quickly became obvious that he was a great fit for the band, both as a fine and versatile musician, but also as a really nice guy with a positive personality, which when you’re travelling in a crew van for 4 or 5 hours can be just as important! It was essential to us that Dave was part of the process of rearranging the songs for Essence so that he felt involved in how they evolved, and that was a big part of the transformation of many of the songs. He didn’t have the baggage of having played the songs in their original versions and as a result had no fixed idea of how the songs should sound. His fresh and creative approach was a really important element in working out the new arrangements. When we came to play live, I think we all knew after the first gig that he was the right guy for the job. There was an obvious chemistry onstage and his playing and stage presence really lifted the band’s performances, so we asked him to join the band at the end of the first run of dates on our Wildfire tour. He’s that rare mix of technique, feel and inspiration and is a great addition to Panic Room.
(((o))): You’ve been touring Essence over the last year. How do you feel the tour has gone?
Jonathan: Musically the tour dates have gone really well – the acoustic/electric two-set format has been great to play and I think audiences have really appreciated seeing the different aspects of the band’s live performances. Now we’re back to a full electric performance which we’ve also been playing in two sets and that’s been really powerful. Dave’s presence on stage has also really boosted the band’s performance level. I think we’re probably playing as well as we’ve ever played at the moment.
(((o))): Interestingly, you’ve publicly stated that low attendances have jeopardised your ability to tour, and have even hinted that you may have to take a touring sabbatical for financial reasons. You evidently feel strongly about this to address it so directly and honestly: why do you think attracting a good turnout is so difficult – not just for you, but for many bands at your level?
Jonathan: It’s a difficult time for live music in general at the moment, and that’s no different for Panic Room. While attendances at some venues have been really great, we have suffered from poor turnouts at others, especially in new areas where we haven’t previously played. I think there are probably many reasons why. The economic climate isn’t great, so people have less money and the ‘luxury’ of going to a gig is maybe one of the first things to go. Also, there are so many bands out touring that people have to pick and choose which gigs they attend and people are understandably more reluctant to pay to see a band that they’ve never seen before, so drawing in new fans can be a challenge. Promotion is extremely expensive too – independent bands at our level can’t necessarily afford to do a tremendous amount of promotion and, while some venues are great at helping to push gigs, a lot are quite content to just take the hire fee and do absolutely nothing to help promote the gigs. The hard fact is that if bands can’t find a way to cover their costs, then live performance is going to happen less and less, which would be a shame as it’s something we all really enjoy! But you have to keep going and find a way through… with CD sales declining and the rise of streaming – which contrary to some widespread opinions, is not a viable income stream for musicians; a recent royalty statement for Panic Room shows that 155 plays of ‘Satellite’ on Spotify earned the band 11p! – making a living from original music is becoming increasingly difficult. Crowdfunding does really seem like a way forward, whereby bands can connect with the people who really do want to hear the music. The Essence Kickstarter campaign showed us that we do have a tremendously loyal and supportive fan base, and if we can translate that support into higher attendances at gigs it’ll really make a difference. We all feel that the music is in our blood; it’s something we have to do… and the one thing that does keep me going when it starts to feel like an uphill struggle is the music itself. Hearing Anne-Marie’s voice singing these songs, that we’ve created together, makes me remember why I do this and why I can’t give up making music.
(((o))): You’ve recently announced you’re playing a Panic Room ‘weekend’ next May, at Bilston’s Robin 2. Why have you decided to stage a weekend event of this kind? Is it in any way related to your commentary on recent low attendances? Is there any particular reason why you’ve elected to stage the event at the Robin 2?
Jonathan: We’ve been thinking about how to do things differently so that a reasonable level of live performance can continue to be a viable option for the band and the Panic Room weekend is basically us trying something different. So we’ve put together a 2 day event on 21st & 22nd May with Panic Room headlining each night with different sets, plus performances from other artists connected to the band in some way. We chose the Robin as we really like it as a venue; it’s got a great vibe, a great sound and we always get a good crowd in. Mike, the owner, is really supportive of live music and they do promote all their gigs really well. Hopefully the weekend will be a success and maybe something that we could then make into a regular event.
(((o))): Can you tell us a little more about what you have planned for the weekend?
Jonathan: Anne-Marie & I will be performing as Luna Rossa, Dave Foster will be performing a set of material from his solo albums and we also have Halo Blind and Morpheus Rising performing as well as solo sets from Alex Cromarty and Sarah Dean. We really want it to be a special event that provides value for money for our fans so there’ll be some unique performances that we haven’t tried before. One thing we’re thinking of is performing our own interpretations of a few songs chosen by the members of the band that have been an influence or a favourite of theirs, so it’s a way of sharing some of the music that we enjoy and that has had an influence on us as songwriters and musicians. Another thing we’re doing, via a poll on the Panic Room Facebook group, is asking people to vote for which songs they want us to include in the weekend sets so they get some say in the set lists.
(((o))): You’ve already stated that your ‘other’ musical project, Luna Rossa, will make an appearance at the weekend event. Do you approach live performances by Luna Rossa and Panic Room very differently (other than instrumentally)?
