Sunday, July 8, 2007

Interview: Joanne & Brandon of Penny Reel

The guys and girl that make up Penny Reel have been quite busy recently. They just recorded a new acoustic EP, and returned from performances including dates in Nevada and Colorado. Recently, their singer Joanne Highland and guitarist Brandon Niznik took some time to answer some questions I had for them. Get to know them because your gonna be hearing allot more from em' soon.

1. You've all been rather busy lately with a number of shows and The High Desert Ska Festival. What was this experience like for you?

Brandon: I know I speak for the rest of the band when I say we all had
a great time.
John did such a great job putting the Festival together. We got the chance
to finally meet Victor Rice, who is a great influence on me as a musician
and as an engineer. There were a lot of great people who were genuinely
ecstatic that so many bands made it out to their town to play, and I enjoyed
meeting and talking with each and every one of them. Also, the trip provided
us the opportunity to travel through central Utah, which has some of the
most amazing scenery I've ever seen. But most of all, I enjoyed being with
my bandmates, who are all dear friends of mine.

Joanne: Brandon pretty much hit that spot-on... it was a very cool
setting in downtown Grand Junction.. we were able to get out of the
heat for a bit at the afternoon show, chilling in the bar between
sets, chatting up the locals. And as Brandon already mentioned,
meeting Victor was awesome. Overall it was a great experience, and we
definitely enjoyed hanging out with the Israelites and Hi-Lites, who
we played with the night before in Vegas as well.

2. How long have you been playing music together, and how did all hook

Brandon: The first time we all played together was in 2000, in my
first week of high
school. The legendary Brian Wallace was the band director at Atascadero High
School, and at the time I didn't really know the significance of him being
there. A friend advised me to try out for the jazz band, so I tried out on
guitar. The first thing Wallace asked me during the audition was: "Can you
play upbeats?" I ended up not getting the part in jazz band, but he did make
me the new bass player for the ska band, Wallace's own brainchild. Joanne
had been in the band for two years, and Stani Loken, our sexy drummer,was a
freshman like me. That was the greatest fourth period class in history.

Joanne: Then, in 2004 after my first year of college in LA, I came
back for the summer and Brian was working at Rockwell Sounds in
Atascadero, where he started putting together a little studio project
which we ended up continuing after that summer was over. Once Brandon
also relocated to LA for school, the two of us decided to keep writing
and started playing acoustically.

3. What influences and experiences would you say have shaped your taste and
sound as musicians?

Brandon: I must first tell you that everything I know about ska, rocksteady, reggae,
dub, and just being a musician, I learned from Brian Wallace. My path in
music as well as in life, without him, would have been an entirely different
one. He showed us The Skatalites, he showed us Lee Perry, he even showed us
other touring American ska and reggae bands and gave us an opportunity to
learn from people that did what we loved for a living. In 2002, he brought
Chris Murray, the Aggrolites, and Pimpbot to play in Atascadero. The
Aggrolites were the first real reggae band I had ever seen, and that show
remains the single most influential one for me as a musician. While still in
high school, I had the great fortune of working with Westbound Train and Go
Jimmy Go, who gave us something of a ska clinic, or "Ska Camp," as we called
it. J Bonner, Thad, and Cameron all gave me so much inspiration while
growing up playing bass. Also, listening to the After Hours album had me
buzzing with ideas for years. The engineering of Brian Dixon on that is the
best of any ska album I've heard.

Joanne: Yeah, everything pretty much started with Brian Wallace, as
far as our playing goes. As far as what I like to listen to,
rocksteady is definitely my favorite, and I love all of those great
vocal harmony groups like the Uniques, Techniques, etc... but I feel
that I've just barely scratched the surface of great Jamaican
music--I'm always discovering amazing stuff I've never heard before.
Also, as a singer (as far as non-Jamaican music goes) I adore old soul
and motown stuff (Sam Cooke!). At USC I studied jazz voice, and
especially love a lot of Brazilian stuff with that cool style like
Jobim, Gilberto, and Stan Getz. In songwriting I really admire Paul
McCartney, and Paul Simon.. they have the gift of being able to tell
such great stories in their music.

4. As I listen to your new recordings, I hear quite a unique acoustic
sound. What kind of instruments are you using and what are you doing?

Brandon: I played Wallace's dobro resonator guitar, and we mic'd it in a way to
represent the natural stereo image of the sound, so that the recording
sounds as if the guitar in front of you. For the percussion, we used a bass
drum and some traditional percussion instruments, as well as things like a
box of salt and an arrowhead jug. Probably the most inventive thing is the
piano sound on 'End Where I Begun', where Wallace actually turned a plank of
wood into a microphone. I believe the patent is pending.

Joanne: Yeah, we thought Brian was joking when he said he was going to
use a wooden plank to mic the piano (the Tom Waites piano, as we call
it).. but he was serious, and it was genius. We're quite resourceful
in the studio, especially as far as percussion goes. We were looking
for a djembe for the "Freeway Song" and ended up making one out of an
Arrowhead water jug. We wrapped a pair of jeans around it, and melted
off the top of the jug with a blowtorch. Please don't try that at

5. Can you tell us a little more about your new EP, the song writing
and recording process? Maybe describe a few of your favorite songs and their

Brandon: The most meaningful song to me is definitely 'End Where I
Begun', which I wrote for my girlfriend, Jenna. She has been my one and only since we were in high school. Currently, she is in Marine Corps boot camp. The song
represents a hard time in both of our lives, when the paths of our
individual lives were very clear and full of ambition, yet the prospect of
those paths remaining side-by-side was uncertain. The song references a
favorite poem of ours by John Donne: "Such wilt thou be to me, who must ...
obliquely run / Thy firmness makes my circle just / And makes me end where I
begun." It's my way of telling her that there will always be a way for us to
be together, even we aren't in the flesh. There has been much growing and
learning, and she and I are recently engaged to be married. It's also the
only song I've ever written for a girl.

