Interview: Nick Panken from Spirit Family Reunion

Nick Panken from Spirit Family Reunion
Nick Panken from Spirit Family Reunion

Folk music, when done right, has an exuberance that stands on its own. There’s an organic quality that’s infectious and people will start to dance while basking in a joyous atmosphere. Brooklyn’s Spirit Family Reunion thrives on that feeling. They can play anywhere and provide a memorable experience to an attentive crowd. As part of the Westerly Sound concert series, they’ll be taking the stage at the Knickerbocker Cafe on Apr 14.

I had a chat with co-founder, guitarist and lead singer Nick Panken about loving Creedence Clearwater Revival, managing changes of membership within the band, hundreds of people singing a chorus to a different song than the one Spirit Family Reunion is playing and hoping to put out a new album later in the year.

Rob Duguay (Motif): Spirit Family Reunion began as a collective started by you and Stephen Weinheimer at a bar you both used to work at in Brooklyn. Which bar was it and what would you say was the spark that started the musical bond between the both of you?


Nick Panken: We worked at a bar that’s in the lower east side of Manhattan called Pianos. Originally, the musical bond was that we’re both fans of Creedence Clearwater Revival. We basically put together a group to play as a house band so we learned a bunch of creative covers. That’s how it originally started.

RD: That’s cool how it started out of a mutual love for CCR, I’m a fan of them myself. There’s definitely a noticeable influence in your band too, especially with how the harmonies are and the amount of energy in the music.

NP: Yep.

RD: The band has had a bit of a rotating cast of musicians that at one point included Providence musicians Dylan and Noah Block-Harley. How do you manage the changes within the band? Do people weave themselves in and out?

NP: I wish I had a better system (laughs). I don’t really know, it always seems to work itself out. We’ve had a few times where we had a lot of tour dates during a really busy year and we had to make sure we had a crew that’s on board to tour a bunch. Other times when we were doing shorter tours for more local shows, a lot of folks would hop on and play with us. I think at this point there’s probably around a dozen folks who have played in the band at one point or another.

Sometimes people hop back in and hop back out. It makes it a little complicated in terms of consistency but it’s also fun that we can keep it fresh with different people bringing different things to the band.

RD: I know a few other bands that have a similar structure where people come and go while having a core group of people. I’ve always wondered how it’s handled with different musicians coming into the fold. Spirit Family Reunion has performed in houses, music venues and festivals all over the place. When you play music to an audience, do you have a preferred setting?

NP: It doesn’t really matter to us. If we know we’re going to be playing someone’s living room, we’re not going to bring the full drum set and the amplifiers. As long as we can organize the instrumentation in a way that’s appropriate for the space and what kind of sound we need to project, I think the only thing that’s important is having a captive audience. Also, generally speaking, the smaller the space then the easier it is to connect with people. We were on this European tour this past summer where we played on some pretty big stages, as big as any stages we’ve ever played.

Some of them were at festivals and some of them were at normal clubs, but one of the most fun shows we had was in this little cafe outside of Hamburg, Germany. It was a beautiful room, everybody was sitting in chairs and we played totally unamplified for a couple hours. The room was full of people singing to songs they didn’t know (laughs). It was a pretty joyous atmosphere.

RD: That sounds awesome. From touring Europe versus touring in America, do you notice any differences between the folks that come out to see you guys play?

NP: While in Europe, the fans might interpret what we do as kind of exotic. Our style is purely American with it being an extension of our country’s music and culture. People are excited in Europe and it seems to be a little bit different to them because of where it’s coming from. It also depends on which country you’re in, there’s a whole different culture. If people are willing to dance or if they’re good dancers, or if they want to clap along to the song – on-beat or totally way off-beat – getting used to what an audience is going to be like in a new country is definitely a real thing.

I remember this one time we were either playing in Denmark or Holland at this festival, and they were really enthusiastic and they really liked us. It felt like we were connecting with them, and we came on stage for the encore, and Stephen started shaking the tambourine to the song. The crowd started clapping along to the beat and then together they started singing the choruses to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” We fell over cracking up on the stage because nothing like this had ever happened to us and it was totally random. I’m pretty sure that song does not start with a tambourine being shaken.

RD: No it doesn’t.

NP: I have no idea what that was about but that would never happen in America.

RD: It seems like it was a wild experience. How many people would you say were doing that?

NP: It was probably a few hundred people there who were doing it. It was pretty funny.

RD: After the show in Westerly, what are the plans for the band during the summer?

NP: I’d like to get back in the studio this year. We have a new record that’s completed that we’re trying to figure out how we want to release it. I’m hoping to put it out later this year, but it may or may not happen. We’re kind of moving at a different pace these days than we have been in the past. It’s nice to take that space in time to spend the energy on other things or on writing new material. At some point, we will be putting a new record out and hopefully we’ll be playing some more shows.

Tickets to see Spirit Family Reunion with James Maple at The Knickerbocker Cafe, Westerly, Apr 14:

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