Pan American
(Copyright © 1998 Piero Scaruffi)

Behind the moniker Pan American (which recently released a self-titled debut album on Kranky) hides Mark Nelson, guitarist and singer of the band Labradford.

You are half of the celebrated duo Labradford. Why start a side project at this point in that career?
"There are probably two main reasons for starting the Pan Am project. first, the Labradford path seems to be becoming a more and more ambient one. I think we are interested in the possibilities of composed music that aspires to a kind of stasis. We try to make music with a strong emotional component but never in a recognizable way. I think the goal with Labradford is to become more and more subtle, more and more discreet. Pan Am allows me to be a little more obvious and direct. Drums and percussion are such a signifier-of rock or dub or techno etc. That there doesn't seem to be a place for them in Labradford. but I love drums and I love direct pop-like songs and Pan American is a vehicle for me to explore this stuff."

It looks like historically you are jumping in a void left between ambient and trip-hop: subtle, jazzy, atmospheric music, but not properly ambient and not properly jazz (and not properly dub)... did you feel that you had to fill a gap in the spectrum of modern styles?
"I didn't feel like I needed to fill a gap... I just took the parts I liked from a number of different musics. Everything gets filtered in my music to an ambiance and whether it's jazz of dub or classical or whatever, I tend to always end up extracting the atmospheric or ambient qualities in it."

I assume that most sounds heard on this album are produced with a guitar. How do you process it? What pleasure does it give to process it? Why a guitar rather than, say, a violin? Why not more electronics?
"Some guitar, yes but also a lot of Rhodes piano and organ. I sampled Carter (from Labradford) equipment so there are also quite a lot of keyboard sounds. I guess like Labradford I feel more comfortable with organic sounds. Although I might love something like Porter Ricks or Autechre the sounds I ultimately find myself gravitating toward (to work with) are more naturalistic ones"

Why do you like the dub pulsing so much?
"I'm not sure why I love the deep/regular bass so much- I guess it's a very warm feeling-it fills a room. Bass frequencies are non-directional so I guess I love the sense of being surrounded by sound. That's a little bit of a cliche` but put some reverb on a sine wave and pitch it way down and I'm happy."

Is the preference for slow tempos a preference for the dark side of life? Does it resonate with your private life?
"I don't equate slow with dark, really. I equate slow, atmospheric spacious music with interior space. With meditation, maybe. This seems to be something I want in my life and something that I seem to be able to communicate to others."

Why bossanova?
"It is to me the most graceful music. Bossanova just seems like such a life-affirming music to me. It can move from the most perfect distilled sense of sadness and regret to silly love- filled joy so easily."

Any other ethnic culture had an influence on you, besides Jamaica and Brasil? What is your musical background?
"I am more and more interested in international or world music as I grow older... Indian music, Susana Baca from Peru, Madredeus from Portugal... this is mostly what I listen to these days."

Why did you choose the name Pan American?
"As a kid, I always dreamed of flying across the ocean on a passenger plane and Pan Am was the leading transcontinental airline. Also, one of my favorite songs is "Pan American Highway Blues", by the ZZ Top. Somehow the two things boiled down to the name Pan American for my project, since I wanted to take listeners to other places than the one they visit with Labradford. It's interesting that my "trip" away from ordinary things is happening vertically and not horizontally: the music on Pan American's record is different because I layer sounds. I develop the music not as a succession of logical movements but as a slow-motion change in the harmonic content. The song is just a pretext to move around a center, tonally and with the arrangement."

What is new in your life?
"Well, I just moved to Richmond, in Virginia, from Chicago, after a long European tour.

Are you going on tour with Pan American?
"That's only me. I am not sure that I want to surround myself with musicians who are not part of the creative process of Pan American. I did perform once, though, and that was just me with a bunch of electronic and digital equipment. Even with Labradford we don't tour that much because it's so difficult to play live."