School's Out

Far-flung local band takes a break from school for a little rock 'n' roll

The four members of Diacon-Panthers live, variously, in Portland, Ore., Middlebury, Vt., and Knoxville, with the one guy still here headed to Boston to start college in just a few weeks. They're still a local band, though—they play together during the summer and on winter breaks and record when they get the chance. And it's worked fine for them, so far.

"The music's so self-contained," says singer/guitarist Natan Diacon-Furtado from his dorm room at Reed College in Portland. "This show we've got coming up, we'll probably practice for two or three days before, and that'll be the first time we've played together in half a year. But we all love that part of it. For us, it works out better than practicing a whole bunch."

Diacon-Furtado and his partners in the band—guitarist Greg Given, Given's younger brother Jeremy on bass and piano, and drummer Charlie Henschen—were all still in high school when they first got together, and they knew some big decisions would be made soon. "I don't think any of us were prepared to let the band get in the way of college," Diacon-Furtado says. He and Greg Given are now sophomores at Reed, and Henschen attends Middlebury College in Vermont (the school's mascot is a panther, which provides half the band's name), and Jeremy Given starts at Berklee College of Music in Boston in January.

Despite their far-flung residences, the band has remained a priority for each member. The most recent evidence of their commitment to Diacon-Panthers is the band's first album, Make It Feel Better, which will be available this weekend, just in time for their first Knoxville show in months. The disc was recorded in just a few days last summer, but they've been tinkering with it ever since, getting a final master done just this month.

"It took two days to track everything, but then Greg and Chris had to leave, so I stayed and did the vocals and my guitar overdubs," Diacon-Furtado says. "Up until three weeks ago we were mixing it and taking out and putting in tracks. I guess we recorded it in a short period but it took us a long period to get it to sound the way we wanted."

Make It Feel Better is a casual recording, if not exactly lo-fi. The band plays a poppy, post-punk art rock with a distinctly Southern vibe—the guitar riffs are sharp and jittery, and Diacon-Furtado's vocals are high-pitched and arch, but Jeremy Given's Fender Rhodes electric piano offers a hum of classic-rock atmosphere, and his older brother adds occasional lap steel for a hint of twang. "Tennessee Dancing Nights," one of the album's standout tracks, updates the hard-edged folk rock of the mid-'60s, and "Saint Anthony" churns into a long, loose jam session that sounds inspired by Dixie Dirt, a band that might be Diacon-Panthers most immediate local precedent.

"The recording is a slightly different beast from the live show," Diacon-Furtado says. "All of the tracks have bass and piano on the record, but Jeremy just plays one or the other live....We used to have a different drummer, too. We were more laid-back then, but I'd wanted to rock out for a while, and we have Charlie to thank for that."

The band owes its loose-knit, fluid style, at least in part, to the songwriting process, which starts with Diacon-Furtado but always evolves into a group collaboration. "Usually, the way it goes, I write everything word-wise and basic-guitar-part-wise," Diacon-Furtado says. "Basically I have a base, the words and how I want it to sound. I usually have two chords for an entire song, and I get overruled about using just two chords, and eventually we have a nice tune."