Nostalgia for the easy romanticism of Eighties teen movies runs deep. Perhaps that romanticism is best embodied by Molly Ringwald as dorky Sam Baker in Sixteen Candles, as she exits the church to find dreamy Jake Ryan leaning against his red Porsche, waiting just for her; “If You Were Here” by the Thompson Twins fades in and they drive off together. Or it’s in a boombox-wielding John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything. Each of these scenes sensationalizes young love and teenage innocence, using Eighties ballads to freeze a particular moment in time. “Slowing down and making those moments more special is something those movies did right,” says Emile Panerio of Plastic Picnic. “That’s something that’s timeless, and I think we like to try and capture that in a song.”
The Brooklyn-based band, which released its self-titled debut EP via Highland Park Records on October 20, channels these moments in its music using analog synth and shimmering guitar. “A ridiculous guitar solo in the middle of a synth-ballad is pretty badass,” Panerio says. “We’re kind of trying to put a Nineties post-rock twist on that vibe.… We want to be able to give people that polished synth thing, but then grunge it up a bit. Their take on Eighties synth ballads has distinguished their music enough to land them on Spotify’s New Indie Mix, alongside some of their idols.
Updating Eighties synthpop isn’t exactly a new idea, but it’s one that Plastic Picnic have made their own. Lincoln Lute, the band’s guitarist, points to projects like Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala as inspirations. He notes that the latter straddles a few decades, employing Eighties synths and Seventies drums and layering good songwriting on top of them. “The Eighties synth thing is our approach to blending different styles together from different eras and just trying to make interesting combinations in our music,” Lute says.
The band itself is composed of four members, all aged 26, all with Pacific Northwest roots. Lute and Panerio met at the end of their freshman year at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington, and played together for years in the band Learning Team. Panerio was the first to move, trading coasts and campus for the big city in June 2014. Lute joined him in January 2015, but finances limited them instrumentally to making predominantly computer music.
Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, drummer Gordon Taylor met bassist Marshall Hunt on the first day of high school. Hunt was the new kid in town, who stood out with his “long rock ’n’ roll hair” and leather jacket. The pair bonded over a mutual love for Led Zeppelin and became fast friends. They played together throughout college and eventually with the project Clone Wolf in Seattle, but it wasn’t until a friend offered them a place to crash in New York that Hunt and Taylor decided to move east and chase their musical dreams.
The respective duos flirted with making music separately at first, but they struggled. Panerio believes that it wasn’t until they all met in October 2015, through a mutual friend, that they all really grounded each other in their commitment to playing music professionally. Messing around in a rehearsal space, which would later become the Vice headquarters, slowly turned into something more serious. “It’s like a relationship,” Hunt says, “You kind of just start hanging out, and then you keep hanging out and…yeah.”
“At first, we were just doing that without any real plan,” Taylor explains. “And then there was one day that Emile was like, ‘OK, for this part of the song, we could do this…’ I asked him, ‘Wait, for the song? Does that mean we’re a band?’ And he said, ‘I’m down if you are.’ ”
The first singles “In Your Mind” and “Nausea in Paradise” were written soon after. “By the time that Gordon and Marshall got involved, Lincoln and I…we were both so hungry at that point that it just came naturally,” Panerio says.
When the band performs, it brings energy and chemistry that’s easily attributed to the members’ close friendships. Lute and Panerio basically share the same Bed-Stuy block. Hall and Taylor live together in Crown Heights. And the foursome constantly obsesses over how it can shake up its songs, both old and new, to bring in other musical influences.
Hunt studied jazz, and he helps the band avoid predictability when it comes to song structure, mixing things up minimally with key changes or other subtle variations. Catchy hooks and melodies often come from Panerio, who has an ear for pop music, though he tends to normalize things too quickly. This is where Lute comes in, to shake things up and make sure the band is never too comfortable with its work. Taylor is the tasteful, consistent drummer that helps establish a sense of stability in the creative process. But by no means is anyone limited to their instrument. This is a highly opinionated group.
Plastic Picnic’s songwriting process is a collaborative, democratic one and, for these guys, it’s just not the same without everyone in the room. “The best part of this is all the surprises that come from somebody else taking an idea that you have and reacting to it in a way that you wouldn’t have,” Taylor says. “I think it creates a sound that only works if all of us are working on it together.”
In October 2016, the band had a session at the former Converse Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn, where it played with the first few songs on the EP. Aaron Bastinelli helped engineer the early tracks, but the majority were produced and recorded with Ariel Loh at Stone Studio in Connecticut. Plastic Picnic planned to self-release the EP, until Highland Park Records reached out last June. The result is an interesting juxtaposition between synth-laden tracks and guitar music, with hard-working lyrics. At first listen, it’s light and airy, but Plastic Picnic are tackling deep stuff here — themes of loss, insincerity in relationships, and “modern society’s obsession with perfect image.”
“Everybody’s on this constant search to make the world think that every day is perfect for them,” Panerio explains. “But every day isn’t perfect, and there’s shitty mornings and loss and pain, and all those things in life are important things to convey to the world.”
As for the name Plastic Picnic, “Plastic” refers to this “prosthetic nature of modern culture,” perhaps best illustrated by materialism in New York, while “Picnic” calls on something more wholesome and sincere, serving as a low-key reference to the members’ upbringing on the opposite coast. Hall, Lute, Taylor, and Panerio grew up in these two worlds and share the struggles they’ve faced in trying to merge them.
Their Eighties influence is a nod to simpler times. While these guys were too young to experience the decade’s cinema and music in real time, Panerio was always curious about the era itself because his father played in bands in the Eighties. And when Lute and Panerio lived together in college, the pair bought VHS tapes until they amounted to a “stupid collection of classic films from that period.” The soundtracks that suspended these movies in time slowly grew on them, as did the “enchanting parts” of their cinematography.
Musically, they were inspired by groups like Tears for Fears, Dire Straits, the Police, and A Flock of Seagulls. The sounds of the Eighties blend a genuine romanticism with instrumental risk that the band gravitates toward. This era may be long gone, and rosy relationships of Eighties proportions might be dead, but Plastic Picnic take their listeners back to this time and place — free from smartphones, dating apps, and notions of perfect image — in the hopes that they might experience its sincerity.
Plastic Picnic will open for TOMI at Elsewhere in Brooklyn on Friday, November 3.