Biting Pandas

Mr. Pretty Guitar ate his spinach. Now he will kick your ass.

It's 6 p.m. at Dungeon Studios in North Miami, and, as Wire once said, there's something strange going on here tonight. A shock wave of catchy, heavier-than-lead, industrial guitar is blasting from one cinderblock bunker. It's the kind of thrash-core that's allowed sloppy punk rockers to drink for free all over the world for years. It's tough -- music to kick someone's ass to. It's hard to fathom how Juan Montoya -- the diminutive 10-year veteran of tech/emo bands Pontius Pilot, Ed Matus' Struggle, and Disconnect -- could be the man responsible for it. How can this master of pretty melodies, octave-rich chords, and luscious harmonics possibly be behind this angry jagged wall of sound titled "Blood for Metal"?

"I've always had it in me," Montoya shrugs beneath his overgrown mop top, as Panda Bite, his new band responsible for this racket, takes a beer break. "But the people I played with weren't into harder-edged music." One look at his bandmates in Panda Bite -- the heavily tattooed Nick Ellis (drums) and demonically happy-go-lucky Ivan Alonso (bass) -- is proof positive that Montoya's new is right for the job. "We listen to Venom Live '85and some mad Celtic Frost," Alonso, 20, gleefully offers over a Michelob Ultra. "I've been into metal since I was seven years old!"

Exposure to satanic metal in the first grade could be construed as child abuse. Alonso's elementary head-banging history is shared by Montoya, 31, who fell for KISS as a small child -- so hard he continued to play with his KISS dolls well into his twenties. His membership in the KISS army inspired him to pick up the guitar at age 12. By 15 he was in Genetic Mistake, a teenybopper hardcore band that regularly played the Cameo Theater in Miami Beach. The Cameo's crossover hardcore scene exposed Montoya to such bands as Voivod, DRI, and Slayer. When Montoya wasn't at the Cameo, he locked himself in his room and practiced like a madman, training both hands and ears. When the door opened, a stream of neighborhood kids entered to gawk over Montoya's uncanny ability to play almost any song upon request. But he kept a secret: "I was a secret pop fan in junior high," he confesses. "I loved Cyndi Lauper and Wang Chung. But I would've gotten my ass kicked if I admitted it.'

Café Tacuba shares a laugh
Café Tacuba shares a laugh

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Both Montoya's pop sensibility and his hormonal urge to rage were satisfied when a girlfriend hipped him to Sonic Youth in 12th grade. The next year, he traveled to Orlando to see Dinosaur Jr. and had his mind melted by British shoegazing legend My Bloody Valentine, which opened the show. "It was like watching a storm pass by," he recalls. "There would be thunder and lightning, and suddenly there was tranquility."

Montoya hurried home to start Pontius Pilot with Ron Sass on bass, high school percussion prodigy Robert Lecusay, and singer Eric B. Pontius Pilot's revved-up Sonic Youth and MBV licks were quickly pigeonholed by the local scene as emo. The branding helped the band fit in with the local punk scene well enough to get gigs opening for Green Day and Fugazi, but it confused Montoya. "We were into Dead Can Dance, but everyone associated us with the DC scene. Then some other bands down here started doing what we did. After they caught up to us, it became emo."

During a decade-long flirtation with his feminine side, Montoya still found time to rock out. In 1997, he began a yearlong stint with South Florida sludge-metal outfit Cavity -- during which he traveled to San Francisco and recorded eight songs on the band's debut CD, Drowning. When he got home from California, he introduced meaner material to his mates (including Lecusay) in Ed Matus' Struggle. "They said it was too rock," Montoya complains. "I loved them like brothers, but they didn't share the same vision." Save for a brief East Coast tour in 1996, the band rarely hit the road due to school and work obligations.

In 2001, Ed Matus' Struggle (which had become Disconnect) finally gave up the ghost, and Montoya retreated to his Overtown apartment to shed wood. His new material reflected both his love for the Melvins and the Misfits, but he couldn't find the right players to work with. A year of frustration later, he decided to hit the stage by himself, as a one-man wall of noise called Panda Bite. The challenge proved to be just what the doctor ordered. "It's harder to get people's attention when you're up there by yourself." He explains. "But if I can shake the room with noise, that's good enough."

The next year, Montoya moved to Fort Lauderdale, got a job at Guitar Center in Hallandale Beach, and quickly recruited his coworkers Ellis and Alonso, along with Symbiance guitarist Brett Flaherty. Montoya presented the new group with a raw demo on which he accompanied his guitar riffs with banging on a suitcase. That intrigued them, and they soon took advantage of Guitar Center's resources. "Juan would show us stuff at the store and we'd jam," Alonso recalls. After one auspicious coffee break rock-out, Montoya convinced his new rhythm section to moonlight from their other bands (Ellis pounds the skins for angry indie rockers Sayonara Tokyo; Alonso plays with funk-metallers Devinim) to make Panda Bite a formidable trio of terror.

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