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So…what in the hell just happened?
If you find yourself asking that question these days, be sure you’re not alone. We just made it through the most absolute bonkers year of our lifetimes—maybe of anybody’s lifetime. Pandemic and protest, impeachment and implosion, fires, failures, horrors, hornets, scandals and stormings and more storms than you could count…no one can blame you if you spent the year hunkered down or hiding. And yet, some brave souls out there in Quarantineland seized the year as an opportunity to create something from out of all that isolation—though the meanings of and behind those creations are very much still being processed.
The members of the Los Angeles indie band Together Pangea—William Keegan, Danny Bengston, and Erik Jimenez—are three such undeterred, working class valiants who made the most of the 2020 turbulence by writing and recording DYE, an upbeat, undeniable collection of hooks, anthems, and power-pop garage-rock catchiness that is unmistakably the album of their career. And while they—and we—are still processing not only what the hell happened during the past bonkers year but also just what in the hell got made in it, too, one thing is certain: when life gives you lockdowns, make some fucking lemonade.
“There’s no specific thing this record is about, or that at least has revealed itself to us,” Keegan says. “A year from now we’ll probably be like, ‘Oh, fuck, that whole record is about this and we didn’t even know it.’ That happens sometimes; the meaning will reveal itself in time. This has been probably the most confusing year in most people’s lives, so for us to know exactly what all this shit we made is…we just don’t. We’re still processing it all. But every time we re-listen to it, we think it’s as good as if not better than anything we’ve ever made.”
At the very start of 2020, coming off of extensive touring behind Bulls and Roosters and their most successful year as a band to date, Together Pangea (and the rest of us) saw things come to a crashing halt. There was a month or two of the requisite uncertainty and aloneness, but then quickly they realized that not even a global pandemic could keep them from writing and recording songs. Keegan, the principle songwriter, got to work composing in his usual way with acoustic guitar and vocals before trading bigger-picture ideas with Bengston and Jimenez about how to flesh an album out from the batch of tunes they gravitated to. But where normally the band would take those songs to a studio to polish them with a producer, this time they were met with a new challenge: Upon listening to the eight demos, the band’s label A&R challenged them to head back to the drawing board to return with ten completely new tracks.
“He said, ‘This is fine but I think you can do better,’” Keegan recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, maybe we can.’ So we spent another month writing. It was a positive thing that did change how the record happened. We ended up using a lot of those songs written after the initial demos. Nobody had ever said something wasn’t good enough before, to try harder and come back later. That was a cool thing, a good challenge.”
Inspired by crowd reaction to certain songs the band played on tours in 2019, Keegan made a conscious effort to consider the band’s audience while writing the second batch, with the aim of penning more sing-along choruses and a return to the emotional energy, vulnerability, and heaviness of the band’s well-loved 2014 album, Badillac. In fact, he calls DYE an amalgam of the band’s last three records: the inward looking and self-pleasing experimentation of 2017’s Bulls and Roosters, the frantic and scream-y Badillac with its inspiration from emotionally raw grunge, and the 50’s pop heavy 2011 album Living Dummy. After more than a decade as Together Pangea, the band know how their bread is buttered and made an effort to focus on what they know they do best.
However, in another break from tradition, DYE also marks the first time Jimenez has contributed fully-penned songs to the process. “Being the drummer in the band for the past 12 years, I’ve focused mainly on being just that, contributing the occasional guitar part or backing vocal to help fill out a song,” he says. “So when William showed interest in some of my own demos, my focus shifted to songwriting.” Two of Jimenez’s songs, “Little Line” and “Ghoul,” ended up making the album, an achievement he calls “unreal.”
Despite the band’s remarkable adherence to a pre-determined plan to write and record in 2020, Covid be damned, to say that the pandemic did not affect DYE would be an untruth. Some of the songs contain lyrics about feeling trapped—both intentionally and unintentionally, Keegan admits—while the band also benefited from a more rigorous rehearsal schedule and a live sound. “Because of Covid we rehearsed the record a lot more than other records we’ve done,” Keegan says. “We played the songs a lot together to find the C-parts and the breaks, and tried to get everything really tight because we wanted it to sound live. We kept all the live takes and layered other stuff on top of that. This time we could relax and get ready and prepare for the studio.”
“We had a lot of time to do nothing but play music,” Bengston adds. “This record has a lot to do with that thought process of how to continue, whether to throw in the towel on being an artist to find a job and a normal life, or to keep crossing our fingers that the next tour or the next single is gonna be the one to do it for us. It’s a very real dilemma. We’ve been doing the same thing we’ve always been doing; the only thing that changes is that we get older and have more responsibilities. Every time we make a record it seems to matter a little more.”
To that end, DYE is filled to the brim with a sense of primal urgency, with feedback and distortion leading the charge. The supremely catchy “Nothing To Hide” wears its homage to Americana rock like Springsteen on its tattered denim sleeve, with its dynamic powerfully flipped so that the chorus is quieter than the rest of the song. “One Way Or Another” is a hook-driven, crunchy number about the maturity that comes with big life decisions and a willingness to make mistakes, sitting sonically in the world of 90's alt rock. “Rapture” is a rumination on the unsettling relationship between religion and government, while “Nervous” takes on the claustrophobia we’ve all felt recently and how that takes a toll on the future, both literally and figuratively. The record fires on all cylinders but it’s clear that the songcraft at play could still work in the manner that it was written: pared down on just an acoustic guitar, with its soul on full display.
Speaking of stripping things away, it’s no secret that 2020 has taken a toll on the music industry as well as the artists who make the existence of an industry even possible. Thankfully we have bands like Pangea and albums like DYE, both of which came out of the fire and brimstone unscathed and even a little more, well, Together.
“With everything being stripped away from the band on multiple levels, we’ve definitely come back at it with a new appreciation for what we have and how lucky we are that we’ve been able to do this for as long as we have,” Bengston says.
“This year made us remember how much we love playing music together, and what a privilege it is to be able to do that,” Keegan adds. “Maybe that shows up in the songs, I don’t really know.”
Perhaps the best thing anyone can hope to get out of making things is simply a reminder of the joy creation brings. With so much recent dread and uncertainty swirling around, for Together Pangea the act of artistic expression itself has provided them more than enough purpose and reward. Someday soon the rest of it will all make sense.