It’s one of those problems that maybe doesn’t sound like a problem to people who didn’t achieve critical darling status in the artistic industry of their choice by age 30, but it is a problem nonetheless. The problem is that Girls, his old band, was a very, very good band that wrote complex but catchy, rocking but intimate songs, drawing from ’80s power-pop and ’60s doo-wop and orchestral rock to talk about breakups and his escape from a deeply complicated childhood ensconced in the cult-like Children of God sect of Christianity. Girls was instantly, recognizably, good — in a way that seemed, on first listen, to stem from very little effort, though the depth of Owens’ confessional songwriting forced you to understand otherwise if you spent 30 seconds thinking about it.
The Christopher Owens problem is that after two albums of very good music by his very good band, the band broke up and he decided to go it alone, and not everyone was impressed with the result. Lysandre, Owens’ debut solo work, released in January of last year, was a concept album, full of proggy theatrical flair and flute solos. It had moments where it shined, but it was not the seamless work we’d come to expect from the songwriter; Owens himself later admitted he just sort of had to get it out of his system.
Fast-forward about 18 months, and the music press seems almost breathlessly relieved by his second go. A New Testament (Turnstile), released last week, is indeed easier on the ears. It’s a straight-up countrified Owens, an identity he’s hinted at previously but never fully embraced, with clear gospel influences and a renewed appreciation for pop structure and aesthetics; it allows Owens’ first-person lyrics to take center stage again. (He’ll play songs from the new record at Great American Music Hall Sat/11).
Is it a safer record than his previous effort? Sure. Does it follow more conventional Americana-pop rules? Yep. Does he sound like he’s having more fun actually making the music? Hell yes.
It’s that sense, actually, that seems to be confusing and alarming critics left and right (to an amusing degree, if you were to read, say, a dozen reviews in a row.) Christopher Owens seems happy. The Christopher Owens? He of the loaded religious upbringing, who made a name writing incredibly well-crafted songs about doomed relationships? How could he?
“That reaction has definitely surprised me,” the 35-year-old says with a laugh. He’s a little weary from doing press interviews all day from his home in SF when I catch up with him by phone about a week before the record comes out, but otherwise seems like he’s in good spirits.
“For one, the writing spans about four years, so it doesn’t make sense to paint it as a ‘Oh, he’s happy now,’ type of thing. Yes, I’m grateful for a lot in my life right now.” (One can’t help but think his stable, long-term relationship and relatively recent sobriety have played a part, though he doesn’t really want to discuss either topic.)
“I would never set out to make a ‘positive record,’ but I’m glad it’s having that effect on people.” He thinks a moment. “I also think that’s maybe just the sound of a lot of people working together who like each other very much, having fun.”
Those people include producer Doug Boehm, who produced Lysandre, as well as Girls’ acclaimed second record, Father, Son, Holy Ghost; the band also includes a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist who played on that Girls album. Other people — like gospel singers Skyler Jordan, Traci Nelson, and Makeda Francisco, who provide backup on “Stephen,” a weighty, cathartic elegy of a song for Owens’ brother who died at age two — were instrumental in how Owens selected tracks once he decided this was going to be his country record. (He has hundreds of songs and half-songs to choose from, written and stored away on his computer at home.)
The overwhelming influence of gospel — not to mention the biblical record title — will likely come off as something of a wink to longtime Owens fans; his struggle to reconcile his ultra-religious upbringing and the tumultuous period of his life that followed his leaving the church at age 16 are both well-documented.
But the reference isn’t quite so straightforwardly tongue-in-cheek, says Owens. Gospel, in particular, has come full circle for him.
“I’ve had a long history with spiritual and religious music,” he says. “We weren’t Pentecostal, but it was still about asking God to take away your burdens. There’s a desperation to it, a genuineness and earnestness.
“If you talked to me about gospel music in my teens I would probably have been very disparaging, but as I got older and calmed down more in my 20s, I started appreciating it as music,” he says. “The fact of, we’re going to sit around and sing together, and what that does to the energy in the room.”
It was in his early 20s that someone gave him a record by the singer Mahalia Jackson, known as “the Queen of Gospel,” also known for her contributions to the Civil Rights movement. The gift was almost as a joke, says Owens.
“Knowing my history [with religion], it was ‘Here, Chris, you’ll like this,'” says the singer. “But I remember realizing, this woman is fantastic. So it’s been about coming to a place where I can see the value in the music itself, which I think is part of the point. ‘Let us make a joyful noise unto the Lord.’ And as I started to write and play music myself, it’s been about figuring out a way to do that with a non-religious quality, how to strip the music of its religious associations. I’ve listened to a lot of Elvis’ gospel albums…
“If you’re from the Ukraine and you walk into a gospel church, even if you don’t understand the language, you’re still going to get goosebumps,” he continues. “There’s still power in the sound.”
As for the Christopher Owens problem: Judging by early reviews, he’s appeased some Girls fans who were left cold by his first solo effort. Not that he puts too much stock in other peoples’ opinions of him. He’s happy with the record. And yeah, he admits, he is happy, in general, at the moment. And yet:
“It’s kind of funny that people are thinking of the record like that. Because even when you have these blessings, life always goes both ways. I think life is an uphill climb,” he says. “If you’re climbing the right way.”
LEFT OF THE DIAL When Slim’s booker Dawn Holliday first met with Warren Hellman in 2001, she had no way of knowing that the quaint little music festival the investor wanted to organize would grow to be one of San Francisco’s most fiercely cherished traditions.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which runs this Friday, Oct. 3 through Sunday, Oct. 5 (featuring this rather impressive lineup of bands, whose music you’ll find in the YouTube playlist below) is special for a number of reasons. It’s free, thanks to an endowment from the late sir Hellman. You can’t buy alcohol. You won’t find huge video screens projecting tweets about the festival in real time. To get distinctly San Francisco on you and use a word I generally avoid, its vibe — yes — is about a solar system away from certain other huge music festivals in Golden Gate Park that shall remain nameless. And it just couldn’t take place anywhere else.
Little story for ya: Four years ago this week, I moved back to the Bay Area from New York. I was unemployed and aimless and temporarily living with my parents again at 26, and the future was terrifying. I was regrouping, but I didn’t know if I was back here for good. The day after I landed — hungover, disoriented by the smells and sounds and lack of sensory overload of not-New York City — I headed to Hardly Strictly with a few old friends. I remember foraging our way into the park, just pushing toward the music, and literally stumbling out of a wall of shrubbery to find Patti Smith just starting her set.
The crowd was insane: people tightly packed in, drinking, passing joints, hollering, bundled in seven layers each, sitting on each other’s shoulders, stepping on each other’s army blankets full of microbrews and organic rice chips and apologizing as they tried to push up closer to the stage.
My eyes darted from the older woman with flowing batik-print pants, eyes closed, swaying joyously by herself, to the young couple with matching dreads who were tripping on god knows what, to the balding-but-ponytailed and potbellied man who seemed to be trying to get a hacky sack game going to the beat of “Because the Night.”
I don’t want to speak for all Bay Area kids, but I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about large groups of hippies — there’s just a saturation point when you grow up here. Unlike so many of my transplant friends, I have never found the remnants of the Summer of Love overly enchanting; this is what happens when you are forced to watch the documentary Berkeley In the Sixties in high school history classes. I am also, for what it’s worth, not the biggest fan of crowds.
I knew I’d been gone a while because I was in love. I’d never been so happy to see ridiculous, stoned, absolutely beside themselves weirdos all doing their own weird things next to each other and nobody caring. Little kids dancing with grandparents; teenagers making out. I felt like I’d stumbled onto some sort of magical island, one where nobody talked about the stock exchange and everyone was incredibly, almost purposefully unfashionable and the thought of waiting in line to get into a club was ludicrous. I wanted to live in this smelly pile of humanity forever, and that was a new one for me. I knew I’d been gone a while because I was seeing SF the way transplants see SF. And I also knew I was home.
That atmosphere, I learned while talking to Holliday last week, is absolutely by design.
“I think of it more as a gathering of music lovers than a festival, really,” says Holliday, who’s booked Hardly Strictly every year since its inception. “I think having no fences — you can walk away at any time — and not selling alcohol makes a huge difference in people’s attitudes.”
As for the task of putting together a lineup each year that appeals to everyone from teenagers to folks in their 70s and 80s — the announcement of Sun Kil Moon, Deltron 3030, the Apache Relay, Sharon Van Etten, and others had many pronouncing this the hippest (read: appealing to folks under 40) lineup in years — Holliday says she actually keeps it relatively simple.
“When it started, and I kind of still do this, it was just with Warren in mind,” she says. “I was thinking about what he hadn’t heard yet. I knew he didn’t start listening to music until later in life, so I wanted to book music that I thought he should be turned on to. As long as there was some kind of roots in it. The Blind Boys of Alabama, Gogol Bordello, all stuff that he would really love to hear, but he’d never go out and see because he went to bed at 9:30. That was my goal for 12 years. ‘What would blow Warren’s mind?'” She laughs, noting that Hellman’s early bedtime is also the reason for the festival ending not long after dark.
“I don’t think [my booking] has changed that much with his passing,” she says. “It’s still music that I feel doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. Nothing’s bigger than the Fillmore. A lot of the bands don’t fill our rooms [Great American Music Hall and Slim’s], so a lot of people get to hear music they’re not normally exposed to. The age range is all over the place. And with bands that usually are a higher ticket, it’s a an opportunity for fans to go see $60, $70 shows for free.”
The park itself also has a lot to do with how she books: “I walk through it and see what I hear,” she says. “The contours of the meadows at different times of the year speak differently to you. Sometimes when I walk down JFK, I still hear Alejandro Escovedo singing, and that was eight years ago now.”
She also has a long-running wish list of artists; Lucinda Williams and Yo La Tengo, both playing this year’s fest, have been on it for some time. And she’s especially looking forward to the annual tribute to those who’ve passed away, which happens Saturday afternoon at the banjo stage — Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, and the Ramones will all be honored this year.
“It’s the best gift,” she says. “I mean if someone were able to give us world peace, I’d say that was the best gift. But since no one’s going to — yep, this is the best.”
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is all day Fri/3 through Sun/5, for free, of course, in Golden Gate Park. Check www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com for set times, and visit our Noise blog at www.sfbg.com/noise for more coverage of the fest. Until then — we’ll see ya in the park.
LEFT OF THE DIALBob Mould seems like a good multi-tasker. The legendary singer-guitarist is just signing out of a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session as he answers the phone in New York for our interview Sept. 9; he’ll play at the Bowery Ballroom the following night.
“Sorry, we went a little over because there were technical difficulties at the beginning,” he says, when I explain that I’ve been watching for the last hour in real time as his superfans — as well as guitar nerds of all stripes, from all over the world — ask him questions.
These queries range in topic from pleas for his explosively influential punk band Hüsker Dü to get back together (“Some things can’t be replicated, and those eight years are best left untarnished”) to interest in his diet and exercise regimens (little to no starches, lots of running staircases when he’s home in SF), wrestling opinions (Mould at one point wrote music for the professional wrestling industry) to “what positions were your guitar pedal knobs at when I saw you play this one particular show?” (generally, 3pm for both).
If the fans seem all over the place, it’s for good reason: Mould’s career is as varied as the people who count him among their heroes. After fronting Hüsker Dü in the early ’80s; he ushered in a higher standard for hard-hitting alt-rock in the ’90s with a new band, Sugar. His solo career has taken him into melancholy singer-songwriter territory, then back to all-consuming wall-of-deafening-sound guitar rock, with forays into the aforementioned wrestling business. In 2011, after decades of being known for his intense love of privacy, he penned an acclaimed memoir about his life thus far, including his tortured early years spent closeted, at times using meth and cocaine to cope.
After that 180, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Mould’s most recent work, Beauty and Ruin (which came out June 3 on Merge), grapples with highly personal territory.
In the first half of 2012, Mould was riding high off the book’s success. He’d just been honored by dozens of younger rock titans who consider him a god — Dave Grohl, Spoon, Ryan Adams — at a tribute performance in LA. He had a new record out, the critically acclaimed, harder-than-he’d-rocked-in-a-while Silver Age, and was celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sugar’s much-loved Copper Blue. And then, in October, Mould’s father died.