Jonathan: Playing with Luna Rossa is much more exposed. Anne-Marie and I don’t have the security blanket of the other Panic Room guys filling out the sound on stage. It’s great playing with Andy and Sarah on double bass and harp respectively, and I love the colours they bring to the songs, but the music is a lot sparser than Panic Room, so you do feel a lot more pressure. There’s no place to hide when it’s basically four acoustic instruments on stage. The power has to come from the strength of the songs themselves and the commitment of the performances rather than relying on volume and electricity. It’s a different discipline, but one that we have been able to apply to Panic Room with the acoustic sets we’ve include on the recent tour dates.
(((o))): So what’s next for Panic Room – and Luna Rossa, come to that?
Jonathan: The next thing for Panic Room is that at long last we’re filming a live DVD… if only to stop all the nagging! [Laughs] The concert is taking place on Saturday, 18th June. We’ve hired Islington Assembly Room and are working with Towards Infinity, the company that filmed the Jon Lord tribute concert at the Albert Hall and also film all Marillion’s DVDs. Dave & Yatim have already worked with them as they’ve also filmed the Steve Rothery Band. Having seen their work and met with them we know they’re absolutely the right people to capture the essence of one of our shows. Following the amazing success of the Essence Kickstarter campaign, we’ve launched a Pledge Music campaign for the live DVD and are hoping that the fans who’ve been calling for this for so long will help us raise the necessary funds to make it happen. We’ve set ourselves an ambitious target of £25,000 but we feel that if we’re going to make a live concert DVD then, like everything else we’ve done, it’s got to be the best quality it can be and that does cost a lot. I’m sure when people see the results, they’ll feel that it’s worth it. Following that, we’re looking forward to writing and recording the band’s next electric album of all new material with Dave in the Autumn/Winter. As well as being a versatile musician on electric and acoustic guitar, he’s a really prolific song-writer too – he’s about to release his 2nd solo album Dreamless – so I think this is the strongest line-up that the band’s ever had and the next album will be epic! At the moment I have no idea what it’s going to sound like, but I just know it’s going to be the best thing we’ve done!
As for Luna Rossa, we’ve already recorded some new songs as basic tracks, so we’ll be completing those and doing some additional recording sometime in the New Year and hopefully finding time to release the third Luna Rossa album in between Panic Room’s activities.
(((o))): Panic Room have been active since 2008 – that’s nearly a decade. How do you feel the band has changed over that time? Has it become very different to how you envisaged it?
Jonathan: I think the band has changed a lot since it’s inception, but there was never any plan for how it was going to develop. We never set out to create a certain type of music and I think that’s been a strength – certainly for us as musicians as it keeps things interesting. I recognise that the flip side is that it’s caused a problem for some people as it makes the band difficult to place in one particular genre… but personally I like to keep things eclectic! Because four of the original line-up were previously members of Karnataka, I think people expected us to make music in a similar vein and to some extent, the first Panic Room album, Visionary Position, did follow that pattern – it’s the closest to the original Karnataka sound, although Anne-Marie’s voice immediately places it in a different sonic area. It was also recorded in a similar manner to the way Karnataka recorded – all the instruments were recorded separately and the tracks put together over a long period of time. At the start of recording there was no band name for our project and the idea was just to record these song ideas I had, some of which were written for what would have been the fourth Karnataka album. We only really became a band when we went out to play the material live, and had to actually learn how to play the songs together! But for me it’s Satellite that really feels like the first Panic Room album – the first time it felt like we were a band. We recorded all the basic tracks playing live together in the studio, something I’d never done before, and it was a real ‘road to Damascus’ moment: the realisation that the best music is created when musicians play together, and that’s the way we’ve recorded all of our albums since. It sounds obvious, but I think people may be surprised at how many albums are recorded where people don’t actually play together at the same time. From Satellite onwards too, I think Anne-Marie and I have developed a growing bond and strength as a songwriting team. She’s really brought out my creative strengths and encouraged me to stretch myself as a writer and I hope she feels that there’s been an element of that for herself as well. I’m especially proud of the work we’ve done together on SKIN and Incarnate… I can’t imagine having as rewarding a working relationship with another writer.
I think we’ve been very fortunate with the musicians who’ve been in Panic Room over the years… they’ve all been the perfect players for the band at the time they were with us. Alun Vaughan [bass] was the best person to help us kick everything off. His jazz background was a really important factor in encouraging the idea that each gig should be different, that you don’t have to learn to play the songs one particular way and then just reproduce that every night. So his presence at the start led to the strand of improvisation that’s remained an important constant in Panic Room’s live performances.
When Yatim replaced Alun for an appearance at the Cambridge Rock Festival – it was immediately apparent that he was perfect for us. Before the gig was over we all knew he was the right guy for the job. It’s often the way when deciding on band members. Obviously you have to be a capable musician, but a lot of the time it’s just about a feeling, that you connect musically, and that’s the same feeling that we now have with Dave. Paul was so important as a founder member of the band and played some amazing guitar with the band both on our albums and live, and his decision to leave was a real hammer blow at the time. We all felt really down about things, but essentially he’d stopped enjoying being a part of the band – and that wasn’t good for him or us. I think ultimately his leaving the band was the only path to take.
