Opening for infamously iconoclastic, 40-year-old Bay Area contemporary music heroes Kronos Quartet, as the young Friction Quartet did earlier this year, might launch even the most experienced string player into a bow-snapping fit of nerves. But the Friction foursome was built on determination and fearlessness. “I wanted to start a contemporary string quartet since I was in high school,” co-founder and violinist Kevin Rogers explained. “Doug [Machiz] and I decided that if he ever moved to San Francisco, that we would form one together. A year later, we founded Friction Quartet.”
Cellist Machiz, who hails from Washington, D.C., had his own contemporary music conversion high in the Italian Alps with Rogers, playing Philip Glass’s third string quartet with Rogers at the Zephyr Music Festival. (They opened for Kronos with an exhilarating take on Glass’s fifth string quartet). Friction’s other members — Alaskan violist Taija Warbelow and violinist Otis Harriel, from Arcata — joined for a breathless, edgy past two years, featuring a run of festival dates, 26 commissions, and 22 premieres. Highlights include Transmediation, “a ground-breaking exploration of composer-performer-audience interaction through technology”; Unmanned, a resonant, war-themed environmental-electronic piece by Ian Dicke; and the odd haunting Radiohead cover here and there.
“Initially, finding other like-minded musicians was difficult,” Rogers said, but now the quartet seems up for anything — including reaching a larger audience with their upcoming debut studio album EQM. “It stands for Electronic Quartet Music, a play on the Electronic Dance Music genre, and reflects our interest in all kinds of music.” In May, the quartet will perform “A Show of Hands” at ODC Theater with dance company Garrett-Moulton Productions, and June will see an appearance at the Switchboard presents series. Oh, and they’re also involved in “Little Opera,” an after-school program that guides children through the process of creating an opera, from music to story to costumes.
Rogers summarizes the friction between life and art that sparks creativity and draws many to contemporary music: “Despite, or possibly because of, growing up in the South, I was opposed to a lot of the ideas from the culture. Specifically the conservative ideas about how one should act, or what political party they should follow. I always stuck out a little bit, being this guy that played violin and wrote poetry and advocated for the rights of those who were different. What better place to move to than San Francisco?”
What musicians or works of music have inspired you?
Taija: March from The Love of Three Oranges by Prokofiev — I used to listen to it endlessly on repeat. The work ethic of Midori and Hilary Hahn. Cat Empire also makes me very happy.
Otis: Henryk Szeryng’s Bach Ciaccone, watching violinist Jascha Heifetz’s first movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, Justice, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Doug: Radiohead, Tortoise, and Bang on a Can All Stars are huge influences for me. Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” is the piece that inspired me to study the cello.
Kevin: My three major teachers; Nan Hudson, William Terwilliger, and Bettina Mussumeli; Radiohead, Johnny Greenwood, Gidon Kremer (violinist), Kronos Quartet, and eighth blackbird.
What’s the most underrated local act that people should know more about?
Kevin: The Living Earth Show, another post-classical group. They are an electric guitar and percussion duo that slides easily between the realms of the most esoteric contemporary art music and the dirtiest rock-influenced traditions. Check out “north pacific garbage patch” on Soundcloud.
Take it from this one: Most music journalists are not secretly very talented musicians, toiling away in writers’ clothes. Most emcees, of course, are not Rocky Rivera — a San Francisco-born rapper whose love of hip-hop first took the form of a journalism career, including covering the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene for this very publication, Rolling Stone, and others.
In 2008, “trading her Moleskines for microphones,” as she puts it, she became Rocky Rivera, cribbing her stage name from a fellow Filipina-American heroine in the 1996 novel Gangster of Love, by SF author Jessica Hagedorn. The book now also shares a title with Rivera’s second full-length album, which dropped in October 2013.
It’s an album that commands hip-hop fans to sit up and take notice — sharp but not overproduced, lyrical and gutteral, with beats that both pay homage to the ’80s and ’90s (when Rivera was a teenager going to Balboa High School, then SFSU, listening to Queen Latifah, Salt n’ Pepa, and MC Lyte) and showcase the emcee’s lightning-quick tongue and take-no-BS feminist message. Her devotees range from hardcore rap fans across the country to the East Oakland kids who are part of the after-school programs she helps coordinate in, yes, her other other life as a teacher. Suffice it to say, she’s a busy woman.
What were your inspirations for this record?
The new album was inspired by all the happenings in the world since my first album in 2010. So much had transpired politically across the globe, from the Arab Spring, to Oscar Grant, Pussy Riot — all of that affected my need to write something as a soundtrack to an uprising. I also got a ton of inspiration from reading the Hunger Games trilogy, which made me want to create something that would be a drumbeat to political and social change and have the perfect amount of agitation and aggression.
I also have the fun songs in there. “Jockin’ Me” was one where I just told my best friends and bandmates, DJ Roza, and Irie Eyez, to drink a bunch of whiskey and hop in the booth and talk shit.
What are you most proud of so far as a musician?
Providing people an alternative to the kind of hip-hop music that is damaging to the human psyche. There is no more introspection or social analysis in music anymore, and every song I write is a personal way to connect to my fans. I found myself complaining about the lack of this and that and saw it was more constructive to create what I found missing in hip-hop, not just as a woman, but as a progressive person of color who is proud of her history and of growing up in San Francisco.
Weirdest thing that’s happened at a show?
Someone heckled me about Breaking Bad not being progressive or something. They obviously have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. I almost kicked her out for not respecting the legacy of Walter White.
Bay Area food item you couldn’t (metaphorically) live without?
It’d be easy to resent Anthony Ferraro, the force behind Astronauts, etc., if he didn’t seem like such an agreeable guy. In the months following his graduation from UC Berkeley last summer — a time when many of us are flipping coins to decide between the barista job or the unpaid internship — Ferraro had just become Toro y Moi‘s new keyboardist, and was juggling prep for their international tour with writing songs for his second solo EP. The latter project will be released in the next month or so, but the first single, “Sadie,” a happily hazed-out, keys-focused electronic number that sounds like a love ballad on Vicodin, has already charmed the entire chillwave-loving Internet.
A classically trained pianist who has the French composer Hector Berlioz tattooed on his arm, Ferraro now directs his energy toward making music that sounds like it was sent from the future, though he describes it simply as “supermelodic pulp.” He’s supported by Scott Brown on bass, Derek Barber on guitar, and Aaron Gold on drums, “all incredible musicians who can play circles around me, and often do,” he says. The resulting sound is lush, dreamy, and so full that it doesn’t quite feel right to call Ferraro a bedroom producer.
The music’s also definitely collaborative; he’s part of the Non-Market collective, a group of Oakland friend-bands that all seem to be growing in one way or another, including Waterstrider, Bells Atlas, last year’s On the Rise band Trails and Ways, and this year’s Goldie winner The Seshen. (Members of Waterstrider and Bells Atlas are part of Astronauts Etc’s live band as well.) And while his highly anticipated EP isn’t out yet, Ferraro’s just begun demo-ing tracks for an LP he plans to record in the summer or fall. Long story short: Get used to hearing his name.
Weirdest thing that’s happened at a show?
Probably the Toro y Moi show in Columbia, S.C., where someone lit a bunch of scraps of paper on fire and dropped them on us from the balcony. I think he had a cape on, too. He got escorted out, and we somehow didn’t miss a beat.
Bay Area food item you couldn’t (metaphorically) live without?
The $4 bánh mì at the Vietnamese place around the corner from my house. When you’re in that final stretch before you get paid from tour, those start to look real good.
How do you survive here as a musician? What’s the best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay Area?
It’s not as much a national musical hub as places like Brooklyn or LA, but the Bay is such a welcoming place for artists of any sort. The beauty of it is that everyone survives together, not in spite of each other. Maybe the worst thing about it is that it’s easy to get stuck here, but then you realize that that’s not such a bad thing after all.
“If Rakim and MC Lyte had a baby” is the short version, when you ask the Oakland duo Nu Dekades — made up of writer-emcees RyanNicole and K.E.V., for Kickin’ Every Verse — for a description of their sound. But the longer version is worth hearing, too.
“By iTunes standards, we are defined simply as hip-hop, but we describe our sound as the convergence of Black music combining elements of jazz, funk, soul, and reggae…as expressed through hip hop,” explains RyanNicole, an Oakland native who’s also stage actress — this spring she’ll appear in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production of A Raisin In The Sun. The pair considers themselves anthropologists for the genre, describing their second full-length album, 2013’s NEXUS, as “a love song to our people…people of the African diaspora, experiencing life in the context of color, be it beautiful or tragic.”
What that means sonically: A warm, energetic landscape of old-school hip-hop built over the French producer Dela’s jazzy beats, be-bop influences that recall Digable Planets, but with the emcees trading verses that displays a thoroughly modern determination — a lyrical focus that’s not afraid to be directly political or spiritual, or both at the same time.
“We’re not studio revolutionaries,” says RyanNicole. “Kev and I are products and servants of our community, and our stances and statements do not come from a thin veneer of political experience or social awareness, as may be the case with many ‘conscious’ artists.” The duo is at work on their third record, tentatively titled Recomposition, and have plans to tour in the second half of 2014.
How do you survive here as a musician? What’s the best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay Area?
A mentor of ours used to say to us that “Real MCs have day jobs.” We certainly do, as we are the primary funders of our own projects&ldots;also, we are learning that, ironically, as much as we love the Bay, the best way for the Bay to love us back is to perform elsewhere. Gil Scott Heron said “home is where the hatred is.” We’ve come to learn that home doesn’t necessarily love you until another place validates you. That truism is the best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay.
Weirdest /coolest thing that’s happened at a show?
Everything about performing is cool and weird! Rocking shows and being respected in cyphers with people we grew up listening to, like MC Lyte, Camp Lo, and Phife of A Tribe Called Quest. One of our weirdest shows — we performed in front of a very small audience of mostly drug addicts. It was one of the smallest and liveliest crowds we’ve ever rocked!
Hedonistic breakdowns and riffs similar to Thin Lizzy? Check. Songwriting and vocal delivery reminiscent of Guided by Voices and Weezer? Double check. These traits (along with a few other things) are what make for the musical genetic makeup of Tony Molina’s bedroom pop solo project.
Molina was born in San Francisco but grew up mostly in Millbrae, just a few miles over. And throughout the years, one thing has remained constant: active participation in the Bay Area punk scene. He has been in hordes of bands, such as Ovens, Violent Change, Lifetime Problems, Case Of Emergency, and Dystrophy.
For Molina, the results of each band are humbling. “Don’t know about the other guys, but looking back and seeing all the shit me and my friends have recorded over the last 12 or so years is really crazy,” he says. “Some of my best friends have made some of my all-time favorite records, which is really cool and inspiring.”
Though Molina has been writing music for some time, it was initially his current bassist Spencer Rangitch’s idea to play shows for Molina’s poppier solo material. Currently the band is made up of Rangitch, Anthony Boruch Comstock on drums), and Jake Dudley and Andrew Kerwin on guitar.
Since the release of his debut EP Dissed and Dismissed last year, he has garnered attention from NPR, Spin, and various independent weeklies spanning the country. After selling out its initial pressing on Bay Area Label Melters, Molina’s reissuing the album on vinyl and cassette — now on Slumberland records — for a March 25 release. As for new material, he says we can expect a new LP and 7-inch later on this year.
Until then, he’s working his day job (at a movie theater) and passing the time playing in five other bands (Caged Animal, Scalped, Fraudulent Lifestyle, Provos, and Opposition 2 Society).
Best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay Area?
The best thing about the Bay Area is that my friends are always doing cool shit and have legitimately been in some of my favorite bands ever. I think that’s really cool. The worst thing about SF is there is not enough sick hardcore bands here. I don’t relate to a lot of the local music out here that I see. I really want to, but a lot of times it just doesn’t happen. If you aren’t wearing sweatpants and rapping over straight-up ignorant ass riffs, I’m mostly likely not going to be into it.
Favorite Bay Area venue?