“It was not unexpected, but it was still tough nonetheless,” says Mould, who has written candidly about his complicated relationship with his father — an alcoholic who was physically abusive at times, but also introduced him to rock ‘n’ roll, and acted as one of Hüsker Dü’s biggest supporters in the band’s early years.
“[Losing a parent] is something most of us go through, but I don’t think I’d realize how a loss of the size really shifts your perspective…it was an emotional time. And that became the marker for the next 12 months of touring, dealing with my relationship with my family and my work.”
The record takes on four key themes or acts, says Mould: “There’s the loss, and the reflection, and then acceptance. And then there’s moving on to the future, which is how the album closes out. It’s a work about a really confusing experience.”
Backed by Jason Narducy on bass and the tireless Jon Wurster on drums (Mould shares Wurster’s time with Superchunk and the Mountain Goats), Mould channels that confusion into a something like a condensed, theatrical rock ‘n’ roll epic. (His tour for the record brings him to The Fillmore this Fri/26.)
Considering its subject matter, it’s hardly a downer of a record. “I’m sure it confuses some of the longtime fellow miserablists [to hear the bright, upbeat tunes],” says Mould with a laugh. “It’s a heavy record; it’s got its own darkness, but it has an equal amount of light to keep it balanced out.”
Beauty and Ruin also demands to be heard as an album: As a listener, even if you were to shut off the part of your brain that comprehends lyrics, it’s the cathartic, hook-driven guitar thrum throughout these missives — which builds to unrelentingly passionate levels on “The War,” marking the end of side 1 on the record, if it were an LP, before sliding into the naked clarity of “Forgiveness” — that engages your full body, that makes you question whether or not aging affects Bob Mould the way it affects regular humans, because the man honestly sounds like he could sing and play electric guitar and run a marathon at the same time.
Not so, Mould says. On days off when he’s on tour, he tries to talk as little as possible to protect his voice. “I sing really hard, probably too hard for my own good, and naturally it gets a little tougher to recover from that each night.”
When he’s not on tour, of course, he’s home in San Francisco — he’s lived in the Castro for the past five years. And yes, as a guy who made $12 playing Mabuhay Gardens in 1981 with Hüsker Dü, he’s noticed that the scene here has changed in the last few years. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“I’ll still go to the Independent, Bottom of the Hill, Great American to see shows. I like the Chapel. There are still great clubs. But yeah, historically, when there’s been development — especially these big condo developments — when that’s on the rise in the city, at first, the neighbors are going ‘Oh, we love living next to the nightclub!'” says Mould. “Then they have their first kid, and the nightclub keeps them up at night. And they start fighting the nightclub, and if they get it closed down the neighborhood turns into a really boring place, and they don’t know it until it’s too late. I’ve seen it happen in so many cities around the world.”
“…I’m not certain how anybody can live in San Francisco, with the cost of living and the rents. It’s just such a massive change,” he continues. “Cities change. And we can fight City Hall, fight the developers…but cities evolve. And people who make art for their living are leaving for other places, which is tough because San Francisco has such an amazing history with music and how it’s affected world cultures. I’ve honestly just learned to deal with it.
“Because you never know what’s going to happen. Things change. Maybe it’ll change back.”
LEFT OF THE DIAL Amid all the geeky hyperventilating last week about the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, U2 — the Irish rock giants by whom the announcement of new music inspires roughly the same level of excitement as a new flavor of seasonal, sugar-free Starbucks latte, and among the same demographic — tried to pull a Beyoncé by dropping a new album out of nowhere. For free!
Problem is, they dropped it into everyone’s iTunes (Bono’s a good friend of Jony Ive, the senior VP of design and smarmy videos at Apple) without asking. And not everyone likes U2. Tyler the Creator, in a burst of creative Twitter activity, compared finding it on his phone to waking up with a pimple “or herpe,” concluding “FUCK BONO.”
As of this writing, Apple has launched an entire site to help annoyed people get the record off their phones.In that spirit: Here are three albums that would have been a welcome surprise instead.
Oh, Karen O — we’ve had a crush on you forever, and now you go and do this? The Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman’s first solo record, out Sept. 9 on Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records, is full of raw, melancholy, lo-fi songs she wrote in 2006 and 2007, and is honestly almost too easy on the ears. Anyone who fell for O’s plaintive vocals and stripped-bare songwriting on the Her soundtrack will be entranced by this album, which O describes thusly: “When I was 27 I crushed a lot. I wasn’t sure I’d ever fall in love again. These songs were written and recorded in private around this time. They are the soundtrack to what was an ever continuing love crusade. I hope they keep you company on yours.”
Brace yourselves: Christopher Owens — the pen and voice behind two albums of sweetly tortured, confessional Girls songs (RIP), in addition to last year’s first solo effort, the prog-rock folk moodiness that was Lysandre — sounds happy. This sophomore solo effort, culled from songs Owens says he’s written over the past four years, shows a songwriter fully embracing his country and gospel influences, the latter of which lend an especially theatrical element to songs like the one for his late brother, “Stephen.” The majority of these songs are rollicking, dance-around-your-kitchen-while-making-dinner upbeat, which we could get used to.
A bright, hard-rocking new opus from one of the hardest-working 53-year-olds in the business — and one who still thankfully calls the Bay Area home. Check next week’s Bay Guardian for our in-depth interview with Mould about his life in SF and the making of the new album.
LEFT OF THE DIAL The first rule of interviewing former Pixies bassist Kim Deal is that you do not say the word “Pixies” while speaking to Kim Deal.
After it has been made clear to you, multiple times and in no uncertain terms, that you are forbidden from asking her about the iconic rock band she co-founded in 1986, quit, re-joined, and then quit again in 2013, it would be understandable if you were slightly apprehensive about said phone interview — worried, perhaps, that Deal might be cranky or unpleasant regardless of your following the rules, or else that you might suddenly develop a very specific and unfortunate case of Tourette’s that leads to you uncontrollably shouting Frank Black’s name or Pixies album titles into the phone as epithets.
All of this anxiety would be for naught. Kim Deal, 53, is in great spirits when she picks up the phone at home in her native Dayton, Ohio. She’s hilarious, actually. “Hellooo, how are you?” she drawls in an overly perky telemarketer accent of sorts. Then, laughing, before switching into her unmistakable real voice: “Sorry, I don’t know why I’m talking like that.”
If anything, she’s in a bit of a silly mood because she’s been cooped up in rehearsals. It’s about two weeks before she heads out on tour with The Breeders, the band she co-leads with her twin sister Kelley, whose nearly identical voice blends with Kim’s sultry, sharp-edged alto in a way that creates addictively salty-sweet harmonies — and a band whose chart-topping contributions to the Steve Albini era of early ’90s alt-rock are so significant that only co-founding a band like the Pixies, as Kim did, could relegate it to “secondary reason for fame” status.
Anyway: The Breeders have been rehearsing in Deal’s basement, like old times. Getting on each other’s nerves, like old times. Bassist Josephine Wiggs was convinced there was a weird sound coming out of her amp last night when they were practicing. “I swear I can’t hear what she’s hearing,” says Deal, like a stand-up comedian launching into a routine about his wife’s cooking. “It’s an 810 SVT bass amp, so it sounds like a big fucking bass amp. It’s distracting you? Scoot over and you won’t hear it anymore.”
“She’s British, though,” concludes Deal with a sigh.
And how about working with her twin sister day in, day out?
“I love her more than anything in the world, but she was bothering me so much at practice the other day that I took a lamp and put it between us so I didn’t have to look at her while we were playing,” Deal says cheerfully. “Once somebody starts doing something that annoys me I kind of get a red light around them. The lamp has moved around each day as we all [get annoyed at each other]. It’s subtle.”
They might piss each other off from time to time, but if there were any doubts about the place the Breeders still occupy in their fans’ hearts, last year’s wholly sold-out 60-date tour, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the band’s biggest commercial success, Last Splash, should have laid them to rest. (Two nights at The Fillmore last August saw the band playing the entirety of that album – which was recorded in San Francisco, then rode the same angsty wave to national fame Nirvana saw that year, propelled by its most catchy and most delightfully inane song, “Cannonball.” Then they left the stage for 10 minutes before coming back to play the entirety of Pod, the band’s 1990 Kurt Cobain-influencing debut, as an encore. Deal, who had just quit the power play of the Pixies for the second time, was noticeably exuberant as a frontwoman, and seemingly could not stop smiling.)
Still, not counting last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of Last Splash (LSXX), it’s been five years since the Breeders put out new material (though it’s been a much less dramatic break than the seven-year hiatus between Last Splash and Title TK, during which time the band famously imploded in part due to Kelley Deal’s heroin use).
In lieu of new Breeders records, however — and in lieu of, er, bringing up her most recent few years with the Pixies, which, it could be noted, some of us were excited about mostly because of the chance to hear “Gigantic,” which she wrote, which is arguably the best song in the entire decades-spanning Pixies catalog — Deal has quietly issued eight 7-inch singles of solo material since January 2013. It’s something she began doing when she “couldn’t find anybody who could be in a band” with her, she says, especially living in Ohio.
“The industry dropped out of the music,” she says simply. “Musicians need jobs now. There used to be enough money in music that people who played in bands could actually make their rent. Maybe they’d sling weed on the side or do some pizza delivery, but they could hit their rent. Now that’s just not possible. Even bands that people know pretty well, they need real jobs — they design websites, then they go home to their band. Unless you’re [at the star status] where you’re, like, making perfume.”
So she started making music by herself. Though she’s brought in old friends and bandmates to play along (Slint drummer Britt Walford, whom Deal ran into at Steve Albini’s 50th birthday party, makes an appearance), the songs are unmistakably hers. Their moods shift from volatile bass-driven fuzz (“Walking With a Killer”) to cooing sing-song with an almost creepy Velvet Underground edge (“Are You Mine?”).
In an age when we’re used to artists simply throwing up a SoundCloud link and announcing “I have a new single,” she’s done something increasingly rare, as well: She released each song as an old-school single with an A and a B side, a physical product, each with its own album art. Long known for her perfectionism and attention to detail when it comes to gear and a studio’s technical specs, 2013 and 2014 were the years when Deal became entranced by the physical process of distributing music.
“It makes it more real to me,” she explains. “If I just put it out as a download, I feel like I just emailed my sister the song. Nothing even happens, it doesn’t make sense to me — I’m like, ‘Where do I put the title, the song name?'” Plus, since she self-issued Fate to Fatal in 2009, she realized she enjoyed the process of calling around to research manufacturers, assigning ISRC codes (kind of like serial numbers for songs), getting physical mail back when she sent something out.
She has no current plans to compile the tracks into an album, however — for one, each has “really different levels of production.” She feels a little like she’d be ripping people off, since the songs are all out already. And somehow she doesn’t expect “normal people” to be interested in buying these tracks, anyway, though a large portion of the Internet (and the majority of music critics) might disagree with that.
At the moment, though, Deal is in full-band mode. This current Breeders tour came about when Neutral Milk Hotel asked them to join a bill at the Hollywood Bowl; the Breeders structured the rest of the three-week tour around the gig. (In San Francisco, the band will play The Fillmore this Saturday, Sept. 13.) The tour will be a chance to try out new material, though Deal seems a little nervous about that.
“We have about four new songs right now that we can really play, and I’m working on the words for this other song Josephine wrote,” she explains. “She seems so smart, and she’s English, so I can’t just go, like, ‘ooga chooga,'” you know? I want to really say something with it.” Deal’s been reading The Power of Myth, the anthology of conversations between scholar Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, and thinking a lot on the hero’s journey. Specifically, what would happen if the hero completely ignored the advice of the gatekeeper/mentor character at the beginning of the arc.
“We’ve been working on this stuff all year, so when [Neutral Milk Hotel] asked us, even though it’s way out there, we thought ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot. And hope to hell nobody records on cell phones,'” she says.
And then there’s the act of traveling together at this stage in the game, with bandmates she’s known for 20-plus years. (After a decade or so of other members, the current lineup is the original Last Splash crew: Wiggs on bass, Jim McPherson on drums, and the inimitable sisters Deal in the center ring on vocals and guitars.)
People can get snippy on tour, says Kim — especially in Florida, “things get weird…but we get along for the most part, no one’s an asshole, that’s important. There’s just really not a rude person in this bunch.”
In the van, especially, you can always put on headphones. And if all else fails, “You get lamped,” she says. “There’s always the lamp.”
