Nero, My Panda is a student band at Yale that’s been together since the spring of 2012. Its members: drummer Andrew Goble ’15, guitarist and live vocalist Paul Hinkes ’15 , vocalist and lyricist Elliah Heifetz ’15, and keyboardist and lyricist Max Gordon ’15, just released their EP this Thursday. The band gathered in Heifetz’s home to talk about the year-and-a-half-long trajectory that has led them to this new release—starting with their crazy, esoteric band name.
Q: First things first. Where did you guys get the band name?
Elliah Heifetz: I was writing a paper on this painting in the art gallery for Nemirov’s class freshman year called “Hero and Leander.” I was talking to Max about the paper for some reason, and we really liked the name of the painting. We were just messing around with it and being stupid, and then came up with “Nero, My Panda.” It had nothing to do with the actual painting.
Q: Had the band already formed by then?
Max Gordon: That was spring of our freshman year. Elliah and I were regularly writing songs together. So I guess it was a project but we didn’t call it a band.
Q: And then how did the others get involved?
Paul Hinkes: I’m in the same singing group as Max … and we were hanging out one night, sort of swapping songs, talking, and I expressed my interest. Max also said that the band was still in need of a drummer. I was lucky enough to have been freshman year suitemates with Andrew, who I knew was a very talented drummer. We had our first rehearsal in the last month of our freshman year. The band was pretty much together by then.
E.H.: Our first show was the fall of last year — parents’ weekend in the Baker’s Dozen house’s basement. And that was when we also put out our first demos.
Q: Are you affiliated with a cappella?
Andrew Goble: I’m not. My association is very vague. But the others are.
M.G.: Paul and I are in the Baker’s Dozen.
E.H.: And I’m in the Duke’s Men.
Q: Do you think your style as a band has been influenced by a cappella?
E.H.: Well, when we play live it helps that three of us sing regularly. If there are any parts of the song that need extra singers, we have just the guys in the group do them. We don’t need to seek outside singers.
M.G.: We like harmonies.
Q: What would you describe as your band’s sound?
E.H.: Um, [laughs] pop music. We listen to a lot of Katy Perry, a lot of punk music too, and rock music, also a lot of ’60s classic old-school pop. It’s just girl American pop music with a wink, because we want everyone to have a good time.
Q: I listened to your guys’ single, “I Just Want to Sleep in My Own Bed,” on your website. It sounded very smooth and well produced. How did you guys get that level of quality?
M.G.: So, we’re working with a producer in the city, the Jedi Master. That’s what he goes by; Jeff Jones is his actual name.
Q: How did you meet Jones?
M.G.: I worked for him as an audio engineer the summer after my freshman year, and we’ve just developed a good working relationship since then.
Q: Who composes the songs?
M.G: Elliah and I write the songs. But in terms of recording, in terms of putting it all together, we’re all playing different parts.
E.H.: The first songs we did we recorded first and then played live, but, with these songs, Max and I wrote them and then we played them live and then we recorded them. Playing them live with the band really informed what sounds worked and what we wanted to put on the record.
P.H.: The single “I Just Wanna Sleep in My Own Bed” was, in its first iteration, played live. We played it in Brooklyn over the summer. It was a much grittier, much less clean song than the final product. Live performances really informed the recorded version.
Q: What venues have you played in?
A.G.: Mostly New Haven ones. Last year we played BDs, SigEp, Spring Fling. I feel like we played everywhere last summer. This fall we played at the BDs again.
P.H.: We’ve had some crazy gigs too. We played at Jack Wills’ clothing store over on York. They reached out to us, and wanted us to play there.
M.G.: We got some nice clothes from that.
Q: Did you guys ever find it difficult to find venues?
A.G.: I think one great advantage is that I’m president of SigEp so that’s a space I have. And those two guys live in the BD house, that’s a space we use, which isn’t that big. But I think an important thing is being willing to play in weird spaces. It ends up being a lot more fun. Even in the BD house we had it packed and there were 50 people who couldn’t fit in. It was just a fun atmosphere to play in.
P.H.: There’s something incredible about being in a room with 100 people that’s meant for 25 and being so hot that you have to wipe your guitars down. We talked about being influenced by 60’s pop. A lot of these bands got their start playing in the small — incredibly small — spaces that are not necessarily fit for a rock band to play in.
M.G.: And the nice thing is that everyone that’s staying there really wants to hear you play. (laughs) They’re overcoming a lot to listen to you play. When you’re in this big open space you can come because you have nothing to do, but these people know every single word. It feels like you’re just at a party and providing entertainment that everyone’s totally focused on.
Q: It sounds like you guys have gotten a lot of experience doing live shows, and now you’re doing the EP. What do you see as the next step in your trajectory as a band?
M.G.: We love making music that people can dance to, that people can have fun listening to, and we want as many people to enjoy that as possible.
E.H.: Getting as many people to have fun is really the goal.
