Sounds Like Teen Spirit

Panda and Please Quiet Ourselves prove that the music industry is not just for grown-ups anymore.

John Murphy will never forget meeting the boys of Panda. It was 2005, and he was working the soundboard at the now-defunct all-ages venue iMusicast. Already jaded from six months of uninspiring local and touring acts, Murphy didn’t expect much from the five timid fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds he’d seen in the audience at earlier shows by the Matches, Solemite, and his old band, the K.G.B. On this night, Panda was playing its first official gig as the opening act for LA’s Suburban Legends. The young musicians wore jeans and white T-shirts that didn’t quite fit, and carried a mismatched array of gear. Murphy recalls thinking: “They’re so cute. There’s little kids on stage. I wonder what this is gonna be like.”

He was hardly prepared for what would become one of the defining moments of his two years at the venue. Although the group’s immobile stage presence left much to be desired, its sound was something else. “They start into their first songs, and I was just blown away,” he says. “I was working with lots of people twice their age, and they had nothing on Panda. It floored me. I was like, ‘Oh my god, these guys are amazing.'” After the show, he told them as much: “You’re the best band I’ve seen since I started working here.” Panda shared some of their pizza, and a friendship was born. Now Murphy is helping the recent Piedmont High grads make the most important record of their lives.

During its first four years of existence, Panda progressed from a rambling garage band to a focused act with professional aspirations and a reasonable shot at success. By its senior year, the band was mingling with the upper class of the local indie rock scene, landing gigs at venues such as Cafe du Nord and Slim’s, and becoming recognized as one of the Bay Area’s hottest up-and-coming bands. Twice it placed in the top five among hundreds of local groups vying for slots at massive concerts sponsored by San Francisco radio station Live 105.

Panda took another leap forward last March when it traveled to Austin, Texas to perform at the South by Southwest festival, the weeklong March Madness of the indie music world. Panda was one of only a handful of groups invited to play an official Bay Area showcase. The band’s future looked bright, and momentum was on its side. “Senior year was the shit,” said drummer Louie Diller. “I had a hot-ass girlfriend, I had a hot-ass band. You’re playing in this kick-ass band, and everyone knows who you are.”

Then the demands of higher education intervened — and with them, the wishes of members’ parents. After much drama and debate, late last summer all five members shipped off to college. Singer Petros Anastos-Prastacos and guitarist Jonny Flannes went to UC Santa Cruz, keyboardist Joey Orton to USC, bassist Garet Leidy to UC Davis, and Louie all the way across the country to George Washington University. They left behind an unfinished debut album, unanswered questions within the band, and a cast of followers waiting to hear what — if anything — would come next. Now, eight months later, the band is picking up where it left off.

In an earlier era, the success of a young band like Panda would have hinged on the connections, finances, or unfulfilled desires of their parents. Images of overbearing stage moms, business-minded dads lobbying for attention from industry insiders, and vicarious living through unwitting children tend to frame our perception of high-profile teenage performers.

There’s a reason for this: notoriously overbearing parents have been the driving force behind teen idols from the Jackson Five to the Simpson sisters. Even the Beach Boys siblings — Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson — were shaped by their demanding father Murry. Pop music products from the Monkees to New Kids on the Block to the Backstreet Boys were fabricated by talent agents and producers to target the teen demographic. More recent phenomena such as Hannah Montana, Hillary Duff, and the Jonas Brothers fit the same mold: manufactured, groomed, and polished performers with corporate cash and hard-working adults behind them.

Panda’s rise is based on a different set of variables. Sure, the kids were fortunate enough to have supportive parents able to spring for instruments and pricey music lessons. But it was Panda’s talent and drive, albeit aided by recording trends that have allowed musicians of all ages to take their careers into their own hands, that got the group where it is today.

Remarkably, another East Bay band is not far behind. Berkeley’s Please Quiet Ourselves, comprised of seven affable Berkeley High School sophomores and juniors, is on track to outpace even Panda’s rapid progress. The group just returned from its own trip to South by Southwest, is already signed to a label, and released its debut full-length last November. This is an impressive résumé for any band with only a couple years under its belt, but it’s near astonishing for one whose members are only seventeen, sixteen, or — in the case of the band’s frontman and primary songwriter — fifteen.

