Moving Panoramas frontwoman Leslie Sisson recounts the true-crime horror that led to the female trio's transportive debut
By Leslie Sisson, Fri., Sept. 25, 2015
Leslie Sisson's house sits less than 100 yards from mine. We didn't know we were neighbors until this summer. It's from her home that she and her boyfriend were kidnapped at gunpoint in 2011.
"It wasn't the fault of the neighborhood, just a random thing," she says, almost convincing me.
A carload of gang members from Galveston had been stopped by police nearby, not far from an I-35 access road motel where they were staying. Sisson points to the front room window that once housed an AC unit where the one who escaped on foot got into the house around 4:30am that rainy December morning. She says her partner found him crouched by the door waiting for someone to either enter the house or come out from one of the two back bedrooms. A rash of car break-ins on her block the night before might have been the work of the crew.
Today, central air and heat regulates temperatures inside, and an alarm system sign sticks up from the ground outside the front door. Sitting where her mother died of a drug overdose that same year, in a living room bright with animal decor and mouthwatering thrift store finds you might find hanging on the wall in a Mad Men episode, the Moving Panoramas frontwoman describes the PTSD she suffered after the incident and still today. The few feet to the carport were once a terrifying negotiation, and she describes a branch falling outside one day causing her to cower under the kitchen table.
"SIMS saved my life," she says, lauding the local mental health nonprofit for musicians.
"Believe," the second to last song on the female trio's debut, One – dreamy pop readymade for famed UK label brand 4AD – was written a week after the events the singer/songwriter/guitarist details herein. Its aquatic, Best Coast-like ebb ("Try to lock the windows tight") belies her forthright self-possessedness. She admits to being "super shy" before her Roller Derby career, but her warmth and personability betray no introversion. Even so, Leslie Sisson nods soberly at the horror her story elicits.
"Eventually, I have to get out of this house," she admits. – Raoul Hernandez
I was born and raised in Dallas, primarily in the suburb of Duncanville, the same place where Elliott Smith spent most of his youth before moving to Portland to live with his dad as a teenager. Strangely, we had similarities in that suburb, both children of divorce at a very young age, him with an abusive stepfather, my mom with an abusive, alcoholic boyfriend. There weren't a lot of musicians around when I was growing up except for my father, who I too eventually moved in with as a teenager, but that's where Smith began writing music, and I began the same.
After high school, I moved to Denton to study music at UNT, but thanks to film electives, I fell for moving pictures. I relocated to Austin to finish my degree in filmmaking and followed that with a master's in video art, both from UT. While in grad school, I received a fellowship and bought a house in the North Loop area, which was pricey because it's considered a safe neighborhood.
After college, I moved to New York City for work in film production. I'd joined Roller Derby during its early rebirth in Austin with the Texas Rollergirls, so I helped get the New York Gotham Girls league off the ground, skating under the moniker Rolletta Lynn. I was even featured in The New York Times thanks to it, but the busier it got, the more time it took away from playing music, so I retired.
While still living in Brooklyn, I began playing in an Austin-based band, the Wooden Birds, with my longtime friend Andrew Kenny of the American Analog Set and Matt Pond of Matt Pond PA. I toured in the latter's band as well. Things were looking up for the Birds, and Kenny, who's like a brother to me, suggested I work on my own music between tours.
In March 2011, I came to Austin for a month to record my solo album, Harmony, with Louie Lino at Resonate Music. My mom was renting my house at the time. That month, I played a number of shows at South by Southwest, both solo and with the Wooden Birds, my mom front and center at most of them. I finished recording that month, toasted Champagne with the Wooden Birds, hugged my mom goodbye while exchanging loving words of how proud we were of each other, and took a flight back to NYC.
When the plane touched down in Atlanta for connecting flights – still taxiing on the runway – my father called to tell me my mom had died while I had been in the air. If hearing such news trapped on a plane and in tears wasn't bad enough, the real hell was yet to come. I later found out my mom died of an overdose.
The Wooden Birds were scheduled to tour that summer for our second LP, Two Matchsticks (revisit "Free as a Bird," Aug. 12, 2011). I was between freelance video-editing jobs in New York and decided to stay in Austin to be closer to my family and the band. After the Birds finished touring, Kenny took a break from the road that turned into an indefinite hiatus.
My solo disc that fall prompted a supporting slot with Tapes 'n Tapes on some dates. The teaming ended in Austin at the brand-new Emo's on Riverside. For the shows, I hired a bass player from the Midwest, and soon after he moved to Austin. We began dating.
A few months into our relationship, December 2011 – in the same house where my mother had recently passed – my new boyfriend and I were awakened just before dawn by someone breaking into the house through an AC window unit. The intruder, fleeing the police through my neighborhood, sought to hide and get out of the rain. He threatened our lives, forced us to take pills at gunpoint, robbed us, and finally kidnapped us in my boyfriend's car.
Believe it or not, I was sympathetic to him because he appeared to be a drug addict, something I'd seen firsthand with my brother, then serving time in prison due to drugs, and my mother, who had been a recovering addict. Due to my sincerity, the intruder made it clear that once we were out of the house, he wanted to find a motel and have his way with me. He commented on my body, asked about my sexual past, tried to get me to kiss him, and held me way too closely with a gun to my head while he directed my boyfriend to gather things to steal.
