Panic in Detroit is a band that does a lot of things right, on and off stage, in the studio and out. It starts, of course, with the music -- big ol' guitar-driven power pop with hummable melodies, Cheeto-crunchy drums and Ginsu-sharp arrangements, or, as they put it, "Complicated and stripped down, heavy with finesse. Hooks for a jaded scene and choruses for the radio dolt."
The band was smart enough to debut with an EP, a self-titled little 17-minute gem (on Burning Airlines bassist Mike Harbin's Silverthree label) that is mercifully devoid of the filler that all too many bands foist off on us in the name of "value." They lined up a name producer -- J. Robbins of Burning Airlines and Jawbox fame and too many production credits to name -- and the record, in addition to the songs on it, sounds really good. Singer-guitarist Ryan Chavez belts his lyrics with an assured voice pitched somewhere on the high end of the baritone range, though he often slips into falsetto for brief stretches, and the band is most decidedly unafraid of unapologetically rocking out, sometimes employing the near-lost art of two guitars playing in unison. Then there's the Weezer/ Help!-era Beatles-ish "Young Attraction" -- one of the catchiest pop-rock songs to ever come out of Houston.
Chavez is a co-founder of the Hands Up Houston booking collective, and bassist Melissa Lonchambon is also involved, so they know a lot about that part of the game. They tour as much as possible -- they know better than to play a bunch of gigs at the corner bar and expect to get famous. They also score some serious style points -- the band name, taken from a cut off David Bowie's Aladdin Sane, is a killer, and the CD is well packaged.
Rock Star 101
In short, despite their youth, they're pros. But there's one thing they didn't know much about until recently: how to party like rock stars.
It took a long time, and it's still a work in progress, but they're getting there. They certainly didn't learn how to wreck hotel rooms or any other Zeppelin-esque tricks from former tourmates Hey Mercedes. "We kind of see them as our brother band," Chavez says. "They look at music the same way we do, and they act the same way we do -- they're not too much into partying. They play the show and they like to hang out, and that's about it. So we didn't feel too outcast on that tour, and starting that tour and ending that tour we were the same people."
But their next tour was a decadent Gulf Coast jaunt with Portland wildmen Minus the Bear. "All our crazy road tales would probably have to do with them," Chavez says. "The first night we met them they were out with the promoter until 4:30 or 5 in the morning, you know, drinking and engaging in debaucherous acts in Orlando, Florida. And the next day we ended up in Destin, Florida, where we had our first show with them. And Minus the Bear told us to meet them at Hooters, where they have all their band meetings. So it was sort of apparent that we needed to lighten up."
"Most bands have vices like drugs or alcohol," says Lonchambon, who was the only female on that tour. "Me and Ryan are like, 'Fooood.' Where do we eat before band practice?"
"And Minus the Bear was like, 'Hooters,' " Chavez adds. "And between the five guys with them and the five guys with us, we polished off 99 wings, which we were very proud of.
"But between there and getting to Houston two days later, they showed us how to have fun, how to enjoy yourself being on tour," he adds. "You're not home and you can let yourself go. When you're out, you're in Orlando for one night, and you might think Orlando's kinda lame at first, but make the best of it."
"You may be tired and want to go to bed, but you should have fun while you're there and hang out with people," agrees Lonchambon, who's sipping a gin and tonic. (Chavez is drinking a Coke.) "You might make some friends."
"You don't want to be just sitting there in Destin, and you know that the band you're touring with is out in the Gulf of Mexico with a 12-pack of High Life getting naked or whatever," Chavez says.
"That was our Mötley Crüe night," remembers Lonchambon.
"Without the chicks -- except Melissa."
"I don't really count."
"But that's it," Chavez finishes. "When you're out, have fun."
Music critics in other towns have had fun themselves out at Panic in Detroit shows. The St. Louis Riverfront Times predicted that a "major cult following" could be in the band's future, while the scribe from the 'zine Delusions of Adequacy gushed that "at least three choruses on this EP had me singing along loudly in the car without my even noticing it." (Which places him squarely in the "radio dolt" department.)