They too have accomplished it all with little formal help from their parents. “I’m trying to let him have his space because they’re teenagers and they don’t want parents involved,” said Jane Dulai, mother of Jojo Brandel, the band’s founding wunderkind.

Members of both bands have fought to remain as independent as possible, favoring self-reliance over their parents’ innate desire to help out. “It’s the only activity that you can do that’s uncontrolled by parents,” said Panda guitarist Jonny Flannes. “In a band, you make the rules, and there’s a lot of liberty in that.”

On this point there is consensus between the generations. “It’s his playing field, and he’s calling the shots, and if he needs anything, he just needs to talk about it,” said Petros’ mother Jane Anastos. Mel Lyons, father of Please Quiet Ourselves drummer Eli Lyons, agrees: “I let them have their fun, trying to keep off it, and let him share what he wanted to.”

A convergence of factors including increasingly accessible technology, a decentralized music industry, and the availability of local kid-friendly musical venues has allowed these young musicians to write, rehearse, perform, record, distribute, and market their work almost entirely on their own. Backed by rare talent, tireless drive, and the unconditional yet passive support of their parents, they’ve already accomplished something extraordinary — regardless of what the future holds.

For Please Quiet Ourselves, it all started back in elementary school, when Jojo, classmate Haran Stern, and some other friends had what Jojo calls “a weird idea to start a band.” Then in eighth grade, he wrote and recorded a song named “Color Chart” for a school project. A simple, short pop ditty about colors (What about orange makes it so damn special?), it inspired him to found Please Quiet Ourselves as a vehicle for similar material, and appropriately kicks off the band’s first CD.

“Music’s my only thing,” Jojo says. He’s not kidding, either: Every night after school he’ll spend as many as five hours in his room playing guitar, working on new songs, and recording on his four-track reel-to-reel. “It’s not like I think about it every day, it just kinda happens,” he says. “I’ll just play music for a long time.”

On a sunny February afternoon, in guitarist Adam Becker’s basement, five of the band’s seven members are gathered for one of their infrequent, informal practices. The room that has been the band’s rehearsal home for nearly a year is cramped with instruments and equipment, and amps have become chairs. Braces, acne, and nascent facial hair, along with the beverages of choice — water and Hansen’s juice — leave no question as to their age. The music, however, is another story.

The band runs through a punked-up version of “Color Chart,” and though it’s been weeks since they last played together, their chemistry is inescapable. They watch each other casually as they play, looking for cues to stay in sync while keeping the corner of an eye on Jojo. But this comes across as a mere formality; the young musicians don’t seem to be playing the song so much as allowing it to flow through them in unison.

Next the band launches into a cover of the 1997 Modest Mouse song “Trailer Trash,” which incidentally contains the line “Goddamn I hope I can pass, high school means nothing.” Avowed Modest Mouse fans all, they learned to play the song a couple days before debuting it at a showcase in Davis. They nailed it, and do it more than justice even in today’s laidback rendition. Jenn De La Vega, owner of the band’s Davis-based label, Mushpot Records, says she’s been trying to get the band to record the song. For now they’re content to keep it casual.

This is, after all, Please Quiet Ourselves’ style. What’s most notable about the rehearsal is their easygoing nature and confidently loose performing style. They don’t spend much time fussing and are content to play all the way through a song without critique. Their technical abilities are beyond adequate for the straightforward demands of their songs, even when Max Burstein, the greenest musician in the group, has trouble remembering the melodica part for the band’s best number, the Arcade Fire-esque “The Light.” “I can’t play music; this thing pretty much plays itself,” he says, adding that his instrument seems perpetually out of tune. No matter. This spontaneity lends the band’s music a playful scrappiness that translates to irresistible charm.

