Panther Car

The following article originally appeared in Gabba Gabba Magazine.

I first saw Panther Car by accident at a house party of a person I never ended up meeting. This was sometime in 2013, and while most of that night is a bleary memory, the dreamy vocals and lacey guitar riffs that filled the whole house are still ringing clearly in some happy corner of my brain.

Photo by Hannah Miller

Photo by Hannah Miller

Since then, the band’s line-up has changed. Front-man Scott Merenz and lead-guitar/back-up vocalist Connor Smith are the founding members and common thread of the band; woven together with eclectic drummer Chris Kirkwood and groovy bassist Andrew Cornell, Panther Car has netted some serious style and fan following since 2014. Something about this group is magical, and it’s not just their choices in dance moves or hairstyles. The glue that holds Panther Car together goes deeper than that—despite their claims that what truly holds them together is PBR.

“For real, the glue is probably our band democracy,” says Kirkwood, to which Merenz adds “and overall friendship.”  

“We all have a passion for music too,” says Cornell, “we all share a certain group of music that we like, but we also like other things.”

“There are definitely bands that we all geek out on,” agrees Smith, “but there are very disparate tastes, too.” And these disparate parts of their tastes definitely contribute to the uniqueness of their music: each member has a different set of influences to draw from as they continue branching out with their sound. This shines through in their song-writing process, wherein each member has a finger in the proverbial sonic-pie. They all agree that a song melody generally comes before the lyrics, and while many of the lyrics come from Merenz’ personal experiences, the creative process definitely involves the entire band.

Photo by Hannah Miller

Photo by Hannah Miller

“It’s not just me that writes lyrics or even melody,” says Merenz. “When we sit down, everything changes. I say, ‘What do you feel about this?’ and if they don’t like it, they tell me and we change it.” In fact, the joint creative dynamic of the band is so important that, when it came time to find a new bassist, Panther Car held auditions. 

“We were writing a new song,” explains Smith, “we played [it] with everyone and just saw how people would write with us.” Another critical factor, Merenz adds, was “how cohesive it sounded.”  

The newest member before Cornell is drummer Kirkwood, whose addition to Panther Car was much less formal. He and Merenz got to know each other from jamming together at Peach Street Studios, which eventually evolved into jam sessions at “The Cherry House” with Smith as well. At that time, Panther Car was faced with the impending move of their current drummer, and it was in a flash of drunken inspiration one night when they asked Kirkwood to fill the thumping void in their band. He enthusiastically agreed.

“I wasn’t even a drummer at the time,” Kirkwood admits, “I just jammed a couple times on drums, and they liked what I was doing.” He is self-taught, which adds another layer to Panther Car’s unique style. 

“This is one of the reasons that I knew I wanted Chris to be in the band,” Smith says, grinning, “he told me that he was self-taught, but he said that he ‘danced behind his kit’, and I thought that that was the fucking coolest thing.” Watching Panther Car, it’s obvious that Kirkwood is having a good time grooving in every sense of the word; you can hear how the beats dance in response to what the strings are doing. The magic lies in the interplay, where Merenz, Smith, and Carroll react to Kirkwood’s interpretation.

Photo by Hannah Miller

Photo by Hannah Miller

“It’s like it’s furthering our writing process,” says Kirkwood, “the guys will lay something, and then I’ll react to it like I was dancing along. . . it goes back and forth.”

“So it is a conversation!” adds Merenz.

The communication between them is truly amazing, and hearing Panther Car live attests to that. They respond to each other’s creative whims; toying and expanding on them organically. Panther Car has fun on stage, and their playful attitude is infectious. It’s no wonder that they’ve been invited to play at the Camp Daze Festival in Missoula for two years in a row now. The festival—which is a four-day smorgasbord of pretty much any awesome genre you can think of—features both local and touring bands. This year, Panther Car played the Friday night slot of the festival at The Palace Lounge. The place was completely packed, and the crowd surged against the stage, swaying and writhing to their music. Bobbing their heads along with the rest of the festival attendees were members of the other acts, bands that had played earlier or were slotted for the next day. The support and good vibes emanating from everyone was not just unique to that night; part of what makes the Montana music scene so special is the sense of camaraderie among so few bands in such wide open space. It’s something Panther Car has noted, and appreciates. 

“The scene has been better than ever,” Smith says about music in Bozeman. “When we first started Panther Car, there were like no other fucking alternative bands.”

“It was a slow roll,” Kirkwood fills in, but they are doing their part to speed it up. As Panther Car has been picking up steam over the years, they’ve begun taking a more active role in helping the scene grow, from promoting house shows to even hosting a fundraiser for Lazy Suzy and Left on Tenth. They appreciate how supportive Bozeman is when it comes to the development of small bands, which they partially attribute to how small it is.

Photo by Hannah Miller

Photo by Hannah Miller

“Everyone here knows each other in the small Bozeman community,” says Cornell. “There’s an appeal to being a Montana band. You can move to a [huge] city and be in a sea of other bands, or you can be here and help build and create a scene.”

When I last saw Panther Car, it was at The Zebra Cocktail Lounge in Bozeman. Kirkwood was grooving behind his jangle-spangled kit, Smith was doing “wiggly-legs”, Merenz was making mouth-art with his lyrics, and Cornell was rocking pigtails. A sizable crowd was bouncing in front of the stage, mesmerized by the driving music. Delicate and complicated guitar riffs filled the air like a laser filigree, and the groovy baseline walked casually through everybody’s chest cavities. The beer was cold and plentiful, and everyone was smiling.

[1] It should be noted that the friendship level of Panther Car is clearly off the charts, apparent from their jokes about polyamory and Cornell’s body fluids.

[2] However, Smith admits that Cornell did get points for being dressed as Ziggy Stardust at the party where they met.

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