Out of Print

Andrew Panopio Is
Learning to Let Go

by Enzo Escober
Photos by Megan Panopio
Courtesy of Andrew Panopio

The lead guitarist of She’s Only Sixteen on his first solo project and dancing on his own.

Two years’ worth of procrastination came to a head for Andrew Panopio once Manila went on lockdown. He had already written a four-track EP under the name The Relax. He had filmed a music video at the beginning of 2019. He had gone back and forth with collaborators. But, due to a series of logistical delays, they were now gathering dust in the drive. “At the end of the day, I just needed to publish it,” he told me over Zoom. “And the sooner you can get through that, the sooner you can work on new stuff.”

When talking about himself, Andrew tends to say “you,” instead of “I,” like he’s processing his life story in real-time and handing it to you as life advice. It’s instant wisdom from someone who’s had success in more than one creative medium. As lead guitarist of She’s Only Sixteen, he’s part of one of the most prominent bands in the gig circuit. As one-half of the duo behind the clothing label Tomorrow, his designs drape the bodies of Manila’s cool kids. But as The Relax, he’s redirecting his talents to a project that’s solely his.

The EP, titled Abstract, is fourteen shiny minutes of twangy pop-rock. The video is set to the first track, “Hey I,” and features Andrew pulling some 80s-inspired dance moves in a dramatically lit garage. A smoke machine hints that something might be burning, but he doesn’t care, and the vapor swirls around him as he swings and shimmies like your tito in his prime.

“I get why people wouldn’t dance in their videos, ‘cause you’d look uncool,” he said. “But what’s there to lose?” One thing that pops up a lot in our conversation is how he’s come to do away with all adolescent notions of image. Five years ago, as a fresh college grad, he would’ve been too nervous to surrender much of his work to the public. How would everyone judge him?

But he’s done some growing up. “I’m a lot kinder to my shortcomings,” he wrote in a Telegram message. “I take myself a lot less seriously. At least enough to be more free with what I put out.” You can hear that in the music. On “Easy Walk,” the EP’s last track, he offhandedly posits that “dancing’s better when you don’t know the moves.” He sounds free.

This conversation has been edited for brevity. It was held over Zoom and Telegram.


Enzo Escober:  Was there a point at the start of quarantine where you kind of felt like not doing anything?
Andrew Panopio: For sure. I’d say like the first three months. It was all very confusing. And then eventually, it just really showed that it’s gonna reach ‘til next year—if we’re lucky. So I think creatively that kind of puts you in a little box. To work with what you have. And eventually you just lean into it.

The only thing stopping me and my engineers was just figuring out how to work together. And for something that is most effective when you’re face-to-face, you really just have to be patient.

Some of the other things that helped me get out of that rut was...I feel like, creatively, I’ve been a little less egoistic about how I come off. As a graphic designer, I used to be so scared about what people thought of my work—if it’s bad, what it would look like in the future.

Eventually, I figured, it’s better for me to make mistakes and to put them out. Because you find your mistakes better when they’re out in the open and you can’t change them anymore. I tried this 28-day typography project. I was learning through that. Like, “huh, I’m in a certain rhythm today, I’ll knock out three of them.” The longest time I didn’t post was a week, and I felt bad about it. Looking back at it, I didn’t like all of them, but there were a few that were just gems to me. A lot of them were like, “I wish I changed the color for that, I wish this was more clean.” But I think that’s the whole point of exercise and practice. You keep doing it until you can’t get it wrong.

Maybe not too long ago, I would worry about how whatever you put online is your portfolio. But people forget. It’s not like an employer will look through your Instagram like, “oh this is bad.” It’ll work out. I’m less scared now, I think.

It’s just something that I feel like maybe five years ago I wouldn’t have done in a day. Just cause I’d be so stuck up on it, “oh it’s probably wrong, there’s something probably better out there.” Probably there is. But that’s what you made. And that’s been humbling.

