From afar, the members of The Pennchants might come off as unapproachable. With their sunglasses, Members Only jackets, and supple voices, they could easily pass for a gang of teenage heartthrobs. But when they join me one afternoon for our Zoom interview, Evan Bean (E '23), Bauti Gallino (W '23), and Jack Vernon Lee (C '23) just look like normal guys (although Bauti is sporting his Pennchants baseball cap). They serve as The Pennchants' president, business manager, and marketing director, respectively—they also spearheaded the release of the group's new studio album, Are We There Yet?, on September 4.
Evan, Bauti, and Jack each joined the club in their first year at Penn, and all say their choice of The Pennchants out of Penn’s 17 a cappella groups was anything but arbitrary. For one, the club is Penn's premier all–male group, which appeals to members like Evan, who sang previously at his all–boys high school.
There’s something else that makes The Pennchants unique: their repertoire. In previous interviews, members have talked about how their selections focus on the "songs of their childhood." Bauti adds that their "niche is also broad,” since it can mean something different to every soloist. For example, Bauti grew up in Argentina listening to music in Spanish, which he says isn't typical Pennchants material. But last winter, he was able to perform a Spanish–language song—“Azul” by Cristian Castro—as part of the group's Bedroom Bops Online Concert Series. Evan says members have also performed songs by Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow, Elvis, Prince, and Counting Crows, five artists that account for half a century of music.
That diversity is present in spades on Are We There Yet?, which came out this past Saturday. The tracklist is a collection of songs that encapsulate a generation. The artists covered on the new album range from recent up–and–comers like Joji to stone–cold classics like Paramore, whose song “That’s What You Get” finds new life in a special arrangement.
This album is also a tribute to the 15 singers who invested their time, dedication, and passion under challenging circumstances. "The beauty of having a 15–person group, as we did this year, is that we have a very wide range of voices, and everyone’s voice complements a different kind of style,” says Jack. For The Pennchants’ graduating seniors, Are We There Yet? is a culmination of the styles that singers have developed since they were first–year students.
Ostensibly, Are We There Yet? is also in conversation with The Pennchants' legacy as an organization—its title is a cheeky riposte to one previous full–length release, 2014’s Close Enough. However, this album was always going to be unlike anything the group had put out before, as it was conceived and produced entirely during the COVID–19 pandemic. What resulted were new constraints on the recording and rehearsal process, but also new innovations.
Evan estimates that “it’s been untold hundreds of hours, if not close to a thousand or more hours, put into this project over the course of the summer.” That includes all the steps from song selection to arrangement, audio and video recording, and multimedia editing.
The biggest hurdles during production were more of the social variety. “I really miss being able to hang out with The Pennchants,” says Bauti. The group is so much more than an extracurricular commitment—it’s a support system, a circle of close friends, and a respite from the Penn grind. Without an in–person component, those aspects were more difficult to maintain.
"It’s going to be hard for any member to want to put in six hours a week on a song, [let] alone in their room," says Evan.
But as much as this was a year of challenges, Jack says it was also a year of finding silver linings.
One of these was adopting the mantras of “unlimited takes” and “unlimited parts.” The latter meant “[we were] able to add more to the soundscape then we usually do ... different elements of sound that are really hard to achieve in a live performance,” according to Evan. This is emblematic of the shifting approach to audio production that marks this album as a turning point for The Pennchants.
What makes Are We There Yet? a unique listening experience compared to Pennchants performances, or even previous albums, is that these arrangements often wouldn’t be feasible in a live setting. You would be hard–pressed to find a prior recording as pristine and full–bodied as their cover of “My Life Would Suck Without You” by Kelly Clarkson, which I had the privilege of listening to before release day.
The group's YouTube series was consistently entertaining, but those videos were "a bit all over the place sometimes," Evan admits, "even though that's the way we like it." In contrast, the album is designed to be a cohesive listening experience from start to finish.
As business manager, Jack came prepared with a three–part pitch for listeners, whether they’re long–time fans or former a cappella detractors. In addition to centering the aforementioned standard of musical excellence and diversity of genres and styles, he says this project has been first and foremost about “trying to stay true to the spirit of having fun as a group that The Pennchants has always embodied. The camaraderie that we have ... the brotherhood that we have.”
It’s that brotherhood that Bauti, Evan, and Jack all hope to see carried beyond this experience, even as The Pennchants move along the ambiguous, ever–changing path back to in–person rehearsals and live performances.
Jack wants to celebrate “the resilience that the individual members had throughout the whole process."
"They really proved to us that they are very serious about making music,” he says.
Evan makes it clear, though, that the group was far from faltering. “We’ve always been a creative group, and we’ve always been a passionate group. The spirit of The Pennchants was still alive and well throughout this entire thing," he says.
That spirit is embodied on Are We There Yet?, an album that will serve for years to come as a testament to being tested and coming out stronger on the other end.