LEFT OF THE DIAL Musician Bart Davenport, Oakland native, LA resident, has one caveat for discussing his move two years ago. He might’ve broken a few hearts, but he wants to make it clear that he did not head for the southlands for the same reasons many fed-up, underfed Bay Area musicians are making the same trek these days.
“My story doesn’t have anything to do with the changes that have been happening in the Bay Area the past few years. And it really wasn’t a career move. It has to do with changes I needed to make happen within myself,” says the singer-songwriter-guitarist. “Besides, I don’t even stay away long enough to miss it — I’m up there at least once a month.”
Lucky for us, one of those trips will take place next weekend, when he helps kick off the Mission Creek Oakland Music & Arts Festival with a daylong block party Sept. 6. Davenport headlines an eclectic lineup of acts that also includes the psych-rock-folky sounds of The Blank Tapes, B. Hamilton, Foxtails Brigade, and more at this opener to the fifth incarnation of Oakland’s 10-day, 14-venue music fest, which began as an offshoot to San Francisco’s in 2009. (If there are any lingering questions about the East Bay’s music scene holding its own at this point, this is the kind of lineup that answers ’em.)
Davenport has had a pretty hectic touring schedule since his most recent LP, Physical World, dropped on Burger Records in March of this year. There were the adventures in Madrid, the opening slots for Echo & the Bunnymen at LA’s Orpheum Theatre. Last week, playing guitar in Marc & the Casuals, he co-hosted a special one-off soul music-comedy-storytelling night at The Chapel. The day after he plays the MCO Festival, he’ll be driving “like a madman” back to LA to catch a Burt Bacharach show (as an audience member). He’s gotten used to life on the road.
As a kid, though, he mostly moved back and forth between Berkeley and Oakland, where he grew up near Lake Merritt — across the street from the humble, Disneyland-inspiring wonder that is Children’s Fairyland, with its old-school talk boxes that have been narrating fairytales at the turn of a key since 1950. (He’s still enchanted by it, but — as this reporter has also discovered during some routine research — adults wanting to visit the park are required to bring a kid along.)
Nostalgia might seem to be an easy catch-all theme for someone prone to memories of kids’ amusement parks, especially someone whose most recent record conjures the synthy New Wave anthems of ’80s with almost eerie authenticity one moment, then veers backward toward Buddy Holly the next — with each song seemingly narrated by a different character named Bart Davenport, and all of it so shiny that you can never quite tell when he’s being tongue-in-cheek. Davenport’s known for clear changes in genre and sound from record to record, but the shift from 2008’s Palaces (a Harry Nilsson-esque affair with Kelley Stoltz’s fingerprints all over it) to the distinctly palm tree- and pink pollution sunset-scented Physical World (which is full of soul and jazz chord progressions, and where Davenport seems to be channeling, by turn, Hall & Oates, The Cars, New Order, and Morrisey) is probably his biggest departure yet.
The singer takes issue with critics who would simply call him “retro,” however — though it’s not because he finds the term offensive.
“I actually think it’s insulting to purist retroists, people like Nick Waterhouse, maybe, who’ve gone to great lengths to recreate certain sounds really exactingly,” says Davenport, who credits longtime collaborator Sam Flax with sending him in a New Wavey direction after producing his power-poppy 2012 single Someone2Dance.
“And I don’t even think of myself as a very nostalgic person. I think of [my influences] more like shopping at the thrift store, and finding gems that you want to repurpose to say something new,” he adds. “It’s also that I guess many people try to avoid arrangements that sound like the way things were being done 20 or 30 years ago, and I tend to not really think about anything but what I like, what I think sounds good. It’s not about taking you to 1984 or taking you to right now, it’s about taking you into your own little world. The little world of that particular song, for just three minutes.”
Reticence to talk up LA in the Bay Area press aside, Davenport will allow that one of his major influences was his newly adopted city.
“It’s definitely an LA album,” he says, noting that about two-thirds of the record was written there, and it was recorded in Alhambra, near East LA. “I think the constant sunlight breeds a kind of optimism in people. Then there’s the scenery, the palm trees, the long crazy streets. The taco trucks. Where I live, the majority of people are Latino. It’s just a different mix.” Angeleno bassist Jessica Espeleto telling him she’d play in his band if he moved down south was one thing he had in mind, as well, before making the leap.
And yet: There’s no place like home? “The entire Bay Area has great venues,” says Davenport, as we discuss the new crop of venues that have sprung up in the East Bay over the last few years. “And yeah, especially with the musicians getting priced out of San Francisco, I think it’s great that there’s the whole East Bay for them to go to. Really, thank God for Oakland.”
With The Blank Tapes, B. Hamilton, many others
Mission Creek Oakland Music & Arts Festival Block Party
Sat/6, noon-8pm, free (fest runs through Sept. 13)
FALL ARTS If you are a fan of hip-hop, you likely already know that 1993 was a very special year.
Call it coincidence, call it fate, call it a combination of social, economic, and political factors projected through the kaleidoscopic lens of American pop culture and write your thesis about it (you wouldn’t be the first). But something in the air in 1993 coalesced into a weather system of seminal albums from the best of the best: Tupac, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang, De La Soul.
In Oakland, E-40 made his solo debut. Too $hort’s new album hit the top of the R&B/hip-hop charts. The Coup was selling records by rapping about the Communist Manifesto. And then there was Souls of Mischief.
Fresh out of Skyline High School, the sound of the four-piece’s debut was something else altogether: Over obscure jazz and funk samples, Souls of Mischief traded flows about weed, street violence, girls, teenage boredom — so no, not entirely unique in subject matter. But there was a sweet subtlety to the delivery, a charismatic, self-aware almost-wink to their bravado. These were Bay Area kids talking about how it felt to be Bay Area kids at that time, with a mission statement that charted a modest path for the future: This is how we chill/ from 93 ’til…
As of this writing, it’s been 20 years and 11 months since 93 ‘Til Infinity helped put the Bay on the hip-hop map. A lot’s changed, to put it lightly. The Internet happened, and the Internet’s effect on the music industry. The consolidation of thousands of smaller, regionally-influenced media channels into a few giant, similar-sounding ones.
And then there are things that haven’t changed. Twenty years and 11 months since that record first propelled them into the national spotlight, the four high school buddies who make up Souls of Mischief — that’s A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai — are slouched on couches in their clubhouse in East Oakland on a warm Wednesday evening, ribbing each other about joint-rolling technique.
The Hiero compound, as the converted two-story warehouse is known, serves as the physical center of Hieroglyphics, the close-knit hip-hop collective/umbrella record label that’s home to rappers Del the Funkee Homosapien, Casual, and Pep Love, DJ Toure and producer Domino, in addition to Souls of Mischief. The exterior walls are covered with a mural done by teenagers in the neighborhood (it’d be tagged up by now, but everyone knows it’s Hiero so they leave it alone). Inside, the ground floor contains recording studios — Pep Love is working in one right now — and a big room that can be set up for video shoots. Upstairs, more recording space, a room with wall-to-wall shelves of vinyl, a mini-kitchen, an office.
A-Plus’s teenage son is here at the moment, recording something of his own. Stickers bearing the three-eyed Hiero logo adorn nearly every surface. An incoming mail pile is marked with a Post-it. Items on a nearby bookshelf: a stuffed alligator toy, Swisher blunt wraps. In one corner, a whiteboard reads “HIEROGLYPHICS CREW NEXT PROJECTS,” with members’ names down the left-hand side and updates about their records; as an afterthought: “THE PURPOSE OF THIS BOARD IS COORDINATED MARKETING STRATEGY.” In another corner, a chart titled “Capitalism Is a Pyramid Scheme.”
In the two-plus decades since that momentous year, the members of Souls of Mischief have had kids. Hieroglyphics went from young upstart crew to real business venture to respected veterans of the hip-hop world who can still easily sell out amphitheaters (as they learned on their 20th anniversary tour last year). There are special edition box-sets of their 20th anniversary reissue waiting for autographs downstairs before being shipped. On Monday, Sept. 1 (Labor Day), Souls of Mischief will be the centerpiece of the third annual Hiero Day, a free, all-ages music festival/block party in downtown Oakland that gets bigger every year — and it’s not just about the music. But more on that later.
What the guys have been consumed by for a year makes its debut a few days earlier. On Aug. 26, Souls of Mischief will drop their sixth studio album, There Is Only Now, the group’s first full-length since 2009.
A richly orchestrated concept album set in 1994, based loosely on real events from the year following their breakout album (when they were dealing with newfound fame, as Oakland dealt with an increase in gun violence), the record serves as both a bookend to 93 ‘Til Infinity and as completely fresh territory. For one, it’s Souls of Mischief’s first collaboration with the LA-based producer of the moment, Adrian Younge (Jay Z, Delfonics, Ghostface Killah), who’s using the album to launch his new vinyl-centric label, Linear Labs.
“The name There Is Only Now comes in part from Buddhism, the idea of focusing on the moment and being present. But it’s also a period piece with a twist — it touches on issues that are still going on now: Street violence, love, drugs, the music business. It’s a universal story,” says Tajai, after ambling in the last of the four, asking who has rolling papers. (He’s just come from a panel at UC Berkeley’s architecture school, where he was judging undergraduates’ projects, he says, by way of explanation about his preppy sweater. He’s enrolled in the Master’s program there.)
Fittingly, the record is a study in contrasts and surprises. Its guest stars are folks you might have heard of — Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes — but in roles we’re not really used to. The story, which follows the crew on an adventure through Oakland after Tajai is kidnapped, is punctuated by interludes from A Tribe Called Quest‘s DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad as an animated radio DJ, narrating and addressing Oakland from a fictional radio station, K-NOW.
Even more appropriately: The record, which clocks in at a packed 40 minutes long, sounds slick as anything — and was created without the use of a single sample or computer. At 35, Younge is known for using only live instrumentation (most of it performed himself), and the resulting beats and backing tracks draw heavily from classic ’60s and ’70s soul; his affinity for the Blaxploitation era of cinema and experience scoring films lends an extra layer of cinematic feeling to the record’s narrative.
Maybe most importantly, Souls of Mischief sound like they’re having a damn good time.
“The fact that it was all analog took it back to the beginning for us,” adds Phesto, noting that in the high school days of Souls of Mischief, they wrote songs using three-way calling. “We’ve been messing with live instrumentation from the beginning. But with the storyline, [Younge] writing it like a score, and us being lyricists for that score — I think he brought out something in us that no other producer has.”
There’s a base level of social consciousness that Hiero fans will know to expect. During one radio interlude that prefaces the song “Ghetto Superhero,” callers into K-NOW voice concerns about violence in Oakland in a way that, unfortunately, is still highly relevant. (Ali Shaheed Muhammad, with an audible smile: “It’s almost like we need some kind of superhero…”).
But it’s never been the goal to hit listeners over the head with social commentary, says A-plus. If they were going to tackle something like gentrification in Oakland, they’d do it for real, “and it’d be an 18-hour song.”
Besides, adds Tajai, “We’re older rappers. When we preach, it comes off preachy.”
Which is not to say that they’re reluctant to get political. Ask, for example, what they make of current trends in mainstream, commercial rap (and what seems like the chasm between that and the independent hip-hop that’s always bubbling just underground), and you will hear some opinions about materialism. Particularly, hypothetically, if A-Plus and Phesto had to leave an hour ago, and the light outside is waning from the pink East Oakland sky, and Tajai and Opio have smoked a good amount over the last 90 minutes.
“Music is always a reflection of society, and rap is like a 40-year-old man. That motherfucker has kids and a 401k. That’s how it’s acting,” says Tajai. “It doesn’t have the idealism it used to. It’s about ‘get paper.’ And you’re hearing kids saying that.”
“I think you can talk about money and still be a real person and have some style and finesse — I always liked Run-D.M.C. with the big chain and whatever, that’s part of hip-hop,” offers Opio. “I don’t think standing in front of the car is horrible in and of itself. But when every single thing is that…”
“The problem is not the subject matter, it’s that access to shit that isn’t that isn’t equal. It’s always the lowest common denominator, scraping the bottom of the barrel,” says Tajai. “I’ll hear something these days that’s like — is this a parody? I can’t even tell if it’s a joke. And then it takes off!”
Opio: “That’s just advertising dollars. People are investing in that because it makes money.”
