TOFU AND WHISKEY New DIY record labels? Minimalist two-person ukulele bands? These are not the signs of fast-paced, modern, glossy hi-tech lifestyles. While San Francisco is at a crossroads, on the verge of an identity crisis splintered throughout many a start-up, at least a few of SF’s musicians (and likely plenty more) have made an artist’s leap farther north to even grayer Portland, Ore.
Magic Fight’s Alex Haager is one of those expatriates. He started a new indie label — Breakup Records — and moved to Portland with his partner, Sierra Frost, another musician, from the bands clintongore and Downer Party. “It’s a great place for music and a great place to live if you make less than 200k a year. And we like the rain.”
They started the label last month with an indeterminate interest in dreamy, brainy pop acts. There are already plans to release records by Frozen Folk, Magic Fight, Jesus Dude Mom, and a few more in the next six months or so. Right now, the roster of acts soon to be rolled out is all from the Bay Area.
“We each have tight relationships with some great independent bands whom we have worked with in different capacities over the years,” says Haager, from his newish home in Portland. “Our goal is to help grow the bands that inspire us — especially musicians with approaches and aesthetics that we find interesting within the realms of what can be considered pop.”
“Frankly, we’re both underwhelmed by garage rock. We plan to release records that offer an alternative to the overly nostalgic, blasted out stuff that has become so prevalent in California in the last 10 to 15 years. We want to showcase what the West Coast sounds like to us.”
One of the label’s first releases will be the debut EP of Kitten Grenade, a deceptively named duo made up of old-timey vocalist-ukulele player Katelyn Sullivan and drummer Ben Manning. Breakup previewed it with a single release a few weeks back, for a song titled “Gray.”
The minimalist pop track is arresting — occupying a space between bright and dark, it’s both melancholy and lightly fluttering over heavier vibes, with much of those emotions pinned to Sullivan’s jazz-inflected vocals. “That was very intentional,” says San Francisco’s Sullivan, who lives in the Mission. “‘Gray’ started out being about my inability to make decisions, and is another play on opposites; it felt like a great song to pick as our first single.”
The video for the track, shot in black and white, similarly plays with light and dark shadows. It features crisp repetitive images cropped in closely around Sullivan’s face and bare shoulders, and dancing orchids and roses twirling around her. Like Georgia O’Keeffe’s storied paintings, the close-ups of the flowers can resemble female sexual organs, in particular the still from the video that was chosen for the cover of the single.
“In a way, the orchid in the image — with its vaginal undertones — could represent purity, which then fades into the muddled gray of the real world in the background. Using it as the cover wasn’t so much planned as it was a happy accident. It’s an image that happened to be in our video that really resonated with me,” Sullivan says.
The full four-track debut EP, Nice Day, on Breakup is coming in January 2014. Sullivan — who calls Philz Coffee, the Phone Booth, El Rio, and Hog and Rocks her favorite local spots — says the album title references her experience with drummer Manning when they were recording during the “beautiful San Francisco summer we had this year.”
So why go with a label full of SF ex-pats? Turns out Sullivan played music with Frost before, in her previous ukulele band, Hate Factory. “[I] have always admired her smarts and knowledge when it comes to music,” says Sullivan of Frost. “Both Alex and Sierra are working musicians, but they’re also excellent at playing a supportive creative role. In terms of building my band, they’ve really helped me realize what’s in my head when on stage, in the studio, and representing myself out in the world, which can be hard and weird. It’s wonderful to be a part of something during its beginning stages.”
Sullivan, whose long-running influences are Fiona Apple and Joli Holland, got her own start doing musical theater on the East Coast. She came to California to study visual arts and later began writing music. She met Frost around then and they formed Hate Factory, another charming act with a defiant name: “Although most people who hear the name Kitten Grenade imagine shredding guitars and screaming metal ballads, it really does fit the theme of our little indie folk band. The name has actually been with me for a long time, and was the name of my thesis project in art school. Kitten Grenade in itself is all about juxtapositions and opposites. I really like names that trick you.” she explains. “I mean, when you hear the name Hate Factory, you don’t think of two cute girls playing ukuleles.”
While Sullivan and Manning await the release of their EP on Breakup, they’ll play a few local shows including opening the BFF.FM launch party for the new local radio station Best Frequencies Forever, with the Happy Hollows next week (Nov. 27, 9pm, $10. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com.)
“If you haven’t seen Kitten Grenade yet, you definitely should,” says Haager. “She’s basically an angel.”
As for Haager’s concert schedule, he’ll flee the life of Portland comfort momentarily for the Bay Bridged’s annual Bay Brewed festival Dec. 7 at Public Works. Also, he too is looking forward to a new release through Breakup: a split cassette EP with Oakland-based Frozen Folk. And of course, he’s excited about Kitten Grenade’s debut.
“It’s simple and elegant and will encourage you to fall in love.”
WORLD MUSIC MAYHEM
Longstanding global music-mashers Dengue Fever (of LA) and New York City’s Balkan Beat Box (originally from Tel Aviv) both arrive in SF on extended tours this week. Led by Cambodian singer-songwriter Chhom Nimol and guitarist Zac Holtzman, Dengue Fever will release its Girl from the North EP Dec. 3 — its first release in more than two years, on its own label, Tuk Tuk Records. It plays the Independent this Thu/21 with locals Seventeen Evergreen (8pm, $18. 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com). BBB is releasing new videos, including one for “Suki Muki,” a single off 2012’s Give (Nat Geo Records), and a remix of “Suki Muki” by Ori Kaplan’s alter ego DJ Shotnez. It plays with Canadian Bhangra-Celtic fusion act (really) Delhi 2 Dublin at the Regency Fri/22 (8:30pm, $27. Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness, SF. www.theregencyballroom.com).