"I felt like a fucking clown," says Panther frontman Charlie Salas-Humara. "Every fucking time before I played I'd be like, 'How am I going to do this? How am I going to start this? What am I going to do? This is weird.'"
But for three years, all by his lonesome, Salas-Humara went at it. He'd crank up glitchy beats, sing, shout, and flap across the stage like a bird caught in an electric fence. "The idea at first was just to do it and see what happened, just to see how people would react," he says. "It was more performance art."
When Panther began, Salas-Humara never saw it as anything more than a side project—a chance to try something new and perhaps foreign. But when the band he fronted, The Planet The, hung up their guitars for good, the side project took over. "I was like, 'This is my band now,'" he explains. "Still I felt like it was really half-assed."
But the wheels kept rolling. Because of the odd, provocative, and lighthearted nature of the act, as well as the simplicity of bringing a one-man band along, Panther was picked up as an opener for a number of national tours. He did four of them, along with a killer video and some guerilla stunts, and even spent some time on MTV. Over time, though, things never really settled into that comfortable place for Charlie.
"It started driving me crazy," he says. "When people started taking me more seriously I was like, 'Okay, I have to change this and make it really good.'" He went ahead and flipped the whole thing.
First he got a drummer, Joe Kelly, formerly of 31Knots. Kelly and Salas-Humara also play together in Leti Angel. They've known each other for years, and their somewhat opposing personalities seem to balance each other out. Together they shook up Panther's sound completely. Gone are Charlie's schizophrenic beats, breaks, and electro sounds, replaced by clean guitars, cellos, and Kelly's tight, angular, yet smooth drumming. The result, which can be found on the recently released 14 kt God, is decidedly more musical.
All of the album's 13 tracks are accessible. It's (slightly) damaged pop wherein the longest song clocks in at four minutes; most are done in less than three. It's brimming with hooks, though the levels of production keep Panther from scoring that one killer single. For the most part the lyrics are dominated by cryptic wordplay—where sounds are as important as meaning—but from time to time Salas-Humara throws out lines that resonate. ("We will relinquish the past/We can't extinguish the past.")
An air of glam pervades 14 kt God, but for some reason the album never really goes over the top. There are a number of places where a few more layers might've really added something. But as Salas-Humara and Kelly told me, they have no intention of delivering anything wrought or too predictable.
What's happened to Panther since Kelly has joined is a complete rebirth. The sound and the show are both markedly different. They've been signed by Kill Rock Stars and are now setting off on their first headlining tour. Then it's off to Europe and Japan. But more important than any of that, perhaps, is that when Salas-Humara takes the stage with Kelly by his side, things finally feel right.