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"I'd go to school, and I've have a boom box, and I'd sit out in the hallway," says the 17-year-old singer-songwriter. "People would walk by, and they'd be like, What's that? What's that?' I would come home with over 100 bucks in my pocket. I was making more money selling my CDs than I was working at Walgreen's."
Panic's going to have to come up with another marketing scheme now that school's out for summer. Before he starts his senior year, Panic's hoping to get a taste of the big, bad world of music publishing.
And the kid makes you believe he's ready for it.
Panic, whose real name is Adam Kootman, is confident and polished. He's one of those guys who seems to have a style of his own without giving much thought to it -- black hair with natural feathering, engaging smile, silver thumb ring, harmonica necklace, open-toe shoes. Superficially, he does the budding rock star thing quite well.
Still, he's much more substantive than his Strokes/Maroon5 looks may suggest. Yes, he knows the chicks dig the rock guys. But A Siren EP, his upcoming 5-song album recorded with prolific Flying Blanket studio head Bob Hoag, contains songs that are mature and lush, steps beyond the punk he dabbled in as an 8th grader. They adopt Beatles melancholia, as on the opening cut "Trapped in a Glass Jar," and New Wave chord changes, keyboards and attitude ("Set Set," "Lock Your Door in the Event of Fire"). Panic's voice is oddly reminiscent of Elvis Costello's, and his hooks evoke those of peppy "My Sharona" scribes the Knack, funny since he's never heard them. He also had a hand in all of the instrumentation except for the drums, which Hoag manned himself.
"How many bands sound like The Format in Arizona?" Panic asks rhetorically, namedropping the gifted Tempe songwriters. "Not that many, because everyone's doing the whole pop-punk thing. And if it's not the pop-punk thing, it's the metal thing. As long as you have something different, people are attracted to that."
He says he's the kind of guy who once he sets his mind to something, he becomes an obsessive. One phase found him adoring hockey and skating as often as he could. That, and other intense interests dissipated, but the music stayed with him. He's been playing piano since he was 7, and picked up guitar at 10. He started his band 3 Axis when he was 14.
"We were little kids, but we felt everything had to be perfect," he says. "We'd practice every day."
The band eventually fizzled, though, and Panic decided from there to do his solo gig, recording the kitschy but catchy The Vamp. For his live shows, he's recruited two of his friends to play bass and drums, and he eventually plans to expand the band to a five piece, with an extra guitar and keyboards.
Like many of this fellow classmates, Panic's got a summer job, working for his father, an oral surgeon. But he's also staking his future on his music. He'll be attending a week-long seminar in Los Angeles at the end of August sponsored by Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music. He's also applying for admission there -- it's an elite institution that gave rise to Steely Dan and employs Winger's ex-drummer as an instructor. In fact, when I meet Panic, he's wearing a gray Berklee tee shirt.
"It's just about being professional," Panic says of his focus. "I don't think people care enough about being professional."
By their own admission, the members of another fresh-out-of-school group, Gilbert's six-piece Scary Kids Scaring Kids, recent graduates of Highland High School, aren't quite as ambitious. "We don't practice that much," says drummer Peter Costa. But they also know they're good, and they're anxious to market themselves.
"I just want to get it out to the labels as soon as possible," says keyboardist Pouyan Akary, also 17, of the band's rocking new 6-song disc After Dark, also recorded with Hoag.
Though it's obvious they put a lot of thought into their brand of intense, screaming emo, the exuberant, wise-cracking Scary Kids Scaring Kids like to downplay their efforts. They're less photogenic but more typically adolescent than Panic.
"If we practiced every day or something, and we put a whole lot of work into it, then I'd feel different about it, because then it would be like, we kind of earned it," says soft-spoken Costa, adding that he's "kind of modest."
"I don't think you ever know you're good," Akary offers. "It never really crosses your mind. It's fun until someone tells you you're good. It's not like, We are awesome!'"
Costa, for emphasis, remembers the day as a middle schooler his family bought his first drum set. "I called my friends over and jammed out -- with my dad on the keyboards," he says. We covered '70s funk songs."