Smile Politely

“I still have things in me I want to express as Panel Van.”

Panel Van were a quintessential Champaign punk band: they started young, unleashed unimaginable amounts of energy and effort, and then relatively quickly burned up on their own fuel in a flash. Combining abrasive guitars and intense percussion, their debut release Words garnered much attention and praise. Panel Van and their “band brothers” Rusalka have left quite a legacy: members eventually went on to form Hank. and Enta, and most recently Woodie and Cassius. I sat down with the band to discuss their past, present, and — interestingly — future.

Smile Politely: First things first. When is this show and who is playing?

Mark Helbing: Tonight [at the Math Lab] — Calculator, Yusuke, Enta, Panel Van, and Cassius.

SP: Tell me a little bit about Calculator.

Markie Glassgow: They’re a screamo band from California. I can’t remember how I started listening to them, but it was in high school.

Helbing: Daniel Lee (from Rusalka/Enta) told me about them.

Glassgow: Yeah, that could be.

Helbing: It was when we were starting to write for Panel Van.

Glassgow: Yeah.

Helbing: Huge inspiration. Never expected them to be playing at, you know, my house. [Laughs] Totally cool.

SP: Were they quite established by the time you first heard of them?

Glassgow: No, I think that was the cool thing — that they were the same age as us, talking about the same things we were talking about in a way.

Jake Bradshaw: They had just put out their first EP. We jammed on that every day, multiple times a day for a while.

Glassgow: We were also in high school. We did an interview on the radio with Greg Clow and he asked us to play three songs that described Panel Van’s influences, and one of them was a Calculator song.

SP: You said that Calculator was talking about some of the same things you were talking about. What was Panel Van talking about?

Glassgow: For me, I know there’s Calculator songs about people moving away and going to college, end of summer and stuff. The last song I wrote for Panel Van [“Do we even know what we’re doing up here”] is about that.

Helbing: “What the fuck am I going to do with my life?”

SP: How would you define “screamo?

Glassgow: I guess my definition of screamo is it has to be DIY punk-based ethics is more what it’s about than anything. Also — I don’t know if there’s a definition, but there’s definitely associated bands.

Helbing: I don’t know. I usually don’t describe things as screamo because I don’t have a definition [for it].

Glassgow: Not all screamo has to have screaming, necessarily. Yelping would work.

Helbing: Straining yourself to feel it more fully. It’s a feeling thing.

Glassgow: It’s not as much about the tone or key of what you’re saying; it’s more how you’re saying it.

Helbing: For me, it’s revisiting previous emotions or events, and yelling them makes it more forceful.

SP: So this will be a nostalgic show for a band already all about nostalgia.

Panel Van: Yeah.

SP: Would you say Panel Van started as a screamo band or a math band? I’ve seen the Bandcamp genre tags, but what did you call yourselves when you first started?

Helbing: I think we thought we were kinda mathy because we were tapping and stuff, but most of the first songs were in pretty standard time signatures. I don’t know if we listened to a whole lot of math.

Glassgow: Our big influences were like Native, bands with a whole lot of tapping but not necessarily super mathy. Kind of just melodic.

Helbing: Dedicated chord structures.

Glassgow: I think as we got better at our instruments, we started writing more mathy stuff.

Bradshaw: I think we started out as kind of like a post-hardcore band.

SP: What year did the band actually start, and how did it start?

Helbing: There was a band called Salinate. I kicked [pauses] … The bassist quit because I redid all of his parts on the recording because they were all out of key and out of time. So he quit. And then I found Markie on MySpace…

Glassgow: I found Mark on MySpace. They were playing with a band from Pennsylvania that I wanted to play with, and so I just messaged Mark, like, ‘Hey, I’ll try and play bass for you guys.’ I didn’t know who Mark was, and I actually didn’t like Salinate very much [laughs].

Helbing: No one did [laughs]. Jake had joined Salinate before that, though, and had started to jam with us. Then Markie came in and then we kicked Scott out.

Matt Zuckerman: And then you came to Rusalka practice to tell me. You were already calling yourselves Panel Van by that point.

Helbing: Yeah, actually we did play a show as Panel Van with Scott. And then he was done. Then we kidnaped Matt. We had three songs from the first EP written before Matt joined. We reworked them and wrote a new one with Matt.

The band and I banter about various dates of shows and recordings, mixed in with a boat-load of street traffic (as we were on a porch), rendering the audio incomprehensible; but I promise you, dear reader, it was thrilling. It was like being at a punk venue asking when so-and-so band came through and ten dudes pop up to talk about who the openers were and what labels they were on; or, much like asking about recording personnel on a Dylan album at a record store.

