He knows that it sounds like a crock, a story concocted from the fertile imagination of a fiction writer or press agent. But Shawn Pander swears it's true. When he was ten, a homeless man stopped him, handed over a guitar and portentously told Pander to (drum roll, please) "make something" of himself with the instrument. Houston meteorological records don't indicate if a clap of thunder immediately followed said pronouncement.
"No, it's for real! He really did give me that guitar," Pander says over his bowl of tortilla soup at Mama's Café on Westheimer, adding that he vaguely knew the man, who washed cars on the family's sales lot. "I still have it. It's a Yamaha FG-75, and I write all of my stuff on it. And I'd give up every one of my other guitars before that one. There's an emotional content and history to it."
Emotional content is also, not surprisingly, in abundance on Soundtrack to Life, Pander's solo debut, whose release will be celebrated at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge the same weekend the club closes its doors. It's not an entirely coincidental booking, since Satellite manager Dickie Malone also produced the record.
The album avoids the hard-edged party funk rock of his previous band, Soular Slide, in favor of acoustic-based folksy tales of bad love, drinking, nostalgia and breakfast foods. "I've always thought about movie sound tracks, and that's what gave me the title, since this record is about stories," he says. A story, alas, that had to be told twice. After recording the initial master with producer Dan Workman at Sugar Hill Studios, Pander says, he didn't care for the result, scratched the whole thing and started anew.
"The first time I went into the studio, I still had that band feel, but then I realized it became my responsibility," he says, noting that he felt the record didn't "cut the mustard."
Malone brought in a who's who of Satellite staples to work on the album, including Patrice Pike and her sideman Michael Hale, Scabs Bruce Hughes and Dave "Snizz" Robinson, Rick Thompson of Moses Guest, Soulhat front man Kevin McKinney and accordionist extraordinaire Joel Guzman. Marion Aquilina of La Mafia and Lanier Greig, a founding but forgotten member of ZZ Top, added to the hefty credentials.
Given the recent fluidity of his live lineup -- a less star-studded group than those who backed him in the studio -- and all the name changes (from "The Pander Band" to "Pander" to simply "Shawn Pander"), it's not surprising that the focus is now more on the record than the stage. Nevertheless, Pander and his current combo took the title in the recent Sherlock's battle of the bands competition, winning what organizers claim is $100,000 worth of goods and services.
Ironically, one of the other bands that made the finals was Slop Jar Junior -- four of Pander's Soular Slide mates plus vocalist Chad Strader (ex-Global Village). It was clear that the ever-popular "musical differences" must have been a prime factor behind the split earlier this year, as Pander's laid-back pop/folk had nothing in common with Slop Jar Junior's funk/hard rock/metal theatrics.
"We came to a point where there was no other way to go except split So much had been built up, and we'd done all we could as a group," Pander says of the band that he and guitarist David Wolfe co-founded in 1998. "We just weren't productive as a whole anymore, and they were angry at me for I don't know. I was pushing them It just got so bad, we didn't want to be with each other anymore."
Pander goes on to say that he never believed Soular Slide's music was the proper vehicle for his songwriting. "I viewed [the band] as a training ground," he says, "a place to cut my teeth and start fronting a band. I wanted to do something more melodic and, in my mind, more marketable."
The music on Soundtrack to Life is indeed marketable; tracks like "Down on My Luck," "Not This Time" and "Summertime" have a bouncy, radio-friendly sound despite their sometimes bitter lyrics. In fact, the topic of soured romance is nearly omnipresent ("I Give Up," "Here's a Gun" and "Glass of Gin"). Pander admits that these songs were possibly inspired by a former relationship but adds that the hopeful, record-closing ballad "Angel" points the way to his future. Only one song points toward his musical past -- "Can I Be Your Other Lover?" could be a lost Soular Slide track.
At the Sherlock's finals, it was Soundtrack's "Apples and Pancakes" that got the most audience approval. "I was drunk in this hotel in Galveston looking at the ocean and just thinking about your worth when your life is over," he says of the philosophical lyrics. "And apples and pancakes are just two of the most basic things. Everybody has had those, so it gives the song a universal feel. I mean, I'm not saying gyros and farfel muffins!"
Pander's evolution to his current sound and front-man status was slow. Raised on the sounds of the Doobie Brothers, Little Feat and Graham Central Station mixed with Herbie Hancock and fusion jazz, Pander originally set out to be a jazz drummer -- despite that special six-string. This eventually led to a music scholarship at San Jacinto College and a slot performing at a prestigious International Association of Jazz Educators conference, where he got to meet Hancock and Wynton Marsalis.
Calling his jazz stint a "goal, but not a passion," Pander then hooked up -- strictly as a drummer, at first -- with David Wolfe to create the funk/soul cover band Slide. Pander slid from the drummer's seat to the front mike about the same time the band changed its name to Soular Slide and ditched the covers in 1998.
"But the funk thing just kind of came and went, like Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies," Pander says. It's the melody and the music that he concentrates more on when writing in any genre. "The lyrics always come last," he says adamantly, noting that he prefers the melody be more relevant than the lyrics. He likens it to an English speaker watching a Spanish soap opera -- you know what's going on, even if you can't understand the words.
Recently, Pander and group had a short stint as the house band on the Houston-originated, nationally distributed WB network show Teen Talk. The show tanked, but his Web site (www.pandermusic.com) has received e-mails and inquires from many of the more than 100 markets that carried it, however briefly.
So on a weekend where one venerable Houston music institution is closing, Shawn Pander hopes to rise out of the ashes as another. And if that prescient homeless guy is still out there somewhere, at least he's earned himself a slot on the guest list.
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