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An Interview with Leslie Sisson from Moving Panoramas

Austin dream poppers, Moving Panoramas.
10 July 2019

Photo by Shelley Hiam

This interview appeared in condensed form in Issue 84 of Big Takeover Magazine. My original questions and Leslie’s answers appear below. Thank you to Leslie Sisson from Moving Panoramas and to Caroline Borolla for setting this up.

Elizabeth Klisiewicz (EK): What are your earliest childhood memories of music? Was it always around you or did you cultivate your interests later on in your life?

Leslie Sisson (LS): My father was a musician and my mother played piano, so my earliest childhood memories are definitely seeing him playing in country and blues bands growing up and my mother teaching me simple piano duets. We always had a music room with guitars, drums, a piano, etc, so it was kinda unavoidable I’d gravitate in that direction.

EK: When did you start singing and playing instruments? Are all of you self taught?

LS: Probably around the age of 5 was when I started picking up instruments. When my mom passed away in 2011, I found an old box of childhood memories including a letter from my kindergarten school teacher encouraging my parents to put me in music lessons, which led to piano lessons throughout elementary school. Once junior high hit, I played the flute in band and sang in choir from that point on until college. I quit band when it came time to march because I wasn’t really into football, so any musical energy was focussed towards choir and theater. I also decided to take up cello lessons in high school. My school district didn’t have string sections because you can’t really march with strings. Such a shame. My nickname might’ve been Yo-Yo MaMa instead of Lele or Lezbot or Lazlo. Eventually in high school I joined a band… a metal band… we covered stuff like Pantera… and yes I was the singer.

EK: Please describe your musical history before Moving Panoramas came together.

LS: Once I was in college, I studied music for the first couple of years of school with the intention of composing score for film. After taking some film courses, I decided I’d rather make films instead. That led to moving from Dallas/Denton to Austin and getting an undergrad degree in film and a masters in art at UT Austin, the whole time always playing in bands because… well, Austin, throw a rock.

I toured playing music during and after college with some pretty notable acts, like Crooked Fingers and Britt Daniel of Spoon when I was playing bass and cello in Western Keys. I also toured as crew with Sons and Daughters supporting Franz Ferdinand’s first US tour. I decided to move to New York to try to find work in production and continue working crews with bands, like …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Vampire Weekend.

It was around this time one of my friends, Andrew Kenny, former frontman of the American Analog Set, decided he wanted to try playing music together, which turned into a band called the Wooden Birds. The Wooden Birds toured the US, Canada, and Europe for a few years on a couple of records before Kenny decided to retire from the road. From that also spurred in between touring in Matt Pond PA’s band too.

Right around the time the Wooden Birds were winding down, Kenny encouraged me to make a solo record, which I completed days before my mom’s passing. So I moved back to Austin where she was living to pick up the pieces and started teaching music to kids. Then trauma found its way in.

I was drugged and kidnapped in the middle of the night randomly by a guy running from the cops in the same house where my mom had recently passed. Luckily, I escaped at a gas station before things could’ve gotten much worse. I later found out he murdered a family before he’d gotten to me. Once they caught him, he awaited trial nearly 6 years for capital murder before finally pleading guilty to two life sentences; without the option of parole or appeal around this time last year.

EK: Leslie, I read your back story about what you and your Mom endured and how you formed the band under the shadow of various afflictions. How did you cope with that? Was the music like medicine in a way?

LS: Yes, music was the medicine, along with therapy, of course. My mother struggled with chemical dependency for most of her life. It was all doctor prescribed for the most part, but it was also a product of the medical industry throwing pills at her left and right to fix things. So in the midst of all this PTSD I struggled with, that she too struggled with during her life, the last thing I wanted to do was take pills. I saw what they did to my mom… they killed her. I didn’t want to go down that road.

So I was teaching music to kids and that was how the healing process began. I thought I was done playing music, but once I started treating the PTSD, anxiety, and depression that followed with talk therapy and EMDR trauma therapy, the songs started slowly coming out again. This was the only way I saw results in my improvement. Eventually I started playing shows again and before I knew it, the anxiety started to lessen the more and more I played.

That’s basically where the first Moving Panoramas record came from… from that healing process. No drugs, no vices… just music. It wasn’t the easy road, but it’s proven to be the most rewarding. Music is challenging enough as it is without the emotional healing element. I’ll take that challenge though. It’s better than the alternative, at least for me right now.

It’s interesting… a co-worker who struggles with anxiety recently asked how I can deal with crowds and get up on stage in front of all those people with all my anxieties. I’d never really thought of it that way. Music is just something I’ve always done and being on stage is the one place I don’t feel like a freak or a head case… it’s my happy place. It’s my outlet and playing these songs, even the ones from the first record, is still cathartic for me. Even during the record release week, it was hard to not choke up playing songs about my mom live on the radio. I feel a connection with her through this music. Aside from her coming to me in my dreams sometimes, it’s the only connection I have left of my mom. Man, she’d be so stoked for all of this. I have her to thank for a lot of it.