My friend Ryan’s garage in the Outer Richmond. Every show in that tiny garage was sick. I think cops started showing up there to shut shows down a lot towards the end. RIP shows at that house.
The first time I saw Annie Girl & the Flight play, I started thinking about what it is, exactly, that makes a frontwoman: Annie Girl’s voice is a disaffected sing-song (Mazzy Star meets Kathleen Hanna?) that belies a dark, jagged well of feeling at the heart of the music; that’s surely front and center, layered over bandmate Josh Pollock’s slow-building wall of guitar. But it’s her absolute lack of showiness, her refusal to be anything other than exactly what she is, and her tendency to attract the entire room’s focus and energy not in spite of but because of that quality that makes her someone to watch: She has all the specific makings of a star who doesn’t seem to give a shit that she’s a star.
A Colorado native, Annie moved to the Bay Area three years ago, at age 17, on something of a whim: “I’d been attending community college, getting ready to transfer to the state school, when the dean accidentally gave me the wrong date for the application deadline,” she says. “I missed it by a day, took that as a sign, and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco.”
Having grown up playing in Denver punk bands, she found that Northern California brought out a different sound in her songwriting — what she now calls the band’s mix of “super slow, hypnotic folk and loud, trance-inducing, art-rock.”
Add in supporting players who are veteran musicians — Pollock’s played with psych-rock giants like Gong as well as SF bands like Foxtails Brigade and the one and only Bobb Saggeth; bassist Joe Lewis is a regular on the local folk circuit (Rupa and the April Fishes, Kacey Johansing, Fpodbod), drummer Nick Ott also plays with Emily Jane White and Vanish — and the result is magnetic. Their recently released single “Betray the Sea” is the first off their new EP, Pilot Electric, which they’ll debut May 2 at The Chapel.
Best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay Area?
Josh: The best thing is that it’s the Bay Area, which seems to be one of the better places to live on this Earth. Also, if you want to do something artistically, you can do just do it — you don’t need a Kickstarter campaign, or a board of directors, or investors, you can just do it. Maybe no one will care, but you don’t have to wait around for some higher power to give you the keys to the kingdom. The worst thing is that everyone knows this, so everyone wants to live here, so it’s laceratingly expensive.
Most underrated local act (other than you)?
Nick: Most underrated local act is probably Bronze. They are the best psychedelic art rock band since Silver Apples.
Annie: Ash Reiter, Everyone is Dirty, Li Xi, Yesway, FpodBpod, Lee Gallagher & The Hallelujah, Sugar Candy Mountain, Kelly McFarling, Michael Musika. The Bay Area is overflowing with incredible music, all you have to do is go out and find it.
First record you remember loving?
Annie: “Once In A Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. When I was a baby my parents discovered that playing the Talking Heads kept me from crying.
“On the Rise” almost feels inappropriate for Useless Eaters, since it began in 2008 as Seth Sutton’s bedroom recording project in Memphis, Tennessee. On the scene (now that its founding and creative force relocated to the Bay Area last year) and ready to take over might be a more appropriate description.
When I was a DJ at the original KUSF, 90.3 FM, Goner Records had sent the station a care package. One of the 7″ singles included was “Sucked In” b/w “Malfunction” and “My Help.” It was an unexpected but eye-opening and welcome surprise. Blown-out, edgy, and punk as fuck, it was a relief to hear something that sounded both retro and fresh. I immediately placed it in heavy rotation on my show.
Sutton’s self-described “angular punk” really is an incorporation of many influences. The Clash, notably, struck a chord with him, and Devo’s humanoid approach can be heard on some of the recent (darker, distorted in a new-wave sense) material. The sleeve on the aforementioned single (designed by him, like most of his collaged record sleeves) credits Sutton with pretty much all of the instruments and songwriting, but the latest incarnation of the band is as “solid” a unit as ever, he says. Now they’re even writing songs as a group.
He keeps good company with POW!’s Byron Blum on guitar (another band Sutton has since joined), Brendan Hagarty on bass, and Miles Luttrell, formerly of The Mallard, on drums. As for their live show, they’ve got enough energy to blow up a car on stage like the late Wendy O. Williams. If she were still around, they’d at least have her pumping her leather-gloved fist.
Five years worth of recorded output shows three LPs, a stockpile of exciting singles, and EPs on multiple labels including Southpaw, Goodbye Boozy, and Tic-Tac Totally!, with another full-length due on Jeffery Drag Records this year. They also just finished playing their fourth SXSW, did some tour dates with another Bay Area band, Scraper, and are picking up the pace by sinking their teeth into a number of gigs on both sides of the Bay. Fleeing bands, farewell. We now have Useless Eaters. May they wear the crown well.
What brought you to the Bay Area?
I was living in Nashville for two and a half years. No one seems to really have any ambition to do much more than drinking shitty beer and going to country karaoke bars. [It] has no soul compared to Memphis, where I grew up.
I had always planned on moving to the West Coast, but was just waiting for the right time. I have always been infatuated with SF since the first time I rolled through on tour with my hardcore band in 2008. Living here just feels natural to me at the moment, and it’s a good change from the slow pace of the South.
Without a doubt, the award for “most buzz generated from the most modest amount of music that’s actually out in the world so far” goes to CATHEDRALS, an electro-pop duo that has about 4000 fans on Facebook at the time of this writing…and all of two (excellent) singles on SoundCloud, the most recent of which, “Harlem,” was released three weeks ago and is approaching 180,000 plays.
Singer-songwriters Brodie Jenkins (Ghost & Gale) and Johnny Hwin (bassist for blackbird blackbird, one of the head folks at the art-and-tech-collective warehouse The Sub) met about two years ago through a friend — despite the fact that they’d been at Stanford at the same time — and just couldn’t stop jamming together.
Jenkins’ almost hauntingly pure voice is layered over Hwin’s guitar, synth, and computer magic for a dynamic that’s clearly hit a nerve; each of their singles, in all its danceable, head bob-able, simultaneously otherworldly and more-human-than-a-lot-of-electronic-music glory, has garnered a seriously impressive amount of chatter. Plans for the rest of the year: Getting an album out as soon as possible.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of warm analog timbers you get from real instruments and synths with the silky ‘electronic’ sounds you can only get from chopping and manipulating WAV files on a computer,” says Hwin, an Oakland-born, Hercules-raised kid, of the duo’s sound. “I love writing melodies to fit his instrumentation. We do this thing that we call ‘vocal playgrounding,’ where I riff on top of an instrumental that Johnny’s started,” says Jenkins, who grew up on an apple orchard in Sebastapol. Adds Hwin: “She’s got a golden ear.”
Where does the name come from?
Brodie: CATHEDRALS came out of a word-play exercise involving an insane number of many-colored post-it notes.
Johnny: We wanted a name to encapsulate the imagery and thematic elements of our music and partnership: duality, surrealism, sensuality, etc., so we wrote down all of these ideas, shuffled them around, and found what we were looking for.
Favorite venue in the Bay Area to play?
Johnny: I love the sound system and vibe of The Chapel.
Brodie: My absolute favorite venue to play in the city is Viracocha, but I also love Amnesia and the Rickshaw Stop because they’re such intimate spaces with a great vibe. We’ve also done a few shows at Johnny’s warehouse-turned-art-space called the Sub. There is a great community of artists and entrepreneurs who hang out at the Sub, so it’s a really special place for us to play.
How to describe a Meklit Hadero performance? Warm, bluesy upright bass; bright trumpet and saxophone. Elements of classic ’60s folk by way of acoustic guitar, a lean toward R&B and soul, lyrics that blend personal and political, the intimate and the universal. The unmistakable influence of the music of Ethiopia — the singer’s country of birth — shapes her music as it darts between genres. But what sucks you in, what keeps your eyes and ears locked on Meklit, what makes an unselfconscious Damn start to grow at the back of your mouth is her voice: Lilting, sensuous, capable of the leap from staccato jazz-cat to honeyed songbird, she conveys both fragility and great strength in a single line.
Meklit, who often goes by her first name, grew up in Washington DC, Iowa, Brooklyn, and Florida after her family moved to the US when she was just shy of two years old. Throughout the moves, she was always singing. “As a kid I saw two paths…[one] that led to a kind of cult of fame, which wasn’t really my thing. The second path was a more academic approach to music, which I also didn’t like,” she says. “I was interested in music that engaged with the world around it, and artists who were cultural voices that mattered.”
She didn’t begin making music professionally until moving to San Francisco, however, post-Yale, at age 24. Here, she found an artists’ community that was “still reeling from the first dot-com bust,” with “artists picking up the slack and making noise with all sorts of street-level organizing.” The Red Poppy Art House and the Mission Arts and Performance Project both served as launching pads for her live performances, which led to recording. Ten years later, she’s been a TED Global Fellow, served as an artist-in-residence at NYU, and completed musical commissions for the San Francisco Foundation and the Brava Theatre.
Meklit’s second full-length album, We Are Alive, has her backed by Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorca Hart on drums, and Sam Bevan on bass. The record is currently garnering critical praise from NPR, USA Today, and other national media hot-shots, and the year is shaping up to be a busy one — in addition to touring North America and traveling to Rio for a TED conference, Meklit will be working on an arts installation with YBCA called “Home (Away From) Home” with Ethiopian and Eritrean artists based in the Bay Area. We in the Bay Area also get her record release show, at Great American Music Hall on April 2.
Influences: Caetano Veloso taught me that you could write a song about anything, Aster Aweke taught me that the human voice can express absolutely any emotion if you lead it the right way. Michael Jackson taught me that you can create an entire dance style all on your own. Nina Simone taught me that the raw moments are what stay with people once the song is done. Miles Davis taught me to never sit still and sit on a sound that is bring you success. Keep moving! John Coltrane taught me that you can hear when sound comes from intense inner searching. David Byrne taught me that a little humor and absurdity goes along way.
The first album I ever loved was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I remember being four years old and dancing to it in the living room of our tiny Iowa apartment. I really wore the entire record out. I even wrote a fan letter to MJ when I was five. It took more than a year but his fan club wrote back.
Weirdest/coolest thing that’s happened at a show? In 2011, I went on a tour of Ethiopia with my band. We were performing at the foot of the ancient castles in Gondar, with electricity borrowed from the local Red Cross. It had been storming all day long and the power in the whole city suddenly went down. Folks started driving their cars with the headlights on to light the stage. The sense of possibility was palpable. My cousin, emcee Gabriel Teodros, climbed on top of another car and begin rapping to the crowd from there. Suddenly, the electricity was back, the crowd went wild, and the band continued to play. That was pretty epic.
Have you heard the news? Bohemia is dying. All the musicians are leaving San Francisco. Our favorite venues and dingy little clubs are all closing up shop, and being replaced by artisan cocktail bars filled with Google Glasses and reclaimed wood toilet seats.
OK, so some of that is true. The music scene is changing, to be sure; how could it not, with the influx of wealth over the past few years? Yes, we’re sad about Cafe du Nord. Yes, we’re worried about the Elbo Room.
What’s also true: We still have one of the richest musical histories anywhere in the world, and artists aren’t going to stop flocking here anytime soon. One glance at our listings section will tell you there’s live music to be found every single night of the week, and San Francisco’s small size relative to its population — a major factor in the current wave of gentrification and the state of the real estate market — also means that the vast array of genres here, and the communities that exist around different music scenes, all hum along pretty much on top of each other.
In one night, you could take in a jazz jam session in the Haight, a hardcore band in the outer Mission, an Irish folk quartet in North Beach, a synthwave producer in SoMa, a hip-hop show in the Western Addition, and, um, Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band in the Richmond. (I’ve done all of these recently, and I only regret that last one.) That’s not even touching on the East Bay, which — despite being pronounced almost like an epithet in the city lately, as in “Everyone’s having to move to the East Bay” — is arguably fostering some of the most interesting, nascent micro-scenes in music right now.