Tajai: “I’m not mad at that. I’m mad that the dollars that do come in don’t go toward building new power structures. Look, the materialism is across the board. ‘In God we trust’ is on the dollar. We’re a materialist, capitalist society that’s driven by consuming. We are the mall. We’re not even the manufacturer or the farm, America is just the mall, and we’re being fed these images that make us wanna go to the mall all the time. My thing is I just want there to be some kind of reinvestment. Like cool, make a million dollars, but then have 40 percent of it go to literacy programs. Because then at the very least, people will understand that you’re a human who thinks, and not just this caricature of a rapper you’re selling to everybody.”
The thing about Hieroglyphics, most fans will tell you, is that Hieroglyphics has never quite gotten their due. Souls of Mischief were notoriously underpromoted by Jive following their debut; as violence in Oakland increased in the ’90s, the city put an actual moratorium on hip-hop shows for a while. Ask hip-hop historian Davey D about it. There was literally no place in Oakland for rappers to get on a stage.
When Hieroglyphics threw the first Hiero Day in 2012 — prompted by a Facebook fan who wrote online that, in honor of ’93 Til Infinity, he wanted to introduce as many people as possible to Hieroglyphics on 9/3, Sept. 3 — something shifted. A roster of the Bay Area’s hip-hop stars came out and played a free show in the streets that weekend, and roughly 10,000 people showed up. In 2013, it grew bigger, gaining sponsors, with Mayor Jean Quan naming it an official city holiday and referring to Hieroglyphics as a “bright spot” for Oakland.
This was a big change in tone from a city that hadn’t formally done much to support hip-hop for 20 years.
But Souls of Mischief aren’t looking for a medal. They’re looking at fundraising models like Farm Aid. They want to be able to give away houses after Hiero Day. They talk all the time, they say, about buying a farm and building a commercial kitchen where Oakland kids can learn about agriculture and cooking, learn farm-to-table techniques.
“As far as hip-hop moving forward, my thing is that hip-hop used to give us what we needed intellectually. And if we can’t feed people with it that way anymore, let’s feed them physically,” says Tajai. “You throw a weekend festival with 200,000 people, it should be an imperative to then go ‘Where is this money going?’ or ‘We’re gonna create this farm or this school.’
“That’s the whole point of Hiero Day,” he continues. “Use music to bring people together, bring people to local businesses, and then pool our resources and invest in the community so there’s lasting effects beyond just a party.”
“That’s one of the most powerful tools for young people,” says Opio. “It’s ‘OK, we’re partying, this is fun,’ and then you realize you can come together and do more than just party. You’ve seen the effects of that in the ’60s. That leads to revolutions.”
There are 15-year-olds becoming adults knowing only this version of Souls of Mischief. There’s a whole subset of fans who were born in ’93, in particular, who take Souls of Mischief lyrics straight to the chest. What will “old school” mean to their kids? Think for a second on the difference between infinity and there is only now.
“We’re talking about how to turn hip-hop into a generator of what it used to generate for us,” says Tajai. “I mean, we’re here today because of rap music. Not dead, not strung out, because of rap music. As much as because of our parents, our homies, whatever. So we gotta give something back.”
“Oh, right, and buy the record,” he adds. A half-hearted laugh. “We are the worst fucking promoters.”
Souls of Mischief play Hiero Day (alongside Zion I and some 28 other artists) Monday, Sept. 1 at the Linden Street Brewery Stage, 95 Linden, Oakl. More info: www.hieroday.com
LEFT OF THE DIAL It’s a common refrain among the bundled, peacoat- and scarf-sporting masses around this time of year that San Francisco doesn’t really have a summer. But those of us who’ve been here a while know this isn’t exactly accurate: Summer just kinda takes place during fall. If seasons were party guests, San Francisco’s summer would be the guy who shows up at 2am, bearing a bottle of good tequila, ready to dance. Unless you’re college-aged or younger and have to go back to school just as the weather turns toasty, only to stare longingly out the classroom window imagining the fun you could be having — my apologies, I’ve been there — there’s something really special, almost secretive-feeling about a warm September late afternoon.
On Saturday, Aug. 23, consider the 20th Street Block Party, brought to you by Noise Pop, to be your gateway — a kickoff, really — to “real summer.” This free annual shindig, now in its second year, will see a mighty fine lineup of local bands (ones that don’t usually play for free, like Rogue Wave, Cayucas, Melted Toys, The Bilinda Butchers, etc.) entertaining all afternoon long, while food from the veritable gourmet wonderland that has sprung up on 20th street in the Mission will be available in wallet-friendly, portable portions. What more you could ask for?
Among the acts we’re most excited for is Myron & E, a soul duo that’s had a pretty big year. After the release of Broadway last year — a 10-track powerhouse of a debut, featuring warm, plaintive vocals dancing the line between neo-soul and R&B from both singers, the Soul Investigators as a backing band, and the overwhelming sense of having arrived in a time machine from another era — the two have gotten used to life on the road during a whirlwind of touring, making fans in some surprising places. Russia, in particular, went well recently, says Eric “E da boss” Cooke.
Still, “[The record’s] been a slow-burner, a lot of people are just finding out about it. Which is great, it still has momentum, people are still discovering us,” says E, a New Jersey native known for his gargantuan record collection, who’s been producing hip-hop records in the Bay for nearly a decade and a half now — alongside DJ Nick Andre, he’s known in the Bay as the producer of more than a dozen on the Slept On label. E also doubles as a member of the Oakland independent hip-hop royal family Blackalicious; members of which guested on his underground 2007 hit, “Go Left,” while signed to the SF-based Om label.
When label heads there were interested in a follow-up using instrumentals instead of samples, he reached out to the Soul Investigators; they asked him to sing on one of their songs in return. E reached out to Myron (Glasper), a dancer-turned-singer who came up in LA (he cut his teeth dancing on In Living Color), another sometime member of Blackalicious, to join him on the track. Something clicked. Broadway had the sound of instant, organic hit when it dropped last summer on Stone’s Throw records, with disco basslines, bright horns, and classic soul grooves for days, anchored by the pair’s call-and-response vocals, which are by turns seductive, goofy, unconcerned with being perfect but somehow, simultaneously, almost too smooth. These are party starters, these are roller disco anthems, these are love ballads; they are everything in between. The live instrumentation gives the tunes an organic sensibility that’s (unfortunately) all too rare in soul/hip-hop hybrids as of late. Whatever the reason, you honestly can’t help but dance.
“Sometimes we write together, sometimes we write separately and come together after,” says E. As for how their relationship’s evolved after the last year of nearly non-stop touring together? Do they ever butt heads while writing?
“That’s maybe the only time we don’t butt heads,” says E with a laugh. “No, we have a certain chemistry. And, you know, we’re having fun. It just works.”
As for the rest of the year, E says they hope to get back into the studio to start working on a follow-up by December. Until then, we’d recommend taking advantage of any chance to see ’em you get.
MYRON & E
1pm on the main stage
Noise Pop’s 20th Street Block Party (with Rogue Wave, Cayucas, many others)
Aug. 23, noon – 6pm, free (unless you opt for the VIP package)
Oh, and food-wise? The workshop tent demands that you come both hungry and ready to learn. Maybe it’s because Chino’s bite-size, savory broth-filled soup dumplings have been haunting our dreams lately (in a delicious way), but we especially can’t stop looking at the workshop called “Dumplings with Brandon Jew.” He had us at “cooking secrets” and “techniques of dumpling creation.” That’s at 2:30pm in the Workshop Tent. Education never tasted so good.
LEFT OF THE DIAL Can you smell it in the air? It’s that late-summer, chilled pinot grigio-tipsy, organic ice cream-sticky scent of Outside Lands, just around the corner.
Yes, it’s that time in our fair city’s annual trip around the sun when we get the chance to show Austin and Indio and those warm summer New York nights exactly what we here in San Francisco are made of when it comes to music festivals: Namely, expensive, gourmet food, wine, and beer stands, a commitment to slapping the word “green” in front of everything; and a beautiful, natural outdoor venue in which, should you forget to bring three extra layers in an oversized bag, you will absolutely freeze your ass off by nightfall.
All snark aside, one thing I’ve always appreciated about OSL in its six short summers is that, nestled amongst the sometimes overwhelmingly corporate feel of the thing — something that was maybe inevitable, as Another Planet Entertainment grew from little-promoter-offshoot-that-could into perhaps the most influential promotions company in the Bay Area music biz — is a commitment to bringing local bands along for the ride whenever possible.
Sure, everyone’s excited to see Kanye. I’m excited to see Kanye. Anyone who’s going to see Kanye and tries to say anything more intellectual about it than “I’m really fucking amused in advance and very excited to see Kanye” is lying. But nothing fills me with more hometown pride than watching a band I’ve been rooting for since they were playing living rooms or parklets take the stage in Golden Gate Park in front of thousands of paying, attentive potential new fans.
With that in mind, here’s your guide to a few of our favorite local folks representing the Bay Area at this year’s fest. Show up for ’em. In most cases, they’ve been working toward this for a long time. And if you don’t have the funds to make it to this year’s OSL? Lucky for us — unlike Kanye — these kids play around the Bay all year round.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers
The unofficial queen of Bay Area alt-folk has had a good year since August 2013, when her band’s debut LP took to the airwaves and then to the national stage, with Bluhm’s killer vocals and long, tall mishmash of Stevie/Janis appeal at the helm. Fri/8 at 4pm, Sutro Stage
SF’s own Scott Hansen has also been riding high this year, since the release of Awake in March propelled him from bedroom artist to something else entirely with its lush, ambitious landscapes of color and sound. We still think we prefer him in headphones to outdoor festival-style, but we’ll take it. Sat/9 at 3:40pm, Twin Peaks Stage
If you don’t know his solo stuff (and you should; last year’s MCII was one of the best local records of the year), you probably know him as Ty Segall’s right-hand man. Either way, Cronin is one of the most authentic voices in the Bay Area’s indie scene right now, with just enough power-pop sweetness and strings coloring even his scratchiest garage-punk anthems. Fri/8 at 4:30pm, Panhandle Stage
Did you love Girls (the SF indie powerhouse, RIP, not the HBO show)? Of course you did. Did you love Christopher Owens’ solo debut, Lysandre? We did too. He’s giving us another one in September; now’s your chance for a sneak preview of some likely highly emotional and lushly orchestrated songs. Sat/9 at 2:30, Sutro Stage
This 27-year-old rapper and SF University High School graduate has been gaining attention with his whiplash-inducing flow, which he honed in his teens as a slam poetry champion. His most recent album, June’s All You Can Do, is poised to take him from Internet and Ellen-famous to just famous-famous. Sun/10, 2pm, Twin Peaks Stage
Trails & Ways
Bossa nova dream pop, Brazilian shoegaze, whatever you call it: This Oakland quartet (and Bay Guardian Band on the Rise from 2012) draws inspiration from all over the globe for its undeniably catchy, never predictable, harmony-drenched melodies. Sat/9 at 12:40pm, Twin Peaks Stage
“This is not your father’s gypsy jazz,” warns Beso Negro’s bio, which — while we’re pretty sure our dad doesn’t have a kind of gypsy jazz — does a pretty good job of explaining the modern sounds infused into this Fairfax five-piece’s musical vocabulary. Hell Brew Revue Stage, all three days, check the website for details
As if we didn’t have a big enough soft spot for this East Bay alt-soul-folk outfit already, there’s the fact that they got their start busking outside of festivals for their first few years — including Outside Lands. Seeing them on the inside will be sweet. Sat/9 at noon, Sutro Stage
El Radio Fantastique
With horns, theremin, and just about every kind of percussion you can think of, this Point Reyes-based eight-piece is a mish-mash of everything dark and dancey and nerdy and weird, describing themselves as “part rumba band in purgatory, part cinematic chamber group, part shipwrecked serenade.” Serious cult following here. Hell Brew Revue Stage, all three days
Sultry, jazzy, rootsy — we’re excited to see what this mainstay of “voodoo blues” nights at small rooms like Amnesia can do on a bigger stage. Hell Brew Revue Stage, all three days
Marty O’Reilly & the Old Soul Orchestra
O’Reilly, a singer-songwriter who’s clearly done his Delta roots, gospel, and traditional folk homework, played OSL last year — well before putting out a debut studio album, the aptly titled Pray For Rain, in March of this year. This is a three-piece with arrangements that make the band seem much bigger. Hell Brew Revue Stage, all three days
LEFT OF THE DIAL The way in which Diana Gameros first came to America is a world away from the heart-wrenching images we’re currently seeing in the news media of children who’ve been sent, on their own, to the U.S. border from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. At 13, she arrived on an airplane from her home city of Juarez, Mexico; the plan was to stay with an aunt who lived in Michigan for the summer. When Gameros visited her cousin’s school there, and saw that it had a swimming pool, among other luxurious-seeming facilities, her aunt asked if she wanted to go to that school and learn English. Gameros couldn’t say yes fast enough. She wound up staying three years, returning to Mexico for the second half of high school, and then moving back to the U.S. for college.