EK: The album has taken two years to complete. Can you talk about that process and what you went through during that time to “get it done”? How has this differed from your first album?

LS: We recorded it immediately after SXSW 2017. It only took a couple weeks to track the basics and we thought it’d be released by that fall of 2017, leaving only a two-year gap between it and the last record. But then life stepped in and I got sick, battling some weird autoimmune health issues that affected my performance and energy levels in the studio. It eventually sent me to the ER for a potentially life-threatening emergency surgery. That hiccup was the biggest delay and set me back months. Once I came to, I had to scramble to pick up freelance work, which also got in the way. A year after it was tracked, the record was finally finished being mixed and mastered. Then, for whatever reason, mostly due to release/timing logistics, a year after that, it’s release is now finally seeing the light of day. Patience is a virtue, I guess. If it hadn’t been for the delays, we wouldn’t have had Matthew Caws of Nada Surf as a guest on the record. He’s the male voice on “In Tune” which transformed the song, that was almost a toss-out, into one of my faves on the record now.

The main differences between this record and the last one is that there were only three performers on One and it was recorded over about the span of a about year in my spare time. It didn’t originally have a label when it was recorded and was never intended to receive the attention that it did. It was just for fun, without expectations, as a sort of mentoring project for a former music student who was the bassist and is now the guitarist, Rosie, so the pressure and timing of putting it out was way less than the new one. Guess that’s what happens when expectations come into play for In Two. Even though we expected it to come out at a certain time, life decided those expectations could wait. It was a little frustrating in the moment, but I wouldn’t have it any other way now.

EK: Can you describe the ideas behind some of the songs on In Two?

LS: In Two is based on duality. Every song on the album has more than one meaning vs the first record’s songs that were simpler and usually about one specific idea. Some are a sequel to the traumas that led to the birth of the band and the first record like “Home Alone”. Others are about loss, especially regarding my late mother, like “Forever Gone”, “Dance Floor”, and “Whiskey Fight”. “In Tune” addresses social-political issues with breaking conventional nuclear norms and expresses how it’s hard to find your way when the world around you isn’t quite in tune with you at the moment. The rest address newer issues relating to my health which led to the delay of this record’s release like “Baby Blues”, “ADD Heart”, and “On Hold”. Finally “What Now” which was originally supposed to be the last song on the record raises the simple question of “What will I write about now that I’ve healed from all these things that I’ve been writing about?”. In Two is the second chapter to One, and a second chapter for this band as we’ve multiplied like gremlins, doubling in size, while expanding the sound exponentially and allowing for the music to grow.

EK: What equipment does the band use to get that dreamy sound you have?

LS: Well, I think the most recent weapon of mass dreamstruction is the addition of the pedal steel to the band. That was a happy accident thanks to my country band’s pedal steel player, Phil, coming up with parts for Moving Panoramas songs at the last minute for a show the country band had to back out of. It was a game changer and seriously has added a whole new galaxy to this space. Other than that, of course the synth sound was a subtle undertone on the first record, but it has taken a front seat on this record. On the recordings I’ve been using an early 80’s CasioTone keyboard with an analog synth-sounding organ setting. Cara has been able to replicate that sound live and more on her mini Korg.

As for guitar sounds, I usually run my guitar through two stereo amps, one with more reverb, one with more tone/crunch. The pedals consist of a phaser (gifted to me by Matthew Caws), multiple reverb pedals (one of which donated by EarthQuaker Devices), multiple overdrive pedals (one of which also donated by EarthQuaker Devices), and a weird cheap space pedal that sounds like alien keys. The other guitarist, Rosie, has these in some form on her pedalboard too. With the guitar tones, I try to go for less-is-more and lean towards more warm tones than bright and tinny.

The drums and bass on this record were definitely way more rocking than the last. Jody and Jordan are the rhythm section, and we played together just as a 3-piece for a while before doubling in size. The contrast of their power with the dreaminess approach to the guitar and vocals takes things up a notch and gives the band an energy boost for its second launch.

EK: What are your biggest influences, musically or otherwise?

LS: First and foremost, my father has been my biggest influence. I’m sure if he didn’t have music in his life, I wouldn’t either. He’s my best friend, biggest fan, and number one soundboard for all of this. Maybe I would’ve been doing my own music a little earlier if it hadn’t have been for his encouragement to focus on higher education and job skills outside of music to pay the bills. However, I wouldn’t have a solid video editing career to supplement, which allows me to play music without starving. Combine that with my mother’s encouragement to follow my heart, and I don’t think I’d be here at this point right now if it weren’t for both of them… literally and figuratively.