With that in mind, we at the Guardian set out to pick 10 artists that we thought deserved our attention in the coming year. We couldn’t narrow it past 11. (Click that first photo up there for a slideshow.) This year’s On the Rise acts come from so many different worlds, have been inspired by so many different artists — Freddie Mercury, MC Lyte, and the 19th century composer Hector Berlioz all make appearances, to give you a taste — and, unsurprisingly, they all make incredibly different kinds of music. Some of these artists are Bay Area natives; some were born on other continents. What they have in common (aside from talent) is a love of this place, its people, its weirdness, and yes, its challenges.
We love them back. And we don’t plan on letting them go anywhere else anytime soon.
Patrick Brown, sound engineer and owner of the Mission’s Different Fur Studios, is a busy guy — both literally a man about town, as well as on the internets. I’ve started calling him the Santa Claus of social medias — always watchin’ his friends’ web behaviors, good, bad, whatever. He’s consistently first to like posts and favorite tweets, while simultaneously pulling off epic shifts in the studio.
But despite the screen-mediated chatter we had recently traded, I hadn’t actually seen the guy in months. I wanted to interview him: I hoped for secrets, opinions about the SF music biz, and other pertinent wizardry. With this in mind, I got an insider tip from his girlfriend: the promise of dim sum could usually lure him out of the studio.
Our “date” landed on Superbowl Sunday, and we happily avoided sports fans by venturing to Chinatown. Beneath red lanterns and pouring rain, we pulled up barstools at the Buddha Lounge and ordered Lucky beers, listening to “PYT” on the jukebox and watching a regular sway his hips in the doorway.
“Is that some kind of fat joke?” he asked, when I ‘fessed up to the social-media Santa nickname, as he nibbled on the bartender’s gift of microwave popcorn. It was Chinese New Year; a celebratory firecracker screeched in the street.
“I regularly spend 12 hours a day in a room. I can’t be out in the world, but I still want to exchange information out there,” he explained. Social media is his way of showing support while buried beneath work, he said. He links people to projects, and projects to people, patting the community on the back with likes and re-tweets.
In the seven years that he’s owned The Fur — he bought it from the previous owners in 2008, just four years after starting as an intern — it’s become increasingly important for him to extend his love of the music scene beyond the studio. This means showing face at venues, promoting bands, and partnering with brands that share like-minded intent.
“It’s important for people here to be building things versus bashing,” he says, noting the city’s current debate about tech and how it’s affecting the SF music scene. (Brown recently spoke to the issue while seated on a panel of music industry folks at The Chapel, seeming relatively unfazed by the complaints and quandaries.)
“This is all awfully familiar,” he says, recalling his experiences throughout the first dot-com boom — when, much like the current, monetarily-fueled tension, swarms of musicians and sound engineers left for the promised lands of LA and New York. The music biz ached with abandonment.
While things today may appear similar, he insists they’re not the same.
“The culture of San Francisco has changed, but it doesn’t mean the music business is suffering. It may mean musicians are suffering,” he says, adding that this city isn’t particularly fair to a lot of people and industries. “Sure, musicians should be able to make a living, but not everyone is gonna make it. It’s no different with sound engineers. Do you know how many interns I’ve fired? It’s really competitive out there.”
When Brown himself began as an intern at Different Fur in 2004, the SF scene was still recouping from tech deflation. Business was dry, and Brown saw opportunity in the quiet: space to learn, fuck up, and grow. It worked. He took over as studio manager three years later, and then in 2008 he bought the whole damn rig.
“I decided to stay and make my own shit,” he says. “And now I can do whatever I want. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true.” At the time of our interview, the studio’s calendar was booked through May, sometimes double-booked. Does The Fur hog too much of his time? He scoffs.
“I didn’t pick a career where I would make a million dollars and I didn’t pick a 9-to-5,” he says. “I work long hours for crazy people — musicians — and in the process, I’ve become one of those crazy people.”
Brown’s career path followed a nomadic, diverse education: he studied architecture in Paris, English and psychology in New York, and advertising and film in SF. He repeatedly found himself failing, bored, and planning his escape to the next shiny curriculum.
By the time art school had begun to lose its appeal, he’d begun recording a few low-key recording projects with musician friends. The needle dropped: He did a year at SF State for Music Business, following it up with two years at Ex’pression College. He was hooked.
“People always ask me if listening to the same three-minute track for 12 hours on repeat drives me nuts,” he says, shaking his head, and takes a sip of round two: a pink Mai Tai. “I love it. It was my cue — that’s how I knew I actually wanted to be a sound engineer.”
The more diverse his repertoire can be, the better: A long list of recent projects includes an Armenian classical quartet, a dance hall remix, darkwave, and a Brazilian pop group. (“They all inform each other,” he says.) Brown is also a member of the Grammy board, plays host for the Converse Rubbertracks sessions, and occasionally makes music with his buddy Robert Pera as Woof Beats. He loves throwing events, like a recent listening party for the Grouch and Eligh. His latest addition is sound consulting for GitHub, a partnership aimed at creating fruitful connections between music and tech.
To put it lightly, he’s a workhorse. The horse is, of course, the latest Chinese zodiac sign to come into its 12-year rotation and, as a 1978 baby, Brown claims stallion status. The timing is right, too, since 2013 proved rough: Steve Brodsky, one of his closest friends and cohorts, passed away, and two much-loved Fur employees gave their notice. Brown’s mood shift was palpable, the year of grieving slowly eroding his usual sarcastic banter.
But the new year is freshly upon us and there’s already a notable difference in his mood. His hooves are shiny, so to speak — geared up for the gallop ahead.
“This year I want hang time with my girlfriend…I can’t sit in front of a console for 16 hours a day,” he says with conviction, then contradicts it all by admitting he also doesn’t want to work less. He laughs. “I’m not sure how it’s going to work exactly. All I know is that I’m in a better mood about it all.”
In a world populated by all too many singer-songwriters, where guitar ballads seem to have exhausted all their possibilities, Mark Kozelek continues to confound and disarm audiences. From his harmonically rich open-tunings, to his spacious, deeply resonant vocals, there’s a lush quality to Kozelek’s recorded output that’s rarely found in such unadorned, acoustically driven music. It’s no wonder, then, that his formative recordings with Red House Painters in the ’90s made room for a singer-songwriter’s approach on the 4AD label, defined by its densely-layered, heavily electronic atmospherics.
Kozelek’s subsequent recordings as Sun Kil Moon have gradually pared the layers down further. Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003) traded the dreamy, slowcore tendencies of the Red House Painters’ discography for a more physical, earthbound approach, reflected in its overarching theme of boxers throughout history. Its 14-minute opus, “Duk Koo Kim” remains Kozelek’s most full-bodied, musically vibrant work to date. April (2008) leaned more heavily on extended compositions, maintaining the luminous, shimmering quality of his previous work, despite its starker instrumentation. With the introduction of his own label, Caldo Verde Records, Kozelek — who’ll be performing at Noise Pop March 1 — was given the leeway to pursue other avenues, from full albums of AC/DC and Modest Mouse covers to a collection of live releases that continues to grow with jam band-worthy prolificacy.
The release of Admiral Fell Promises (2010) marked a significant turning point in Kozelek’s career, with a nylon-string acoustic guitar providing its sole instrumentation, while 2012’s Among the Leaves announced a jarring shift in his lyrical style, finding inspiration in an off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness approach, a focus on the mundane, and a tendency towards blunt honesty: most infamously, deriding his audience as a bunch of “guys in tennis shoes.” These past couple records have found Kozelek in a transitional period, grasping for something slightly beyond his reach and, as a result, they weren’t as deeply satisfying or rewarding as his best work.
With the release of this year’s Benji, however, all is forgiven. Here, the desolate instrumentation and frank lyricism of his recent output is instilled with a greater sense of purpose. It’s Kozelek’s most autobiographical work to date, as well as his saddest. Death looms over each song. Good people die in freak accidents before their time, while criminals die of old age. Despite his determination to “find some poetry to make some sense of this, and give some deeper meaning,” as stated on the record’s opening track “Carissa,” the banalities found on Among the Leaves continue to show themselves. Panera Bread is mentioned at least twice, while a trip to Berkeley’s Greek Theatre can’t be recounted without a reference to the back pain-inducing walk up that steep hill.
This thematic balance between tragedy, profundity, and the utterly mundane brings the listener into Kozelek’s thought process in the rawest, most unrefined way imaginable. His lyrical style here is jarringly straightforward, approaching character studies with blunt language, and little need for metaphor. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is an obvious comparison, in its bleakly worded yet ultimately dignified portrayals of humanity at its messiest and most desperate.
“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” tells the story of the California serial killer dying on his own terms, while “Pray for Newtown” eulogizes shooting victims who met their ends too soon. “Dogs” explores the dark side of young love, in all its humiliation and emotional turmoil, with startling intimacy and brutal honesty. The boomer-rock of “I Love My Dad” mercifully, yet briefly, lightens the mood, while the record’s 10-minute centerpiece, “I Saw the Film the Song Remains the Same” strikes a gorgeous balance between the central themes of brooding meditations on death, and casual observations of life.
“The way this song drifts in and out of different realities and memories is a lot like the movies,” Kozelek wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times, “weaving documentary, imagination and memory throughout, always coming back to the music.”
“I loved the thunder of John Bonham’s drums,” Kozelek sings, describing his experience watching Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same at the theater as a teenager, “but even more I liked ‘No Quarter”s low Fender Rhodes hum.” In reflecting upon his preference for Zeppelin’s balladry over its rock pyrotechnics, he draws a connection to the melancholy that has defined his life from a young age. From the deaths of relatives and mere acquaintances that continue to haunt him, to his first record deal, with the similarly downcast 4AD label that helped reinforce his identity, Kozelek expands on one small anecdote to encompass the profundities of life, with a deftness of prose that his entire career has seemingly been working toward.
In spite of occasional contributions from singer-songwriter Will Oldham, former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and Advance Base keyboardist Owen Ashworth, Kozelek’s nylon-string fingerpicking remains squarely at the heart of this record, along with the ever-increasing rasp of his voice. More than any album in Kozelek’s deep catalog, Benji lends itself intuitively to his solo live strategy, making this coming Saturday’s Noise Pop appearance at the Great American Music Hall absolutely essential to understanding the inspiration and motivation behind one of the Bay Area’s finest living songwriters.
Noise Pop: An Evening with Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon & Red House Painters
As she stares down the remainder of what’s sure to be the busiest year of her career, Angel Olsen’s new digs are helping calm any potentially frayed nerves.
“It’s so mellow here, and people just don’t give a shit,” says the indie-folk singer about her new home of Asheville, N.C. “They build campfires and go to softball games or DJ nights. It’s nice after so much traveling to go somewhere that’s not a huge city.”
For example: Chicago, where Olsen spent the previous seven years developing a devoted following for her striking vocals and emotional songwriting. Although she cherishes the city for helping her hone her craft, the move to a smaller, more rural home was long overdue. It makes sense, then, that Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her excellent second full-length, was born in the spirit of her new surroundings.
Strange Cacti, Olsen’s 2010 debut EP, was a lo-fi and spare batch of songs built entirely upon simple guitar strumming and loads of reverb. The biggest draw, however, was her voice, with its distinctive blend of influences: echoes of Roy Orbison’s pained runs and Patsy Cline’s plaintive twang, among others. She upped the ante for her first LP, 2012’s Half Way Home, enlisting the help of Emmett Kelly (The Cairo Gang), who fleshed things out with bass, drums and a cleaner production sound. By the time she was beginning work for Burn Your Fire For No Witness, the collaborative bug had fully taken hold.
“The new material I was writing was different than what I’d done previously,” she says. “It was more electric and I had a vision for a louder sound with more going on between the singing. The idea was to create an album that sounded not just like Angel Olsen, but that sounded like a band.”
In putting together a group, Olsen looked to a pair of musicians she’d worked with during her Half Way Home tour. Joshua Jaeger and Stewart Bronaugh are strong and tactful in their contributions, adding color with keyboards, pounding drums and something entirely new to Olsen’s music — distorted guitars. The new approach molded her songwriting in unexpected ways.
