Music / Features
First Dance -
A chat with Siberian Tiger
Words and interview by Michael Vince Moin
Wednesday 14th October, 2020
Following the release of First Dance in August, we spoke with Chris Panousakis from emerging folk duo Siberian Tiger to dig into their stunning debut collection of amorous and idyllic dream-folk.
Bree Tranter and Chris Panousakis make up Siberian Tiger. The partners in music and life are, in simpler times, members of the live bands of Timberwolf and Matt Corby, as well as the now defunct The Middle East. Their debut EP First Dance is a genuine breath of fresh air by virtue of its sparse instrumentation, its beautiful songwriting and impressive vocal delivery, all wrapped up into a cohesive and (very) easy listen.

The record harkens back to a time - perhaps the mid-to-late-2000’s - where folk music and heavily acoustic arrangements made their last significant resurgence into the Australian musical landscape en-masse. The purity and beauty of the songs present on First Dance lies in how unabashedly honest Tranter and Panousakis are in their affection for one another. And so, to listen to a record such as this that is both heavily nostalgic, as well as one so unfailingly sincere, is a joy in and of itself.

Every track across the EP’s 20 minute run-time is terrifically delicate, yet thoroughly deliberate. The production is not to be understated here either - everything beautifully positioned in its right place and time. Favourite ‘Call On Me’ is the most dense track on the record, and that’s said lightly - it sounds like a Motown dream, fused with a seaside-writ love ballad straight from the 60’s. This is a special record because Tranter and Panousakis so evidently, and quite beautifully, appreciate how lucky a thing it is to be in love. They’ve delivered a slow moving river with First Dance - but one that certainly leads the listener to something just like the ocean.

Trouble Juice is stoked to have the opportunity to ask a few questions about the record to Chris.
TJ: First Dance has an overarching feeling of longing - from the wistful guitar work to the beautifully delivered cathartic lyricism. Can you tell us a bit about the writing process behind the EP?

ST: At the time a lot of these songs were written, I was deep into my Timberwolf record and feeling really burnt out by how polished it was all getting, so I started writing a lot of these lo-fi, very personal songs for some sort of rebellious, private catharsis. Felt so good because when you’re writing with the intention that you’re going to be the only one that ever hears it - you’ve got no choice but to be authentic, because you can’t possibly take into consideration how it’ll be received or even begin to wonder of the music’s public potential.

Fast forward a year, over a couple of beers at the Wheatsheaf, I ended up letting Emma [Coyle] in on a few of these songs (before she was Part Time Records) who kind of convinced us that there could be a way to make a project out of the songs but keep it low-fuss and DIY. We thought that was a pretty rad idea, so we took a few songs from my bunch and a few from Bree's songs and basically just re-arranged them to be able to sing and play our main instruments on each other’s tunes. Some parts we wrote together as well too, like ‘Plane Spotting’. That was literally basically us just walking around the house together, singing about how fun that day was watching planes and eating Bree's chicken sandwiches.

We would describe this record as like listening to something your parents would have listened to when they were very young - with this fantastic and very present modernity there as well. You can particularly hear a subtle nostalgia for Motown and balladry on ‘Been & Gone’. From a production standpoint, how did you go about building this sound?

The day I wrote ‘Been & Gone’ I had actually spent the entire morning walking around the house playing Harry Nilsson on my nylon string guitar, and he does some great ballads like ‘The Moonbeam Song’. I was inspired by the 12-string guitar in that recording, and have always been a big fan of layering acoustic instruments so I just sat down with that in mind, maybe even just to practise layering some guitars? I didn’t even really know I was going to write something.

I was feeling some pretty heavy emotions not long after my dear Yia-Yia Angela had just passed, and so I sat down to distract myself. Thought it would be cool to just to try make ‘one’ sound out of a bunch of layered guitars. Because to me, that’s like the persona or mood you present to the public - it looks/sounds coherent, but it’s actually comprised of a bunch of very mixed feelings which is why I like textured stacking of acoustic instruments if you can get them to marry. Basically I just sat down and played through a bunch of chords that I thought flowed really nice together, and then started feeling quickly overwhelmed by a bunch of emotions that the music brought up about Yia-Yia, and before I knew it I had basically just ad-libbed the vocal part. The vocal take on the final recording actually ended up being the very first one from the demo, it came out of me like it had a mind and agenda of its own. But after I had cried a bit, sung a bit, and essentially written the foundation of the song I decided it needed to sound more out of control. Whenever I have lost somebody dear to me, it feels like I’m getting tumbled around in a washing machine that’s moving too fast and awkward for me to keep up with or make sense of, so I added the repetitive na na’s at the end, which are in groups of seven and actually take a few cycles to fit back in with the time signature of the song, aka. life’s desired rhythm. I thought they were really disorienting and cyclic, trying to recreate that feeling of loss and desperation. The synth arpeggiator does that too I think.

