Illustration of Kyp Malone, Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart by Matt Furie and Aiyana Udesen
Picture ’06, the aughties about half over. Alissa Anderson, cellist of the sweet and elegant Bay Area country-folk ensemble Vetiver, was positively boiling.
"I think if you ask anyone who gets labeled as freak folk, they’ll basically tell you they think of it as f-cking garbage and insulting. It’s not accurate, and it’s just a cop-out."
Anderson — the DIY fashion impresario of Mittenmaker and the rock photog who went on to publish a tome via Chronicle Books — was no wilting violet, no shy refugee from a well-behaved string quartet. She only resembled a curly-maned Mucha poster girl crossed with Maria Schneider. In the halcyon days of ’06, she was royally pissed about the way her band led by then-domestic partner Andy Cabic, musically and "spiritually" supported by Devendra Banhart had been tagged as flaming freaks. This after Vetiver was plopped above the fold like overseeing avatars in a flashy New York Times photo collage illustrating a big, fat feature on the out-folk, "New Weird America," altogether-psychedelic movement. Booty-danced by Lindsay Lohan and wooed by Karl Lagerfeld? For Banhart and Vetiver’s crew it was just part of the hallucinatory passing parade of hairy fairies, gentle noise visionaries, and elegant acid explorers.
And it was just another Saturday night as the San Francisco Bay Area’s teeming subcultures, multitudinous lifestyles, and micro-tribes met in the evening shade. At SF’s last-call witching hour of 1:45 a.m., in the thick of the transformative and transfigurative ’00s, Anderson was in the car, looking for the night’s next after-hours warehouse party, and I was in search of a way to encapsulate the Bay scene, somehow, in print.
I followed Anderson from dusty gravel parking lot to her DJ friend Muffin’s soiree. The Dogpatch warehouse he shared with other musicians, artists, and the odd Web jockey was surrounded by heavy industry trucking and transporting companies, old cement factories and sat smack atop an auto repair garage known to emanate noxious fumes.
But what a great space for a raging party. Anderson grabbed and hugged pals as we climbed the skinny, swerving stairs to a large, rectangular space overlooking a street populated by hipster insomniacs. The difference between this and other clubs? Everyone was dancing to the rock-hard, grimy techno. I spied Anderson as she disappeared behind a massive piece of furniture into another room, while the evening’s live band, the Sixteens, prepped for a set of sharp, shattered art-punk that wouldn’t be out of line on a late-1970s Mudd Club bill.
Welcome to the Bay Area music scene, underground, overground, and increasingly known throughout the country during the ’00s for the hard-partying, house-rocking, artistically (and, at brief moments, commercially) ambitious ways that it swings. Chalk it up to the Summer of Love and its legacy of acid tests, its rotating doors of psychedelic perception, and taste for bold experimentation. Or to Sly Stone and his Owsley-fried knack for hybridizing funk and pop. Or to Too Short and 2pac and their street-level rap touched by heroic dealers and neighborhood Panthers. Or to an anthemic Green Day and its politicized Gilman Street punk, and a garage-days-to-arena-stages Metallica and its thrash nation. Or even to the massive creative infusion that came to the Bay with the dot-com Gold Rush, and then suddenly found itself with free time after the tech crash young, imaginative minds that viewed the last psychedelic revolution as a starting point.
Witness the Friday night scenes at the Mission District’s Adobe Books, where artists and fans spilled out onto the street, socializing and sloshing red wine, to see microscopic, well-curated exhibits and hear a local band or two. Or the memorable one-offs that might find you stumbling down a rocky Caltrain track in the pitch black, after the trains stopped running at midnight, to hear DJs play in the tunnels. Or the Oakland parties of local music dynamo Vice Cooler.
Onetime SF Art Institute undergrad Banhart and Mills College compositional major Joanna Newsom might have drifted away by ’06, but the Bay Area rock, noise, and electronic scene still boasted binaries and beyond Comets on Fire and High on Fire, Music Lovers and Lovemakers, Finches and Faun Fables, Deerhoof and Clipd Beaks, Rogue Wave and Thee More Shallows, Kid 606 and Six Organs of Admittance.
In the last half of the aughties, Thee Oh Sees, the Dodos, Ty Segall, Nodzzz, Wooden Shjips, Jonas Reinhardt, Mi Ami, Sleepy Sun, Sholi, Howlin’ Rain, Colossal Yes and more joined the locals crew, while onetime NorCal-ers like !!!, the Rapture, and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio made a splash on the other side of the continent. Arthur magazine caught the Bay Area tailwind, swathing its covers with the images of Bay-bred performers, which fed a sister scene down south. How did one get a handle on such a sprawling sonic landscape populated by the children of Blue Cheer and Moby Grape, Brian Wilson and Neil Young?
By going out every night and then some and why not? There was always something going on and though so many of these talents didn’t bust out into the mainstream like Lady Gaga or Weezer, the Bay made its presence known, big time, as a site of audio and music technology revolution amid the chat and twitter of the overall tech boom.
The Bay once home to Universal Audio innovator Bill Putnam (who developed stereo recording and studio essentials like the 1176 and LA-2A compressors) and Redwood City magnetic tape giant Ampex (supported by Hillsborough retiree Bing Crosby) has, in the aughties, changed the ways music is made and listened to. Daly City’s Digidesign produces Pro Tools, the widely adopted digital recording platform that transformed the sound of studio-produced music in the ’00s. Cupertino’s Apple and its iPod, iTunes, and Garageband sped the spread of digital music, the demise of physical product, and gave everyone with a MacBook a tool to make their own beats, podcasts, and songs.
Napster brought file-sharing to new highs, or lows, depending on whether you think "information wants to be free" or "home-taping is killing music," until Bay neighbor Metallica brought it down. East Bay-bred DJ Shadow made it into Guinness World Records in 2001 for supposedly creating the "first completely sampled album" with … Endtroducing (Mo’ Wax, 1996). UC Berkeley grad and MySpace cofounder Tom Anderson brought DIY oomph and social networking savvy to bands eager to promote themselves, and Brisbane’s YouTube revived the video as a viable pop-art form. Now Pandora is breaking pop hits down to their quantifiable components slightly easier than reducing the multitudinous Bay Area music scene into Google-able, bite-sized bits.
You had to be there. And on the cusp of this adolescent century’s teens, amid the flux and flow of music-makers and pop creatives moving in and town, it’s time to ask some new questions: what are we doing and listening to next?