Walking into the home where Panic Opera’s rehearsal studio is located, one thing is immediately obvious—the band is not going to sound like Coldplay. For nestled among the shelves of the large, black bookcase, which runs the length of the wall, are titles that easily could constitute a counterculture reading list: William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Bertrand Russell’s Essays in Skepticism, Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy, and Howard Zinn’s The Zinn Reader. Let your eye drop down a few shelves and you’ll discover movies (Citizen Kane, Being John Malkovich, The Man Who Fell to Earth), CDs (Devo, Foetus, Miles Davis), and even two copies of Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (actually three copies, if you count the special edition Absolute Watchmen). These items sum up the band’s primary themes: conspiracies, cultural criticism and elevated consciousness.
But what’s especially interesting about the collection is that guitarist and lead singer J. Lee Vineyard and bass player John Griffin grew up in fundamentalist Christian households where items such as these were seen as signs of certain damnation. But rather than lead to evangelical fervor, their upbringing led them to rebel and look for other answers.
“I just like to challenge my brain and make it think in different ways,” says Vineyard. “I don’t think the society we live in is healthy. Basically, at this point, Panic Opera is about that paranoia that derives from the Western mind, as well as occultism, conspiracy theory and corporatocracy.”
Along with these influences, Panic Opera is sonically influenced by the punk and post-punk music of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time, Vineyard says, when, “The bass, drums and rhythm section were introduced into the rock song in a different way. Instead of having cathartic moments, it was just kinetic energy.”
In its original inception, the band was primarily a studio project, but now incorporates a collective approach, using the talents and tastes of all its members—drummer Ryan Schofield, guitarist and percussionist Troy Micheau and keyboardist (and occasional RN&R contributor) Van Pham round out the quintet.
“It’s five people’s energies, five people’s input, and five people’s effort,” Vineyard says. “The first record is everything I had in my head since I was 14. It was about paranoia, the death of God, and all those things. Our current stuff is more like The Clash—like, yeah, things are fucked up, but what are you going to do about it?”
While many bands favor the voice, putting lyrics front and center with the music offering a supportive backdrop, Panic Opera believes the voice is just another instrument, no different than a guitar or keyboard. As such, words are often chosen not only for their meaning, but also for their sounds.
“We’re willing to sacrifice some coherence for what seems sonically appropriate,” says Pham. “Rather than full sentences, we’ll stick to a theme and if, say, a vowel would sound better in a particular space, we’re willing to change things around so we can get it in the right spot.”
Despite this philosophy, Vineyard says that each song tells a story and is often told from the perspective of various characters, from Abraham Lincoln to Jack the Ripper.
“In our current lineup, I play a lot of people,” he says. “I’m also throwing more questions out to the audience. I mean, these are rock songs, but we still want to take it into really strange territory.”