Joanne: I never knew Brandon was so sensitive, until I heard that
song! Recording the EP was a lot of fun, a very collaborative process.
Brandon and I have been writing music together for a while, and I
think we make a pretty good team. Sometimes he'll just come up with
some new interesting chord changes which I'll then write lyrics to, or
sometimes I'll write a song and we'll add more parts to it or
rearrange the form. Writing new tunes is pretty much just a
cooperative, creative process.
With this EP, we spent two days at Rockwell Sounds in Atascadero, CA
with Brian Wallace; we took one day to record all the tracks, and
mixed on the next day-- in and out!... there are a few one-take tracks
in there..
A couple of my favorite tracks are the "Freeway Song" and "Smile" - I
wrote the Freeway Song as I was driving home, it was early morning and
I was driving north on the 101 through San Luis Obispo, and I saw a
guy crouched on the side of the south-bound freeway, and wondered what
he was doing...somehow a song came out of that. And "Smile" is a song
Brandon wrote the changes for based on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"
and the lyrics I wrote while sitting on my favorite beach back home,
at Yerba Buena Street in Morro Bay, Ca.

6. As a fairly new group, What are your thoughts and observations on the
current Los Angeles ska/reggae music scene?

Brandon: There aren't as many bands as there used to be, but the ones
who are still
around sound really good. I've been in LA a short time, and the whole notion
of being involved in a 'scene' is still a little unfamiliar. I always enjoy
listening to The Expanders, and the Aggrolites are tearing it up, but for
me, it's all about Chris Murray. But the most important thing about the
scene are the people who make it out to the shows and give the bands
somebody to play for.

Joanne: Bluebeat Lounge has been a great resource for us, and we're
really grateful to Chris for keeping that going-- it's such a helpful
starting place for so many young bands. Within the scene, there are a
lot of guys in bands who have been around for quite a while, and it's
great to be able to sort of take in as an example of what to do or
what not to do as far as gigging, etc. is concerned. Also, I really
like how the scene right now is so collaborative-- it reminds me
almost of an old jazz community, how everyone kind of sits in and jams
with so many different bands. You also end up seeing a lot of familiar
faces around shows, which always creates nice vibes.

7. How did you settle on the name Penny Reel Junction and what does it

Brandon: Ask Joanne about that one, haha!

Joanne: Back when Brian Wallace started working at Rockwell Sounds in
Atascadero, they also started a record lablel, and decided on the name
Penny Reel Records. It came from the Eric Monty Morris song "Penny
Reel-O" which I believe is about a prostitute in Trenchtown. Then we
started our studio project and picked a random word that seemed to fit
after "Penny Reel" ...but since Brandon and I have started doing our
acoustic thing, we've dropped the "junction" part and just call
ourselves "Penny Reel"

8. Are there any other projects you are currently involved with musically?

Joanne: Ask Brandon about that one! ...I'm not currently doing
anything, although I am in the Netherlands for the months of July and
August, and will be playing reggae on the streets with an acoustic

Brandon: Stani and myself are both playing in a dub project called The
Progressors along with Nigel Hansen, who was the keys man of the Atascadero High ska
band. We are trying to explore the possibilities of the stripped-down
recording techniques used by dub producers from the 70's. A full-length
album is in production, but I post new dubs as they emerge on The
Progressors' myspace--please check it out if you love that gritty, heavy dub
sound! The tracks were recorded on a Fostex four-track cassette recorder,
most often using one microphone.

9. Do you plan to record a full length album in the future?

Joanne: it's been in the works for about a year and a half now.. we
still mix stuff when we get the time, but at this point it sounds so
outdated. But a full album is absolutely in the plans for the future.

Brandon: Definitely. Definitely. It will be a labor of love.

10. Are there any up and coming bands from your area you would
recommend to our readers?

Brandon: Penny Reel! And The Progressors! There aren't very many other reggae bands
from SLO county, but my favorite young band is The Ifficials. Boombastic!

Joanne: Definitely second Brandon on this one. The Ifficials
definitely impressed us at the Bluebeat Lounge a couple months ago...
dang, I wish we had played reggae that sounded that good when WE were
in high school..! Also, I'm really looking forward to hearing stuff
from a new band called the Amalgamated, which features many former
members of the Hi-Lites.

Related sites:
Penny Real Junction Myspace
Penny Reel Acoustic Myspace
Rockwell Sounds

Penny Reel was featured on the Pressure Drop Soundcast last month. Be sure to check out the Featured artist podcast for the month of June. There you can hear a few of their wonderful songs. Make sure to check out their web sites and find out how you can get a copy of their new acoustic's outstanding! Once you get taste of Joanne's sweet vocals and the soothing sounds of Penny Reel, you wont be able to get enough.

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