SP: So it was Words, then Parasol, then Battle of the Bands?

Helbing: We recorded [the Battle of the Bands] songs about two months after [Record Store Day at] Parasol. I remember we recorded those in the summer… We almost burnt a house down … got attacked by hornets… The record was mastered in Japan.

Glassgow: I remember I was really sick that summer during recording. I had a terrible headache, a terrible cough. My vocals came out really scratchy. I wanted them to come out like Mark’s, more clean yelling. But they came out badly.

SP: You mentioned earlier you were all born in the same town — where are you from, then?

Panel Van: Mahomet.

SP: So you were living in Mahomet and in high school while playing in Panel Van?

Glassgow: Yeah, we played a lot of shows in Mahomet.

SP: What were shows in Mahomet like?

Glassgow: Kind of like … going to the shed. Pretty homogenous crowd.

Helbing: What was our first Champaign show?

Bradshaw: Probably The Iron Post. We had just changed our name from Salinate to Panel Van.

Glassgow: Jake, did you listen to punk music? Mark was barely listening to punk. I feel like when I came into the band, I listened to Braid, American Football, all those emo/punk bands, and I wanted to be in a band like that. I think that helped push Salinate into Panel Van.

Helbing: Yeah, I didn’t know shit about all of that.

SP: Mark, what did you listen to?

Helbing: Classic rock. [Panel Van laughs] Growing up in the Mahomet scene, my exposure was kind of limited. So really, it was a lot of those bands that came through — I didn’t really know what they were doing — but they didn’t really sound the same as classic rock and pop. Everyone was calling themselves “indie” bands, which doesn’t mean anything.

SP: I must ask: How did you decide on the name “Panel Van”?

Helbing: It’s an Animal Farm reference. I always imagined Boxer being carried away in a panel van.

Glassgow: Yeah, it sounded menacing, like they’re gonna steal your kids. Steal some kids in a panel van.

Helbing: Menacing.

SP: So, basically, your songs are about growing up and going away to college, and you broke up and went away to college.

Glassgow: Not all our songs were about going away to college.

Helbing: Mine were mostly about my upbringing, and feeling trapped.

SP: In, maybe, a panel van?

Helbing: Totally. I think Woodie (Mark and Markie’s new band, featuring Ted Lerch of Hank.) is pretty reflective of the changes we’ve gone through since Panel Van.

SP: Such as?

Helbing: [Pauses] Sad and confused.

Glassgow: Panel Van is like when you’re eighteen and pissed off about how fucked up everything is and you just want to tell all these stupid people to shut up. You hate all the ignorance. You hate what you have to do in life to enjoy yourself, so you just want to get mad. Woodie is, like, two years later when you’re like, ‘OK, well, I tried fighting it, and it’s not gonna work. So I’m just gonna do drugs.’ More passive. I think the next band we’re gonna be in will be more like the Beach Boys. Soon as we find happiness.

SP: What do you hope for this reunion show?

Helbing: I think we all have different answers.

Bradshaw: I’m just trying to have fun, play a good show. Play with one of my favorite bands.

Helbing: I’m really motivated to try to play a new song. I don’t want to just play the same songs we wrote years ago. I don’t care about proving anything, but I do kind of want to prove that we can finish a song. We don’t really have time, but we’re trying.

Glassgow: I feel like I still have some of the kid in me that I didn’t think I had in me six months ago. I still have things in me I want to express as Panel Van. I still have those feelings.

Helbing: There are a lot of things I haven’t gotten the chance to express, and this new song is something I’ve really wanted to say, and I won’t have the chance to with any other band. I will be too late.

Zuckermann: Markie asked me if I missed playing in a punk band. Cassius is obviously not a punk band, but there’s a different enjoyment and experience in playing punk. 

SP: What’s the new song called?

Helbing: Something like … I don’t know … “Piss Pool Pity Party.”

[Panel Van laughs]

SP: It kind of sounds like you all don’t want Panel Van to not be a band, to be honest with you.

Glassgow: If we were all in the same town, I would be down to do it again.

Helbing: I’m willing to be just as patient as necessary and just take our time.

Zuckermann: Something to do on occasion, just get together…

Bradshaw: …When we feel the urge.


Panel Van will reunite tonight for a show of epic proportion at The Math Lab (msg admin for address) and will be joined by Yusuke, Calculator, Enta, and Cassius. S/O to Nick Brannock for sitting there quietly like a good emo kid.

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