It’s also precisely why De La Vega signed them, she says. “I’m drawn to very lo-fi recordings and things that are do-it-yourself.” In fact, she’s found the majority of her fifteen bands through MySpace. Though Please Quiet Ourselves has had a page up to network, announce show dates, and share music with fans since December of 2005, it was discovered the old-fashioned way. In 2006, when De La Vega was music director at the UC Davis radio station, KDVS, Jojo’s cousin Elisa passed along a demo. “I finally got to it, and it was very rough,” De La Vega recalled. “They recorded it on an iMac. It was messy and I really liked it.”

When she first made contact with Jojo, she knew from his cousin only that he attended school in Berkeley. “I asked him, ‘So, what are you studying at Berkeley?’ Jojo said, ‘I don’t know if Alisa told you, but we’re in high school.'” Surprised but undeterred, she signed the band to her fledgling label and commissioned an album for a 500-copy pressing. “I idolize them sometimes,” she said, “because I didn’t get to do that stuff when I was their age.”

As Please Quiet Ourselves soon discovered, being assigned an album isn’t quite as easy as creating one. “I was thinking about it the entire year. It was like, ‘Apparently I’m gonna make a record, and I don’t know what that means,'” Jojo mused. As his deadline drew near, Jojo skipped a family vacation to Europe so he could stay home and work on songs.

The band’s sound is a product of unique tastes. Typically identified as indie-pop, it takes a deliberately ramshackle approach to accessibility. The aesthetic was inspired by bands most of their high school peers wouldn’t recognize — indie heroes such as Broken Social Scene, Belle and Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel, Built to Spill, and Pavement. The members of Please Quiet Ourselves came to these groups largely independent of one another and consciously steered the band in the direction of their shared taste. “We always knew we didn’t want to be the stereotypical high school band just doing sloppy rock,” Max said. “It was always like, ‘Let’s try and do our own thing and use our indie-pop influence to do something other high school bands wouldn’t do.'”

Once this afternoon’s rehearsal peters out — and an awkward moment involving Adam’s dad poking his head in the room has passed — the members take to reminiscing cheerily about their eleventh-hour approach to recording. Only a few of the twelve songs Jojo originally planned for the album actually made it, not because they weren’t as good but because they weren’t as new. The lyrics to “Mystery Girl,” the final song on the CD, were completed on the very day they were to be recorded — in the car, on the ride to the studio. Even the album art was happenstance. At 2 a.m. the night before it was due, Jojo took a picture of his living room, where the band had rehearsed for two years before moving to Adam’s, and slapped it on the front cover. “We are a last-minute kind of band, but for some reason we always seem to pull it off really well,” Max says proudly. “Until it stops working, we’re probably going to keep doing it that way.”

Panda, meanwhile, knows that if it is to survive after high school, a more concerted effort will be needed. Not that it has been dormant since August; Petros and Jonny, who live in the same dorm room and take all the same classes, have driven up to Oakland almost every weekend to work on the band’s forthcoming full-length debut. “Gotta party on the weekdays,” Jonny quips.

The album, coming late in the game as it is, is potentially make-or-break. To get it done, the band is recording at Skyline Studios and John Murphy’s home while mixing at Studio 880. That is where, on a rainy Saturday in February, Petros and Jonny are holed up in a six-by-twelve-foot booth equipped with a Mac computer, a set of speakers, and not much else, taking small steps toward completing the record they’ve been working on for more than a year. Today they have the place to themselves, but local luminaries including Lyrics Born and the members of Zion-I and Green Day frequently pass through the front doors. The brush with fame, they say, is inspiration to do their best work.

Petros and Jonny are joined as always by John Murphy, aka Johnny Genius, who plays guitar for Oakland pop-rock band Maldroid, has extensive studio experience with local bands, and is recording, producing, and mixing most of the tracks on Panda’s album. Today will be filled with the arduous minutiae of the recording process. A printed-out to-do list for the day contains items like “fix riff rhythm,” “crop vocals,” “piano hits during verse (high/low register),” and “replace ‘Oh yeah’ with ‘Oh.'”