“Working with the band and experimenting with my voice made me interested in making music that can breathe, instead of it continually being so focused on the words,” she says. “I can see people being concerned that the sound is coming from a producer or someone else making the changes, but really I’ve just been changing myself.”
Of course, for someone used to shaping her music on her own, having extra hands in the studio took some getting used to.
“I suddenly felt a lot of pressure by having all these people now involved in what I was doing, so I wanted to be very particular about my choices,” she says.
Luckily it didn’t take long for her to build a strong relationship with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Rogue Wave). Songs were arranged and rearranged until everyone was happy with the result.
For all the bells and whistles, however, the standout of Burn Your Fire For No Witness is still Olsen’s vocals. Whether singing a stripped-down acoustic ballad (“Enemy”), belting out pop hooks (“Hi-Five”) or pulling off haunting restraint (“White Fire”), she’s never sounded more self-assured. The rubber-band vocal flexibility allows her to shade the album’s 11 tracks in a variety of moods that still work harmoniously as a whole.
“I wanted to take what I’d learned with Strange Cacti being so lo-fi and with Half Way Home being kind of dry, with no reverb or affect, and use both those sounds and apply them to each song depending on what it called for,” she says.
Like many singer-songwriters who have transitioned to the full band format, Angel Olsen is kicking off the next stage of her career. It’s a rare treat, however, to see it handled with such surefooted poise.
“When you’re with a band, you can listen back and after the show talk about what parts you like or what parts need work,” she says. “When you’re on your own you don’t experience it that way. So the whole idea of sharing it with people has been really fun and interesting.”
GOLDIES “What was the latest? Afro-futurism? Afro-futurism,” says Lalin St. Juste, songwriter and lead singer in the East Bay band The Seshen, of how the somewhat un-categorizable band has been categorized by critics most recently. “Which we’re kind of OK with. It makes me think of, like, a silver afro.”
“Or, you know, like we trade in afro futures,” says keyboardist Mahesh Rao, between bites of chips and salsa, eliciting a burst of laughter from his bandmates. “Electro-soul is OK too. We were calling ourselves electro-pop for a while, but then Paris Hilton came out with a record a while back that she was calling electro-pop, and I was like, Lalin, we gotta take that off our business cards.”
Call them what you will. The sounds this seven-piece band makes are captivating, layering the soulful, Erykah Badu-reminiscent vocals of St. Juste and the musical theater-trained Akasha Orr — whose smile you can hear in her voice — with precise electronic samples, dub sounds, R&B guitar grooves, bass lines that beg to be bumped out your car window at a stoplight, and percussion that seems to borrow from at least three continents.
It’s both sexy and a little nerdy: immersive, inviting, warmer than your weirdest Radiohead, but with a chilled-out, dreamy, late-night sensibility and spirituality. It’d be just at home on an indie-rock mix as, say, Beach House, but it’s hardly background music — there’s just too damn much going on. Live, the Seshen is committed to a specific blend of electronic elements and “humanity…I think we have something really human and warm, because of the vocals, live drums, other human elements,” says percussionist Mirza Kopelman. Regardless, the band’s setup is far from straightforward; St. Juste’s custom pedal board looks like it could power a small plane. “Sound guys hate us,” offers synchronizer-sampler Kumar Butler.
People often don’t quite know what to do with them, Seshen members are the first to admit. They’ve been labeled “world music” in the past simply because, as far as they can tell, they’re seven people representing a wide range of ethnicities. But especially following the release of last summer’s spaced-out, sped-up trip-hoppy, drum-and-keyboard-driven single “2000 Seasons,” which revealed a more upbeat sound than The Seshen’s self-titled 2012 debut, hip-shaking seems to be a common reaction.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
“Some songs are meant for sitting and relaxing,” says St. Juste, “but in general, we want people to dance.” Bigger crowds and stages have followed. Playing Oakland’s Hiero Day last year, band members were overwhelmed to hear that some of their local childhood hip-hop heroes were Seshen fans, too.
It’s a rehearsal evening, which means members are sprawled around their studio — the tricked-out den of an El Cerrito house that St. Juste, producer-bassist Aki Ehara, and Orr all share — with snacks and beers and their notes about the most recent mixes of their upcoming EP, due out this spring. There’s a dartboard in one corner; a campy poster featuring the winged angel version of Michael Jackson dominates another, while D’Angelo stares across the room from an LP cover.
Just past a tiny enclave marked by a photo of Ehara’s grandfather is the producer’s recording and mixing setup — the band does it all, quite literally and very meticulously, in-house. The value of Ehara’s determined focus on the subtleties of a mix cannot be overstated, say his bandmates. In honing the band’s sound, says Ehara, he’s influenced by delving into the history of electronic music, he says, going back to John Cage and early BBC radio electronica. “That, alone, opened a whole other door for me.”
“I’ve played in a lot of bands, and I’ve never been in one that pays this much attention to detail,” says drummer Chris Thalmann. “Everyone has a really high level of expectation for what we put out there.” That perfectionism is starting to get attention: In January, they inked a deal with Tru Thoughts, an independent label out of Brighton, UK. After the EP comes out, the big plan for 2014 is to tour more — pack themselves into a 15-passenger van and find out if they get along as well on the road, stinky socks and all, as they do at home.
“We do have to corral ourselves back into working sometimes,” says Orr. “It is pretty amazing that with this many people we all really get along, but we do. We have fun, and we love each other. That part’s organic.”
“I think that’s part of what sets us apart from some electronic acts,” says Kopelman. “We’re seven people making something together. Not, you know, a mustachioed hipster on a laptop.”
GOLDIES “I don’t care how much equipment you have, how many laptops you’ve got hooked together — if you’re just making a bunch of trendy electronic sounds, if you don’t know melody or dynamics or how to really play an instrument… you aren’t making any music.”
The masked man known as DJ Nebakaneza is notorious for his dazzling and unsettling outfits, gonzo energy, brain-scrambling bass, and rollicking social media presence. He isn’t afraid to court controversy or speak his mind about what’s going on in dance music, either. But dig a little beneath the flash and bombast and a portrait of an artist as a young bass maven emerges, one brimming with deep musical knowledge, canny intellectual vision, disarming charm, and inspiring faith in his hometown scene.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Neb without including the rest of his Irie Cartel DJ crew — JohnnyFive, Mr. Kitt, Miss Haze, and Danny Weird. Irie Cartel has had a profound effect on the San Francisco dance music scene. But to understand just how much of an effect, we’ll need to run down a little history of what didn’t happen in the San Francisco clubs.
In the early 2000s a deep and throbbing apocalyptic sound from the grimier neighborhoods of London called dubstep started shaking the bass bins of the underground. By 2007, it was seeping into club nights here like Grime City, Brap Dem, and Full Melt, drawing critical interest and providing a nice complement to the minimal techno and disco revivalism that was also happening at the time.
But then a funny thing happened: mainstream America, apparently looking for a new arena-style rockout, hijacked dubstep, gutting it of all but its deep bass and catchy name. Pop artists adopted the sound, twisting it into a series of bowel-rumbling bass drops (nothing wrong with those, really), and it became known more for its fist-pumping frat party reputation than a reflection of the more angsty corners of urbanity. A wave of bro-step began washing over US clubs, threatening to wash out more subtle party expressions with its macho aggression.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
That onslaught was stopped at our borders, thanks to Irie Cartel, whose weekly Ritual dubstep nights kept the fun factor high (and the bass extremely low), but also made room for classic bass music sounds, experimental electronic showcases, and flights of melodic beauty. It still melted your face, but poetically. Irie also emphasized old school rave community spirit: At its height, in the basement of club Temple, the Ritual party included a community marketplace for people to sell their handmade wares and food. It was like a cosmic bass bazaar full of beautiful bass faces. “We’re all musically nerdy,” Neb says of his crew. “But we strip out all the ‘look at me’ ego that came with the mainstream dubstep scene.”
DJ Neb got into dubstep, in fact, as a fresh-faced youth who wandered into Grime City one night. “I spotted this flyer pasted to a wall and decided to check it out — it was at the old Anu club on Sixth Street at the time. And when I walked in, I was blown away by this wave of bass, these awesome sounds that seemed to be pulling me apart. I never looked back from there,” he told me over the phone, as he prepared to leave for a gig in Uruguay. “It seemed to pull together something that had been brewing in me somewhere. I’d always been into music. I started working at Rasputin Records as soon as I could, and would spend all my free time in there, too — just digging through bins and listening to music. My paycheck would go right back into those records. They used to pay me in music, essentially.
“As a kid, I played percussion. I went through a Janet Jackson and New Jack Swing phase, got really into hip-hop. I was deep into downtempo, trip hop, and rare groove when I started DJing. It was the whole ‘lounge era’ of nightlife, so I started getting a lot of gigs as a cocktail hour DJ. I even had a chillout show on KKSF, the smooth jazz radio station,” he laughed.
“But when the dubstep thing started blowing up for me, I realized it was time to create a new persona, and that’s when DJ Nebakaneza was born. I had to delete my previous existence. I made a ceremonial sacrifice of that guy.” Neb went on to host the Wobble Wednesdays show on Live 105 and rise to the forefront of forward-thinking yet accessible bass purveyors.
But now it’s 2014, dubstep has almost completely played itself out — bro-step wiz Skrillex’s latest shows have been billed as “playing the classics” — and Ritual is on hold. (“When dubstep became popular, Ritual suddenly had this massive influx of people who were drawn to the sound but had never been in a club before, didn’t know how to act,” Neb said. “They were spurned by a lot of our regulars, who closed ranks. But I was like, ‘We were all new at the party at one point, wouldn’t it be better to connect with these people?’ It was sad that our scene got so defensive. I wish we could have embraced the fear a little more. But we’re just giving everything a time out. Ritual will be back.”)
If dubstep is no longer an option, what’s a dubstep DJ to do?
Go back to the drawing board, of course. Last year, DJ Nebakaneza started releasing a series of exquisite mixes tapping into his vast knowledge banks. Each month he would take on a new, unexpected genre — yacht rock, rare disco, Dirty South hip-hop, instrumental funk, even emerging ones like half-time — and weave something magical from his roots. The Expansion Series is one of the most ambitious things I’ve heard a Bay Area DJ attempt, and it comes off pretty flawless.
“I was having an identity crisis,” Neb said. “Dubstep had kind of moved on, and I missed my crate-digging days. Playing those lounge sets — some of them were four or more hours long. That’s a lot of music. I missed being able to sneak all kinds of colors into it. I also missed playing the music that’s closest to my heart: Isley Brothers, James Brown, all that beautiful old funk and soul. I needed to break myself down a little to see how to move ahead.”
Currently, Neb is throwing a bass-oriented monthly party called Paradigm with fellow head Lud Dub. But he’s still planning his next sonic move. “I want something sexy, still with the bass, but a more ‘purple’ feel. Not the trap sound that’s been happening, but something deep and hot.”
Heavens, does that mean the edgy Nebakaneza persona will be tossed to the wind? “Don’t worry, Nebakaneza’s not going anywhere. And I’m still keeping the mask.”
GOLDIES After being informed that Bay Guardian editors and a theater critic vetted his Goldie nomination, Brontez Purnell reacts. “I think it’s fuckin’ rad. I’m pretty into it. A theater critic? Was I criticized?”
Sitting in the backyard of his Mission District apartment, braced leg extended with crutches at his side, Purnell reflects on roughly 12 years of living in the Bay Area (his Mission digs are temporary; he’s about to move back to Oakland). A storyteller of many mediums, his injury prevents him from dancing until mid-March, which is no good since he’s the founder of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company. If you’ve lived here a minute, you might recognize him as a former Sparky’s Diner waiter, working the “drunk tank” every Saturday night.
“When I was 24, my entire dating pool had seen me dance naked or in my underwear — literally get fingered at a Gravy Train!!!! show. They’d see [me] there and think they could be mean to me like, ‘Gimmie my fries!'” He recalls this, along with other illicit memories from his time in the Oakland-based, exclamation point-loving electro clash band.