So no, no one ever sent her out on foot for the border, hoping that on the other side lay someone or something that could mean a brighter future.
And yet: “I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to following this country’s immigration system and its history,” says Gameros, a fixture in San Francisco’s singer-songwriter scene for her thoughtful, melodic story-songs that contain both English and Spanish (she’s been referred to as the Latin Feist).
“I think there’s a lot that most American people don’t know. You hear people judging, calling these parents irresponsible…it’s so much more complicated than that,” she says. “People don’t know how the U.S.’s actions have affected these countries. People are risking their children’s lives because they need to be here. It’s not for the American dream, they’re not here to buy a nice car, a big house. They’re here because they want to eat, have a roof over their heads, fulfill basic necessities. It’s frustrating. There’s so much ignorance.”
Her unique perspective on border issues is one reason Gameros was selected to perform at MEX I AM: Live It to Believe It, a nearly weeklong festival organized by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in conjunction with SF’s Consulate General of Mexico. Bringing together musicians, actors, visual artists, and academics from throughout Mexico from July 31 through Aug. 5, the festival includes classical, indie, and pop music and dance, lectures and discussion of Mexico’s achievements and challenges, and a meeting of minds around border issues.
The program in which Gameros will perform, on the evening of Friday, Aug. 1, is called “Ideas: North and South of the Border,” and aims to explore innovation in the sciences, arts, and culture in Mexico. Among the other speakers: astronaut Jose Hernandez, who grew up in the Central Valley as the son of immigrant farmers; he’ll discuss his journey from childhood (he didn’t learn to read or speak in English until he was 12) through getting a degree in electrical engineering and eventually being tapped by NASA. Rosario Marin, the first Mexican-American woman to serve as Treasurer of the United States, will also be present, along with Favianna Rodriguez, a transnational visual artist whose work “depicts how women, migrants and outsiders are affected by global politics, economic inequality, patriarchy and interdependence” and the director of CultureStrike, an arts organization that works to organize artists, writers, and performers around migrant rights.
On the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 2, actress-dancer Vicky Araico will perform her award-winning monologue Juana In a Million, which chronicles an undocumented immigrant’s quest to find home.
The other musical performances throughout the week run the gamut from Natalia Lafourcade, a two-time Latin Grammy winning pop singer, to Murcof + Simon Geilfus, an electronic audio-visual collaboration, the award-winning percussion ensemble Tambuco, renowned composer and jazz musician Hector Infanzon, and more.
Gameros, whose 2013 album Eterno Retorno (Eternal Return) features a song called “SB 1070” (after the racist Arizona law designed to prosecute undocumented immigrants), says she thinks her music can be a subtle form of education, an artistic entry point for people who might not know or think much about immigration issues.
“It’s a topic that touches me deeply, so my protest music is my offering, my way to say I’m with you and I stand with you,” she says. “Though if you listen to my lyrics you might think many [songs] are love songs, or written to a lover who didn’t treat me right.”
Gameros adds that she hopes the Latino community in San Francisco will embrace the festival and show up, a sentiment that carries a particular weight as housing prices in areas like the Mission are changing the local face of the local Latino population. “Unless its the symphony doing something with a Mexican artist, we don’t really have access to events like this that are mainstream cultural celebrations, normally,” she says. “And there’s such a fascinating group of people all here for it — I just hope as many people as possible take advantage of it, that they come and hear these stories we have to tell.”
LEFT OF THE DIAL Yoodoo Park is the kind of musician who might make some people — people who didn’t find their calling until well into their 40s, or 50s, or 60s, aka lots of people — a little angry.
As GRMLN — a band name he chose when he realized the word “Gremlin” wasn’t Google search-friendly — the singer-guitarist’s new album, Soon Away (out Sept. 16 on Carpark records), is 10 tracks packed into 45 minutes of introspective yet confident, caffeine- and hormone-fueled energy, with nods to power pop and an eye toward the grittier side of the ’90s punk spectrum.
A follow-up to Park’s full-length, 2013’s far dreamier, poppier Empire, GRMLN’s sophomore effort (if you don’t count the self-produced EP he put out in 2011) still contains fairly simple songwriting, is still maybe a little overly concerned with being catchy — but on the whole, the album reads like evidence of maturation, of a songwriter stepping off the suburban curb and tentatively into the street; it’s the sound of someone picking up speed, realizing potential, realizing he’s just getting started. (He’ll debut songs from the record July 30 at the Rickshaw Stop.)
In the meantime, Park turned 21 last month.
“You know, we were in the van driving back from Texas, and it was, like, barren,” says Park, who’s Korean-American, but grew up splitting time between Japan and Orange County, of how he spent the milestone birthday. “I would’ve stopped somewhere to get a couple drinks just because, but there was really nothing.”
If the new weight and levels of distortion on this album (recorded and mixed at a breakneck pace at SF’s Different Fur) speak to the familiar pains of growing up — “Go, go, go outside/be the one you want,” Park urges in the album’s first single, “Jaded,” over the peal of an electric guitar hook that lodged itself in my head the first time I heard it — Park, the person, seems far less angst-ridden. Either that, or he doesn’t believe in showing it.
Still, there’s a musical genealogy here that calls to mind Weezer’s most jagged, honest (best) stuff, a little Teenage Fanclub here and there, with a breezy understanding of pop-punk structure that he seems to have learned by osmosis (Orange County tap water?) and a tone that could maybe be described as “what you sound like when you grow up thinking of Social Distortion as senior citizens and then start a punk band. “
“I guess writing-wise I got way more darker and aggressive on this one,” he muses in the easy, sunny, pseudo-stoned drawl of which only kids who grow up in Southern California are truly capable. “This album is about how a lot of things don’t work out the way you want to, and how in life in general, getting attached to things really isn’t good, emotionally or materialistically. I’ve been reading about Krishna, and how the best thing you can do to make yourself a better person has to do with letting things go…so, yeah.”
What kind of things is he letting go of at the moment? Well, there’s school, for one. He just talked to his counselor from UC Santa Cruz, and it turns out he could graduate in one quarter but he’d have to take a lot of credits, which sounds like a lot on top of touring. So the plan right now is to move to SF and take the whole next year off for playing live, which is, he says, “way more fun” than any other aspect of being a musician (especially now that he and his friends can drink legally). It probably helps that his band is made up of his brother, Tae San Park, on bass, and a friend from high school, Keith Frerichs, on drums.
To be fair, he knows he has it good. “Part of what I wanted with this record was to send a message about how life really isn’t that bad,” says Park. “Life is great in California, but if you pay attention to what’s happening in the world, you watch any documentaries, see how people live other places&ldots;I’m really blessed. I think people take it for granted.”
With Everyone Is Dirty, Mall Walk (Different Fur showcase)
Just like the line for Bi-Rite ice cream on a day when the temperature climbs above 70 degrees, summer festival season seems to be getting longer all the time. This past week brought the announcement of two different festivals that promise solid lineups of local acts alongside serious grub, hopefully warm weather (as is usually the case when fall begins) and, of course, fine excuses for day drinking. The 20th Street Block Party, a free food and music festival brought to you by Noise Pop and the darlings of the SF culinary world (Thomas McNaughton and David White’s love-child of a restaurant group, made up of flour + water, Central Kitchen, Salumeria, and Trick Dog), will take over, yes, 20th Street in the Mission on August 23 for performances by Rogue Wave, Melted Toys (whose new release we highly recommend), Cayucas, The Bilinda Butchers, Myron & E, and more. Oh yeah, did we mention it’s all free? www.20thstreetblockparty.com
And on Oct. 14 – 15, the Culture Collide Fest, a long-running favorite in LA, will debut its first Bay Area event, with a thoroughly international lineup of bands from the US, Korea, the Netherlands, and Costa Rica: Cloud Nothings, Beat Connection, GRMLN, Go Back to the Zoo, Glen Check, Glass Towers, Alphabetics, KLP, and more. Participating venues include The Chapel and the Elbo Room; we’ll have more as the party gets closer. www.culturecollide.com
LEFT OF THE DIAL In a parable that opens one of the best-known speeches by the late great David Foster Wallace, two young fish are swimming along when an older fish passes them. “Morning boys,” says the (sentient, verbal) fish. “How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a while, until one of them looks over at the other and says “What the hell is water?”
Living in the Bay Area, especially, water is a constant: Our travel routes often entail tunneling under or gliding over the Bay; white sheets of fog roll out in a damp coat over city daily, even in June; the Pacific, with its cold, gray version of the beach imagery most Midwesterners probably think of as “Californian,” provides our most obvious grounding point — I can’t un-learn directions based on the way I learned them growing up here. “Well, the ocean’s that way, so that’s west.” This was problematic when I lived in New York.
The ubiquity of water in our lives — and the corresponding ease with which we take it for granted, until, you know, we’re in a major drought that severely threatens California’s agricultural and therefore economic well-being — is part of what made H20 such a natural theme for this year’s Soundwave Biennial, a festival of music, science, visual and performance art thrown by the arts nonprofit Mediate every other year. Throughout July, August, and September, in museums and music venues throughout the Bay Area, on beaches, in bunkers and even aboard a boat or two, more than 100 different artists across all different media will explore water and its relationship to sound.
“We’re the city by the bay; water’s all around us, literally, but we don’t really talk about it, or what that means to us,” says Alan So, the festival’s executive and artistic director. “We’ll talk about drought or climate change, but it can be myopic — water makes up 70 percent of our world, and there are so many kinds of life we don’t get to see; there’s still so much that’s mysterious about it.”
After kicking off the evening of July 10 with a party at the California Academy of Sciences’ Nightlife featuring special interactive water life exhibits and live music from Rogue Wave (get it?) and Kasey Johansing, the festival continues with a somewhat overwhelming menu of happenings.
On July 19, SOMArts will host Pool, a video installation by Fernanda D’Agostino that plays off the idea of pairing memory with place, projecting watery images — a choreographer, Linda Johnson, submerged in water; salmon swimming upstream — via a two-channel generative video system.
July 26 will mark the opening night of Water World and no, that doesn’t mean you have to sit through any Kevin Costner dialogue. A multi-media exhibition that will take over SOMA’s Alter Space gallery through Aug. 30, Water World is a combination of sound and light installations, a collaboration between seven artists, designed to take the visitor through different sea levels that mirror humans’ levels of consciousness.
Viewers begin with “Ark and Surroundings,” a foggy seashore designed by Jeff Ray that features boats and bridges as interactive beings, including a 15-foot sailboat that’s been outfitted with a pipe organ. “Sirens,” by Reenie Charriere, aims to connect ocean pollution with the siren songs that nearly did in Odysseus, using sounds and fabric and barnacles and man-made tapestries, while “El Odor del Agua” explores the importance of access to clean water from the perspective of women living in rural Mexico. On Aug. 26, a musical performance called Flooded at Intersection for the Arts will see, among other artists, SF’s experimental musician Daniel Blomquist exploring the experiences of floods and flood victims, using video footage and audio from tapes that have literally been flooded — recordings that were discarded after being exposed to water.
Maybe most interesting, however, are this year’s site-specific installations. Those willing to bundle up for a trek out to Ocean Beach on July 27 will hear “music for a changing tide,” listening to an original composition by Seattle composer Nat Evans (attendees are encouraged to download the music ahead of time onto an iPod) whose ebbs and flows were designed specifically for watching the tide recede, with one group listening scheduled for twilight and one at sunset.