The idea of blending the old with the new was me trying to emulate the night she passed actually. I had just stepped off a plane home to Adelaide, absolutely gobsmacked by this overwhelmingly rich, golden sunset erupting in the sky. The air was cold as I stepped off the back of the plane onto the tarmac and my senses were really heightened to something. Way more than usual. I was completely oblivious at the time that Yia-Yia was at the beginning of a few hour period that would end up in her leaving us for good, and I just couldn’t believe that such drastically polar narratives were existing in parallel, perhaps maybe connected through me. So the whole song is basically just an attempt to explain how maybe what I saw, was Yia-Yia’s way of saying goodbye, putting on a big show up in the sky for me in all its breath-taking warmth, love and affection.

The process of recording these songs seems to mirror the lyricism of this EP and vice versa, in that the passage of time and that the sometimes-great-distance between the two of you are often lyrical centerpieces. You recorded this EP over a long stretch of time during which you were often not together. What was it like to make this EP in such an unconventional manner away from one another?

It was actually really productive to have created the EP in our spare time, over distance. Music can swell to feel more important than it is or ever should be in the grand-scheme of your life, but best to just be chill if you can. When recording starts to become the be-all and end-all, it can be such a drag and you can zoom in and go around in circles for months about things that just don’t actually matter. That has happened so many times in the past to us, and you get really sick of the songs too in that way. So it was good to take the pressure off the recordings, do what you can with what you’ve got, and let the ‘distance’ - distance between us, also between us and the songs - keep the experience fresh and cathartic. We’re really glad the songs stayed a little rough around the edges.

The most striking element of this record are the harmonies - they’re staggeringly beautiful. Who are your biggest influences for these kinds of layered, ethereal harmonies that are present throughout First Dance?

We just really like orchestral and classical string arrangements, but neither of us can play violin, viola, cello etc. So a lot of the harmonies are arranged to mimic the strings parts we wish we could afford to pay someone to record and play for us.

From ‘Call on Me’ to ‘Plane Spotting’ there’s such impressive, slow moving imagery at play that it feels like you’re walking in on a dreamlike film. Even the EP’s title, First Dance, holds a quality similar to that of a Super 8 memory. What kind of imagery influenced the direction of this record?

Domestic life by the sea definitely played a significant role in informing the mood of the EP. When you spend a lot of time on tour - away - everything is fast. The food is fast, your time spent catching up with friends is fleeting, your ability to emotionally attach or ground yourself to a location is non-existent, routine is manic and this left us with a yearning to just slow everything down, back to basics. We very seriously respect and romanticise a lot of the things people call mundane. Like cooking your own food, watching planes, staring at a big body of water, spending time with family, pottering around the house watering your plants. That all feels like absolute divine luxury to us, and so the entire record (in hindsight) is geared toward encouraging ourselves and the listener to slow down and indulge in the things that move too slow to appreciate a lot of the time. Same goes for the music - it’s the antichrist to 120bpm pop. People are ageing right under your nose, your relationships are changing shape, the suburb you live in is morphing, the world is groaning and if there’s one way to be blindsided by all these changes - it’s spending months at a time abroad. So for us, indulging in the slow-dance of it all is where the magic lies.

A good friend of mine says that living by the beach is like hanging up a new painting on your wall every single day.

The vocals really open up into confessional prose on ‘Little Pill’ more so than on any other song from the EP. We’d love for you to talk a bit about this song in particular, and what it means to you both.

We talk lots about what constitutes somebodies ‘real’ personality, whether it even exists, and how hard it can be to not only locate it, but further allow it shine through the prison bars of social anxiety. Social scenarios can be so incredibly complex to navigate, and we’re all so particular and unique when it comes to constructing some kind of method or routine that enables us to discover or display the ‘best’ or ‘true’ version of ourselves. The journey toward these moments of inner-peace is so damn convoluted. It’s brittle, can take months to build and one dinner-party to destroy. Some would argue we spend our whole lives rearranging our mental furniture to try figure out how to just love ourselves. Both of us have grappled with different dependencies, safety nets and vices, and we’re all just trying to learn how to cope before we can shine. 'Little Pill' is an embarrassingly affectionate, lonely conversation with your vice in a moment of weakness. It is your relentless monologue of self-criticism, synthesised in dependency, masquerading as friendship. This fragile conversation follows the journey through the bloodstream - through the heart, the mind - and puts the microscope on how complex it can become to just ‘be yourself’ at times, but how fucking good it feels when you can.

Obviously, this year’s turned out to be a bit of a write off, and we’re guessing that your plans have turned a bit haywire, but can you give us some insight into what the near-future holds for you?

Got to take it easy while you can. We’re more than happy to raise our little puppy, check in on our friends, get a few more recipes under our belt in the kitchen and chip away at some new music. Before we know it we’ll be back on a tour bus wondering what the weather’s like in Adelaide.

You’re a new listener to Siberian Tiger - how and when should you listen to this beautiful record?

Well, ‘Plane Spotting’ has been an instructional piece in disguise all along! If we were you – maybe wait for a rainy Friday afternoon… spark a light, sit under the veranda, marvel at the raindrops on the blades of grass and make sure you hold your breath every time a plane comes over the top and interrupts the silence of reflection. Can you really believe that gigantic huge metal cylinder is transporting hundreds of humans through the sky in that moment? Unbelievable stuff.

First Dance is out now through Part Time Records and Remote Control Records.