Smart and dangerous

Pub date November 14, 2006
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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The Fucking Ocean are seriously fucking refreshing: they’ve taken cues from Mark E. Smith and Ian MacKaye alike to produce biting, sincere post-punk that’s nigh anomalous in American music. In band member John Nguyen’s San Francisco home, the current three-piece talked about their politics, new record, playing under the stairs at the Edinburgh Castle, and a shared affinity for Mexican food and DC punk.
It was collegiate rock enthusiasm that initially helped bring about this ensemble. Nguyen went to Brown with fellow band member Matt Swagler, where they played together in what Swagler said was a “pretty embarrassing ’90s power pop band.” When Nguyen subsequently moved west to enter med school at Stanford, he randomly tuned in to Fucking Ocean cofounder Elias Spiliotis on KZSU, the campus radio station.
“I had a show called Lethal Injection on Saturday evenings where I was playing Greek punk and bands like the Fall, Fugazi, and Blonde Redhead,” Spiliotis said. “Before I ever met him, John called in one night, said he liked the show, and asked me, ‘Where are the cool people at Stanford?’”
They inevitably found each other at a station staff meeting a few months later, and Nguyen started his own finely titled show, Sad and Dangerous. Later, after Swagler moved to San Francisco, a 2003 show from defunct DC no-wave ragers Black Eyes blew the friends’ collective mind. Starting a band was the noble, noisy result.
As cryptic as the Fucking Ocean’s name is, it has rather silly origins: “I was dropping off Matt after band practice when ‘Foggy Notion’ by the Velvet Underground came on the radio,” Spiliotis said. The band had been tossing around possible names, and when he suggested “the Foggy Notion,” his Greek accent unwittingly locked in a different phrase, one that they’ve used to this day.
Luckily, Swagler explained, the Foggy Notion serves as a name for playing kids’ birthday parties — when his grandmother recently asked his band’s name, that’s the one he gave her. Spiliotis, while no longer in the band (he left in order to continue his research in cell biology at Stanford), appears on the record with Nguyen, Swagler, and Marcella Gries, who joined the group after former bass player Megumi Aihara moved to Boston for graduate school.
For more than a year their rehearsals were tape-recorded on Gries’s clock radio. The band eventually had a friend help them record a five-song EP that, while never released, primed them for their studio time at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio.
“We were playing a lot of shows, and our friends in the Mall suggested going to Ian and Jay Pellicci to record an album,” said Gries of the Pelliccis, who have recorded some of their favorite bands, Deerhoof and Erase Errata. They brought the Fucking Ocean newfound on-tape clarity and a pointed drum sound care of Jay Pellicci, as well as some nifty frills — a vintage Gibson amplifier and, appropriately, a telephone, which Nguyen said was “rewired and disordered in a way that makes it sound vaguely like a bullhorn.”
The Fucking Ocean’s affable attitude contrasts with their music’s tension and focus. Drum, bass, and guitar duties aren’t singularly assigned — the band writes collectively and swaps instruments. The approach makes their live show as varied and blindingly fun as their record. On the road they have been carting around new songs and video accompaniment courtesy of local artist Tony Benna. Shawn Reynaldo, who signed the Fucking Ocean to his Oakland label, Double Negative Records, calls them a “musical volleyball team” with a deliberately Minutemen-like songwriting economy. The prevailing maxim among the Fucking Ocean is that if an idea is presented to the listener, it needn’t stick around that long: no use in letting John Q. Listener get too comfortable, right?
Recording the album, all done on analog tape, took six days in June. While a lot of Indian pizza, Gatorade, and various caffeinated drinks fueled their long nights behind the boards, the result, Le Main Rouge, is damn lean. At 11 songs in a little under 27 minutes, it’s an urgent delight of terse angularity from a band bursting with novel ideas, both politically and riffwise.
Addressing abortion rights in the fuzzed, pissed strut of “Adam,” the Fucking Ocean close with the lines “Do you remember when, do you remember when?/ Women had to risk their lives just to live again!” “Bombs in the Underground,” a response to last year’s London Underground bombings, opens with a memorable guitar-bass groove reminiscent of midperiod Sleater-Kinney before bursting into a shouted refrain, then traversing odd tempo shifts and a drum fill — it’s thoughtfully fragmented and endlessly listenable. Le Main Rouge shows a band whose enthusiasm hopefully bodes a good run ahead. You’re advised to polish up that kayak and tune in. SFBG
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