And on Aug. 3, a program that has Soundwave partnered with the National Parks Service will explore the potential water actually has to create music and art. Travis Johns’ hydroprinting instrument features an invented instrument that makes prints using a sonograph, measuring underwater sound reverberations in the battleship gun pool to create the water-equivalent of a seismograph line, while Jim Haynes — an artist whose bio often begins with “I rust things” — will delve into water as a chemical agent and sound conductor, making music out of amplifying processes like water turning to steam.
The festival will wrap up in late September with what So called “without being cheesy — a love letter to San Francisco,” featuring concerts (artists still TBA) on board an “audioboat” that takes participants around the Bay, with a cruise by the Bay Lights. Soundwave has done concerts on buses since about 2008, says So; this time it was only nature to make the jump to water. (This event is especially worth noting if other offerings like, say, Sept. 21’s Exploratorium performance that includes a meditation on the fear of water and/or drowning isn’t for you.)
“I’m always surprised by what comes back [from the open call for artists’ submissions],” says the director. “I think we don’t want to tell people what to do. There are some social, political pieces here, and some that aren’t at all. But if we can get people to appreciate water, what it means in terms of our daily lives — we drink it, we buy it, we swim in it — we can appreciate it for what it is, and not take it for granted. And we have researchers and city planners and scientists and artists of all kinds coming together for the closing symposium [at CCA Sept. 27-28]. I think the exciting part for a lot of people is ‘Where do we go from here?'”
LEFT OF THE DIAL In the spring of 2013, Jenn Wasner found herself at an unexpected crossroads.
As one half of Wye Oak, the singer-guitarist had been touring the country nearly nonstop following the critical success of Civilian, the album that shoved the then-five-year-old indie guitar band into the national spotlight. Brooding, heavily melodic, equal parts pretty and cinematically noisy, the title track was soaked through with Wasner’s moody guitar tone, unmistakable technical chops, and her vulnerable yet powerful voice. If you watched any TV in 2011, chances are you heard it — the band licensed it to a number of shows. (“We had been working for years and years, and for whatever reason everything kind of culminated around Civilian, so we decided to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself,” she says.)
But staring down the band’s first real down time in two years, Wasner sat down to write new material, and found that she wanted nothing to do with the sound with which Wye Oak had just hit the big time.
“It was a difficult time for a lot of reasons. We were both exhausted. And I just discovered that there was a real air of negativity that surrounded music that sounded like the music we’d been playing for two years,” says Wasner. “It was really hard to feel inspired or compelled to work that way again. There was all this emotional baggage associated with the guitar, and because that was how I’d always written in the past, it became a block.” She spent a few months considering the possibility that this meant the band was over, that there would be no new album, before she realized something: She was allowed to write whatever kind of music she damn well pleased.
“I let go of a lot of expectations about what this album was allowed to sound like, a lot of expectations I had about pleasing other people,” she says. “I went, ‘You know what? Make the record that you want to make.'”
Turns out, she probably shouldn’t have worried. For most Wye Oak fans, the record she wanted to make — Shriek, out April 29 on Merge — is a far cry from a disappointment. It is decidedly, almost defiantly different: Wasner has traded her guitar for synths, picking up a bass while she’s at it. Gone is the swirling storm cloud of reverb; in its place are electro-R&B grooves, with percussionist and keyboard player Andy Stack now also carrying the lion’s share of melody.
These are kids who grew up listening to Janet Jackson, and they’re letting it show. (They’ll bring that party to the Bay July 12 for Phono del Sol.)
Around each element, however, also sits an unfamiliar amount of breathing room — a sparseness that allows Wasner’s vocals, sounding more confident than ever, to break through in a way we haven’t heard before.
“It’s been a really long process feeling comfortable with my own voice,” she says. “I spent a lot of time trying to obscure my voice, and change it, and hide it…those were aesthetic decisions, but it also came down to feeling detached from it. That’s definitely changed in the past couple years: I’ve started caring for my voice, practicing, treating it like my instrument, embrace the fact that I love singing.
“A lot of these melodies are specifically crafted to be more open,” she adds. “It’s a more vulnerable position to be coming from, but it feels good to do.” Live, she’s dealt with the fact that it’s much more difficult to sing and play the bass at the same time than rhythm guitar — but that too is a good thing. “Being challenged is what keeps it interesting.”
Another big change: Collaborating from different sides of the country. Between Civilian and Shriek, Stack moved to Portland, while Wasner remained in Baltimore, forcing the duo to communicate in a new way throughout the songwriting process.
“Every time I wanted to share an idea with him, I was forced to figure out a way to realize it, record it,” says Wasner. “And being forced to do that with everything I did was an incredible good way to learn and practice. It changed the way I wrote songs. It’s a big part of the reason these are some of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.”
As for the reaction from their devoted fan base, who Wasner realized she had to put out of her mind in order to write the songs she actually wanted?
“To be honest with you, I expected it to be much worse!” she says with a slight laugh. “I feel pretty strongly that the foundation of our band has always been the songs themselves: It’s never been about a particular instrument…and these songs are Wye Oak songs. I think if people really listen they’ll hear that. It’s the same voice, the same fundamental nature of the songs. And I think a lot of people have.”
Most importantly, though, she’s happy with it. “Criticism is always subjective, nothing that you can take personally,” she says. “And it’s cool because I’m happy with it to the point that it’s hard to top that. Real satisfaction, when you know you’re satisfied with something, that doesn’t get swayed by almost anyone’s opinion. The approval of others is a very thin substitute.”
With Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Nick Waterhouse, Tony Molina, more
The Bay Area Record Fair (that’s B.A.R.F. for all you cool kids) has announced its second edition, set to take place Sept. 27, once again at Thee Parkside. This collaboration between local label Father/Daughter Records and promoters Professional Fans kicked off in February with folks from 17 record labels from around the Bay coming together to network, hawk their wares, and, most importantly, drink beer and eat tater tots while listening to good, loud rock ‘n’ roll, because that’s why the good lord created Thee Parkside.
This fall’s event is busting at the seams, as Jessi Frick from Father/Daughter tells us: “This time we’re pulling permits to block off part of Carolina Street to make room for even more vendors, and a limited number of early bird tickets are available for $5 which gets you fair access one hour before doors open to the public.”
There’ll be a daylong lineup of live music TBA, of course, and the number of labels participating has pretty much doubled. You can see a full shakedown of the day’s events at www.bayarearecordfair.com, or catch organizers at Phono del Sol next weekend, where they’ll be selling a 21-song compilation CD featuring the labels represented; all proceeds go to keeping the whole damn thing free. Sounds like a pretty good deal on this end.
And speaking of kicking things up a notch: Viracocha is back, bitches. Everyone’s favorite semi-secret Mission District venue — what with her ornate, gorgeously appointed bathroom, shelves full of antique typewriters, and great-sounding basement venue that’s played host to all manner of live music, poetry readings, movie nights and more — got the official go-ahead from the SF Entertainment Commission to re-launch as a legitimate venue, meaning owner Jon Siegel will be able to promote some of those great live shows for the first time.
An opening party with an evening full of live music is planned for this Tuesday, July 15, but beyond that a lot of things are up in the air. Be on the lookout for a beer and wine license, a totally revamped store, and more in the coming months; like Viracocha on Facebook to stay in touch.
LEFT OF THE DIAL How do you address a woman who toured with the Rolling Stones as an opening act, while being chased after by a baby-faced John Lennon? Who had five singles in the Top 40 by the age of 21? Who perfected the beehive hairdo two decades before Amy Winehouse was even born?
“Call me Ronnie,” purrs Ronnie Spector, age 70, on the other end of the line. You can almost hear the hairdo.
The woman who influenced performers like Billy Joel, Patti Smith, and Joey Ramone is calling from a suburb near Danbury, Conn., where she lives with her manager/husband of 30 years, Jonathan Greenfield. Their life is a quiet one. Spector — who, as the lead singer of the Ronettes, perhaps the most iconic girl group of the early ’60s thanks to hits like “Be My Baby,” has been described as the original bad girl of rock ‘n’ roll — likes to read and watch movies. She goes grocery shopping, does a little cooking, goes to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Three times a week she goes to an office and dictates responses to her fan mail to an assistant (she doesn’t like to use the Internet much herself). She doesn’t drink (never has, she says), but she still smokes (Marlboro Reds).
Okay, and every now and then she’ll catch up with her old friend Keith Richards, who lives 15 minutes away.
For the past two years, the ’60s icon has also been on tour again: Her one-woman stage show, “Beyond the Beehive,” chronicles her tumultuous life from childhood onward, punctuated with songs, stories, behind-the-scenes dirt and dishing. She’ll bring elements of that show to the Bay Area July 4 weekend, when she performs at Brick and Mortar Music Hall Sat/5 (in a ridiculously fabulous-sounding evening hosted by Peaches Christ) and at Burger Boogaloo in Oakland’s Mosswood Park Sun/6.
So: Why would someone who’s lived such a full life — not to mention a self-described homebody — put herself through the rigors of a touring stage show at a time in her life when she could be resting on her laurels? Or at least, one might think, just resting?
“Because I love it — it lets all of my emotions out,” says Ronnie, sounding straight-up girlishly, genuinely excited. “When I first started, of course, I was scared to death: I’ve been on stage singing since I was a little girl, but I never had to sit down and talk to an audience. Now, I feel so good after I do that show. I go through the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them everything, and I’m nervous every time, but I love it.”
A little like on-stage therapy, no?
“I stopped going to therapy when I started ‘Beehive’!” she cries. “Who needs a psychiatrist? My show is my therapy. The audience loves it, I love it, and I get to tell them things I never got to talk about.
“Because a lot of stories from my life — ooh, if walls could talk…”
FROM HARLEM TO HOLLYWOOD
Born to a Cherokee and African American mother and an Irish father, a drummer, on Aug. 10, 1943, Veronica Bennett grew up in Spanish Harlem, in a large, working-class family that served as her first audience.
“When I was 7 or 8, me and eight of my cousins were in the lobby of our building and I was singing ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ — the sound was great down there, the tall ceilings — and my cousins all started clapping,” she recalls. “And I thought, I got it! From that point on, all I thought about was singing. I didn’t do homework. The teachers were calling my house saying ‘She’s just singing for the class.’ It was all I cared about.” She spent hours singing with her sister, Estelle Bennett, and cousin, Nedra Talley, the trio that would go on to become the Ronettes.
When the girls were young teens, as if to say “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got,” Ronnie and Estelle’s mother, a waitress at a restaurant next door to the Apollo Theater, managed to get the girls a spot on the bill at the legendary venue’s amateur night. They didn’t win that evening’s competition, but the audience applauded (as opposed to throwing tomatoes), and Spector still remembers the feeling. “That was it. It was the toughest crowd in town, and they liked us,” she says.
The rest is show business history: The signature eye makeup and impeccable on-stage style. Hordes of shrieking fans during appearances on American Bandstand. The UK tour on which the girls spent evenings flirting and dancing with the Beatles. Bottles upon bottles of hairspray.
And, of course, the group’s relationship with wunderkind producer Phil Spector, the man responsible for the “wall of sound” instrumentation that makes so many ’60s records sound so beautifully, chart-toppingly lush. “Be My Baby,” a song Brian Wilson has called the best pop song ever made (at 21, he was driving when he first heard it and had to pull over), is considered the first pop record to use a full orchestra, with horns, multiple pianos, and guitars layered generously over each other. Backup singers included Darlene Love and a then-unknown couple named Sonny and Cher.
To be sure, Spector was ahead of his time. But 30 seconds of any Ronettes song will tell you everything you need to know about what made the group stand out from the pack.
As the Time magazine writer Michael Enright once put it: “Ronnie had a weird natural vibrato – almost a tremolo, really – that modulated her little-girl timber into something that penetrated the Wall of Sound like a nail gun. It is an uncanny instrument. Sitting on a ragged couch in my railroad flat, I could hear her through all the arguments on the street, the car alarms, the sirens. She floated above the sound of New York while also being a part of it…stomping her foot on the sidewalk and insisting on being heard.”
It’s that same combination of vulnerability, sex appeal, and determinedly tough-as-nails I’ve-been-through-hell-so-don’t-test-me bravado that still attracts fans to her shows some 50 years later — despite the fact they’ve probably already heard a good chunk of the story.
Her low points are well-documented: the nightmarish marriage to a jealous Phil Spector that, according to her 1989 memoir, involved death threats and the young singer being physically locked in his mansion. Then rehab, which she later said was just a means of escape from her ex-husband (who, it must be mentioned, as of this writing, is five years into a 19-year sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson — after a trial in which at least five female acquaintances recounted him holding them at gunpoint).