But like fans of that fad, he’s moved on. He’s 31 now and for the past 10 years the music he writes, records, and performs live is for his band Younger Lovers. Its newest record, Sugar In My Pocket, recently came out on Southpaw Records.
“I don’t think anyone knew I had this background of a punk that had been playing in bands since I was a teenager,” he says, explaining there was overlap between the two music projects with distinctly different flavors, though Younger Lovers’ first album initially received a “hateful response from a lot of the gay boys around.
Everyone thought it was this flash-in-the-pan thing, but it’s something I was actually working on for a long time. It was cool to smash a lot of assumptions with Younger Lovers. People would say, ‘Wow, we didn’t know you played an instrument. We thought you were just kind of drunk and danced around.'”
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
People still ask him about those old shows, but he admits to not
remembering a lot of it and that some of that life bleeds over to now. “I would call myself an alcoholic.
I would never call myself a drug addict. I feel like the next set of Younger Lovers’ songs will probably be about addiction.”
Purnell is nothing if not self-aware; he points out his own patterns of over-consumption, whether it be food, men, drugs, or alcohol. But his ability to turn weakness into strength is artistry in itself. In his dance company’s The Episodes, universal themes of struggling with identity and finding oneself are apparent, but being black and gay only makes the search for acceptance that much harder.
“I romanticize the outsider. There’s always going to be this running theme of me versus the world, but it’s never so personal to me because I feel like I’m embodying the story of 100 of my friends in one voice.”
In one sequence, “Tub,” Purnell soaks a new pair of jeans while talking on the phone to a friend. The veil of humor is used to deal with heavier topics, as he segues from commentary on butch gays (or “bearded ladies,” as he likes to call them) with their trendy “Hitler Youth haircuts” and how he’s disappointed when they think he’s too effeminate for them, to his own T-cell count, to some suspiciously descriptive-drug scenarios that involve snorting heroin. Another segment recalls a “redneck teacher bitch” from his home state of Alabama, giving the class scientifically incorrect and insensitive, to say the least, explanations of where AIDS comes from.
“I never let humor interfere with what is definitely a message,” Purnell says. “Underneath it all, there is going to be that point where somebody is like, ‘Oh shit. He’s not joking. He’s joking, but he’s totally not joking.’ Humor is actually a really dangerous tool.”
His truth, he says doesn’t always set him free, but as the saying goes — sometimes it hurts. And that’s the beauty of what Purnell does: He looks at his reality, his disappointments, and his personal achievements, and he’s able to persist. He remains one of the more resilient creative forces on the scene he helped make, despite oftentimes receiving second-tier ranking to some of his contemporaries.
Does he play the victim? Well, he gets accused of it a lot, but that’s because of “people’s fucked-up views on what a victim is.” He recites a James Baldwin quote he loves: “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”
In short: Purnell is not a victim — he’s a fighter. And as a singer, songwriter, musician, choreographer, dancer, and performer, he proves himself by doing all these things … and then some.
MUSIC “I always wanted to know how music sounded in outer space. And with certain types of crystals you can supposedly tune into different frequencies, receive other transmissions. Often I meditate with crystals, go to sleep, and dream about music from outer space. Then I wake up, make stuff like that on the turntables, and take it from there.”
That’s a lot of there to take it from, but DJ Qbert is no stranger to mixing the cosmic with the underground. A legendary emissary of scratch who became the international representative of turntable culture in the 1990s along with his “band” Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Q has always mixed a heavy dose of Bay Area flavor into his masterly sets — which aren’t typical DJ sets by any means, but untethered, jazz-like flights during which a set of turntables and a crossfader, manipulated lightning-fast, become their own kind of spaceship. His polyrhythmic scratch concertos summon white noise, radio interference, oceanic undertow, Looney Tunes quick cuts, vintage advertising jingles, embryonic hip-hop, Big Brother menace, and fiendish, childlike glee. Great beauty, too, especially when you think of them as pure sonic expression, floating free of time and space. Not that you can’t dance your ass off to most of it, mind you.
We were talking about his new album Extraterrestria, dropping in March on the Thud Rumble label and backed by a huge Kickstarter campaign that aims not just to fund the disc, a marketing campaign and a tour, but also typical Qbert innovations like amazing touch-sensitive digital album packaging that simulates DJ controller equipment. (More details at www.djqbert.com)
“The album is actually two albums in one, two different discs,” Qbert, looking tight in a buttondown shirt and track pants, told me. “Extraterrestria is music from another galaxy, hip-hop beats from other planets, collected by the Galactic Scratch Federation. It’s as bizarre and unique as I could make it, a collection of weird noises and different time signatures with as much scratching as possible. The second disc is called Galaxxxian, which is hip-hop from earth beamed into space: raw, primitive. It features a bunch of MCs — Kool Keith, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Mr. Lif, Soul Khan, Bambu — doing their thing, which a lot of time, you know, means going for the sex, drugs, and hip-hop and roll. We’re not quite on the extraterrestrial level, yet.”
Other biggies like Dan the Automator, Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, cellist-trombonist Dana Leong, and rapper El-P (here a producer) also contributed. “What with the recession and everything, a lot of us have been trading with each other, so we can continue collaborating. Like I’ll do a beat for your album if you do a verse on mine. Something where the money’s phased out, a barter thing. It’s put us back in touch with what’s real,” Qbert said.
TWIST THE FORCE
As we talked on the second floor of the California Academy of Sciences, the first floor was rapidly filling up for the Academy’s weekly Nightlife party, this week a launch celebration and fundraiser for Extraterrestria — and a reunion of sorts for turntablism heads, albeit one bursting with fresh young faces. As b-boys and fly girls made their way through exotic landscapes, whale skeletons, stuffed giraffes, a butterfly-flooded rainforest dome, and aquarium displays including live stingrays, giant octopi, frisky penguins, Claude the albino alligator, and phosphorescent jellyfish, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the deliciously loopy, phantasmagorical animated movie version of Qbert’s era-defining previous album Wave Twisters, released 16 years ago.
That’s a long time between official releases, but it wasn’t like Qbert had been kidnapped by aliens. Although his live performance schedule was less-than-usual bonkers, he still made regular appearances, by himself or as part of his extended Bay Area scratch crew family. He popularized turntable techniques in a series of instructional videos and launched online educational community Qbert Skratch University, in 2009. He also went all in on the equipment tip, putting out his own brand of turntable cartridges and needles, an Invisibl Skratch Piklz-branded mixer, “and of course our own vinyl to scratch with — which is really vinyl on one side and a digital interface on the other, for use with DJ software like Traktor.”
Fifteen years has also seen the rise of social media and a more user-friendly Internet. Has that changed the way he produces beats or performs at all? “Of course it’s been great for finding new sounds to use,” Qbert said. “If I want to hear, say, a tarantula farting, I can look it up instantly and hear that. On the other hand, most of my old sets are up there now, with all their mistakes, and a lot of times I’m cringing and say in a small voice, ‘Please, please let them delete that.’ It keeps me on my toes now, knowing everything can be recorded in all its glory. But because I’ve actually been working on this album for seven years, all that’s been incorporated — it’s not like a shock. I use what I can use.
“But I try not to be trapped in the present. I often think back to the past, to cats like Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong. That timeless, improvisational jazz feeling where you practice and practice, but when the time comes you’re just an instrument connecting with the god-force, channeling the sound through you, swinging through that ocean of feeling. When you’re in that zone, that’s the most wonderful thing. It’s a meditation, a spiritual thing. We’re all spirits, so we have to connect to other spirits and the most high, whatever you want to call it — God, Allah — connect to that creator source and use it because it’s yours to use. Like how some writers just flow and do that automatic writing, they’re just instruments. We’re just instruments you know, it all flows through us.”
When Qbert, raised in SF’s Excelsior neighborhood, astonished the DJ world by winning its spun-out version of the Olympics, the DMC World Championships, not once (solo, 1991) but three more times in a row after that (as part of Rocksteady DJs with Mixmaster Mike and Apollo) it was an unparalleled triumph not just for local scratch and hip-hop community, but for Bay Area Filipino American culture as well.
As music critic and Guardian contributor Oliver Wang details meticulously in his forthcoming book Legions of Boom: Mobility, Identity and Filipino American Disc Jockeys in the San Francisco Bay Area (Duke University Press), a vibrant scene of Filipino mobile DJ crews — independent groups of teenage sound and lighting specialists hired to provide entertainment for weddings, graduations, and parties — thrived here since the 1970s. When hip-hop eclipsed disco on the request lists in the 1980s, the mobile crews defined streetwise Bay Area Filipino youth culture and provided a fertile training ground (and sometimes needed cash) for young DJ up-and-comers.
Qbert’s domination of the DJ world could be read as the apex of that scene, which faded in the 1990s with the rise of digital technology. And of course Qbert went on to create his own crew of fellow Filipino DJs: The Invisibl Skratch Piklz, with Shortkut, Apollo, Mix Master Mike, and several others. The Piklz went on to become insanely popular, establishing scratching and other turntable manipulations as a form of art and a highly marketable genre — turntablism — that changed the sound of hip-hop and dance music. Mix Master Mike went on to become, in essence, the fourth Beastie Boy; one early ISP member was A-Trak, current turntable-wielding heartthrob of the superstar EDM crowd.
In fact, the current popularity of turntable-rooted DJs like A-Trak and the burgeoning trip-hop and late ’90s revival makes the timing of Qbert’s return auspicious. “A-Trak runs a dance music scene and I think it’s great that he brings the scratching into it, he’s really unique in that field — so more power to him for turning on a different crowd to the sound. But for me it’s never really gone away, pure scratching. There’s a zillion underground cats who are genius at what they do — Quest, Deeandroid and Ceslkii, Disk, tons more. And maybe the widespread recognition isn’t there, maybe it isn’t in your face like it once was, but they’re all around. It’s like the guys who still do yo-yo tricks. They don’t know things have moved on. They keep practicing and practicing and doing incredible things, regardless of how many people are following. They’re always battling, always progressing. Never put down your yo-yo, man,” he laughs.
As for connecting to a new generation, working with (gasp!) turntables and (double gasp!) vinyl at this stage of DJ history is a deliberate artistic choice. Even with a resurgence of interest in analog techniques — a specific reaction to digital overload — does Qbert fear that scratching will be seen as merely a retro novelty?
“I think no one can deny that, whether you’re old or young, using a turntable to make a scratch sound — well, you can’t deny that it sounds really bugged out. How else are you going to make that sound unless you’re actually moving the sound with your own hand? Just to hold the sound and grab it, move it back and forth — that’s unique and fascinating to people. It’s like a sci-fi movie in real life, a sound that people have heard since maybe they were little kids, but one that also points to a future where man meets machine. It’s a real manipulation, a sound design in itself. What other instrument can do that?”
Being a radio DJ in 2014 feels oddly radical.”What do you mean ‘radio’?” people ask, totally perplexed, when I tell them what I do. It’s an independent station on the Internets, I tell them. “Can I call in?” is, without fail, their next question. Not exactly, I say, but we can tweet. It’s not your grandfather’s radio, but the perks are all there.
Web or dial, radio at a very basic level is transmission and reception. No doubt DJing now is physically different from my days on college radio — for starters, 2005 meant I was still fumbling with stacks upon stacks of CDs. Sometimes that shit would skip. Sometimes the play button would stick. Once I lost a disc under the desk and that was that — no more Brother Ali.
As a young college pup, I started as most do — manning a graveyard shift that allowed for the inevitable fuck-ups all newbies make: leaving the mic on while you sing to yourself, messy transitions, stuttering, and awkward jokes. Eventually I smoothed my nerves, developed a more seductive voice, and became master of the knobs and buttons. All my hard work earned a prime-time slot — happy hour. I had arrived. People were listening. I flirted with the idea of radio as a career.
