December 7, 2022 / Kunika Trehan

Here, nothing ever truly dies.

What if your wildest dreams came to fruition, only twenty years after you’d already forgotten about them?

Last night, I bore witness to the fresh seedling of a second chance. I stood one in a sweaty, eager sea of grungy adolescents ringing a vacant stage, peering over looming shoulders and tip-tapping my thumb against the thin strap of my bag. A thrum of anticipation hummed in the sparse air between us as we waited.

The crowd was young and eccentric, nodding heads adorned with cat-ear headbands and standing tall in thick-platformed boots. I was struck by the contrast when the band finally emerged, a collection of nondescript English men that had about twenty years on most of us. You’d almost believe they’d stumbled onto the wrong stage if not for the resounding cheer that erupted at the sight of them, the audience electrified by the reveal of a group once so shrouded in mystery.

Here, at last, was Panchiko.

“Good to see you’re all real people, too!” quipped frontman Owain as he looked out at us. The crowd responded with an uproar that carried an unspoken weight of understanding. We knew the serendipitous path of dissolution and resurrection that led them to this moment. It wasn’t simply that Panchiko’s fans loved them, or supported them, or streamed and shared their music for years to place them up on that stage.

No, it was more than that. They unearthed them.

Our path to excavation begins at the tail end of the twentieth century: cell phones are a luxury product; MP3 players are on the rise, but CDs remain in favor; and, in the U.K., Britpop is King.

In a teenager’s bedroom in Nottingham, a familiar scene unfolds: four school friends, armed with a Tascam digital recorder and boyish ambition, are recording a demo. They call themselves Panchiko, and they specialize in lush, lightly electronic 90s shoegaze. Cheekily, they name the album “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L.”

They produce thirty copies of the demo and submit them to record labels for consideration, but to no avail. For a couple of years, they try their luck at the local music scene. They rehearse raucously in their drummer’s parents’ basement, one of the more soundproof spots they can access. They play sets to sparse crowds in local pubs, avoiding eye contact with their scattering of onlookers. They compete in “Battle of the Bands” competitions and lose each time.

Naturally, they’re having a blast.

But time keeps its pace and eventually catches hold of the boys, pushing them in opposing directions towards new sets of dreams. The original foursome plays their last show in a small-town festival to an uninterested crowd of onlookers and gently lay their dream to rest.

By 2002, Panchiko is no more.

But you’ve probably caught on by now that this story doesn’t end there.

In 2016, in a charity shop in Nottingham, U.K., Panchiko comes back to life— unbeknownst to its four founding members.

One of those thirty ill-fated demos has stood the test of time and sits resolutely well-worn on a shelf. The Japanese manga character on the album cover catches the attention of one shopper who picks it up and, unable to discern any further information as to its origin, purchases it and carries it home.

Intrigue deepens once they play the first song and find the audio is noticeably distorted: a fuzzy, static sound overlays the barely-audible melodic track. The CD, in its twenty-year recess, has been affected by disc rot, a condition affecting CDs over time that warps the audio quality.

Eager to discover more, our thrift-store archeologist picks up the CD and places it enthusiastically in the outstretched palm of the Internet. They upload it to 4chan’s /mu/ board, where music lovers from the depths of the web converge to trade in obscurities and conspiracy theories — the perfect breeding ground for a cult classic of the digital age.

The demo makes its rounds, trickling into various corners of internet subculture and growing a fanbase of its own. People are drawn to the music, which is experimental, clearly inspired by the late 90s shoegaze wave but featuring unique sampling methods and electronic elements that, paired with the distortion, make it sound almost retrofuturistic.

The origin of this long-forgotten disc is untraceable; no one has ever heard of the album, nor the band, and there is no record of them ever having existed on the Internet. The album’s back cover lists only the band members’ first names and the year of its origin. Online speculation runs wild.

No one is able to find another copy of the demo. Everybody wants an answer.

In 2020, they finally get one. It comes in the form of a one-word affirmation from Owain that this is, in fact, his band’s record, after a member of the Panchiko Discord group tracks him down on Facebook and sends the query. By now, the demo has taken on a life of its own; the band members that are still in contact with one another Google “Panchiko” and are shocked to find pages upon pages of forums and message boards dissecting their teenage dalliance with musicmaking. Messages from fans begin to flood in.

The following year, revived and reunited, Panchiko plays their first show in Nottingham in over two decades. There is no awkward smattering of applause this time; everyone has come here to see them. They play the opening chords to “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L.” Once the cheering subsides, they are mirrored by a swaying crowd of their biggest fans, mouthing along to every word.

The awareness that something is tenuous, that your hold on it is circumstantial, that in any other alignment of events you may never have known it at all — this gives it value. The things we create may outlive our conviction to see them succeed; a dream doesn’t necessarily die alongside our belief in it.

“I’d find the CD every couple of years when we were cleaning out the house,” says Owain in a interview. He claims he’d think to himself, “thank god, I’m glad that CD isn’t on the internet.”

“D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L” has since been reproduced in CDs and vinyls, available to purchase on Bandcamp (“Pop it in a charity shop for 20 years for that crispy crunchy sound!”, the product description reads). It’s also been uploaded to streaming services. The Spotify version of the album features seven original tracks and four “rot” versions— transferred directly from that pivotal disc.

I find myself turning to these “rotted” tracks more often than their well-preserved counterparts. The first song of Panchiko’s I’d ever heard was the damaged version of “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L,” recommended to me by a friend enmeshed in the world of online forums. I was, much like the others, intrigued by the mystery and entranced by the music, the distortion providing evidence to the mythos.

The rot appeals to the nostalgic in me; it’s as though you can hear the years on the track, physical proof of the time Panchiko sat idle. I listen and am embraced by the sentimentality of a time before my own, constructed by a group of teenage boys who held no idea of what the next few decades were to bring them. All they’d wanted was to make music.

Onstage in Texas, Panchiko begins playing “Laputa”, a wistful track inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky.”

The songs they sing were penned by teenagers in a bedroom twenty years ago, and hearing them in the flesh all these years later feels like catching a glimpse of a perfectly-preserved moment in the lives of four teenage boys I’ve never met but can picture so clearly through the sound.

Panchiko’s music exists in a unique liminality, bridging the gap in time between streaming-service supremacy and the CD age. “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L” serves as a sonic time capsule: an album that made its way into the public’s ears over two decades after its inception, emerging into a wholly different musical realm and industry than the one it was born into.

The past twenty years have marked a massive shift in the way we create, distribute, and consume media. When Panchiko made their demo, the widespread popularity of streaming services was years away. Now, physical music is nearly obsolete. Records are retro and discs collect dust in bygone childhood bedrooms.

Now, the band croons years-old lyrics to a generation absolutely besotted with nostalgia for the early aughts, an era they can hardly remember — if at all. They find kinship in a set of adolescents who experience the world of music in a fundamentally different way than they once did. They prove how bendable, how entirely unpredictable this life of ours is.

In reviving their past, they split the future wide open. ■

By: Kunika Trehan

Photographer: Jacob Tran

Model: Saejun Smith

Stylists: Miguel Anderson & Jeffrey Jin

HMUA: Alex Evans

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.

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