Then there was life after Phil. Ronnie burst back onto the charts in 1986 as a guest on Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight” (with her signature whoa-oh-oh-ohs front and center), may or may not have had a brief fling with David Bowie, released a critically acclaimed solo album produced by Joey Ramone, married her second husand, had two kids (not necessarily in that order). In 2000, after a 15-year royalty battle, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that Phil Spector owed the Ronettes $2.6 million; despite licensing their songs to everything from commercials to Dirty Dancing over the previous four decades, he’d only ever paid the women $14,000 and change.
And now? She’s an unmistakably happy woman, and she clearly likes to talk. It doesn’t take much to get her going on today’s pop music: “It’s like a circus! You can’t see a show without dancers and lights and booms and bangs. It takes away from rock ‘n’ roll. Everyone has to have ridiculous outfits, and you don’t even know who they are by the time their record comes out. People don’t have an identity! Miley Cyrus gets up there with an [inflatable] penis coming out of her? Hello? What is that?”
“You take away the dancers, you take away the choreographers, and [with a lot of pop stars] you will not see a real artist there,” she says. “And everybody lip-syncs. In my day you didn’t do that; I would never do that. To me, it’s cheating the audience.” (Ronnie’s voice has stayed strong, she says, because she’s never liked parties.)
However: “I do love that today’s women artists [are allowed to] write their own material, which we couldn’t. You look at the artists from the past like me, the pioneers, we ended up with nothing because of royalties. Now, Taylor Swift is one of the richest girls in rock ‘n’ roll.”
She also has nothing but kind words for Amy Winehouse — a singer who owed her obvious debts in the vocal and visual style department, and whose “Back To Black” Ronnie sometimes covers in return (once, in London, with Winehouse trying not to be spotted in the audience). “She was a dirty rock ‘n’ roll singer, her voice was real, and she was real,” she says. “I miss her.”
Aside from not really enjoying Top 40 radio, however, Ronnie says she’s loving life — and you believe her. She talks like a survivor — not just of an abusive marriage, but of a time and a place in pop music that chewed young women up and spit them out with astounding ease.
“To be honest, a lot of the groups I knew 50 years ago are dead or dead broke,” she says. “And I had to fight for my career. I was in court for 15 years.
“But you know what? What goes around comes around,” she says conspiratorially. “Karma’s a bitch, and it’ll bite you right in the ass. He’s in prison, and I’m not. I’m out there singing, having the time of my life, and I have everything I want: My shows, a great husband, everything I wanted back then. Turns out you can have your cake and eat it too.” A hearty laugh.
LEFT OF THE DIAL/QUEER ISSUE Take the sexual braggadocio of Lil Kim, the rapid-fire flow of Twista, and a fashion sense that combines Nicki Minaj with, depending on the day, Bjork, Ma$e, or, say, the board game Candyland, and you have a close approximation of Cakes da Killa. The Brooklyn-based, baby-faced musician is both a rising star and, unfortunately, something of an oddity, just by virtue of being a gay man and a rapper.
His participation in one of the most homophobic quadrants of pop culture as an out gay guy aside, however, Cakes — born Rashard Bradshaw — doesn’t see what’s so shocking about some of his lyrics, even when he’s rapping matter-of-factly about how he’s going to fuck your boyfriend (actual song title: “Fuck Ya Boifriend”).
After making a name for himself with two mix tapes in 2011 and 2013 (Easy Bake Oven and The Eulogy, respectively, with the latter receiving a positive mention from Pitchfork), his latest EP, Hunger Pangs, reveals a darker, harder sound. He’s still X-rated and super funny, but he also sounds like he’s ready to fight.
We caught up over the phone ahead of Cakes’ appearance at Public Works Sat/28, as part of the club’s “House of Babes” Dyke March after-party.
SF Bay Guardian You grew up in Jersey. How did you start rapping?
Cakes da Killa I always wrote when I was young, whether it was poetry or something else. But I started rapping as a joke in high school, because I saw a bunch of straight guys doing it and getting lots of attention. And me being an attention whore, it was “I can do that.” In college I started making videos of me rapping over instrumentals on YouTube, and after people saw those videos I started getting asked to record on projects.
SFBGHow did the straight guys respond to it when you were younger? Did you get any backlash for being an out gay kid, trying to get into something that’s so associated with straight, heteronormative culture, or did they just notice how good you were?
CK You know, they noticed. I came out in the third grade, and I’ve always been the gay boy that was so comfortable in myself I didn’t make straight people insecure or uncomfortable. I think I’m still that way.
SFBGThe mixtape before this, when you started getting noticed, was called The Eulogy. Why’s that?
CK Honestly, I thought it was going to be my last project. I just didn’t see the longevity in rapping — it’s weird to think of yourself as a rapper, because I’m so not that. Not even just because I’m gay, but also I don’t have a rapper’s ego.
SFBG I think maybe the ego comes after you make a ton of money?
CK Yeah, but then my friends would all hate me. I just want to do it until it’s not fun anymore. So far, though, it’s still fun.
SFBGYou’re so young, though. You’re, what, 22? Didn’t you just graduate from college?
CK I’m 23. And in gay years. We age like dinosaurs, so I’m basically a fossil. I graduated last May, and I moved out of my mother’s house. I’m living in Bushwick now; I’m a fully realized member of society.
SFBG You have a pretty big fan base in Europe. Where have you toured? How are audiences over there different from stateside?
CK I’ve been to Europe three times on kind of mini-tours. Mostly Berlin, Paris. I’ve been to Australia twice too. I think I have a bigger fan base overseas because it’s just harder to break [out] in the States; the way the music business works, it’s just harder to get attention here.
When I do a show overseas, I think the main difference is Europeans think, “If we’re gonna pay five euros to see you, you better be on stage for two hours.” In the States we pay way more to see someone for a few minutes, then it’s back to the bar, or a DJ or something…we have ADD here. When I tour overseas, I have to some cardio before the show.
SFBGYou’re known for some pretty filthy lyrics. Does that come naturally to you?
CK You know, I didn’t realize the fact of me being filthy until people started saying that — it’s just that the things I talk about aren’t talked about. I grew up with my mom, and I came out in the third grade; we talked about sex pretty openly in my house. When I make a song about giving blowjobs, I’m not thinking “Let’s make a song about giving blowjobs.” This isn’t breaking news. Everyone likes blowjobs. It’s just not really filthy to me; people have sex. I am conscious now though of, you know, not becoming “the blowjob rapper.”
SFBGDo you see homophobia in the rap world getting better? What is it going to take for the culture to change?
CK I think it’s going to take an openly gay person who can really sell in the black media, do a world tour. But people that run black media right now clearly don’t see it as a marketable thing. And it’s all about money. That’s the fucked up thing about the situation, it’s not about how talented the person is, it’s ‘How can we sell this situation?’ And if you’re not marketable and a bunch of people can’t make money off you, you’re just gonna be, you know, living in Bushwick.
SFBG Musically, do you see yourself heading in any particular direction with Hunger Pangs?
CK Yeah, if I compare myself to the boy who was rapping in high school in the cafeteria, I’m definitely not the same person. I make music off of touring, experiencing things. I’m having a butch moment right now. And for my next project, I think I’m making more depressing songs.
SFBG Did that come out of anything in particular?
CK Living life. Dealing with dumb boys. Instead of being all sad about it, I’m like, let’s write an album about it. At least make some money!
CAKES DA KILLA
With Junglepussy and Lisa Delux
The House of Babes Presents the Dyke March After-Party
LEFT OF THE DIAL First things first: No matter what her lyrics might imply, Kristine Flaherty — the 28-year-old, Illinois-born, Stanford-educated rapper better known as k.flay — is not sniffing glue.
“Nor have I ever, actually,” she says thoughtfully, having folded herself into a chair in the corner of her West Oakland rehearsal space. “I’d just like to state that for the record. People think I’m on drugs because in some of my lyrics I’m in a really dark place…but no. And sniffing glue in particular seems like something you do when you’re 15 and can’t get drugs.”
Her desire to correct that misconception aside, Flaherty’s not exactly known for giving a shit what people think of her. It’s an admirable quality, something that radiates from the musician as part of a natural, understated air of confidence, but one has to imagine it’s been built up over the years for functional purposes: When you’re a young, white, middle-class, private school-bred female rapper whose image mainly involves jeans and sneakers, who went from making beats and rhymes in the dorm as a joke to collaborations with Zion I, Danny Brown, and Grieves, opening spots for Snoop Dogg, and a record deal with RCA, you’re going to hear some unsolicited opinions. About authenticity, about your skills. Your background, your appearance. Your drug preferences.
But it’s been 10 years since k.flay self-released Suburban Rap Queen as a college junior, and if she didn’t have thick skin then, she sure does now. That mixtape sent buzz-waves through the Bay Area hip-hop scene thanks to its energetic amateur’s sense of fun, lyrics about feminism, frat parties, haters, and the joys of eating red meat (she’s said she was listening to a lot of Dizzee Rascal at the time), coupled with a flow and production value that promised big things to come. And come they did, though perhaps not in the order she might have expected.
Life As a Dog, out June 24 (but streamable until then over here), is a debut of a whole other kind. After a decade of EPs, near-constant touring, and prolific appearances as a guest vocalist — a time in which she stole the Bay Area indie hip-hop scene’s heart before up and moving to Brooklyn three years ago — it’s the rapper’s first full-length record, and the most thematically and sonically cohesive work she’s produced. It also showcases growth, a musician fully embracing her love of melody and structure, of pop music and indie-electronic sounds. Gone is the I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what-this-sounds-like shit-talk/talk-singing, and in its place is just plain singing.
Turns out, she’s good at it. The vulnerability in her voice contrasts satisfyingly with the sharp-edged corners of her rapping, which has slowed from its previous freneticism into a more comfortable swagger that gives the whole record a personal, conversational feel. She’s still funny, goofy, approachable, gross — “Suckin’ on a bottle of Jim Beam, wishin’ it was you” goes one of the most sing-songy choruses — but there’s a grownup self-assuredness, and its flip-side, an all-too-familiar grownup’s cynicism. Regardless, her bummed-out hungover days spent walking around the city now sound like they’re actually in step with yours.
And, oh yeah: She managed to finally make this record, after a few years of trying, because in the fall of 2013, she asked if she could please be dropped from RCA.
“I got signed at a time when there was this swirl of female rappers — some electronic, some more pop, more urban, but I think everybody was interested in trying to bring female rappers a little outside of Nicki Minaj into the mainstream,” says Flaherty, who finds herself happily back on her home turf for a bit before heading out on Warped Tour (her mom and stepdad live in Oakland; her former roommates still live in their old place near Alamo Square — the Warped Tour lands here Sat/21). “And I was still figuring out my sound. I think one of my selling points is I was a little electronic, a little indie rock, a little rap, but I think that was actually not a great way to get signed. The goal with being on a major label is to get you on the radio, and I think there was a lot of internal dissent about the way to do that with me.”
She had a vision for putting out a full-length record, but over the course of three years, “it just didn’t seem like that was possible.” So she filled her time with touring — an experience that, she says, wound up informing most of the songs she was able to put out once she got dropped.
“Their heart was in the right place, but I think the structure of a major label system is so opposed to developing artists that don’t fit into a radio format that it’s kind of a battle for everyone, a lose-lose,” she says. “It felt like an ill-advised marriage. Where you’re done, but you’re still cool with, you know, running into them at Walgreens or whatever.”
She headed for LA in January of this year, anchorless as she’d ever been — she didn’t have an apartment, still doesn’t — and started from scratch, material-wise: She’d let go of upwards of 60 songs she’d written while signed to get out of her contract. But left to her own devices, she found that new songs came quickly.
“It was weird to go from lots of opinions [with the label] to literally none except my own,” she says. “I’ve never done a juice cleanse, but in some ways I feel like that’s what it would be like. ‘Oh, I’m back, and it’s just me, and here’s the bare bones of the project.’ Which was great at times, and also scary. But I’ve been mentally and musically in a much better place the past eight months that I’ve been working on this.” You can hear the solitude, the physically empty space around her in these songs, an electric post-breakup air of someone realizing how strong she is on her own.
Another result: The shift toward melody.
