Written by Cole Rush- Writer for Oakley Avenue Records
We Are Animal Panic
I sit down with Animal Panic on an overcast day. Rain putters onto the rooftop, flitting down onto the pergola above in fits and starts as if the skies could open and spill sunlight across the city at any moment.
In a way, Animal Panic is like the Chicago weather. They’re not content to stay still. They’re ephemeral. They seek change. They thrive on it. This mindset is evident both in their music and in their demeanor. Frontman Benjamin Fister details his process and musical philosophies with equal parts confidence and humility. Bassist Jack Sullivan adds his own personal flavor to the stories that make Animal Panic who they are. There’s love between them—a clear friendship that yields a rich collaborative spirit.
The band’s third member, drummer Michael Sullivan—Jack’s brother—couldn’t make our meeting, but his influence is apparent. After a party went south, he called Fister and asked for a ride. He recounted the events of the night before—a weed-induced panic attack and a mad dash to escape the watchful eye of looming cops—and said “I fled in an Animal Panic.” The band’s name was born of the harrowing tale.
“We are Animal Panic,” Fister says. “And Animal Panic is a musical act from Chicago, in the simplest sense.”
But I’m not looking for “simple.” And I can tell Fister and Sullivan aren’t content to keep it at that. A pause, then Fister elaborates.
“We’re really trying to push the boundaries of what a band is and bring the scene we come from onto the map.”
Sullivan chimes in, which becomes a common theme. Fister brings an idea to the table, and Sullivan refines it in his own words. The method clearly informs their songwriting process, but we’ll get to that later.
“Everyone always asks us what genre we are,” Sullivan says. “We can’t give a straightforward answer. We don’t want to give a straightforward answer. ‘Indie’ is probably the best umbrella term, but we have a unique style and sound. I think it’s a good thing.”
Fister grew up in a “musical household,” as he puts it. “I started playing cello in fifth grade. Then I started picking up other instruments like guitar and bass.”
When he was a teenager, Fister started to take music more seriously. This led him to fertile ground for burgeoning songwriters and producers: SoundCloud.
“Doing production on your own, making music on a laptop was becoming really popular,” Fister says. “Having a punk attitude about it.”
He then shifts gears to an influence out of left field: “I watched the movie Amadeus and got into classical music. It gave me a passion for songwriting. When I saw the movie, I wanted to be a composer, an artist.”
Sullivan isn’t content to let Fister off so easy. “Not many people know, but Ben was actually a rapper first.” They both laugh. Animal Panic’s sound is decidedly not rap, but the influence of underground hip-hop remains in their projects.
While Fister brings formal training to the table, Sullivan’s musical experience is home-grown. “I didn’t start playing music until about two years ago,” he says. “Ben and Michael needed a bassist. I filled in, but then I started to really like it.”
From there, he naturally became a permanent fixture in the Animal Panic line-up.
I ask Jack what it’s like to play music with his brother. He starts with a sly smile, then turns the diplomacy to 11. “We fight sometimes,” he says coyly.
Fister interjects: “It’s brother shit. We all clash sometimes.”
These squabbles rarely last long, they assure me. Animal Panic operates on strong foundational chemistry.
The bedrock of Animal Panic’s creative ethos is freedom. They don’t want to be tied down.
Is genre a useful idea for them as a band?
Fister responds with an emphatic no. “We have tons of songs that are yet to be released, and five or seven songs out now. Each has its own identity. You can probably tell that some were written around the same time, but we’re touch and go.”
Animal Panic follows their musical instincts, happier to explore the pathways that open up ahead of them instead of playing to the gallery.
“Look at Queen,” Fister says. “They have their own sound, but they play with so many different flavors.”
The band’s unique makeup helps them capture the magic time and again through a delicate balance of formal training and self-teaching.
“My biggest eureka moments and breakthroughs happen when I’m exploring things on my own, fiddling, recreating ideas I’ve heard and thinking about how I could tweak it,” Fister says.
Sullivan, meanwhile, has no formal training. “I look up YouTube videos. The most formal training I have is when Ben tries to teach me a scale. I rarely retain any of it, but I try for him.”