A.G.: There are a lot of goals probably, but in terms of the day-to-day, the hope is of creating that experience, and I think if we’re good, if we do that correctly, the opportunities of showcasing our music to more people are there.
Q: Are there any difficulties or obstacles that you’ve encountered in being a band at Yale? How do you let people know about your shows?
E.H.: A lot of it is just making a Facebook event. If we put it on at a certain time of night, everyone’s going to go on their computers and everyone’s going be on Facebook and people are going see it. Another way is, if we’re [performing at] a house that has a party on, people are going to go there anyway for the party. It’s just taking advantage of that and trying to make the party our show — trying to game the system of being a college band.
A.G.: I think our vibe as a band has lent itself well to big crowds, because it kind of feels like a collaborative experience. We’re feeding off their energy — we’re not playing with our heads down, like we’re recording. For the most part, I think the people who come to our first concerts are likely to come to our second and third concerts, and that has helped a lot in trying to create something that’s fun instead of something that’s more for us than for them.
M.G.: There’s no point in making something if someone isn’t going to enjoy listening to it. I think that drives a lot of what we do, both in the literal music that we make and in how we present it. It’s all meant to be enjoyable, to be fun, to be exciting, and I think that if you can’t hit those, then I don’t see much point.
Q: You guys are an eclectic-sounding bunch. Do you each have specific genres or styles that you identify with?
P.H.: (nods to Andrew) Weezer.
A.G.: I love alt-rock and classic rock and I just like how they are drum-wise. That and hip-hop for me come to the forefront. The drums’ purpose is to serve up the other parts of the music. If I tried to make every song a résumé of what I can do on the drum set, nobody would be happy except for maybe me. I think some hip-hop does that really well, where even the beat works with the rhythm of the rapper, as do some of my favorite rock bands, like Weezer. I learned to play the drums listening to their songs. They’re so easy and yet there’s so much detail as to why they’re doing each thing and why it works with the music.
P.H.: My taste’s a little less refined. I don’t have a specific genre I truly identify with. I love when a form is done well, whether that be hood stuff, or you know, on the far end, Katy Perry. One of our favorite songs right now is “Timber” [the new Pitbull song featuring Ke$ha]. It’s an amazing song. Elliah and I are getting into this hard-rock band called Japandroids. They’re so good, they’re so different. Whatever the model is, when it’s done well I’ll want to listen to it.
E.H.: I would say the one genre I try not to listen to is country pop.
P.H.: I love country pop.
M.G.: I think “Prism” [the new Katy Perry album] is fucking amazing.
E.H.: The song “Birthday” on “Prism” is one of the best songs to come out of the past four years.
P.H: Headline, headline!
Q: Andrew, you mentioned that you were a high-school musician. What’d you play?
A.G.: I played a lot of jazz, which was probably the most inspiring thing. Jazz is all about fitting in. It helps when I’m playing live, knowing how to create something that meshes and presents a uniform sound.
Q: Were the rest of you previously in bands?
P.H.: All of us were.
M.G.: Just a high school band.
A.G.: I wish I was in a high school band.
P.H.: My high school band was pretty shitty. We dressed up as ridiculous as we could and covered top 40 songs.
E.H.: I was in a really classic high school band. We listened to a lot of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin — a lot of guitar riffing and shredding.
Q: How have you evolved since then?
P.H.: I think there’s a real desire in the group to be a cohesive unit. Our songs our two-and-a-half minutes. There’s no need to spend 45 seconds on a guitar solo. It’s just the song, polished. Here’s the package and we’re very confident with it.
E.H.: It’s not about us. It’s not about the person doing the guitar solo or showing off on his instrument. We’re playing for people to listen to it.
P.H.: The best possible thing is for the song to end and for people to want it to continue.
Q: How have you grown as a band?
P.H.: There’s a great feeling of having done our songs so many times before and getting to do them again.
E.H.: When things start to become inside jokes and traditions, you know you’ve existed long enough and hung out long enough that you’ve become what people call a band. I think that’s the biggest growth — from freshman year to being people who know each other and hang out.
M.G.: Yeah, we definitely shit on each other a lot more now.
A.G.: It’s nice to have someone fuck something up and for Max to be like, “You fucked that up” and for the person not to take that harshly. It’s good that we communicate on a very open level.
M.G.: We definitely have a more refined set of musical references that we can refer to, and that makes communication between all of us in rehearsals or when recording that much more efficient and that much more effective.
P.H.: And now when Max makes weird noises Goble knows what to play on the drum.
M.G.: I was making noise that I think a drum makes [Max makes a “boom boom shhh” sound] and Goble says, “Max, that’s not what I do.” But now —
A.G.: Now he does the same thing but I translate. Sometimes he’ll say noises that just aren’t made by the drum. Usually I can guess what drum he’s looking for but sometimes … (laughs). We’re not as lost in translation as we were before.