In came the warnings. People called me brave for attempting to make my way into “dying industries”: journalism and radio. They gave me sad eyes, as if envisioning a lifetime of layoffs and corner store ramen. I picked one sinking ship over the other and continued writing. My radio days earned me iPod rights on road trips and conversations at parties, but “DJ” wasn’t even listed on my resume.
I kind of forgot about my old friend, the radio — at least in terms of working with the medium. Then came my new friend, BFF.fm: A now four-month-old, web-based radio station housed in the Mission. The programming is a constant stream of rad, weird, new, and classic jams. The DJs are a diverse batch of local cats, bonded by their unique obsessions with music.
And so it’s official: Radio and I have rekindled our romance.
Every Friday night my human BFF, Brit Spangler, and I co-host “hello, cheetle,” two hours of ratty rock-and-roll and secrets about our whiskey habits, stoney shenanigans, pizza, merkins, and all kinds of naughty things that I’m slightly embarrassed to have my parents hear on the regular — yes, they’re dedicated listeners.
Thankfully the station founder, Amanda Guest, thinks all this is entertaining. Creepy girls being creeps is OK by BFF standards. The station aims to be the audible representation of San Francisco. Guest is beyond stoked by BFF’s growing popularity.
“Things are going prettyyyyy amazingly,” Guest tells me while sipping a gin and tonic. She’s smiling hard. “I know it’s dumb to say, since I started the station, but…I love the station. I think it’s great. It’s filling a need.”
Birthing a San Francisco radio station was the entire purpose of her move from the East Coast a couple years back. Her skeptical Massachusetts friends sent her packing for a city that might be down with such unique ambitions. The original plan included hosting the station from her and husband Forrest’s apartment, but the idea quickly outgrew the living room. “I had this dream, but it wasn’t big enough,” — her grand plans were taking shape and collecting support.
Guest — aka DJ Cosmic Amanda — craved a real broadcast studio. By a fat stroke of luck and plenty of charm, she landed a space in the fairytale-esque Peter Pan-style workspace that is the Secret Alley. Immediately she and her man began the work that would get BFF on air.
“Forrest became the station manager and pretty much handled everything else related to that department,” she says. “I was like, oh, I’ve seen a station, I know what it looks like — you just plug this into this. Clearly that is not how it works.”
Through technical concerns, financial woes, and equipment searches, the couple caressed the challenges until their lovechild of a station was born. “BFF.fm is the baby I will never have,” she says, laughing — in all seriousness.
Trading potential offspring for SF music nerds, the Guest family is growing — 60 DJs now host 45 shows throughout the week. From obscure electronica and ’80s favorites to garage rock and blues, BFF’s roster goes in all directions.
“I like to say our show plays ‘high-quality’ music — no point in using genres anymore,” says Gregory Hill, who DJs as Cool Greg on Monday nights. Together with co-hosts Marisa Breall and Katie Kopacz, the trio plays tracks to complement their other shared gig, Professional Fans: show promoters, DJs, and the like.
“Our show is the perfect way to plug both the shows we are going to as fans and the ones we are going to as promoters,” says Hill. The friends see the radio as bonding space for music lovers at large: fans, bands, labels, and venues, all mingling in new ways. “BFF is creating community. There’s some real closeness happening.”
This kind of passion is exactly what Guest is cultivating. “I want to see real excitement in the DJs. Putting together a thoughtful show every week isn’t easy. It takes a certain kind of person, someone who strives to keep it fresh,” she says, being a long-time DJ herself. “It’s a job done out of love.”
I ask her if streaming ever weirds her out. Does the connection feel less real? Less radio?
“It still feels very natural to me. The delivery has changed a lot but the basic components remain,” she says.
“It’s still a person in a room, sharing with another person somewhere else. It’s people devoting their attention to a shared media,” she says. “Radio is magic.”
For those of us who’ve been following Michael Showalter since he was but a flop-haired 20-something on MTV’s The State — where he gave us, among other absurdist treasures, Doug, a rebellious teenager whose cool dad gave him frustratingly little to rebel against — there is no Showalter project too silly, too cranky, too obscure to love. Whether it was Stella, Michael and Michael Have Issues, or, say, the training montage from Wet Hot American Summer that burrowed its way weirdly into your heart, there’s something about the comedian that’s eminently, endearingly watchable.
Ahead of his appearances Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at SF Sketchfest, we caught up with Showalter as he took a break in the writers’ room of the Rebel Wilson TV show Super Fun Night (he’s a producer) to talk cats, comedy, and what makes him feel like a loser.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: You have several projects going on right now, but the first thing I need to ask about is a male-centric cat ownership guidebook you published last October: Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too. How many cats do you have?
Michael Showalter: Right now I’m living in LA, and we have four indoor cats here. And then at our place in Brooklyn, there’s a small posse of cats that live in my backyard, that are now being taken care of by the people subletting our place. At any given moment there are between three and six cats back there…so using the law of averages, I’ll say I have seven.
SFBG: Why did the world need a book about how to be a male cat lady?
MS: Basically, I really took to heart the saying “Write what you know.” I looked around me and said “What do you know?” As I was saying that I probably had two cats on my lap. My next book is going to be about drinking coffee.
SFBG: Since it’s premiering at Sundance this week, what can you tell us about They Came Together (in theaters Jan. 24) , the Paul Rudd-Amy Poehler rom-com you made with your usual partner-in-crime David Wain? Do you think it will appease the hordes of Wet Hot American Summer fans who are hungry for a sequel — or prequel, as has been discussed?
MS: I’d say it’s a parody/homage to the romantic comedies of the ’80s and ’90s that myself and David Wain sort of grew up on and loved. It’s a combination send-up/love letter, based in New York. Obviously it’s got a great cast…and yeah, it’s very similar in a lot of ways [to Wet Hot]. It has a lot of the same sensibility to it, the reference points, the sense of humor.
SFBG: Because I have to ask anyway: Is there still a Wet Hot prequel in the works?
MS: Yeah. We’re figuring it out. But I’ve been instructed by David Wain not to talk about it, because we want it to be shrouded in mystery. Like the new Star Wars movie.
MS: Topics! Topics is actually all improvised. Basically the two of us are in character as two guys who take themselves very seriously and think very highly of their own opinions. The main thing with Topics is we try not to tell jokes — we’re just being these characters who are really, really serious about what they’re talking about, but they don’t actually know anything. We just start out with a topic and we improvise for half an hour. [Ed. note — December brought us such topics as “Regret,” “The Middle East,” and “Paranormal Activity.” It’s excellent.]
SFBG: There are some of us for whom The State is still the gold standard in sketch comedy. Do you think it would work on TV right now? There hasn’t really been anything like it since.
MS: You know, I think we were very much a product of our generation. It was Kids in the Hall and The State and the Upright Citizens Brigade…and I think at that time, sketch comedy was still a kind of theatrical thing; it hadn’t yet become so video-based. I don’t know if sketch in that traditional sense is still as viable. But I’m sure another great sketch show will come along, figure out the next thing.
SFBG: As for Sketchfest — of the events you’re scheduled to perform in, I’m most excited about the Uptown Showdown debate on breakfast vs. dinner. Can you say what side you’re on?
MS: (Sighs deeply.) OK, which do you think will win, should win?
SFBG: I would say breakfast, hands down.
MS: Yeah. So I am on dinner. I did not choose to be on dinner; dinner was given to me. Here’s the thing: This will be my fourth time competing in Uptown Showdown. The first time was cats vs. dogs. I was on cats, and we lost to dogs. The second time was Christmas vs. Hanukkah. I was on Christmas, and we lost to Hanukkah. The third time, last year, we did the ’80s vs. the ’90s, and I was on the ’80s, and we lost to the ’90s. So this year — dinner vs. breakfast — I already know I’m going to lose, and I’m livid about it. I’m not even joking. I could read you my emails back and forth with [the organizers] where they’re asking me to do this and I’m saying I don’t like it — here, I’ll pull it up. I wrote, “I’m sick and tired of losing at this.” I’m not being facetious. It’s making me feel bad about myself. Like a loser. It really pisses me off.
SFBG: How did this happen, exactly? Who gets to choose?
MS: Here, let me find this email: “David Wain prefers that his team defend breakfast as the superior meal.” Sure. What’s the point? I know we’ll lose. I have the Uptown Showdown curse.
SFBG: You sound pretty defeatist about this. Are you even going to prepare?
MS: Oh, yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong. When it’s game time, I’ll come to do battle.
Uptown Showdown: Breakfast vs. Dinner Sat/1, 10pm, $30 Marines Memorial Theatre 609 Sutter, SF www.sfsketchfest.com
It’s been an adventurous four years for Ernest Greene. In 2009, the musician now known as Washed Out was producing music in his childhood bedroom, considering law school, and planning his wedding. Perry, Ga., is not widely known for its indie/electronica scene, so Greene posted music to his MySpace page and recorded it on a few cassette tapes for road trips. It was a low-key type of thing — until blogs like Pitchfork started paying attention.
This is about the time I became a fan. I was a freshman in college, brand-new to San Francisco, and Washed Out sounded like the future. Most mainstream electronic production at the time seemed made for rappers, or was heavily drum-and-bass influenced. Washed Out was all ’80s influences, hazy, and chilled out. “Retro lo-fi,” “dream-pop,” “synth-pop.” Chillwave is the genre most seem to have settled on — but two EPs, two studio albums, international tours, a deal with Sub Pop, and a Letterman appearance later, Greene doesn’t seem like he’s settling in any other way anytime soon.
“It really took me a couple of years to figure out my own approach to live shows, how to make them happen in a controlled way,” says Greene, 31. He’s currently touring in support of 2013’s Paracosm with a five-piece band (including his wife, Blair, on synth and vocals) — a notable departure from his beginnings as a bedroom artist with a DJ setup. He’ll bring the show to the Fillmore Jan. 28 and 29. “There were a couple of technological breakthroughs I had…where [earlier] some of the things I was doing in the studio, I wasn’t able to figure out how to accomplish live.”
Coming out from behind the computer screen has had its challenges, he says, but he’s committed to creating live music with a band rather than simply pressing play — a move that’s shifted his focus to vocal performance.
“In the studio, I could double my voice 100 times if I wanted to,” he says. “But if we’re on stage and it’s just five of us, by necessity it’s kind of stripped-down, and the live shows definitely have a different vibe because of that.”
“But harmonies have always been a pretty important part of the Washed Out sound,” he says. “When I first started the Washed Out project, actually, I wasn’t really thinking about singing myself — I was going to bring in someone else to sing, and I was just recording myself as a holding place. I didn’t feel like my voice was very good, so part of the process was layering a ton of different vocal takes on top of each other just to make it sound better. After a long period of doing that, it became the sound, and the music was discovered, and it kind of took on a life of its own.” Most of the vocals on the new record are still layered several times over, he says. Vocals, to Greene, are “just an instrument in the mix.”
A longtime friendship with electronic artist Toro Y Moi — Greene and Chaz Bundick met in school in Georgia — has also meant a like-minded artist to bounce ideas off of.
“He’s probably the most talented musician I’ve ever worked with — just a super creative guy,” says Greene. “We were really lucky that we started getting recognition around the same time, and eased into doing this professionally together…I didn’t have any contacts in the music business [starting out], and I remember having phone calls with him where we would catch up, [talk over] what we were going through. I didn’t have that with anyone else.”
“His music just keeps getting better and better,” Greene adds. “Plus all the guys in my band grew up with the dudes in the Toro Y Moi band, so it’s kind of like a big family.”
The first half of 2014 will see Washed Out touring nearly non-stop, including an appearance at Coachella. He’s ready for it. He’s energized by Paracosm, with its warm, lush instrumentation, its constructed sense of escapism — the album’s title itself refers to the concept of a fantasy world. That correlates heavily with the newer record’s vibrant visual art, he says, as opposed to the stark white design of 2011’s Within & Without.
“This newer stuff is a lot more vibrant-feeling, so the colors seem to suit it well,” he says. “It’s all about the music. That will lead the way most of the time.”