"Somebody said we had a Texas twang, but I don't know if they actually went to the show," remembers Lonchambon. And she's right -- the band sounds more like they hail from D.C. or Chicago than anywhere else, and neither Chavez nor Lonchambon could be said to speak with anything like a twang.
Still more annoying was the review on Allmusic.com, which tried to be complimentary, with appalling results. "Allmusic said we sounded like a less commercial Good Charlotte," recalls Chavez disgustedly. "Which made me want to throw my computer screen across the room."
But how, you may wonder, did they go over in Detroit?
"We thought we were gonna get heckled, but it didn't happen," says Lonchambon.
"It was the best night we ever had," Chavez says. "We sold more merch there than anywhere else."
Chavez is the only holdover from Panic in Detroit's original lineup, which also included former Lucky Motors bandmate Ben Murphy (guitar) and drummer David Hobizal. Since then, Murphy and Hobizal have been replaced by drummer Jason Morris (formerly of Airliner and Guns of August) and guitarist Ramzi Beshara. After moving back to Houston following the EP's release last February, Lonchambon -- also a former Lucky Motor, and the younger sister of Phyneas Gauge's guitarist -- solidified the bass position.
Being the only woman in the band, and often the only woman on tours, doesn't faze Lonchambon. "It's fun," she says, but she admits it isn't always. People assume things. "A lot of people kind of go, 'Oh, you're a girl bass player. Whatever.' And a lot of people think I play bass because of Kim Deal, and she's awesome, but honestly Geddy Lee is the person who made me play bass." (Lonchambon picked up the Rush bug from her brother.)
"I've played in bands since I was 15," she continues. "Every once in a while it annoys me, like someone will say, 'Are you the merch girl?' "
"Exactly," Chavez says. "Every now and then we'll be setting up, and someone will come over to her and say, 'The merch goes over there' and she'll say, 'Good. Are you gonna take it there or something? I'll be setting up my rig, dude.' "
Back in the Lucky Motors days, Chavez had an interesting day job. He arranged the free ticket allotments for the Astros players. "I would go into the clubhouse every day and fill out the ticket requests that they needed for their wives or--"
"I was about to say. It wasn't an unlikely occurrence that I would get a guy 20 tickets, and he would say, 'Make sure my wife isn't sitting with my mistress.' Not in so many words I don't think any of those guys are still with the team."
Chavez also grew up alongside the José Cruz family, which brings us back to music. Panic in Detroit was executive-produced by José Cruz Jr. ("Cheito" Cruz is thanked first in the liner notes.) Cruz caught Lucky Motors at their last show (at which they opened for Superchunk), and Chavez gave him a Panic in Detroit demo. A few months later, Cruz called back and told Chavez he loved the record and wanted to be a part of it. "I asked him what he wanted to do, and he said, 'Do you need an executive producer?' " Chavez remembers. "And I said to myself, 'What's an executive producer?' So I called some of my friends in the business and asked them what an executive producer was, and they told me it was basically a guy with a lot of money."
"An angel investor," clarifies Lonchambon.
"Yeah, one with a baseball glove on his hand," Chavez says. "I don't really throw out that name, you know, like, 'Hey, guess who we know.' But then, I just told a reporter that, so there it is on tape."
The national pastime also played a role in getting them the deal with Silverthree. A couple of years back, Burning Airlines had a day off in Houston and Chavez took them all out to the ballpark. Like Cruz, Mike Harbin was taken with the demo. "He said, 'I'm doing a record label and I want to put this out.' And I said okay," Chavez says.
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"And it didn't hurt that we were huge fans of them, too," adds Lonchambon.
"Exactly," Chavez says. "Not only are J. Robbins and Mike Harbin some people that we have listened to in the past, but Mike Harbin's also somebody that we could look up to in a business sense -- he's proven that he knows what he's doing in bands before, so if he's got advice, we take it. Same goes for J. Robbins. Not only does he have all this great stuff in his back catalog, but if he has a suggestion for us in the studio, we take it."
And we at the Press have some advice for you: Go see Panic in Detroit this Saturday.
Panic in Detroit appears Saturday, January 17, at Fat Cat's, 4216 Washington Avenue. The John Sparrow, the Kimonos, Kiss Kiss Kill Kill and Danseparc are also on the bill. All-ages show. For information, call 713-869-5263.