Murphy, who works well with Petros and Jonny, wasn’t the only one who wanted to help them make an album. Back in high school, the members of Panda considered contracts with local artist development companies such as Talking House Productions and TakeRoot Records. At one point they even sat down with representatives of Capitol Records. In the end, with their parents’ blessing, they opted to produce the album with their own money, making them beholden to nobody during the recording process and able to retain rights to their work.

With the proliferation of digital recording and editing, it’s far cheaper to make an album today than it was a decade ago. It’s also possible to transcend the limitation of physical proximity. Panda produced its first demo on home computers using $80 GarageBand software, and for its new album has relied on Louie to compose new drum parts in the program and e-mail them back to Oakland.

But quality recordings are still expensive, often prohibitively so, for kids trying to do it on their own. The mixing booth Panda rents at Studio 880 costs about $600 a month, and Murphy estimates that when all is said and done the group will have paid him about $3,000 for his work. “We basically took all the money we had and we’re putting it toward the album,” said keyboardist Joey. “With this new release, we’re trying to get as close as we can to sounding like any other hit on the radio.”

Once the smaller details have been tackled, the focus of this afternoon’s work falls on Jonny’s shoulders: he must lay down the guitar solo for a new song called “What Can I Do.” Murphy beckons him to the captain’s chair. “Now I’m getting nervous,” Jonny says as he slides in front of the computer. But within minutes he looks as comfortable as a pro, deftly recording each successive take as he parses out his solo. First locating the correct position in the song using the ProTools software interface — a left-to-right scrolling stack of colored waveforms, each representing a different track — Jonny hits Record, waits for his cue, and starts playing. This continues for over an hour as he tries to pin down the perfect solo, even though the part is only thirty seconds long and just one of many going on the album.

When he’s satisfied with his progress, talk turns away from music. Peppering his speech with hand-slaps and salutations like “my man,” Petros slyly confesses to skipping out on studying for a test to see his girlfriend, who is home this weekend from school in Rhode Island. Jonny’s got girl problems of his own, soliciting advice on how best to reply to a certain touchy text message. Beyond this, their only concern is where to find a decent burrito for dinner.

Headlining at Bottom of the Hill two weeks later, Panda has a chance to show how far it has come. This is the group’s first post-high-school show not during a college break, which means in a sense that it’s Panda’s first professional concert. Louie couldn’t make it back from George Washington University, and few of Panda’s usual fans and former classmates are here tonight. Even so, most of the 150 or so people in the audience wear black underage X’s on the backs of their hands like marks of teen pride. As always, the parents of the band’s members are present too, trying to remain inconspicuous at the back of the club.

The young audience occupies only about half of the club’s capacity, but imbues the small room with as much energy as a sold-out show. Panda is greeted with uproarious applause when it appears on stage, and halfway through the first song a big group of fans up front starts moshing, although the upbeat pop-rock number hardly warrants it. Bunched up against the stage in a writhing half-circle, the kids fight to stay as close as they can.

Girls scream and shriek relentlessly during breaks between songs, which are often filled with meandering banter from Petros, who seems to relish his time at the mic. A pair of admirers stares up at him and Jonny and debates who they like more, the singer or the guitarist. At a quiet moment, one girl in front shouts “Marry me!”

It may be a stretch to say Panda is received like Oakland’s own Beatles, but the Fab Four are in fact a heavy influence on Panda’s sound. The deceptively simple pop, romantic but artful lyrics, and arresting melodies of Panda’s best songs all have parallels in the oeuvre of the Beatles, particularly their early years. Though this style isn’t in vogue in the United States at the moment, John Murphy sees it as an advantage abroad: “You take that band to Europe, you take that band to Japan, they’re gonna freak out over them,” he said. “There’s a whole Beatles emergence scene in Japan right now. So I think their type of music could be big over there.” The Beatles link is made explicit later in the night during Panda’s cover of “She’s So Heavy.” The performance is an intoxicating concoction of frenetic punk energy, precise musicianship, and psychedelic noise. The kids up front, many of whom may not be aware of the song’s origins, express their delight through wild dancing and headbanging. For those who do know it as a Beatles tune — such as the parents to whom the song is often dedicated — the performance holds up as a stirring tribute.