LEFT OF THE DIAL When MTV debuted “Video Killed the Radio Star” at 12:01am on Aug. 1, 1981 — the first music video to air on the brand-new, much-buzzed-about network — producers knew exactly what they were doing. Amid all the excitement about the possibilities video technology presented to the music industry, there was an ambivalence, tinged with apprehension from musicians, about what the sea change would mean for artists. The song perfectly captured the current climate, a combination of brave-new-world optimism and flat-out fear of the future.
Two decades later, a scrappy little Redwood City-based file-sharing startup called Napster would be ordered shut down in federal court. ”It’s time for Napster to stand down and build their business the old-fashioned way — they must get permission first,” said Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, told the New York Times, speaking on behalf of five major record labels that sued the company. And, as everyone knows, that sealed it: Music was never obtained for free on the Internet ever again, all artists were paid fairly for their work, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Funny thing about technological advancement — it only goes one way. The collapse of the record industry over the past decade has given way to a sort of Wild West atmosphere when it comes to the ways musicians, fans, producers, etc. can interact, make art, and do commerce. It has been something of an economic equalizer: Anyone with a Wi-fi connection can throw his latest dubstep/witchhouse cover of “Under the Sea” up on Soundcloud one night, and wake up to a bevy of fans. But most musicians I know would agree that the availability of free or very cheap streaming and downloading services has made it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living from their work the way they might have 30 years ago.
And yet: There are those who would argue that the tech world has more to offer musicians than it might initially seem. In the spirit of our “good tech” issue, I reached out to some local techies who aren’t using their powers for evil.
On the vast playing field of websites and apps that promise to help musicians get their work out into the world — without, ideally, anyone going bankrupt — Bandcamp may have built the most trust among artists, using a straightforward revenue-share model: The company takes 15 percent of sales on digital purchases; 10 percent on merch. Of course, it didn’t hurt when Amanda Palmer decided to forego the traditional album-release route in 2010, releasing her ukulele Radiohead covers album solely on Bandcamp, bringing in $15,000 inside three minutes.
When founder Ethan Diamond launched the site in 2007 — after trying to buy a favorite band’s digital album directly from its website and having “every single technical problem that could go wrong, go wrong” — people were saying “music sales are dead,” recalls the SF resident, a programmer who previously co-founded the webmail service that would become Yahoo! mail. “Within a year or two of the business, you could see that wasn’t true: Even in the digital era, fans actually want to support the artists they love. Right now fans are giving artists $2.8 million every month [through Bandcamp]. We have 50,000 unique artists communicating and marketing directly to their fans…our entire goal is to help artists be successful. That’s really it.”
And no, he doesn’t want to name the band whose technical difficulties inspired the company a few years back — the band members don’t know who they are. And they’re not on Bandcamp yet.
At Zoo Labs, a less-than-year-old nonprofit based out of a recording studio in West Oakland, a handful of heavy hitters from the tech and design worlds asked the question: What happens when you apply a business incubator model — like the well-founded training grounds that typically nurture Silicon Valley startups — to a band? The Zoo Labs Residency, a two-week, all-expenses-paid program for musicians, offers practical skill-building workshops, marketing training, mentorship, and studio time to bands who have a vision but haven’t yet achieved a widespread reach.
“We started talking to musicians about their experiences and how they were managing their careers and accomplishing their projects, and it was really interesting to find that a lot of musicians and producers working in music are having very similar experiences to entrepreneurs in the startup world,” says Anna Acquistapace, a designer who founded the program with Vinitha Watson, an ex-Googler (she opened Google’s first satellite office in India) after the two met in California College of the Arts’ Design Strategy MBA program. Music producer Dan Lawrence (whom — full disclosure — I’ve known since elementary school, at which time he wanted to be a music producer) brought his working knowledge of the local music industry to the team.
“With all of these changes in the [music] industry over the last 10 years, musicians have been forced to take way more control over their marketing channels,” says Acquistapace. “They need to get their own fans, they need to bootstrap their own products in a similar to way to what startups do, whether that means funding albums or demos to pitch to a record label, reaching out to the media…they have to become entrepreneurs, out of necessity. From that, the idea of this artists’ residency-meets-business-incubator or accelerator was born.”
Thus far only one band, an Americana/roots four-piece called the Boston Boys, has completed the residency, participating in a series of workshops and recording sessions tailored specifically to their needs: They took a “sonic branding” class from Oakland producer Jumbo (whose credits include work with Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and others), learned about music law, met with design professionals and leadership coaches. Meanwhile, recording engineer/producer Damien Lewis recorded the band live in the studio most days in sessions that ran from 2 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning; the two-week period culminates in a live show at the studio.
In total, the program costs about $20,000 per session to run, with much of it underwritten by private investors from Silicon Valley who are simply interested in developing new models for the music industry. “If there’s one thing that people are passionate across the board, it’s music,” says Acquistapace.'”I haven’t really seen any other art form that crosses groups the same way.”
(The application period for its March residency just closed, but look for new programming to launch in February; the Beat Lab, which will open next month, aims to be a combination recording studio/coworking space for musicians of all kinds: www.zoolabs.org)
And in, er, music/tech news of a much lower-tech variety: Tom Temprano, co-owner of Virgil’s Sea Room in the Mission, announced this week that the bar, which occupies the space Nap’s III left behind (both physically and in our hearts), will be bringing back the grand Nap’s tradition of sloppy, gleeful karaoke around the glow of a two-tone screen. Starting Jan. 23, every Thursday night at 9pm will find Nap himself back at home base, MCing the action, with songbooks and harmonicas in tow. Because technology will march forward — video may have killed the radio star — but drunken renditions of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop”? Karaoke, my friends, is forever.
LEFT OF THE DIAL Looking back with the sense of perspective that four and a half decades can provide, the year 1969 seems almost implausibly momentous. The US government instated the draft for Vietnam. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. John and Yoko got in bed and stayed there; Jimi shred the Star-Spangled Banner. And the Mets were really, really good.
In San Francisco, Sly and the Family Stone went into the studio — Pacific High Recording, on a tiny street near the 101 between Market and Mission, to be specific—and emerged with a record that would change the course of funk and soul music forever. Stand! was the fourth album from the Vallejo-bred seven-piece, catapulting into the mainstream a band the likes of which popular music had never seen: Two white folks and five black folks, both men and women, who sang about racism, poverty, peace and violence, sex, and other provocative topics in an honest yet irresistably danceable way. At the wheel was Sly Stone (born Sylvester Stewart), a charismatic sometime-soul DJ for SF radio stations and a musical prodigy of sorts who played the keyboard, guitar, bass and drums by age 11.
The record sold more than 3 million copies, propelled by singles like the title track, “Everyday People,” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” It was the apex of the band’s success. Three months later, they would give one of the best performances of their career at Woodstock, at 3:30am on a Sunday. By the end of 1969, after a move to LA, Sly and other Family Stone members were addicted to cocaine; by 1970, tensions were brewing in the studio and on the road. Despite producing a handful of other critically acclaimed records, drug problems and personal rifts grew steadily, and the band dissolved in 1975.
Still: “There are two types of black music,” wrote Joel Selvin in Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History. “Black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.”
Of the 100-plus Bay Area musicians participating in “UnderCover Presents: Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand!” Jan. 17-19, it’s safe to say most came of age in the latter era — regardless of ethnicity — with popular music that bore Stone’s influence. For three consecutive nights at the Independent, nine artists from diverse genres will recreate the iconic album from start to finish, with each band performing its own unique arrangement of the track they were assigned. A record of all the performances was produced at San Francisco’s Faultline Studios in the weeks leading up to the show.
UnderCover has been producing large-scale shows like this every few months for the a little over three years, each time honoring an influential album with a different bill of Bay Area bands and a different guest musical director: Past shows have included reinterpretations of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, and Radiohead’s Kid A. But Stand! represents new ground for a couple reasons: From a technical standpoint, the sheer quantity of musicians participating is daunting, thanks to guest director David Möschler’s 50-person Awesöme Orchestra, a Berkeley-based collective that holds monthly orchestral rehearsals that are free and open to anyone who wants to play.
Perhaps more importantly, this will be the first show honoring a local musician — one whose legacy still commands so much local respect. Recruiting bands who were excited about the chance to honor Sly and the Family Stone, says Möschler, was the easy part.
“If you’re talking innovation, if you’re talking community, if you’re talking Bay Area, that’s Sly,” says Möschler, a Berkeley-based musical director and conductor who comes from the world of orchestra and musical theater. “It was a natural choice.” He pitched Lyz Luke, UnderCover’s director, after being “blown away” by the Joni Mitchell show last January. Möschler said it was time for an Undercover show highlighting an artist of color — and that, while tribute nights to Michael Jackson, Prince and even Stevie Wonder are in no short supply, Sly’s oeuvre seemed to be under-trodden territory.
Why Stand!? “Every song is so powerful and yet so economical. There are these huge political statements — ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,’ ‘Everyday People,’ ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ — but it’s also just extremely good songwriting. And then there’s this 13-minute jam with ‘Sex Machine,'” says Möschler with a laugh. “You can hear that they were at the height of their creative powers as a band.”
Möschler reached out to Bay Area artists that felt like family bands, as Sly’s was. Seemingly impossibly, every artist, from the acclaimed jazz composer/bassist Marcus Shelby to the hip-hop/funk/Latin 10-piece Bayonics, listed a different first choice of song to cover.
“I think we said yes within two minutes,” says Daniel Blum, drummer for the Tumbleweed Wanderers, a folky soul-rock outfit who’ll be performing “Everyday People.” “We were huge fans of the band, but we didn’t want to fall into just covering the song. We played with harmonies, added some signatures of our sound.” Aside from the thrill of reinterpreting Stone’s music, UnderCover presented a rare opportunity to work with a slew of other artists the band respected, said Blum.
“Every show we do, we have artists tell us that they made connections they might never have otherwise, saying ‘You have to keep doing this,'” says Luke. She had the idea for UnderCover late one night three years ago, over drinks at the Latin American Club with Jazz Mafia founder Adam Theis and Classical Revolution’s Charith Premawardhana, then stayed up until morning crafting a dream-team lineup. “Our very first show [a Velvet Underground and Nico night in which Liz Phair and Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins took part], there were musicians running out from backstage just to see the next band, exchanging numbers afterward — they were in awe of each other.”
Theis has since watched the shows evolve as both an organizer and a musician. Though it hasn’t been the case with this show, “More than one previous UnderCover artist has told me that they actually didn’t really dig the song they ended up with at first, but that it brought them to a place where they had to dig and search for what the song meant to them,” says Theis, whose ensemble will be performing “You Can Make It If You Try.” “For me, that’s brought me to new musical places that I never would have gotten to just by staying in my comfort zone.”
Speaking of comfort zones: Nothing’s official, but this may be the first UnderCover show featuring members of the band being honored. Sly Stone famously fell on hard times in the early ’80s, suffering from addiction, financial problems and alleged mental illness; the musician, who is believed to live in Vallejo again, has made public appearances only sporadically since. But at least a few other original members have happily said they’ll be there. And Sly definitely knows about the show, thanks to Jeff Kaliss, a former Chronicle entertainment reporter who in 2008 penned the only authorized biography of the band, including the first in-depth interview with the elusive musician in over two decades. The verdict: Sly supposedly thinks it sounds “very cool.”
“The number of people from Sly’s community who have reached out has been truly amazing,” says Luke. “We’re talking major, famous funk guys going ‘We’re on board, we’ll help you. I think the community was waiting for this. I don’t think I realized what he means to the Bay Area.”
UnderCover Presents Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!”
TOFU AND WHISKEY The Rickshaw Stop has a pretty basic modus operandi: Shows should be fun and bands should be treated well. Hey, it’s a method that’s worked so far. San Francisco’s eclectic, two-story, rock-pop-dance venue on the edge of Hayes Valley opened in January 2004 — exactly 10 years back. The popular independent and locally owned venue has since hosted a slew of then-rising major acts across genres and weekly packed shows for all ages (depending on the night in question).
“God, there are so many great memories,” says longtime Rickshaw Stop talent buyer Dan Strachota.
