EC Interview: Misha Panfilov

Misha Panfilov is one of the most creative visionaries working in music. A Talinn, Estonia-based musician and composer, Misha’s sonic explorations make you feel like you’re discovering a new world every time you listen. He’s on a quest to discover unimagined universes of sound, fusing diverse genres and instruments into compositions that dissolve any sense of time and place. His music is innovative and new but also warm and beautiful. It’s also hard to pin him down, which makes it endlessly fascinating.

The first time I stumbled upon the music of Misha Panfilov, his sound resonated immediately—a torrential downpour of mind-expanding rhythms and exquisite melodies hitting my ears. He’s one of the most intriguing artists on the planet right now and one of my favorite musicians, so it was a real pleasure to catch up with Misha and talk about how he got started in music, what goes into his process, who some of his favorite artists are and what he has in store for 2023.

Before we get into your newer work, I’d like to start things off by talking a bit about your background. How did music first enter your life? And what were your early days as a musician, composer and band leader like? 

I formed my first band in the mid 2000s, where I played bass and sang. My music with this band could be defined as something like surf indie rock with a psych twist to it. While being in the group, I debuted writing my own compositions and got my first experience with sound recording. It was fun but hazy. So much so that I don’t remember that period very well.

A lot of your earlier music (at least the stuff that I’ve heard) is in a hard funk style. What got you into playing this type of music? And can you name a few of your influences as a musician and composer when you were starting out playing this style of music? 

At one point, I was madly obsessed with funk and everything related to it. The first bands that really hooked me were Sly & the Family Stone and Demon Fuzz. Later, I discovered the boundless world of James Brown, and then Miles Davis’ albums from his electric period. Since then I’ve discovered a lot of different music, but I’m still deeply committed to soul and funk music.

Let’s talk a bit about one of your bands, the Misha Panfilov Sound Combo. How did this group come about? And how has the group’s style evolved since it first formed? 

Basically, the Sound Combo is my solo project, or let’s say, my imaginary band. I really wanted to put together a team that could play my music, exactly the way I intended it to be. However, because the musicians were hard to find, I recorded everything myself. In the beginning, I even played drums, which I still find hard to believe. Gradually, I got a stable group of musicians who record percussion and wind instruments for me, as well as female vocals.

The first recordings were heavily dominated by funk and so-called “library music.” Starting with the second album, I decided to not limit myself to a specific genre and just make music that comes naturally.

Your 2020 album with the Misha Panfilov Sound Combo, Days As Echoes, was the album that introduced me to your music. It’s such a beautiful album, and one of my favorites to come out in recent years. It also seems to mark a stylistic redirection for both you and the band, taking your music into a warmer, more psychedelic and jazzy direction than your earlier hard funk stuff. I’d love to hear more about this – what was your vision for Days As Echoes

By this time, I had become fascinated with the works of such minimalists as Steve Reich and Terry Riley, and I wanted to incorporate their ideas into my compositions. The result was the album “Days as Echoes.”

I also wanted to touch on Be Worthy, the project you recorded with the late, great soul singer Gloria Ann Taylor. Can you tell me how this project came about and what it was like working with her?

A few years ago I was contacted by Ubiquity Records, who offered me to produce a very unusual project. Gloria Ann Taylor was a great soul singer who released some amazing 45s in the 70s, but never really got famous. Unfortunately, she passed away a few years ago, but shortly before that, she managed to record several demos of her new songs. These recordings fell into the hands of the label, and they offered to make full-fledged compositions from this material. It was not easy, but I think it turned out well. I am sure Gloria would be happy to know that her latest songs have been released and heard by the public.

You’ve also released a few albums in collaboration with producer/multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee. Tell me a bit about how you came to work with him and what your partnership has been like. 

Shawn was and still is my role model – an independent musician who always progresses and constantly releases music. It’s very important that the composer can speak out, capture his statement and move on. I met him a few years ago and we started collaborating almost immediately. He is a fantastic person, bright, energetic, and forever young.

You have another band, Penza Penza, that’s adopted this kind of out-there Zamrock persona that’s more punk rock and pretty different from a lot of the other more mellow, blissed-out music you’re making right now. How did Penza Penza come about and what are you trying to accomplish with this group?

I’m very much inspired by the Stooges and other raw garage bands from all around the world, so I wanted to be able to implement my ideas in this field too. For this purpose, I have the Penza Penza gang. Besides, this is where my love for lo-fi production comes into play in full force.

Let’s dive into a few of the albums you’ve made this year, specifically your solo albums, The Sea Will Outlive Us All and Momentum. Both have been two of my favorite releases of 2022 and I’d love to hear more about each of them. What was your vision for these projects?

Both albums have a repetitiveness that I incorporate into all my latest work. But in fact, these are two different projects. “The Sea Will Outlive Us All” was recorded during the whole year of 2021 and has more of a calming ambient feel to it.  On the contrary, “Momentum” was done in just a couple of weeks and is filled with brass and percussion instruments, and is way more jazzy sounding.

You also released a soundtrack album this year for the animated film Sierra. How did this project come about and how do you approach making soundtrack music?

Working on music for an animation or a film is a unique experience. The director is the key figure, who sets the tone and mood for the music, which plays not a central, but an auxiliary role. Sander Joon, the director, is a prominent representative of the young generation of Estonian animators. He’s an exceptionally talented and hardworking guy, and it was a true joy to be working with him.

Finally, do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like people to know about?

2023 is likely to be just as prolific as this year. I have many things to be finished and released. For instance, a new Miraaž Records’ album, the third LP by Penza Penza, and a record by my new Septet (with Leonid Galaganov, Kino Toshiki, Volodja Brodksy, Monika Erdman, Ilja Gussarov and Sasha Petrov). In terms of musical directions, I plan to delve even deeper into the wilds of patterning and repetitiveness, while mixing it with the aesthetics of folk and country music.

Listen to more music from Misha Panfilov on Bandcamp

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