That dedication is due in part because of Fister’s creativity as a bandleader.
“Ben is an amazing songwriter,” Sullivan continues. “The lyrics of our songs are impactful. They’re thoughtful.” He turns to Fister here and speaks directly to his bandmate: “You have a way with words.”
For Fister, music and lyrics function as two distinct processes.
“I’m constantly writing down thoughts,” he says, “But the song starts around the music. It feels like I’m borrowing ideas from the universe.”
Fister struggles to articulate his process here, perhaps because it’s undefinable. “It can come in five to ten minutes,” he says. “It’s almost instantaneous.”
However, finding those epiphanies isn’t easy. “Inspiration needs to be chased. You’re hunting for the perfect combination. I’ll hum a melody over some music, then over time work out the lyrics and revise them. I’ll jumble the words around and try to make them the freshest they can be. Ultimately, I want it to be a very zeitgeist process.”
Animal Panic has evolved to encompass creative input from all of its members, though.
“We’re getting to a space where we all put in our own ideas; it’s a more collaborative process now,” Fister says. The band’s latest release—”Live, Laugh, Loathe”—is the product of creative input from all three corners of the group.
“We just jammed,” Sullivan says. “The song came out in a jam. It started as improv, then it all clicked.”
Engaging the Fanimals
In their relatively short time on the scene, Animal Panic has managed to drum up a loyal following. The “Fanimals,” as they call them, are a dedicated bunch. The band owes this to their own hard work and performative spirit. They’ve played their fair share of local dives and venues, but it takes more than a few shows to bring people into the Fanimal fold.
Both Fister and Sullivan light up when they recount a game-changing show for the band.
“No venues would take us,” Fister says, setting the stage. “We set up instruments in our apartment, and it was packed. So many people came to see us, just from social media buzz and word of mouth. We were playing in a classic Chicago Brownstone. The windows were open, and people were climbing in from the streets.”
Sullivan remembers his brother playing the drums and feeling a tap on his shoulder. “People were crawling through, clamoring to get in.”
Animal Panic has played plenty of Chicago staples: Subterranean, Beat Kitchen, and others. Both Sullivan and Fister cite the Metro as a dream venue.
The band takes pride in its stage presence. Fister says: “Every show we’ve played, people come up to us and say it was spectacular. Everyone in the group should be proud of that. One time, we played Subterranean and someone had come from Minnesota just to see us. It was surreal.”
The Chicago music scene provides fertile soil for Animal Panic’s growth, but that;’s not without its challenges.
“We don’t fit in everywhere,” Fister says. “We might not be punk enough for the punk crowd. Not DIY enough for the indie scene. But we thrive on bills where every act is different.”
Sullivan lets the band’s differences fuel their creative energy and fight for an audience.
“Our next show will be on a nice rooftop,” he says. “We’ve got some guests joining us; it’ll be intimate. We love playing at standard Chicago venues, but this type of show is great to engage our audience, too.”
Subverting the machine
Animal Panic lives up to the name. They seek organic growth, a real connection with their audience. Their approach requires a delicate balance: use the resources available without getting caught up in the madness.
“The landscape of how people consume and discover music is changing,” Fister says.
In particular, TikTok has become a force in the music world, for better or worse. “It’s not horizontal, it’s portrait,” Sullivan says. “You’ve got to make unique videos, but you don’t want to fall into the trap too much.”
In other words, the focus has to be on the music, and social media has to be a promotional tool instead of a full-time gig that siphons creative energy.
Fister says things have to be natural online. “Lean into your instincts. People can tell when your content is manufactured.”
“We’ve played to the masses a few times,” Fister says, “But in general, the things that prosper are the polar opposite of what you think you should do.”
Live, Laugh, Loathe
Animal Panic’s creative spirit is amply apparent in the band’s new single: “Live, Laugh, Loathe.” Toeing the line between punk, rock, and indie as always, the song represents the trio at their creative best. You can listen to the single on streaming platforms now, and check out Oakley Avenue Records for more on Animal Panic.
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