We worked with Pete Harwood of Morpheus Rising on a run of tour dates following Paul’s departure and then with Adam O’Sullivan to record Incarnate, both of them as session players, before settling on Dave Foster as a permanent member. Creating Essence with him in the band has been such a positive experience that I’m really looking forward to the future with a renewed excitement and anticipation of creating some great music.
(((o))): Luna Rossa is the baby of the Panic Room family by comparison. Considering that you and Anne-Marie both do most of the writing for Panic Room as well, what led you to create Luna Rossa? What, for you, makes it a different beast to Panic Room?
Jonathan: Anne-Marie and I both have a love of acoustic singer/songwriters, from people like Nick Drake and Sandy Denny to people like Jose Gonzalez & Tina Dico today. We’d written some songs in that area with Panic Room like ‘Muse’ and ‘Velvet & Stars’ and just felt that we’d like to explore that side of our song writing in more depth over the length of an album. It was so rewarding to make the first Luna Rossa record, Sleeping Pills & Lullabies, that we went on to make a second Luna Rossa album [Secrets & Lies] and are planning a third release for next year. As much as we love playing with the Panic Room guys, it’s also good to play with other musicians sometimes too… and although the idea for Luna Rossa was initially that we’d play everything ourselves, we realised pretty soon that with the right musicians helping out it could really take on a life of it’s own. Having Leah and the string quartet and Sarah and Wal onboard with their own musical sensibilities also helps to give the project it’s own identity separate to Panic Room.
(((o))): What’s your Panic Room highlight so far? And your Panic Room nadir?
Jonathan: I think hearing the string arrangements we’d written for the SKIN album come to life through the playing of the Larkin Quartet was one of my highlights. Also our first gig at The Boederij in Holland as a 4 piece with no lead guitarist – I was so nervous that we wouldn’t be able to pull it off… and it turned out to be a really fantastic gig! It forced us to dig deep and really stretch ourselves and was so rewarding!
As for my nadir… probably when it became obvious that Paul wasn’t going to continue in the band. I think you feel that you’ve come so far and then something like that happens and it feels like having to start all over again. However, we’re committed and driven to create our music and in some ways, getting through these things just makes us come back stronger and more determined to succeed.
(((o))): It’s undeniable that things are tough for smaller bands, and crossing over is increasingly difficult. Bands are obliged to do a lot of the day-to-day promotional activity themselves, too, which is often difficult, unforgiving stuff. Can you give us any insight into just how difficult it is to keep a band like Panic Room a going concern these days, making the music notwithstanding? What advice would you give to other musicians in a similar position?
Jonathan: It’s incredibly hard work keeping the band going. Fortunately we’re all friends together and all committed to making the best music we can. But yes, sometimes it seems like 95% of our time is spent on things other than the one thing we actually want to do: make music! Promotion is time-consuming and expensive and you’re often up against apathy and negativity. If it wasn’t for the fantastic support of our fans, it would be impossible for us to carry on. You have to have an enormous amount of self-belief that what you’re doing is worthwhile, and despite common misconceptions, musicians aren’t always the most self-confident of people… we bruise easily, folks! It is surprising how just one person coming up after a gig, or after hearing a song or album sending an email or a Facebook post to say that they enjoyed your music, can make a real difference and make you feel that it is worth carrying on.
(((o))): Do you have any particular ambitions as musicians you still want to achieve? Besides the individual Rolls Royces and personal jets, of course…
Jonathan: Personally I’d love to play a gig with a live string quartet or an orchestra – and my other ambition is to write a film soundtrack.
(((o))): I know you’re a music fan yourself. What are you listening to at the moment? Are there recently-released records that you find particularly inspiring?
Jonathan: The last Tina Dico album, Whispers, is a fantastic collection of songs, both musically and lyrically – which when you consider English is her second language is doubly amazing! Imogen Heap is also a constant source of inspiration both as a recording artist and as a live performer; she’s always willing to take risks to make her music. Another band I’ve really enjoyed recently is London Grammar – I played their debut album If You Wait over and over and I’m really looking forward to the follow-up. But I guess the most poignant recent release was Bowie’s swansong album, Blackstar – it’s a fantastic collection of songs and the way he turned even his death into art is amazingly inspirational.
(((o))): Is there anything you’d like to add, for those reading this?
Jonathan: Just to say that the survival of bands and projects like Panic Room and Luna Rossa is in your hands. If you want to continue to see and hear the music you love then support it by coming to the gigs and buying the albums – it only works if you’re involved!
For more information on the activities of Panic Room and Luna Rossa, please visit their websites:
Panic Room: https://www.panicroom.org.uk
Luna Rossa: https://www.lunarossa.co
For more details on the Panic Room Weekend, please follow this link.
To support the fundraising campaign for Panic Room’s live DVD, please visit the band’s Pledgemusic page.