MIA played the 400-person Rickshaw Stop many years back and climbed right up on the piano while performing. Once, Jens Lenkmen walked through an awestruck crowd and kept singing on his way to a couch, taking a load off mid-show. During a raucous, out-of-control Monotonix gig, a fan in a wheelchair crowd surfed through the Israeli punk trio’s San Francisco set. South Africa’s Die Antwoord brought clamoring crowds, as has DJ Funk at Blow Up, Jonathan Richman, Toro y Moi, Glass Candy, Jessie Ware, Grimes, Vampire Weekend, tUnE-yArDs, Sharon Jones, and Mayer Hawthorne. There was once an iTunes showcase that featured back-to-back sets, weirdly enough, by Jolie Holland, Sammy Hagar, and E-40.
And to think, during all those shows, at least one guy was likely trying to finagle his way into one of the actual rickshaws scattered around the venue. (The comedian Robin Williams once did it too, if you’re curious about random star power).
So in celebration of those 10 years of fun and mayhem, the Rickshaw Stop (155 Fell, SF; www.rickshawstop.com) is throwing a near week-long mini fest, inviting back old favorites including gifted rocker Mikal Cronin with fellow locals Cool Ghouls and Cocktails (Wed/8, 8pm, $17); dramatic, synth-popped Geographer (Thu/9, sold out); experimental pop duo YACHT (Fri/10, 9pm, $20); and queer dance party Cockblock (Sat/11, 10pm, $10). There’s also Leslie and the Lys with Double Duchess and DJ Kidd Sysko (Sun/12, 8pm, $16), which should be an extra-fun dance pop evening. (There was a show Jan. 7 as well, kicking off the fest, with the Spits, Violent Change, and Crez DeeDee.)
The venue is offering a weeklong pass for the event at $65, for those who know they’ll be showing up nightly. And it’ll be giving away free limited edition posters for all the individual shows during the fest.
“The idea behind the headliners was [that] we wanted bands that had all played the club before, that we loved both musically and as people, and that had gone on to play larger venues. For openers, I wanted to do what we always try to do — pick great, fun local bands that will fit nicely with the headliners,” says Strachota.
Strachota has been involved with the venue since day one, in one form or another — DJing the opening night celebration, then throwing a regular party dubbed Three Kinds of Stupid. He began booking some six months into the venue’s run. The western Massachusetts native moved to San Francisco in 1990 and worked previously as the music editor at SF Weekly and as a freelance music writer. But booking was something new when the Rickshaw first opened. “I liked the challenge of starting a club from scratch,” he says.
While the venue has had its fair share of hits, including breaking major acts and hosting ingenious yearly Noise Pop nights, there are also those rare times when it misses a chance at a touring act. It had a first shot at booking Lorde in SF but didn’t realize how quickly she’d blow up. It also, incredibly, never hosted Thee Oh Sees (and yes, it might be awhile now. See below).
Strachota notes his only other main frustration comes from “when no one shows up for a great band and you have no idea why.”
That said, he’s consistently amazed by the enthusiasm of audiences for the broad spectrum of acts they pack in. “We’re really proud of our diversity. That’s something I’ve always strived for. And our staff really clamors for. They don’t want the same thing every night.”
One random week at the club might play host to an up-and-coming rock ‘n’ roll band, a Nerd Nite talk or Moth StorySLAM, and a lesbian dance party. This week, however, will be an even glitzier lineup — a sort of best-of mix of the lively venue’s thrilling past decade.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note a certain pang of despair after learning in late December of John Dwyer’s SF abandonment. The Thee Oh Sees front person is much more than his current band (now on hiatus). He’s a San Francisco art punk-garage rock icon, having cutting his teeth in the late ’90s and early aughts in seminal SF bands Pink and Brown and the Coachwhips before achieving even more national acclaim with Thee Oh Sees. He screamed into megaphones and invited the crowds to circle in closer, closer even.
He was one of the last holdouts of a dwindling local DIY scene, and news of his departure for sunny LA sent shockwaves through the blogosphere. One friend posted: “Somewhere I read, ‘If John Dwyer leaves, you really know it’s an end of an era’ and well, it’s an end of an era.” SF Weekly was first to report the move, quoting Dwyer at the Great American Music Hall — “This will be the last Oh Sees show for a long while, so dig in” — and confirming with the band’s booking agent, Annie Southworth, that Thee Oh Sees would indeed be going on indefinite hiatus. In the meantime, hold your rockers closer tonight.
CHAIN & THE GANG AND THE SHIVAS
Speaking of art punk legends, Ian Svenonius’ Chain & the Gang is back! The DC group, led by the lithe former Make-Up, Nation of Ulysses, and Weird War front person has a sound that matches its moniker. It’s the shrieking, chain-dragging rock ‘n’ roll of weirdo outlaws (the Gang including organ, saxophone, and traditional guitar-drums-bass). Svenonius’ gang comes to SF with the Shivas, a quite young fellow K Records act that pays tribute to fuzzy ’60s dance rock and throws in some horror surf in all the wavy, beat-filled, harmonious ways you’d hope for. The Shivas released its debut LP, Whiteout, on K this past April. A few spins of the record are highly recommended before the show. It makes you want to make out on the beach at night. Thu/9, 7pm, $8. Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St, SF; www.makeoutroom.com. *
YEAR IN TOFU AND WHISKEY Call it the Rookie Magazine trickle-down effect: Teen girl rockers ruled the world in 2013. Granted, some 20-somethings were in there too. But still, these young and fierce ladies — celebrated on either Rookie’s more polished site or eye-popping Tumblrs of a similar demographic — were the artists to take notice of this year.
The young majors of 2013 were 17-year-old New Zealander Lorde and Los Angeles sister trio Haim, all in their early 20s. There were also female rappers and soul singers, like Cameroon-raised Lorine Chia (20), and Brooklyn-based Angel Haze (22). Locally, there was teen surf pop quartet the She’s. On a smaller scale, there are emerging acts like Sacramento’s sister duo Dog Party, which, at ages 14 and 17, released its biggest record to date on Asian Man Records this August.
Rookie is the web magazine for young girls that looks more to the Sassy archetype than Seventeen, but so far beyond those bounds that it’s almost ludicrous to compare the two. Started in 2011 by now-iconic mini fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, the website blends style, feminism, and culture into a Nylon-esque vision of rude glamour. More so, it’s become a casual, glittery hit-maker, simply by nature of showcasing exciting new talent early in the game, often before it’s been hungrily shredded by the widespread blogger industrial complex.
Musicians are featured in gushy profiles, or longer Q&As, often with more personalized questions than are found on standard music blogs. An early Rookie writeup on Lorde reviewed her full-length record Pure Heroine (Universal Music Group) in a typically conversational tone: “I first heard Lorde, when I was in the parking lot of a Target one night. It was 10:50pm and I was in the car by myself, listening to the radio; I had just been going through a breakup and was in an awful state of mind. Suddenly this song came on with a simple beat and this AMAZING voice that made me sit up straight and turn on Shazam, which told me it was Lorde’s song ‘Royals.'”
Can’t you too remember such a time? An moment in a youthful life, alone in your car or next to the stereo in your room, the disappointments of a confusing day rushing through your mind, and then the moment a song transformed that hurt into pure joy? It might not have been a pop song, but it certainly could have been.
Thanks to the thrill of that paradoxically anti-consumerist pop song “Royals,” Lorde (née Ella Yelich-O’Connor) was undoubtedly the biggest of the aforementioned bunch of teen girls who made it big in 2013. She became a bona fide pop star in black lipstick and a poof of untamed, grungy curls. And while her look and style are certainly endlessly dissected, she came to the pop charts when there was a specific need for her new breed of mainstream-yet-still-underground-enough-to-be-weirdish sound.
In her recent essay on Lorde and others of her ilk, NPR writer Ann Powers poetically described Lorde’s step away from pop stars of the tongue-out, twerked-out Miley variety we also suffered through in 2013: “Lorde is a phenomenon because of perfect timing. She came along just when listeners were craving what ‘Royals’ famously advocates: a different kind of buzz. After a few months as the new find of early musical adopters, this droll chanteuse became notorious for suggesting that some kids might prefer to stand apart from pop’s endless party.”
Angel Haze was another standout — a stunning, pansexual, artistically rare rapper who took Macklemore’s “Same Love,” and gave it meaning, singing of her own (real) struggles with sexuality. The young artist’s debut full-length, Dirty Gold, doesn’t even see release until January 2014, but her covers (she also took on Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”) made her a name to know in 2013.
Haze was featured on Rookie, as was soul singer Lorine Chia. A performer with a silky voice and tropical beats, Chia released an EP, Naked Truths (Make Millions Music), in October and frequently Tumbls her fascinating life and favorite musical finds. Like other young females who made their mark this year, she seems worlds apart from the sleek pop stars of yore, still enthralling but somehow approachable.
And then there was Haim, the crunchy, LA-based sister trio that hit it big with September-released Days Are Gone (Polydor Records, Columbia Records). The album went silver, selling nearly 90,000 copies stateside, which is big news in these unwieldy music industry days.
But apart from the pop and hip-hop charts, teen girls were also making waves in smaller local scenes. Case in point: The She’s. The talented, breezy-surf pop quartet started off the year playing Noise Pop and were on the cover of the Guardian, posed as a group to watch in 2013.
A few months later, there they were: life-sized on bus-stop posters plastered around downtown as part of that big Converse campaign that overran the city’s music scene this summer (not that we had anything to do with the leap). The She’s recorded a track for Converse’s Rubber Tracks popup station at Different Fur Studios, and also played a ton of shows throughout the year. Oh, and the SF natives all just graduated from high school.
As for Sacramento’s burgeoning Dog Party, the sister duo is still navigating those studious halls of yore. Singer-guitarist Gwendolyn Giles is a senior in high school, and drummer Lucy Giles is a 14-year-old sophomore. They started playing together at ages 9 and 6.
“Before [guitar] I played the flute, but that wasn’t for very long because I like guitar,” Gwendolyn tells me from their Sacramento home. “The flute made me dizzy. Also when I was in fourth grade, American Idiot came out and I was obsessed with Green Day.”
Lucy pipes up with her earliest inclination that she wanted to play rock’n’roll: “I was really into the White Stripes when I was in third grade. I like Meg White and so I just kind of decided I wanted to play the drums.”
Her dad picked up a drum set at a garage sale, and the girls soon began lessons, and then started writing songs — with angsty lyrics about worrisome BFFs and the like, and stories that were mostly autobiographical. In 2013, the Giles sisters released their third full-length, bratty pop-punk record Lost Control, on Mike Park’s legendary Asian Man Records. It stands with the Donnas, the Bangs, and a mix of other fun party punk acts before them.
Ty Segall tops their mutual list of favorite new (or new-to-them) acts of 2013, followed by the Descendents, the Babies, fellow SacTown locals Pets, and most of the Burger Records roster.
“My sister and I really love Ty Segall,” Gwendolyn gushes of the prolific rocker. “He’s amazing … my favorite artist of all time.”
Dog Party went on a full US tour with Kepi Ghoulie (of ’80s band Groovie Ghoulies) and just last week played with the Aquabats at Slim’s. Next up, they’ll play the Gilman Fri/20.
As with other female artists this year (and for the past decade), Dog Party has had to deal with web trolls intent on breaking them down.
“Now that we’ve gained a little bit of popularity, there have been some nasty things written about us on the Internet,” Lucy says. “But that doesn’t really affect us. We don’t like to listen to what they say because we don’t really care.”
While the Giles sisters hadn’t known about Rookie before they were featured on the site, they’ve heard a lot of feedback since the post, which urged readers to “stream the new album by our (and probably your) new favorite band.”
“We got a lot of attention from Rookie,” Gwendolyn says. “People have come up to us and been like ‘Hey, I heard about you from Rookie!’ It’s pretty cool.”
“Our social media sites had a pretty big boost off that article,” adds Lucy.
Tofu and Whiskey’s top records (and sandwiches) of 2013