Auckland band Bear Cat have been working hard at being the best panda pop band in the universe. At the moment this has been pretty easy because they are the only panda pop band in the universe. You would think that occupying such a niche might limit the appeal of Bear Cat. This may very well be true, but they're doing quite alright, thank you very much. Formed by Chopper Dan and Jocee Tuck in 2006, Bear Cat have grown from bedroom pop origins to play shows with the likes of Chicago's acclaimed Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens labelmate Halfhanded Cloud and Brooklyn dance-poppers Matt & Kim. In 2008 their track Red Panda Blues was featured on Real Groove's Awesome Feeling II compilation and they were one of five national finalists in the MTV Kickstart competition.
And now, in some sort of a silly play on the idea of a self-titled first album, they're releasing an album called Xiong Mao, which means 'Bear Cat' in Chinese. It may also help to mention that in the Chinese homeland of the giant panda, the word 'panda' is written by writing the symbols for Bear and Cat alongside each other. Yeah I know, amazing. It features eight pop songs about pandas self-produced and recorded with friend Dave Parker in their bedrooms.
We just talked up the fact Xiong Mao is about pandas, but it's also about literally dozens of other topics. There's songs about being the only one of your kind in lonely Auckland City and singing the American Tail theme song 'Somewhere Out There' from a rooftop garden ('City Beat'), about what happens when you finally meet your celebrity crush/penpal in person ('Set, Set, Set My Eyes On Fire'), about having dark circles under your eyes, about being set free, about crusading journalists on midnight dashes to the Beehive to face off with Helen Clark in the 'Pandagate' saga of 2002 ('New Zealand Adopt This Panda'). Lots of stuff.
Xiong Mao is best listened to on headphones while floating in a pit filled with coloured balls, like the one they used to have at Glenfield Georgie Pie. It's sort of a concept album - though they don't think it should be considered a novelty to have a thematically and musically connected set of songs. Armed with big ambitions and a series of dinky instruments, they've constructed toy orchestras around cartoonish story telling lyrics. After two years + of on and off recording, Xiong Mao's final tracklist encompasses casiotones, Hammond organ, saxophone, violins, trumpets, triangle, omnichord, typewriter, melodihorn, harmonica, glockenspiel and more.
With such stirring ideas, melodies and instruments it's surely not too long before there is a revolution in the music world. Quickly realising the well of 'love songs' could be running dry, other bands will flock to write love songs from the perspective of pandas. Pretty soon there will be literally millions of panda pop bands, at which point Bear Cat are planning to throw a curve ball and start firstly playing panda metal... or maybe, with their particular craft mastered - expanding to other topics. Oh boy, the possibilities! The band are currently residing in a tiny flat in Auckland and working on a follow up to Xiong Mao.