As the last note of Panda’s set tapers off, the crowd launches into a chant: “One more song! One more song!” The noise is commanding, punctuated by ear-piercing screams. After a few minutes the band returns, one by one, to more sound than seems possible from a crowd of this size. Panda runs through an exciting rendition of its most popular song, “Carry On,” then exits the stage again to rapturous applause.

“They’re pretty much insane; they’re really good,” one young fan remarks. “It was soooo good,” says another. The awe in their voices suggests tonight may be a defining moment in the fans’ young lives.

Relatively few bands get the opportunity to a headline a place like Bottom of the Hill at any point in their career, let alone their teens, but a number of East Bay venues offer high school bands the chance to develop their live show before sympathetic audiences. Berkeley’s Blakes on Telegraph, where both Panda and Please Quiet Ourselves have played on multiple occasions, presents five or six under-eighteen bands every Sunday, and regularly tacks high school bands onto bigger Friday and Saturday night shows.

Then there’s 924 Gilman and Ashkenaz in Berkeley; the Oakland Metro in Jack London Square; Walnut Creek’s Red House, a membership-based, full-service music venue; and iMusicast, the progenitor of the East Bay’s current all-ages scene, which closed in 2005 but hopes to reopen soon near Jack London Square. Venues such as these are playing host to a new generation of local teenage musicians and fans. San Francisco indie-rock group the Audiophiles, the East Bay’s blues-based RedHouse (not related to the venue), and other emerging bands — many of whom have received training at rock camps like Oakland’s BandWorks and the nationwide Power Chord Academy, which holds sessions at UC Berkeley every summer — have begun to carve out a space of their own within the Bay Area’s vibrant live music scene.

Although Panda has begun to progress to the next level, these smaller clubs and cafes are still vital to Please Quiet Ourselves. The group has played gigs at local house parties, Oakland’s Mama Buzz Cafe, and San Francisco’s BrainWash Cafe, but isn’t yet ready for higher-tier venues. A week after Panda’s concert at Bottom of the Hill, Please Quiet Ourselves opens for touring singer-songwriter Julia Massey at a largely unpublicized show at Oakland’s Rooz Cafe. The cozy space and low-key atmosphere mean the band is playing unplugged, and when they notice their audience is comprised entirely of friends and family — plus one woman who happened to be working diligently on her laptop when the ruckus arrived — they downgrade the event to an “acoustic practice.” It’s the first time they’ve played acoustic in six months, but really they’re just being modest.

Outfitted with three guitars (Jojo, Adam, and Haran), a melodica (Max), a violin (Simeon Farwell-Miller), and a set of congas (Eli), the band sets up on a small riser in the cafe’s front corner. Only bassist Maddie Tien is missing, home sick. The set begins with a new song written by Adam, which sounds as good as anything on the album. Afterward the kids giggle and grin nervously, unaccustomed to playing before family instead of their usual Berkeley High crowd. The parents, in turn, remain reserved in their praise, as if this were a piano recital and not a rock concert. As the set progresses and the group warms up, both sides become increasingly at ease.

Tonight’s intermittent mistakes, abrupt endings, and awkward moments come off as appealing instead of distracting. This is the magic of teenage music. No one in Please Quiet Ourselves is unaware that while their youth has been a logistical disadvantage, it has benefited them too. “We’re young, so people seem to enjoy that,” Max said. “I’m sure if we were in our twenties living in apartments in Brooklyn, far less people would care about us — or maybe they would.” The band doesn’t dwell on this in its lyrics, but there are moments: They always say you’re young, they always say you’re old, Jojo seems to lament in “Minors vs. Majors.” In the final track, “Mystery Girl,” Max wonders, When did sixteen years start to feel so damn old?/I never pictured it this way.

