Each origin story surrounding a stellar band has its mystifying elements. In the case of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, their mantra has remained consistent from their first jam session: stay together and make each other proud. This reggae-rock band rooted in the heart of Rochester, New York, has single-handedly proven the power that music has to create transformative experiences. James Searl (bassist/vocalist) and Chris O’Brian (drummer/vocalist) are lifelong friends, and the two of them bonded early on over their love of African-influenced reggae music. Growing up in Brighton, a small suburb near the downtown area, James and Chris were both connected to older musicians in the Rochester reggae scene in different ways. James had been taking lessons from the acclaimed guitar teacher Tony Cavannaro, and soon learned about the skillful playing of Dylan Savage (guitar). Dylan had only recently moved to Rochester from Puerto Rico in 1992, but he had already established himself as a key player in the local music scene. At the time, Dylan worked at the gas station behind the Brighton Middle School, and the two aspiring musicians would make it a habit to walk over and listen to him play on a regular basis. James explains that “we grew up knowing two things about the music scene in Rochester: the older people were playing original music and specifically, reggae African-inspired music. We didn’t know all of the details or even where it all came from, but we knew that it was the vibe.”
In 2001, the duo graduated high school, and James went off to Ithaca College. Despite this transition, he made frequent trips back to Rochester to play gigs with Chris and his brother Matt O’Brian. James and Chris were traveling across the East Coast to play with fellow reggae group Mountain Mojo Authority, and everything seemed to be lining up for the young musicians. However, not too long after their graduation, the friend group faced a difficult series of events in an incredibly short span of time. Chris and Matt’s father passed away, one of their closest friends committed suicide, and 9/11 hit the nation. James reflects on the rapid series of events and states that “At nineteen years old, I had an epiphany. I remember thinking to myself, ‘You thought this was a lot of fun, didn’t you? Well, the time to be a child is over.’ It made us prioritize what we truly found to be important.” After experiencing these losses, the companions came together and decided that they had to make a commitment to music. James shares that “we wanted to use the pieces of reggae that inspired us to talk about the things that were affecting our lives,” and so the trio decided to book their first official gig. Before the performance, they paired up with Dylan to complete the group and reached out to Castaways, a medium-sized venue in Ithaca. Performing under the name Bomb Squad, the newly formed reggae outfit had little idea that these defining moments would play such a crucial role in their lives, and act as the foundation for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad.