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."