Some time has passed since people routinely looked in 924 Gilman Street’s direction to familiarize themselves with what’s new and interesting in Bay Area rock. However, this doesn’t mean that nothing worthwhile passes through its doors. Topping the bill of the annual Punk Prom earlier this year were the Abi Yoyos, whose cavalier, recklessly hooky normal-dude brand of punk is totally outlook brightening.
Over beer and burritos at a San Francisco taquería, guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Matt Bleyle and lead vocalist Shawn Mehrens, both 21, recently strolled down a nearly five-year-long footpath of memories, including problematic tour vans and onstage pleas for Albuterol inhalers. Unlike a lot of local groups, the Abi Yoyos openly rep the North Bay: namely, Mill Valley. Its members’ paths crossed when Bleyle, Mehrens, and bassist Jeff Mitchell attended Tamalpais High.
“The band was sort of an offshoot of the conversations that Matt and I would have while taking all-night walks in Mill Valley,” Mehrens said. “Nothing is open past 10 p.m., and nobody really presents any options as to how to change things aside from maybe starting a band.” Originally, they played straight hardcore; since then, they’ve adopted a more complex, melodic approach. They cite Charles Darwin — or as Mehrens calls him, “Chuck D” — and Phil Ochs as inspiration for their evolution, along with bands like los Rabbis and the Fleshies.
“Originally we were called Gutter Snatch, as we tried to just come up with the most offensive name possible,” Bleyle said. The moniker Abi Yoyos came to pass courtesy of a Pete Seeger song and an African tale that prophesied “if we turn our back on music and religion, Abi Yoyo [a bogeyman who symbolizes Western civilization] will come and get us.”
The musicianship of the band — which includes drummer Blaine Patrick and saxophonist Kyle Chu — is remarkably solid. “Blaine has won ‘Outstanding Soloist’ awards at Stanford Jazz Camp,” Bleyle explained. “Jeff was in a band called Turbulence that sounded like a cross between Weezer and Hendrix.” Chu joined the band after the Abi Yoyos’ first 7-inch, “The World Is Not My Home” (Riisk), and the lineup solidified to what it appears as on their new debut, Mill Valley (Big Raccoon).
To put out that record, Mehrens worked 80-hour weeks between three jobs, including one at ellusionist.com, a magicians’ supply Web site. “We’re really hard to pigeonhole,” said Mehrens, who now runs Big Raccoon. His friend Corbett Redford, who ran S.P.A.M. Records, along with other industry-seasoned pals, gave the Abi Yoyos the guidance needed to release Mill Valley, an altogether inspired, infectious set of songs.
“I think we can all agree on our hometown heroes,” Bleyle said with a smirk. Sammy Hagar was one of the first names to be mentioned, along with “the guy who invented the toilet-seat guitar,” Huey Lewis, Clover, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. “Cruisin’ and boozin’, my ass!” exclaimed Mehrens to much laughter. “I hate Sammy Hagar.”
Instead the band takes after punkier forefathers. John from the Fleshies introduced the Abi Yoyos to the Punk Prom audience as what Flipper would sound like “if Flipper were good.” After a few minutes of searching for the drummer, that description gained credibility as the band, donning dresses and sparkly makeup, ripped into their cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”
They routinely jam “Helter Skelter” in their practice space — a large metal storage box with electrical outlets by San Quentin State Prison — skirting lunacy in their proximity to inmates and in their unusual reverence for both the sticky melodies of ’60s pop and the fast, snotty punk that emerged from LA in the ’80s. In a scene where, in Mehrens’s words, “image means a lot,” the Abi Yoyos tend to defy punker conventions, adopting an unusually eclectic aesthetic. “Quagmire” moves from medium-paced hardcore to a full-blown anthem about halfway through — a nod to Bleyle’s recent “openness to prog” and odd song structures — and they pop hooks in a forcefully shameless manner; Mehrens was, after all, “raised on R&B and Motown.”
“We have friends in a lot of different scenes,” Mehrens said. “Bands that play hardcore, dancy punk, crusty punk, and some that don’t do anything at all. At every show, there are different types of kids rockin’ out.”
Their first nationwide tour began in late July and has included such transcendent experiences as Dumpster diving, playing a farm in Las Cruces, and shooting Roman candles out the passenger-side window of their van on the Williamsburg Bridge. “We’re a little too weird for the South,” said Mehrens by phone from Ohio. “And one show flyer described us as ‘strange punk,’ which we all think is pretty awesome.”
With any luck, their sharp wit and taut songwriting will take them much further than would the gas tank of Sammy Hagar’s convertible. SFBG
With This Is My Fist, Onion Flavored Rings, Giant Haystacks, and Robocop 3
Sat/21, 7 p.m.
Balazo 18 Art Gallery
2183 Mission, SF