On a Thursday evening in late July 2016, an anonymous 4chan user uploaded an interesting looking EP they’d found in an Oxfam shop in the UK earlier that day. They had a simple request: “Does anybody recognise [this] album?”
The CD artwork had initially caught their eye. The sketched face of a wide-eyed female drawn in manga style stared out from the cover, with the band’s name, Panchiko, running down the right hand side in thick black font.
When they got home, the intrigue deepened. Half expecting the main track – “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L” – to be “noise pop or some vapourwave wankery”, they instead heard a lo-fi shoegaze track, with a curious distortion panning back and forth throughout the song.
Searching online, they couldn’t find a single reference to Panchiko. “Even with super obscure bands, you might expect to find [something] on an old Myspace page or a mention in some forum,” they wrote at the time.
The only information was the band members’ first names listed on the back cover – Owain, Andy, Shaun and John – and the year the CD came out: 2000. Excited by the prospect of owning a rare EP, the user took a punt to see if anyone could help.
Within minutes of clicking “send”, the comments started rolling in. No one could come up with an explanation for the distortion. Some thought it might be a sound effect, others said it was damaged, a few dismissed it as a bad recording. There was a comparison to “Bowie pop”, while one user believed the cover was an obscure reference to US hip-hop group Death Grips. Another even offered to buy the EP there and then for £130.
There were queries about the spelling of Panchiko, perhaps an incorrect reference to a popular arcade game in Japan called pachinko, which would tie into the manga image on the front cover. But no answers. One thing was clear, however: All of them were gripped. Who was this band?
For months, the EP bounced around online until it was picked up by a California-based YouTuber called sticki, who shared the original rip with his 10,000 followers.
It didn’t take long after that for discussions to start springing up across Reddit forums, Discord channels, private chats and YouTube. The beginnings of a cult following were developing across the world, as was an intense internet hunt to find Panchiko. A growing number of users had joined a dedicated Discord channel, set up by a fan based in Argentina going by the name of “Zod”.
“There was only a handful of people [in the channel] at that time,” says Anthony, a UK-based fan, who joined early on and was involved in the hunt. “There wasn't much information to go on, so we spent hours looking for indie musicians across the UK who shared the same first names.”
It was draining work. “It was definitely tough to stay motivated sometimes,” Anthony says. “The search would die down but then we'd find a new potential lead and excitement would build. Then they'd get back to us and say, ‘it's not me’ or ‘never heard of it’ and we'd be back to square one.”
Spurring them on, however, was a growing number of negative conspiracy theories surfacing about the band. The more questions that went unanswered, the more disbelievers were adamant the whole thing was an elaborate marketing stunt.
“The OP [original poster] of that 4chan thread probably made the album himself,” said one Reddit user at the time. “I'm not completely convinced that this isn't a well-designed hoax of an album that is actually a lot more recent than it says,” said another.
It wasn’t until January 2020 – four years after the EP was originally discovered – that the searchers struck onto something exciting. One of the team linked a code on the CD’s cover to an Oxfam shop listed on a small Nottingham high-street in an area called Sherwood. When they found an “Owain” listed in the Nottingham area, all they had to do was reach out and wait. The hunt was nearly over, but the story wasn’t.
It was a dark winter morning outside when Owain woke up to a strange Facebook message on his phone. Someone was asking if he’d been the singer in a band 20 years ago? He thought it was a joke at first. Surely, this person couldn’t be talking about his old high school band? How would they know about that?
The message went on to explain how a group of fans had been on the hunt to find the creators of an EP called D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L. The version they’d found was badly distorted but they loved what they could hear, and they were desperate to get their hands on a clean copy.
“I was like, wait, what? Are you pulling my leg? Do people really like this?” Owain tells VICE. “Like, there's so much good music on the internet. They've got so much choice. Why do people like this so much?”
After a bit of back and forth, it quickly dawned on him that this was no joke. He reached for his phone to text an old friend. “Have you seen this?” he wrote to Andy, who was with his girlfriend in Korea at the time. (The members of the band have only ever released their first names to the public.)
“Andy was just like, ‘Bloody hell!’ We couldn’t believe it,” remembers Owain. Shaun, who was now living in Cambridge, was next up – they’d lost touch with John years before. He was equally stunned. “I hadn’t listened to it for 20 years,” Shaun admits. “But when I heard the tracks again, I was actually pleasantly surprised.”
The CD was a demo EP which they’d sent to a few record companies at the time, but it had little success and Panchiko disbanded not long after. The distortion the fans could hear wasn’t deliberate; it was disc rot from the CD’s age.
After disbanding, the trio had largely parked their dreams of being famous. Andy stayed in the world of sound, mixing and mastering for various bands, as well as running side music projects. Owain had moved into education, after dabbling in live events within the gaming industry. Shaun had done a bit of travelling before becoming a tree surgeon. He had, as he puts it with a laugh, “slipped into the mundanity of everyday life”.
As soon as they realised the scale of their newfound fandom, they released free restored versions of their high school tracks on Bandcamp. Two months later, they put the songs on Spotify, which quickly racked up millions of hits. With this new backing, the group decided to get back together and play their first gig in two decades in their hometown of Nottingham.
On a wintry December evening, a long queue of Panchiko lovers, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, stood outside the 400 capacity venue. All of them were eager to catch a first glimpse of the mystery band, who, until then, had released no images of themselves online.
Inside, the crowd was buzzing, and fans cheered with excitement as the band stepped on stage. When they played the atmospheric track “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L” that brought them their fame, hundreds sang it back to them.
After the gig, a line formed at the merch desk, as hundreds queued up to meet the band. Fans I spoke to had travelled from Bristol, London, Ireland and even Belgium, and some had made the journey alone. One 21-year-old fan, Libby, was “still shaking” as she explained how she’d travelled for three hours by coach.
“We didn’t expect that,” says Andy. “We thought we’d just finish the show and sign a few CDs, but I signed faces and even shoes – an hour and a half later my hand was hurting.” One guy had the EP artwork tattooed on his arm, adds Shaun.
After hearing them live, the fans want more, and their next major gig is already planned for Hackney, London, in February 2022. A US tour is also scheduled later this year for their overseas fans, including a show at South by Southwest festival in Texas.
“It’s just so wonderful that some people have really resonated with it,” says Owain, as the band reflects on a crazy year. What started as a chance discovery in a small Nottingham charity shop has now developed into a cult global fanbase that will undoubtedly change the lives of Panchiko’s band members forever.