Aside from my family, playing as a side member in touring bands and touring as crew for bigger acts helped me learn a lot about the business and whether or not I really want to tackle this beast. I’ve seen many folks succeed in music, but I’ve seen more fail, which only opens a porthole to heartbreak and darkness. Every musician who has invited me into their band or has hired me on their crew has been hugely influential to me. I’m super grateful to have gone that route first before landing here. It was an education you can’t really learn in books. Now that I’m here, I feel like I have nothing to lose musically, so even though my heart is all in, my eggs are in a few other baskets that should help keep me from falling apart if music breaks my heart… and as long as I have the energy to balance it all.

EK: The industry seems very receptive to your new release. How different is it from when you released your last record?

LS: Does it? Well, thanks, that’s nice to know. We can only really gauge Austin’s response because we haven’t really gotten out of Austin since the last record. It seems like FM specialty radio has given us a lotta love, with In Two charting at #1 weeks before it was even released, thanks to the singles that released early. There are still some pieces that seem to be missing, mostly on the booking side outside of Austin. It’s really easy for bands to get stuck in this town and it’d be a shame if we can’t hit the road on this record. It’s an issue a lot of bands at our level deal with, which I call “band purgatory” in that they do well at home but their connections or funding to get out of their hometowns is limited. Hopefully, by the third record, any of these missing puzzle pieces will find their places.

I guess comparing the new record to the first one seems about the same to me in some ways. We had some great press and a few small tours on the last record. This time, we’ve had some great press, but no touring in sight yet. This record’s production value has stepped up a notch so the new reception we seem to be getting so far is that we seem to be getting stronger and growing in the right direction… which I guess is better than a sophomore slump, right?

Oh, and some have addressed the obvious original all-girl 3-piece lineup vs the new co-ed 6-piece band, but that response seems unanimously positive. And why wouldn’t it be? There’s no denying how much better it sounds and how the live experience has immensely improved with this lineup. The more the merrier, I say. All are welcome.

Speaking of the more the merrier, we took a chance playing our In Two release show at a big venue that is typically pretty hard to fill, especially for local bands. We were surprisingly at capacity when we played which was a huge relief. If the only industry that responds like this is Austin, there are no complaints on this end. That’s not an easy feat and we’re happy with whatever reception we receive, wherever we receive it. There’s no place like home.

EK: Can you talk a bit about your other band, The Rated Exes? Does anyone in MP play in that band too or is it a whole different cast of musicians?

LS: The Rated Exes began as a Loretta Lynn tribute one-off for New Year’s Eve at Hotel Vegas a few years back. It turned into an actual country band that plays around town and writes original songs. In fact, the song “Whiskey Fight” on the new record was actually originally written as a Rated Exes song. Most of the members of that band are also in Moving Panoramas, minus one or two. The two bands kinda merged a couple years ago when the bassist for the Rated Exes had to cancel a show last minute, so Moving Panoramas stepped in and kinda “country’d up” some of our originals to still play the show because it was with our close friends from Nashville called Birdcloud. That’s when we realized how much the pedal steel added to the dreaminess of the rock band, so from that point on, the steel stayed.

EK: Is touring limited due to your medical situation?

LS: Not at all. We don’t have any touring lined up yet due to not having a booking agent and any tour support options in the pipeline have fallen through. I’m sure touring might be a little interesting with my new medical issues, but it shouldn’t get in the way. Maybe it does make it harder for me to book tours myself, especially since I have a very involved day job with no downtime, but I don’t think it’s healthy for me to book unsolicited tours for us anyways. The last time I tried to book my own tour, it was mostly rejections. That takes a toll mentally when it’s your own band.

Financially, touring on our own isn’t logical either. It’s gotten more and more expensive to tour lately and with what little we’d make from town to town, we’d be lucky to break even. Venues and bookers want to see numbers proving we can draw outside of Austin. We toured in 2016 and had some numbers back then, but perhaps too much time has passed to go off that. This is that hometown hero purgatory part I was talking about. Sure, we can stay in Austin and sustain as medium fish in a medium pond, but in order to branch out of Texas, someone might need to believe in us enough to help with that extra nudge.

Touring is the one trickiest piece of the puzzle for us. We’re getting a lot of local and national radio love. As mentioned earlier, In Two, hit #1 on the FM specialty radio charts before the record was even released, and held strong in the top 5 for months. These stations are all over the country and we share the charts with bands like Swervedriver, Vampire Weekend, Interpol, Bob Mould, LCD Soundsystem, Jenny Lewis, Sharon Van Etten, Metric, and more. Friends in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, LA, NYC, Boston, Philly, are all texting about hearing us on the radio. Seems like a shame to not cash in and visit those cities before the charts phase out. We just need a little help. So who knows, maybe that’ll change. Until then, regardless, we’re super grateful for what we do have.

Catch up with the band over on Facebook and pick up their album over on Bandcamp.