Austin queer ghoul-pop trio Stretch Panic are preparing to release their debut LP, Glitter & Gore, on February 19th.Views: 163
The group has released a new single, «You Can’t Stay», a bouncy track about breaking up with a demon, that serves as a metaphor for ending a toxic relationship that causes you to feel possessed.
Zombies, vampires, witches, ghosts and other macabre staples — these are the tools that Stretch Panic ultizes for exploring the human condition. Using these beloved Halloween archetypes, this charming three-piece spins haunted tales of characters trapped in nuanced states of emotional limbo. At the band’s core is a tender heart for misunderstood monsters.
That is essentially the through-line of the group’s debut LP, Glitter & Gore. Across 13 hook-heavy, kooky, thematically rich tunes, they exorcise their inner demons while conjuring new ones. Picture 1967’s Mad Monster Party, only with more synth and ghostly harmonies.
«I grew up in a haunted house», says singer and multi-instrumentalist MJ Haha. «That’s why I love ghost stories and spooky stuff so much. Once I made peace with a ghost by singing to it. It was a song about how I knew what it was like to feel lonely and that I knew it felt very alone. Ever since, the house was a much friendlier place».
Haha had been daydreaming of a project performed by ghost-girl characters when local Austin music blog The Nothing Song, (run by beloved talent booker Trish Connelly), sent out an open call for new spooky singles. The band’s current line up – Haha, Jennifer Monsees, and Cassie Baker – had been circling for years as friends and collaborators within the Austin music scene, crystallising as Stretch Panic just in time for Halloween 2016 with their first bedroom recording, «They’re Coming Out For You».
Spurred by the positive reception towards their first release, they accepted their first show offer without having fully written any other songs. Three months later, (in collaboration with songwriter cousins William Riot and Ashley Woodruff), the band finished a collection of campy haunted tunes. Performing their first set, they solidified the colourful take on Halloween that would come to define the group.
«What we all had in common was a love for silly Halloween kitsch», Haha says, «and we’ve incorporated that in every way we’ve dressed the music».
Some tunes are inspired by actual horror films: The atmospheric «Psycho Mama» is a direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the fizzy garage-pop of «Burn the Witch» nods to the imagery of Dario Argento classic Suspiria. But many borrow equally from real life. As Haha puts it: «When Hillary lost in 2016, there were a lot of «nasty woman» slurs being thrown around, and I realised we were still blaming women and figuratively burning them at the stake. Sadly as it goes in the song, ‘This poor martyr can’t stop evil’».
As they developed their sound, they combined influences from previous girl-band giants such as The Shangri Las, The 18.104.22.168’s, and The Slits, with the playful elements of The B-52s, They Might Be Giants, The Sonics, and The Unicorns. Baker’s infectious energy and Monsees’ steady grounding blended with Haha’s theatrical narratives to create their own candy-coated spin on riot grrrl post-punk, ’90s indie-rock and doo-wop. By Halloween season 2017, the trio found themselves touring the United States, promoting their garage-recorded debut EP, «Ghost Coast».
With the world easing into the political turmoil we’ve come to know since 2016, the Panics aimed to create a safe space with their songs, drawing on their love of fantastical stories, campy horror film classics and the surreal animated series Adventure Time. «I wanted to share that feeling of delightful cuteness — but also there’s a message we think is important: it’s a wonderful thing to develop empathy for those you might not understand», says Haha.
Many of their early tracks achieved that goal, marrying poppy melodies with subtly rich storytelling that probes beyond the surface level sonic cartoons. However, the band wasn’t satisfied with the hastily assembled EP; It took a bit more refining — and the musical maturation earned through touring — to hone the more sculpted and cinematic Glitter & Gore.
The album, recorded and mixed by master sound engineer Justin Douglas of King Electric Studios, builds on Ghost Coast’s foundation — revamping many of its songs with cleaner production, tighter vocal harmonies and quirkier arrangements.
«Justin drew out the potential of these songs up to a completely different level», says Haha, «Like in adding a prepared piano to the end of «Burn the Witch» or recording one of our instrumentals in half time so when played at full speed, played incredibly slow and spooky. He transformed each of our songs into the most magical version of itself and it would not sound this fantastic without him».
Baker brought into the recording a brilliant and playful sense of percussive theatre using tools like the flextone and slide whistle, instruments from her percussion show for kids. Meanwhile, Monsees brought her vigilant sense of timing, her careful ear for harmonies, and her emphasis on staying true to the emotional core of the music. William Riot returned with a completely fresh chiptune composition for «I Can’t Help It” and to add his vocal talents. The group tracked the material directly to tape and bounced it to digital, aiming for a creamier, fuzzier sound.
An obvious songwriting centrepiece is «Vampire Love» which decorates a tale of uncertain romance with stacked backing vocals and delectable synth whooshes. «I wanted to write a love song about a girl who didn’t realise her partner was a vampire», Haha says, «but I wanted to use ‘Vampire Love’ as a double-meaning: it’s that nuance of ‘Am I in a toxic relationship?’ and then realising, ‘Oh, I’m actually dating a real vampire’».
Through the cutesy aesthetic and sparkly omnichord tones throughout their tracks, Stretch Panic doesn’t deny the darkness within the human experience. They embrace it, with kazoos and a cathartic energy.
You can dig deeper if you please, but even if you stick with the campy fantasy-horror vibe, Glitter & Gore remains a quirky treasure box of Halloween treats.