When did you start working on the EP?
I think it was October 2018. [Roberto] Seña [lead singer of She’s Only Sixteen] made this bet, where I had to finish and publish a four-song EP by the end of the month. Or else I owe him a chicken kebab dinner. And I accepted it because I felt that it was good pressure. Obviously, I didn’t make it to the end of the month. But I finished composing and arranging those four songs within that month. And I was just thrilled by that. And Seña really helped, suggesting, “I think you should get a better mixer for this, don’t jump into mixing this if this is your first time. Record vocals in a proper place.”

I worked a lot with Sunny Side Sound Productions in Cubao Expo. They really brought out the best in me vocally, and they put in a lot of ideas. But then my problem with that was, there’s a lot of going back and forth, and they were also a very busy studio. So I’d be put on hold quite a bit. And I think the urgency just kind of faded out around early 2019. Later in the year, I thought, “the year’s ending. You said you’d have it out by now.” So I made sure I’d try and see them once a week and finish things. ‘Cause I could already hear it done. And you have to not explore new things much, because you lose track of what you had in mind.

There was time when putting out work felt like a dilemma for Andrew. “Maybe not too long ago, I would worry about how whatever you put online is your portfolio,” he says. “But people forget.“

Does it strike you as weirdly timely that you debuted The Relax during a time when everyone’s so stressed?
Yeah, I have mixed feelings about my artist name, actually. Just because people are stressed. But when are people not stressed?

I thought of the name in 2014, when I was in third year college. I was stressing about it. Then I thought, you know what? Relax.

My friend pointed out that it’s funny how my projects sound very lazy. I have this streetwear label called Tomorrow. And it sounds like I’m procrastinating. And then The Relax sounds like I’m lazy. But it’s about centeredness. That’s my best excuse.

“Hey I” seems to get a lot of its energy from this generalized anxiety. Can you tell me about that?
Lately a lot of the themes of my music have to do with relationships, both the ups and downs. It’s honestly something that I wouldn’t have written five years ago. Because it’s something that I’d be so scared to show. What would people say about my lyrics being so softboi? But in the end, your vulnerability adds to the appeal. It also builds you as an artist to be open and creative.

The verse feels like a conversation with someone you’re trying to get with and be vulnerable with. But then at the pre-chorus it describes this state of messiness, confusion, this dark energy you just wanna go with. I don’t know how I got to that. Maybe it was where I was at the time.

I really love that you’re dancing in the video. We don’t see that a lot in indie videos here.
Yeah, like why not? Pinoys love to dance. When I was thinking of making a music video for this, I thought, what’s the fastest way for me to represent the speed, the rhythm, and the energy of the song? What would be the cheapest way? And I really didn’t mind being in the video, because in the long run it might be easier to market The Relax if I just show my face.

The director that I worked with was my friend since college. He had his own take on it. And when he was editing it I told him, “hey man, could you try and not include anything that would make me look weird? Anything that you feel is not cool, just don’t include it.” And then the edit came out and I wasn’t very pleased. Nilagyan ng maraming effects. Like kaleidoscope and reflective effects. I saw what he was going for. But it just came off kinda cheesy in a way that I don’t think was to my taste.

I really wanted to see all the footage, ‘cause there were some shots that could be used. I thought, “maybe I should let go of the whole uncool thing.” All those scenes of me dancing on that red carpet in the garage during the choruses? None of that was in the original take. I asked the director’s permission if I could just be the editor. And in the end, those uncool shots of me dancing kinda funny became the whole thing. And I’ve grown to like it.

The cover of The Relax’s first EP, Abstract.
The second song on the EP, “Relax,” strikes me as the most personal track. It sounds like someone trying to reassure themselves of something despite their worst impulses. I’m wondering how you approach production when you’re dealing with such complex subject matter.
Most of the subject matter comes out when I’m in my room on my guitar, writing lyrics. And I think those were the first lyrics that came out of my head. They sound very vulnerable, like “aren’t you old enough to know what you want?” I was a little worried, and some of my friends were like, “it’s a little dark, don’t you think?” But it’s okay. I wasn’t anxious about it honestly. At this point, I felt open.

