“Oh shit, are you okay?” I ask. John Paul Thompson is sitting on a crate outside the WHPK studio in the University of Chicago’s Reynolds Club, and it’s beginning to crack.
“Oh, yeah.” He laughs, and readjusts his weight. Thompson has a great laugh. It’s a deep throat laugh, the cock-your-head-back-and-slap-the-knee sort.
Thompson, a first-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, runs the Pandarosa Record Company of Cedar Hill, Texas, just outside of Dallas. He is also the man behind the two concerts (Peter and the Wolf, the Dodos) held earlier this year in his dormitory, Shoreland Hall. The Thompson brothers, Joseph, David, and John Paul, brought the Pandarosa together about five years ago. Today, it is almost exclusively run by John Paul.
We begin by discussing the origins of the label. “Both my brothers and I played often at our church [and] with the Boy Scouts. We would go on campouts and take our guitars and sit around and play. The initial push [towards recording] came after one spring break trip. After this one trip, we got some recording software [and] we just started recording stuff, mainly just covers, Radiohead, Beatles, Tom Waits. And then, all of the sudden, original songs just started cropping up.
“So, we quickly realized that we had original songs that we wanted to record, and in the fall of, gosh–In the fall of 2003, my brother and I put some numbers together and said, ‘Look, we can afford this much,’ and we said, you know, let’s go into it, let’s build a recording studio, we can do this. That was our initial intent–a recording studio in our parents’ house. Not necessarily a label. We just wanted to get stuff on tape. And so in the fall of 2003…we started this record label/recording studio.”
I cut him off: “Where did you get your stuff? How hard is it to just throw a recording studio together?” John Paul explains, “[We got stuff] off eBay; all of it was second-hand. This was even before Craigslist. We got some stuff from our church as well. It was this phenomenal wealth of equipment that just aggregated, very quickly.”
“It seems like it started out as like a vanity label–you just wanted to put your own stuff out there?” I ask.
Thompson quickly agrees. “Oh yeah, absolutely, it was, I mean, it was completely about, like, ‘look what we can do,’ and that was really it. But, at the same time, we had no intent of doing anything with it. Our scope was not like, ‘Put out our CD, and make it BIG!’ It was like, ‘record our stuff,’ period. We had no intention to tour–we had no intention to even play live! I mean, we didn’t play a live show until we had all of our songs recorded twice. We grew in the studio–we at this point being the collective Pandarosa.”
The Thompson brothers comprise several of the acts associated with the Pandarosa. Thompson’s personal band is Johnny the Wham. Room Sound is also comprised of many of the Thompson boys; specifically, David, Joseph and John Paul, as well as three non-Thompson members. “Room Sound is really the accumulation of most of the record label. I mean, all the collective efforts get piled into Room Sound,” Thompson explains.
However, the record label began to expand beyond the Thompson family. “Abraham the Giant Killer…was the first ‘non-Thompson’ member of the Pandarosa.” Thompson describes Paul Stadelman, the sole member of Abraham the Giant Killer, in close familial terms: “I knew him in the womb,” he says. Reminiscing for a moment, Thompson gets a little excitement in his eyes, as he has found the perfect anecdote to describe Stadelman.
He turns to me and brings both hands together right in front of him, as if holding a guitar. He starts in, his voice a little higher, more excited, “I remember him coming up to me on a Boy Scout campout, pulling me aside…and pulling out a guitar and being like, ‘I wrote a song, let me play it for you.’” Thompson’s voice drops when he delivers Paul’s lines, as if he is telling some great secret.
Then, he exclaims, “And, I was like, ‘That’s incredible! Let’s record it!’” Again, he lets out a laugh straight from the gut. “And, I mean, that’s how Johnny the Wham got started too. I’d never written a song before, and I was at summer camp, and I was just playing around, and they were like, ‘Hey, who wrote that song?’ And, [I said] ‘This is just something I’ve been playing around with, I have words for it…’ And they were like, ‘Oh! Sing it!’” He says with a laugh. “I had like no intention of recording it. It was my dirty little secret song. But all of my friends ended up pushing me to record it.” Thompson continues to refer to his friends as a critical catalyst in the development of the label. He points out later that “the idea of a label really grew out of a sense of community. We could’ve never done it without the support [of our friends.]”
As time passed, Thompson explains, more and more of his friends gravitated towards the label: writing their own songs, doing the artwork, managing the street team, or just generally helping out. Thompson suggests that the dividing line between a circle of friends who happened upon a recording studio and a full-fledged indie folk record label is very unclear. However, it’s clear that the latter did finally emerge.
Thompson explains that the recording studio began to be rented out by local artists. Over time, “regulars” started to appear: guys who would record with different bands over and over again, many of whom were particularly talented musicians. Thompson recalls Jacob Chaney, of the aptly titled Chaney Chaney Bang Bang: “I guess he graduated with my brother Joe, so he was like four years older than me, but we’d hang out all the time…He was one of those [regulars]. He would come by and play, and record songs. He’d never pay me in money, because he never had any,” Thompson says with a laugh. “But he would go pick up a used record at Half-Price Books and bring it by. One of those times it was like ‘Dylan’s Greatest Highs Vol. 2,’ and it ended up having that giant Dylan poster, with the crazy hair… I think if he knew that was in there, he wouldn’t have given it to me.”