We both felt certain we were going to die.
Once in the car, my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in and I started to strategize an escape, which I credit to years of Roller Derby. As a jammer, my job was to "find the hole" and "visualize an out." Simply jumping out of the car wasn't an option because the kidnapper was sitting behind me in the passenger backseat with a gun to my back while my boyfriend was driving. If I fled, the kidnapper, who was a tall, fit, African-American man, could easily shoot my boyfriend and outrun me.
That morning, we stopped at a gas station along I-35 off the St. Johns exit to get supplies for our "long drive ahead," and to get money from the ATM. While my boyfriend was inside, the kidnapper started panicking that he was calling the cops. Whatever all three of us had taken appeared to be kicking in, so I knew I had to make a move soon.
My brain tried telling my hand to open the car door and run, but my motor functions were slowing and any move I made startled the kidnapper. I even recall trying to mouth the words "help" to a man in a truck parked across from us. I tried talking the kidnapper into letting us go, but he said he was too messed up to drive and wanted to take me with him. He decided to ditch my boyfriend and told me to climb into the driver's seat to drive.
This was my "out."
As I crawled over the console into the driver's seat, I glanced over my shoulder to see if the gun was pointed at me. It wasn't. In one swift move, as I reached for the steering wheel, I instead opened the driver's side door, jumped out, and ran full speed toward the gas station just as my boyfriend exited. In what felt like slow motion, he threw the bags he was carrying in the air, and we ran down the street to another gas station. While the attendant called the police, we locked ourselves in an office and stared anxiously out the window as I vomited everywhere.
When the police arrived, they didn't believe our story at first. I didn't care. I was just glad to be safe. The paramedics found my heart rate abnormally high, so they took me to the ER. I have a mild heart murmur.
The hospital gave me something to counteract the drug, which they discovered was PCP. I was told I would have eventually gone into cardiac arrest, and recall the ER doctor saying how ironic it was this happened to me in Austin and not in NYC. Once released, we stayed in Dallas with my father. The kidnapper was apprehended a week later.
A month later, New Year's Day, my good friend Esme Barrera – a guest on Harmony earlier that year – also fell victim to a home invasion in Central Austin. The outcome was far worse. Her violent, senseless death shook me further.
Weeks after that, a former roommate heard about my kidnapping and proceeded to stalk me, threatening my life via social media. The police intervened. He too was a drug abuser suffering from delusions and became obsessed, thinking I was writing songs about him.
As if things couldn't have gotten any worse, the police informed me the kidnapper had been charged with murder and was being moved to another city on those charges. A few weeks before our episode, he allegedly broke into someone else's home and killed a man and his teenage daughter. He's still awaiting trial for capital murder.
For the next year, I suffered intense PTSD. Leaving the house was difficult even though it was the same one from which I was kidnapped and in which my mom died. Only my part-time job teaching music to kids after school at Austin's School of Rock got me out.
I didn't feel safe anywhere, not at work, not at home, not at my dad's, not even at friends' houses. At least at the school, playing music every day and giving something back to the kids helped ease the anxieties and fear that were causing me nightmares and debilitating my everyday "normalcy."
The relationship between my boyfriend and I didn't last, but we remained bandmates for a bit and are still friends today. Although I was playing daily at the school, my music endeavors at that point also suffered from the trauma, and I never got to follow through with releasing my solo record on a proper label. I was writing songs like crazy though.
Mentoring a student from the school, Rozie Castoe, I wanted to include her in my next project as a way to demonstrate the efficacy of songwriting as a creative outlet. That's how I learned. I could tell she needed it.
I was offered freelance editing work in NYC the following year, 2013, during which time I was bouncing back and forth between Austin and Brooklyn for work and music. I realized I felt much safer in my neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, than I did in my Austin house.
Nevertheless, late that year, Rozie and I entered Louie Lino's studio to work the songs I'd been writing into an EP. I called a longtime friend to play drums, Karen Skloss, a former bandmate and UT film classmate. We began performing in Austin, our live debut falling on Valentine's Day 2014. The city gave the band more love than expected, so I decided to move back full time.
Originally, we were billed as the Panoramas, but became the Moving Panoramas after being contacted by an Eighties French band of the same moniker. The frontman wrote to inform us the name was owned by a larger label. He liked our music and offered to help us play in France someday.
The EP eventually turned into 10 songs and after nearly two years of on-and-off recording, our debut LP, One, will finally be released on Modern Outsider Records on October 2. The songs are about my recent journey.
Time heals if you can tough it out – bear down, wait it out, be patient – and ease the senses with music, writing, photography, walking, running, skating, biking, swimming, hiking, dancing, yoga, meditating, cooking, cleaning, gardening, singing, talking, laughing, loving, hugging, texting, calling a parent, getting a pet, and reaching out to a therapist. Anything besides reaching for the bottle or a vice or giving up, which I nearly did.
I have a hard time hearing these words sometimes, especially recently, but One is a direct result of that from beginning to end. Hopefully it helps too.
Moving Panoramas' CD and vinyl release show is Saturday, Sept. 26, at Cheer Up Charlies, 11pm, with Telepods (10pm) and Benjamin Cissner (9pm). "Freeeee!!!"