VOWS’ Luke Sweeney on marinating songs, foot prayers, and the gospel of Al Green

Pub date March 12, 2013
WriterLaura Kerry

San Francisco’s VOWS has come a long way from its beginning in 2007. As with many creative enterprises, the band — which plays the Rickshaw Stop Wed/13 — formed out of the ashes of some good old-fashioned turmoil.

Guitarist Luke Sweeney and drummer Scott Tomio Noda, pals since high school, had just broken up with their band, and bassist Jitsun Sandoval, a friend with whom they sometimes played music, had just split with his wife. The three formed a band whose name signaled the start of restored commitment.

Arriving at a cafe on a bike whose tires had deflated with disuse, Sweeney reminisces about the old days of the band. The early period included near-weekly bike collisions and other kinds of upheavals. He recalled sleeping just feet away from Noda in the one bedroom apartment that they shared, as well as the “hippy circus speakeasy space” where Sandoval lived. “That was the first couple years of VOWS,” he tells me. “We were either homeless or living in squalor.”

Since ’07, the trio moved on from the squalor. Sweeney has a seven-month-old baby at home and several musical endeavors underway throughout the Bay Area; Noda and Sandoval have settled down in Los Angeles. But VOWS continues to develop.


When we meet a week before both a VOWS show at the Rickshaw Stop and the band beginning to record its third full-length album (due to drop some time next fall), Sweeney projects an easy confidence as he describes his band.

VOWS has no need to grasp at a formula or a manifesto; its members’ chemistry and experience produce a breed of rock that feels effortless. Part California psych-rock, part pop, and with a bit of something reminiscent of country, its tunes invite head-nodding and that strange sensation of beginning to sing along until you realize you don’t know the words.

Get a better sense of VOWS before its Rickshaw show as Sweeney discusses the band’s development, VOWS’  principles of genre, and the gospel of Al Green:

San Francisco Bay Guardian How have you changed as a band over the past six years?

Luke Sweeney We’ve honed our sound and we’re very comfortable playing with each other. We’ve always been a band that will take a song and play with the arrangement of it. We like to do that a lot for live shows – change things around, keep things exciting. But more than as a band musically, I think it’s about growing as people….I think we’re a little more mature, and I think it’s reflected in our songs.

SFBG What are you working on for the third album?

LS We have a constant problem of having way more music than we could possibly record or keep track of or realistically promote and share with everybody, so we’re actually trying to play catch-up right now. The songs that we’re going to be recording next week are mostly two years old….I mean, it’s a delightful dilemma. With the first two albums, as soon as they were ready, we popped them in the oven  – or maybe we took them out of the oven too fast; they weren’t as developed. These ones have been sitting around for a little while marinating. They’ll be more developed.

SFBG The band is often described as having a “California sound.” Does this fit?
LS I feel like our sound is not just Californian; it’s almost aesthetic-less in a way. In terms of what’s going on now with a lot of music, you have two ends of the spectrum – either this whole  retro-folk scene…or you have this ’80s-referencing chillwave, synth, future-wave. We don’t really have any of that. Our music is based more on packing in as much  melody and lyrics and instrumentation, the three basic colors of music. We try to apply those with a simple palette and don’t try to wash over them with any aesthetic. Although we do dress up ridiculously at our shows.

SFBG Do you have costumes planned for the Rickshaw Stop show?

LS Scott is often our wardrobe coordinator. I don’t know what he’s got in mind yet but he’ll definitely have something special and surprising. It’s all ages, though, so it’ll be tasteful.

SFBG How do you break up responsibility with writing? How does that process look?

LS It’s very collaborative. It’s mostly Jitsun or myself writing a song or a few pieces of a song and then all of us coming together on it….We don’t force anything. I never sit down and say, I have to finish a song. They all come from real moments of feeling, whether that feeling is agony or ecstasy, or just hungover. Everything’s pretty natural as it comes together. I can’t recall any time where we’ve had problems bringing a song into fruition. There might be a couple times where a song is super simple starting out, and it just takes some time to sit with the song and develop melodies. I don’t think I would be able to spend so much time on music if it wasn’t a natural thing.

SFBG Where does the new music video for ‘Temptation?’ come from?

LS At the end of the video are a couple of pictures that Scott took from that same tour. Earlier in that tour, we happened to be playing in Memphis on a Sunday night. It was serendipitous because a couple of days before, we were in Lawrence, Kansas, and a really cool musician we met figured out we were going [to Memphis] on a Sunday and said, ‘get there early so you can go attend Al Green’s Sunday gospel church. ‘ And so we did.

We drove all night from St. Louis. Our first stop in Memphis was at the hospital because I had to get a shot and get my foot cleaned up from a shoe that cut me up [and from not being able to shower for a couple days]. And then right after the hospital we prayed for my foot’s healing and sang along with all the incredible music that was at Al Green’s gospel. It‘s probably the greatest show I’ve ever seen. 

SFBG Did your foot heal?

LS It was healed up enough within the next 48 hours for me to jump off a roof into a swimming pool when we got to Denton, Texas. [Al Green] performs miracles.

With Standard Poodle, Goldenhearts
Wed/13, 8pm, $10
Rickshaw Stop
155 Fell, SF
(415) 861-2011