Gradually, the Pandarosa acts began to absorb these local musicians into their own gigs, sometimes spawning completely new acts as well. To promote itself, the Pandarosa held annual showcases of all the acts on the label. Each year, the show expanded in scope. Of 2004 to 2005, Thompson says, “This was a really important transitional year. A lot of stuff happened…This was really my first year doing the Pandarosa by myself. Joe’s gone; David, my older brother, is still at [Oklahoma University]. This was a time when I started doing things differently–started planning things the way I wanted it to be planned. We jumped from two bands in the first showcase to, seven? Yeah, seven bands in the second showcase. It was Jarboda, Heroes of Gibraltar, Me You Speaky, Johnny the Wham, Chaney Chaney Bang Bang, Abraham the Giant Killer, and Room Sound.”
“It was great. I mean, we got to show people we were expanding, we were getting bigger. And after that was kinda–[this] kinda reactionary growth period…It’s like, ‘Oh, hey, this is real, but let’s make it more real than it was.’ We signed every possible band that would play with us, we put out the ‘05 sampler, which was the first official Pandarosa release and we paid $800 [for it]…And by the time we got back to the school year, we realized that we couldn’t support this sorta thing, you know?”
The label had reached critical mass. By 2006, Thompson found himself auditioning bands for recording time, and shuffling the lineup of the label. And so, in 2006, the label began to slim down. “Up until [that point] we were like, ‘Oh, you’re our friends, and you can play, and you have like one good song–okay, we’ll record you.’ But, now we try to look for more ambitious bands–more sustainable bands.” He adds, “I just couldn’t do studio sessions every weekend.”
The label continued to mature. “The [third] showcase was the biggest one–we spent like $2000 on it, we rented out a big place, we made our own stage, sound system, and lights. We packed it with like 300 people. It was our biggest show to date. It was phenomenal. We hired a professional video crew to record it. And it was great for us, because we had reached a little further.
“[This] year was also important because it was the end of my senior year. I had just gotten into the [UofC] early action, and I decided to take a year off. I knew that I wanted to spend some time doing music. More than that, though, I wanted to pursue a lot of things: work more in my church, do some mission work and spend some time with my family, before I went away for quite a while. So, 2006 to 2007 was just completely mine. I had never done ‘just the Pandarosa,’ just taken care of the label. I was always doing school, or being active in a couple different groups. It was really great to buckle down and focus [on the label].”
Thompson’s mantra of the year was to “Tour a lot, record a lot, and promote a lot,” but the “‘a lots’ varied quite a bit,” he explains. The Pandarosa continued to expand into new projects. The most significant achievement was the release of the first full-length album on the label, Room Sound’s “Fire and Frontier.” The release seems a greater achievement in light of the fact that “never at one point were all the members of Room Sound in the same room together,” Thompson explains. Drum, guitar and vocal tracks were collected at the respective colleges of band members, when Thompson visited. The album itself was assembled into a cohesive performance back in the studio in Cedar Hill.
So what’s the current status of the Pandarosa? “The label is both evasive and pervasive. It is everything that I do, and that I am sometimes, you know? And sometimes, I completely forget about it, like when I have an econ midterm. In Chicago, the record label has been these shows I’ve been putting on. It’s always something that I wanted to branch into; booking and really coordinating with some of the bands that I love. I’ve been putting together shows for four or five years now; I know I can put on a good show. Now that I got time to…I’m not in the studio, none of my bands are around here to promote; why don’t I grab some bands that I know that will be great and pull them in? I hope to keep doing this, getting these bands to come play.”
Likewise, the record label has stayed together digitally after Thompson left for Chicago. Although the members of the label have all left for different colleges, they stay in contact with one another and plan recording sessions during their breaks. “The virtual side is also really strong, when everyone on the label is plugged into, you know, the Internet, you can do so much. We’re constantly discussing mixes, musicians, our work, upcoming plans when we get to the physical place where we’ll be at. So, it’s planning. The one thing I noticed in my year off [was that] the majority of the physical part of the label–the recording, the shows–happens over breaks anyways. None of us are professional musicians, right? So we all have things going on. So, when we get a break, we exploit it–we do as much as we possibly can…We’re still working, it’s just more spread out.”
Thompson’s passion is immediately palpable when he discusses the label. His voice races when he reminisces; his pitch climbs and falls with each anecdote. It’s hard to not feel infected by his enthusiasm. Each song is a product of such time and energy, and the label itself an aggregation of this work. “The Pandarosa is what I do, and what I love to do.”
The Pandarosa Recording Co. has a website: www.thepandarosa.com. Also, John Paul Thompson respectfully asks that you keep your ear to the ground, as more shows will be booked in the fall.