What a long, strange trip it's been. From playing to 10 people on the roof of an upscale East End watering hole, to creating a booty shake quake with thousands of fans in Red Rocks, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad is clearly the master of roots reggae in the jam band world. It doesn't lampoon the sound nor does it placate its fans with a topical, tropical re-hash. The band — bassist James Searl, guitarist Dylan Savage, guitarist and banjo player Dan Keller, drummer Chris O'Brian, and keyboardist Tony Gallicchio — treats the music with respect, like a privilege. It's a privilege that the band shares across the land about 80 times a year. GPGDS has just returned to Rochester after a West Coast tour playing stops from Vancouver to San Diego and over to Nevada and Arizona. Now begins the push for the new platter which has already hit the ground with a gallop.
The band's new album "Steady" (Easy Star Records), just released September 30, debuted at number one on the iTunes reggae chart. Searl is stoked, he's buzzed, he's on top of the world.
"We're pumped about that," says Searl with a grin. "It's a first for the band. I mean, you've got to unseat Bob Marley's "Legend" for at least a couple hours, which is really hard to do."
And this for an album that the band never really intended to record.
"We weren't really planning to make an album," Searl says. "We didn't have any songs picked out." According to Searl, producer and friend Craig Welsch at Rear Window Studios in Brookline, Massachusetts, twisted the band's arms.
"This record was recorded on a dare," Searl says. "We'd known Craig for a couple years. Craig's straight-up about things and very opinionated. And he came to us: 'Listen, you're a really great band and I've heard all your albums, and no one's done a good job, nobody's done you justice in the studio.'" Searl is proud of all of GPGDS' recorded output, but bemoans the self-doubt that plagues a lot of musicians... himself included.
"It's all subjective," he says. "You can swing me down that road any day and I'll be like 'Yeah, it all sucks.' That's not a very healthy place for an artist to be, though most of us are there most of the time."
So Welsch told the band he wanted to tap into the band's sound in a studio with more vintage gear than they had ever seen. This was an important component to the band according to Searl. The band found itself in a playground full of vintage guitars and amps and assorted gear.
"It's part of the magic," he says. "It's the kind of place you don't bring your guitar, you don't bring your drums."
But where was the dare? Welsch's pitch sounded more like a promise or a boast.
"The dare was essentially: 'Come in to my studio, I'll make you sound better,'" Searl says. The resulting "Steady" supports that promise; that boast; that dare. The album fits nicely in the GPGDS catalogue, starting with its 2006 debut, "Slow Down" — the catalogue also includes: "Live Up" (2010), "Live Up 2.0" (2010), "Country" (2012), and "In These Times" (2012).
"Country" was the band's keep-'em-guessin' wild card; a roots-rock respite from the band's deep dish reggae. To the band, it felt natural, though it surprised some of its fans.
"We put out "Country" first kind of as a head-turner," Searl says. "It was like, 'You may not know this about us, but we know this about us.' And some people were like, 'Aw man, you dropped reggae, I'm out.' And then we put out our most reggae record ever three months after that."
But "Steady's" birth wasn't a complete surprise, it's not like the rubber broke. The band feels drawn to the studio whenever time allows.
"I think we feel we always have an album due," Searl says."It's just we're on the road so much it's harder to get into that space. Being in the studio we're less educated about, we're less comfortable. The first 15 minutes we get in the studio, we're ready to go. But it's never like that. You end up sitting around for five hours, there's always something going on. A lot of hurry up and wait."
But in roughly five sessions over the period of three months, Welsch wrung "Steady" out of the band occasionally butting heads over arrangements.
"He gave the gruff grit," Searl says. "He's real about it. He dialed us in, man."
On the last day in the studio the band all gathered in one room with Rear Window owner and Savages guitarist Milt Reder and amazingly recorded an entire Americana album entitled "Bright Days," which the band will probably release in spring 2015.
With a kind of good natured power vacuum in the jam band world in the wake of Gerry Garcia swapping out his guitar for a harp, the smart money is on Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad to rule the world. The band is a great big groove sensation: "An antennae of goodness that brings good people together," according to Searl, who's up for the crown.
"Bring it on," he says.