What’s it like transitioning into being a solo singer?
I actually learned a lot from Seña about recording in the vocal booth. It’s definitely challenging, because something I never really actively thought about was singing. Hearing your mistakes and how pitchy you can get, and how the way I sing in my room won’t work in a studio because it just sounds bad on a microphone. Like, lo-fi is nice and all, but it’s not gonna sound good on tape.

Oh, are you not into lo-fi?
It’s to taste. I’m quite a lo-fi hoe at times. In college, I was such a Mac DeMarco simp. I don’t deny that it did form a lot of my preferences. But now as I make my music, I’d like to think of it as just another tool in the belt. Use lo-fi when necessary, but in the end, if the song doesn’t call for it, record it better. It shouldn’t end up being a crutch.

“I have this streetwear label called Tomorrow. And it sounds like I’m procrastinating. And then The Relax sounds like I’m lazy. But it’s about centeredness. That’s my best excuse.”

What was the toughest song to work on?
“Sunday Driving.” The original file was deleted, so that was hard just because we had to start from scratch. I was working with Nino Rodriguez. He remembered how the song went, but he also added a lot more texture. We had a lot of references to pop music. Some Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus. I wanted it to be a sticky beat. It was also hard to sing because there was so much happiness to it. It called for a higher energy. I had to be kind of bouncy in the booth.

She’s Only Sixteen has been performing at Route 196 for the longest time, and it’s closed now. What are some of your sharpest memories of that place?
Probably our EP launch way back in 2012. We were thinking of where to have it, and we all just landed on Route. Even though it may not be the most comfortable place, it just felt like home. And we were surprised by how many people were there. Everyone was singing the songs. We felt like we had something good on our hands.

The first time I got to step inside Route was to perform with She’s Only Sixteen when I was in fourth year high school. And I remember I was still jittery on the guitar ‘cause I was super nervous. It took me a year to get rid of that nervousness. I don’t know where I’d be without Route.

Remember when Route would charge P150, and you’d get a free beer? And then it was around P300 or P250? Wala lang. Route survived because it was such a mecca for college students. But maybe it was its downfall too, ‘cause kids don’t have no money. I heard the food was great, but I could never buy it.

Your EP is self-released. She’s Only Sixteen hasn’t had great experiences with big labels. I’m wondering how much of that has affected your outlook as an artist.
We did have a lot of bitter feelings being with a label. But I also wouldn’t knock the kind of connections that they made with markets that are beyond our reach. Schools that wouldn’t have known about us, interviews that we wouldn’t have been able to get.

But now, the name of the game as an indie artist is doing everything you can from your room. I can’t help but feel like there’s a certain sense of…bahala na. If it’s a good song, people will pick up on it and share it. As a solo project, I’ll take what I can get.

Do you ever have any regrets about signing with a big label?
I definitely think there were times when we would be shell-shocked by the whole label thing. I wish that we took the reins earlier on, with or without a label. Because I feel like we’re making our best work only just now.

But also in the end, just keep making music, ‘cause it’s that stuff that’s timeless and will keep us afloat. So I don’t look back in regret, I just think there’s much more to learn.

What other things have given you inspiration outside music?
As a graphic designer, I’ve been really into these t-shirt designs I found on Pinterest. I’ve actually been working on this one design for a friend of mine, and there’s just a lot of space for weird prints now. I’m trying my best to veer away from just a single design on the patch and a design at the back. I mean, I’ve done it. I’m not knocking it. But it’s interesting just to see where we can push this trend of weird normcore-ness. This one video I landed on was about how Crocs was on top, disappeared, and is on top again. And it was really ‘cause the market was open to this weirdness. So that kind of stuff just inspires me to go with what you feel is right. ︎

“As a solo project, I’ll take what I can get,” says Andrew about The Relax and making music during the pandemic. “I can’t help but feel like there’s a certain sense of… bahala na. If it’s a good song, people will pick up on it and share it.“

Enzo Escober is a freelance writer based in Manila.