After a 45-minute set, the kids mingle with their parents and buzz excitedly about South by Southwest. It’s only a few weeks away. Max is particularly thrilled that he’s finally been cleared to attend. When Jenn De La Vega presented the opportunity of playing an official Fanatic Promotion showcase, most everyone immediately jumped on board. Parents, who’d been all but shut out of the band’s operations, were brought into the picture and became nearly as elated as their kids. Jojo’s parents decided to make a vacation out of it.

Max’s, however, were concerned with how much class he’d be missing, and told him he’d have to miss out. “I was very torn because I think it’s an excellent opportunity,” his mom said. “But I feel that his schoolwork comes first.” For his part, Max wasn’t about to give up. He prepared a letter for all of his teachers that politely outlined how serious he was about the band and how great of an opportunity the trip would be. Then he asked for their permission to miss class. All of them signed off, leaving Max’s mom in a difficult position. “So I reexamined it and said my criteria is now that you do all your schoolwork before you go.”

The group managed to land an impressive four gigs in three days at the festival, including a bill shared with legendary UK punk group the Slits and San Francisco musician Nyles Lannon. Despite the fact that as minors they couldn’t enter most of the festival’s venues, they enjoyed a hugely successful trip. And with the exception of tween bands Tiny Masters of Today and Care Bears on Fire, both from New York, Please Quiet Ourselves may well have been the youngest band there.

Although the members of Please Quiet Ourselves are still immersed in high school, college looms, and as with Panda, it promises serious challenges. De La Vega hopes to squeeze another album out of them before then. It’s not yet clear where the kids’ paths will lead once they leave Berkeley High, especially with seven people in two different grades. By this time next year, Eli, Max, Maddie, and Haran will be on the verge of graduation; they’ve already begun looking at colleges.

For Panda, that subject remains touchy, and different parties still harbor different opinions about last summer’s decision-making process. “It ended in kids being pissed off, parents being frustrated,” Jonny recalled. “We worked things out. They got their way.” His parents, both psychologists, were adamant about his obtaining a degree. Louie’s decision also came down to the wishes of his parents: “They were providing me food and shelter, so I basically had to do what they said. They ultimately influenced my decision for the most practical reason.”

Early on, the band looked for advice to friends in the music industry. “Everyone was telling us that we were great and if you’re serious, you should take a year off and become rock stars,” Louie said. John Murphy happens to agree. His old band, the K.G.B., signed to DreamWorks Records while still in high school and opted to sacrifice college for music. “I definitely disagree with the need to go to school when you’re as talented as these guys,” he said. “I have trouble when kids that are that talented waste their time with college.”

Miles Hurwitz, the manager of the Matches and a perennial adviser to developing bands, offered the kids a dissenting opinion. He told them that while they had a lot going for them, they didn’t have enough momentum to make skipping school a wise choice. Eventually, they resigned themselves to college. But Petros made no secret of his long-term priorities, resolving in the final sentence of his UC Santa Cruz application essay: “I want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.”

Panda’s debut album, due for release on June 20 and likely to bear a brand new band name, will focus the group’s efforts this summer as it works to wrangle new fans, play increasingly high-profile local shows, and lay the groundwork for its first tour. “We’re just trying to keep the momentum going until summer,” Joey said after the band’s Bottom of the Hill show, “when we are just going to fuckin’ murder it.” If all goes as planned, the five young musicians may not be returning to school. As Jonny reasons, “School will always be there, but a band will not.”

While all of the parents feel college is important, they too don’t want it to stand in the way of the current opportunity with Panda. “The chances are 99-to-one that this is gonna die at some point,” says Larry Diller, Louie’s dad. “So if you give advice and it dies, then you’ll be blamed. Better to stay out of it and let them die on their own. And if they make it, they’ve made it on their own.”

This, perhaps above all, is the essential point for all parties involved. Though Panda’s parents will naturally fade from the picture now that all five members are over eighteen and living away from home, Please Quiet Ourselves is still operating well within the parental sphere of influence. And it’s still fiercely protective of its independence. “There’s this thing with the band where we’re trying to keep the parents out of it,” Jojo said. “It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll.”

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