An Interview with Nick Panken of Spirit Family Reunion

Kevin Keating
Spirit Family Reunion (L to R: Stephen Weinheimer (Washboard/Slide Guitar), Dylan Harley (Drums), Nick Panken (Vocals, Guitar), Ken Woodward (Bass), Maggie Carson (Banjo), Noah Harley (Fiddle) - photographer: Michael D. Spencer)
This Friday night, Spirit Family Reunion jams into The Chapel for a bluegrass show you won't want to miss. Tickets can still be found here. Lucky for us, lead vocalist and guitarist, Nick Panken, took some time to speak with us recently about the new album Hands Together (iTunes). Catch the full interview below!

SF Bay Area Concerts: "It Does Not Bother Me" (iTunes) is one of many songs on the most recent album that straddles genres -- and time! It wouldn't sound out of place on an album by The Flying Burrito Brothers, Woody Guthrie, or Wilco -- the melodies and rhythms are so fluid, flexible. Who are the musical inspirations behind Hands Together?

Nick Panken: We were thinking about Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis during the recording of "It Does Not Bother Me" (iTunes), which is something we hadn't really done before. But we also want the song itself to be something that could have been played by Leadbelly or Mississippi John Hurt. A lot of our songs are really simple, 2 or 3 chords and a basic melody and message. In that regard they could hopefully fit into the Carter family songbook or something along those lines. But in terms of performance and recording, that's where our own identity comes into the picture.

SFBAC: Hands Together sounds fantastic. What was producer Paul Kolderie's role in brining the album to fruition?

Nick Panken: We recorded the songs with our buddy Andrew Gerhan, which made it nice and easy. Paul Kolderie mixed the tracks after they had been recorded, and he used his magic to really bring them to life. It was the first time we had an outsider mix our recordings and it was amazing to experience the transformation of the tracks.

SFBAC: The Newport Folk Festival is so steeped in history that it feels larger than life -- how do you prepare for an event like that?

Nick Panken: Playing Newport feels like something we've been preparing for our whole lives. Just being music fans, we've seen so much footage, listened to so many recordings and heard so many stories about Newport. In that regard, it's such a thrill to be a part of the festival just as an attendee. As a performer there is no preparation, just be excited and honored to play and remember that long after you're gone they'll still be talking about Newport in the 60s.

SFBAC: In the Bay Area, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is sacred. It's the only show that feels like a true crosscurrent of San Francisco's residents. What does playing in the Bay mean to you? 

Nick Panken: Hardly Strictly is a really special festival, it's one of our favorites. there's such a good feeling there. It's really nice to be at such a big festival where it's totally free of charge and free of advertisements. What a rare and special combination. It feels like a really positive environment.

SFBAC: As a fan of NPR's tiny desk concerts it was great to see you rip it up. Once or twice I thought albums and books would start flying off the shelves. How do you work to capture that live energy in your recordings?

Nick Panken: It's not about putting on a show, it's about just having a good time and letting loose. It's been a challenge for sure to translate that to record. I'm not sure if we've accomplished that so far, but we're getting better. So many recordings these days seem so manufactured. We favor the unhinged and natural feeling you find more on older recordings.

SFBAC: What other bands out there are doing interesting things?

Nick Panken: We love the Deslondes from New Orleans. We also really love a singer named Clark "big kitty" Williams who is about to move to the Bay Area from Chattanooga TN. Look out!

SFBAC: One of the things I've liked most about Spirit Family Reunion is the way you approach harmonies. The way you blend all these voices together is really interesting stuff.

Nick Panken: Thank you. We call it our two and a half part harmonies. We're not the most refined singers but neither was the Carter Family or Woody Guthrie. Some of that stuff is just downright painful to listen to. Isn't it great?

SFBAC: You're going to be in San Francisco during an epic time -- this week's supreme court ruling has made the city absolutely electric. It seems the theme of celebration is a part of many of your songs extending to your life show.

Nick Panken: It's a great time to celebrate. Let's do it!

SFBAC: Thanks for your time and we're looking forward to your show. Hope you have a great tour!

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