“For a while I was very enamored with rapping really fast, almost like when you get a toy or a video game and you want to see what weird stuff you can do,” she says. It took the encouragement of close collaborators for her to try singing more, though she’s always loved pop and melodic hip-hop (like the Kendrick Lamar she was listening to in the car on the way over here). “It’s still a lot scarier for me to sing than rap,” she says. “And I can’t say as much. I have to be pickier. But I think it’s a more comfortable zone for me, to be honest.”
She raised money to make the record through a crowdfunding site that donates 10 percent to charity, tapping into a fan base that already hangs on her every Internet-word, and reached her goal within five days (“The response was awesome … I mean, considering we’re not Reading Rainbow.”). She wrote and recorded in LA, New York, and San Francisco, mixing the record at SF’s Different Fur.
And now? She doesn’t know exactly where she’ll land geographically when the dust settles from promoting this album, but it’s pretty clear the Bay Area will always be home. At the time of this interview in Oakland, she was rehearsing with her sole bandmate and longtime partner in crime, drummer Nick Suhr (who, over the course of this interview, fetches the wifi password and coffee for both of them, and lets Flaherty know he just told a studio employee she was single). She’s chilling before tour starts, and preparing to maybe field some questions about her mental health (or deflect assumptions about drug abuse) once people hear some of her darker lyrics.
Though, “My parents like it,” she says eagerly. “Sometimes they get scared that I’m, like, extremely depressed. One time after I put up a mixtape my brother called me and was like, ‘Are you okay?'” She shrugs. “I tend to want to write when something’s troubling me, whether it’s something in my own life or I’m witnessing something that I don’t understand, that frustrates me as an observer. I never had a diary as a teenager, but I think I use songwriting like that now, and you can definitely hear that on this album.
“For better or for worse, though, I think it all makes sense together. And it sounds like me. That’s all I could really hope for.”
k.flay will come through the Bay next with the Warped Tour on Sat/21 at the Shoreline; check her Facebook for other dates.
LEFT OF THE DIAL For Zakiya Harris, creativity has often grown out of loss. An Oakland native, Harris grew up singing in choirs, but “never really considered it a feasible career route,” she says. It wasn’t until college, when several people close to her passed away within the span of a couple years, that she began to pour herself into songwriting. “The music just started coming,” says the singer, teacher, and community organizer.
More than 15 years later, music acted as a lifeline yet again, and the result is Adventures of a Shapeshifter, Harris’ debut EP as a solo artist, out June 14; she’ll celebrate with a release show that same night at Oakland’s Awaken Cafe. With a mix of pop, hip-hop, electronic elements, and African-inspired percussion laying down a base for Harris’ soulful voice — it’s no surprise to hear her say she truly found her musical footing in Brooklyn, around the time The Roots were taking off — Shapeshifter‘s liveliness and joy hardly hints at the fact that, had the singer’s world not been totally shattered the year before, the record might not exist.
First, the nonprofit organization Harris ran lost its funding when she and her husband were a year and a half into buying their home in West Oakland; the organization collapsed, and the couple eventually lost their home. They divorced soon after, a split that took Harris away from the band and musical circles she’d been part of with her husband — notably, the established hip-hop crew Fiyawata — for the last 10 years.
“I was a wife, a homeowner, and a businesswoman, and then overnight everything shifted. All of a sudden I was a statistic — a single black woman, a mother, and I didn’t have a job,” says Harris. “Music was my solace, the place I went to express all the challenges I was going through, and try to channel all that energy into something.”
Zakiya Harris. Photo by Luke Abiol.
She recorded the bulk of the EP in a makeshift home studio — quite literally, using ProTools in a closet in her new apartment, she says with a laugh. “I got beats from different producers and just sang my heart out.” This was in the early days of Oakland’s Art Murmur, and Harris began performing these songs to the crowds that would gather on First Fridays. “I did a residency in the streets,” she says. “I was rebuilding my fan base, and I met a lot of new musicians, allies, local promoters that way.” Other East Bay bands like The Seshen and Bells Atlas became friends and collaborators; Harris eventually recruited the musicians that now make up her band the Elephantine.
As for the EP, Harris says it’s something of a coming-out for all of her identities, a statement about what it’s like to be a mother, musician, teacher, organizer, and businesswoman. It’s been a big few years: She has her hands in several nonprofits, co-founded a technology program for low-income youth of color, and was recently named director of the Bay Area Hive Learning Network, a social change laboratory.
“I went to law school, I became a social entrepreneur, and I’ve also been doing music my whole life,” she says. “This project is the first time I’ve been able to represent all my roles authentically. For a long time I felt ashamed of it, like I wasn’t doing my music family a service or my business a service, or being a mom. This record is about me realizing, we can do what we love, and we can be bold about it, and not feel ashamed about it.”
“You don’t have to cut off who you are, keep those roles so separate,” she adds. “In fact, the world is a better place when you don’t.”
Zakiya Harris and the Elephantine EP Release With Antique Naked Soul and Miss Kia Sat/14, 9pm, $10 Awaken Cafe 1429 Broadway, Oakl. www.awakencafe.com
Trying to make it as a musician in San Francisco arguably requires a certain amount of stubbornness — if not starry-eyed hope and obliviousness, at least a determination that you’re not going to let cynicism and the high cost of rent get the best of you, and you’re not going to measure your own worth by any rubric that involves commercial success. Johnny Major has that determination, but to hear him tell it, he also has no choice.
The singer and frontman of Adios Amigo — a jangly/moody indie pop outfit that started as a side project, as Major also drums for SF scene veterans Il Gato — has learned the hard way that not making music is simply not an option.
“I can’t live without playing music,” says Major simply, a week or so after releasing the band’s third EP in three years. Erasable Truth is a bright record with some disillusioned lyrics, a contrast that plays with the relationship between staying hopeful and getting jaded, between melancholy and introspection and positivity and focus. All of it has somehow been funneled into warm, horn-punctuated little gems of very sweet pop music. Comparisons to Built to Spill and Broken Social Scene (certainly, at least, the moods induced by listening to the latter) are apt.
Johnny Major of Adios Amigo.
“I think in comparison with the other EPs, it’s a little more jaded,” allows Major. “It’s darker, there are some strains of sarcasm.” He note that the band’s lineup has shifted, dissolved, re-formed and dissolved again over the course of the band’s four-year lifespan. That was part of the inspiration for the record’s title — the idea of coming to terms with the fact that “there is really no sense in trying to hold onto things, to finding truth…all you can really do is try to make sense of life on the fly, and try to seek a medium of expression that’s satisfying, that allows you to connect with other people.”
“I’ve been playing music in the Bay Area for six years in several projects, and I have a ridiculous amount of time and money invested, and having to have a day job when all you really want to do is play music, especially in a city this expensive…it’s a constant struggle with disillusionment,” he elaborates. “You do get to the point of, ‘Why the fuck am I doing this?’ But I can’t give up, regardless of how illogical it might be. It’s a spiritual thing for me — you gotta feel alive, you gotta feel passionate. And there’s a certain one-ness I only get from playing music.”
A handful of other new releases from local bands that have gotten more than one spin in my, um, virtual Discman:
K.Flay, the unassuming-looking rapper/singer/Stanford alum who formerly called SF home (these days she’s bouncing between coasts), has finally released a full-length, Life As a Dog, after freeing herself up from her former label. I just met with her in Oakland the week before the record dropped; check this space next week for a full-length interview.
Monster Treasure, self-titled LP, out June 2 on Harlot Records: Lo-fi, lady-fronted, melodic garage fuzz-punk from Stockton. This three-year-old trio has a handful of sweet EPs to their name, but this studio debut should take them to the next level; they put on a hell of a show at SF Popfest in May, and are currently touring the Pacific Northwest. Check www.facebook.com/monstertreasure for more.
No Worries, the debut LP from SF’s barely year-old rockers WAG, doesn’t sound like a debut LP. Singer Lucas Nerlva’s vocals have a natural Julian Casablancas-esque snarl to them, paired with hard-driving guitar hooks. Worth keeping an eye on. They’ll hit Thee Parkside Aug. 7 with Coo Coo Birds and The Singles; check www.facebook.com/wagband for more.
LEFT OF THE DIAL The words “folk music” conjured only cheesy things for me when I was a young teenager. I liked the standard Bob Dylan songs, Arlo Guthrie‘s “Alice’s Restaurant” at Thanksgiving. But to really give in to wind-blown, ocean- and redwood-shaped singer-songwriter stuff just felt like an impossibility to me: That was the music of my parents’ youth, after all. Joni Mitchell was (is) a great songwriter who made quintessential songs about the West Coast, but I just couldn’t quite get over that mental block of an association. Bring on the three-chord punk or bass-thumping hip-hop; anything but the f-word.
About a decade later, of course, I decided that my parents actually had very good taste (a timeless cycle in and of itself) and that I was being an idiot; folk is of course a very simple word for a very wide, complex umbrella of music. But I was thinking on all this recently when I realized that some of the most interesting music coming out of Northern California right now is music that’s for and about California itself — full of words penned by singer-songwriters who’ve been shaped by the coastline, by hikes up Mt. Tam, by the exhilaration of paddling out into the freezing, cleansing Pacific in a salty wetsuit at Ocean Beach. Call it folk, call it surf-pop: Some 46 years after Joni first sang “Song to a Seagull,” at least 20 years after a lot of us rolled our eyes at the stuff our parents wanted to listen to in the car on a family vacation, the nature kids are taking over — and it’s anything but boring.
“The plan is to go down the coast, strap our surfboards to the roof, and do a show one day, surf the next day, the whole way down,” says singer-guitarist Alexi Glickman enthusiastically, of his upcoming tour with Sandy’s. “We only want to go places with waves.”
Glickman has been writing and performing reverb- and sun-drenched love songs for the California coast — both literally lyrics about it and music that just begs to be played while driving down it — for more than a decade now. At the helm of the Botticellis, SF’s reigning surf-pop darlings from 2004 through 2008, he was responsible for the tightly-crafted, intricately composed nature of the band’s dream-moody pop songs.
That band is no longer, but if the Botticellis had to meet their end to get Glickman to sound like he does now, fronting Sandy’s, fans shouldn’t mourn too hard. Possessed of an immersive, wide open space of sound, the band’s debut album, Fourth Dementia, out June 3 on Um Yeah Arts, is just as thoughtfully arranged, but there’s room to breathe around it, maybe a druggier-end-of-the-Beatles-spectrum vibe, a sweet melancholy and nostalgia around shaping the edges of the surf-happy guitar.
“When the band broke up in 2009, I had some songs I’d been working on that just got shelved,” says Glickman, while on a break from his day job — he teaches music lessons at the Proof Lab Surf Shop up in Marin, and he’s happy to report that he just taught two nine-year-olds how to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on guitar. Following the Botticellis’ demise, faced with the prospect of rebuilding a musical career from scratch, Glickman went out on the road with fellow surfer-musician Kyle Field, aka Little Wings.
“His approach is very different from mine; he writes these poems, basically, and the music is an accompaniment to that. It’s very lyric-centric, and playing in his group each night was this very spontaneous thing,” he says. “The songs were not super-arranged, not ‘Ok, you hit the crash cymbal three times, then the guitar goes like this and we do a jump-kick,’ none of the preciseness I was used to. So every show was different. A lot of the shows were amazing, a few were total shitshows. But that was a way to do things that had never really crossed my mind, and it had a big influence on me.”
He took the songs he’d shelved and rearranged them, playing them with open tuning, all in D major. “Especially when we play live, I think you can see an openness to the sound that’s new for me,” he says. Certainly it’s reassuring, in part, to have familiar folks at his side for that: The Sandy’s album features includes former Botticellis co-writer Blythe Foster, Zack Ehrlich (of Sonny & the Sunsets and Vetiver), Burton Li (Citay), Ryan Browne (Sonny & the Sunsets and Tortured Genie), Apollo Sunshine‘s Jeremy Black, and Range of Light Wilderness‘ Nick Aive.
As for the pervasive sense of melancholy, Glickman acknowledges that Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos — the epically composed folk-power-pop opus by the tortured and underappreciated Big Star songwriter — was on repeat during the year or so after the Botticellis broke up (a time in which Glickman also had a relationship end), during which Glickman was writing these songs.
And yet: “We have a lot of fun at our shows, and I get the sense that the audience comes to shows to smile and have fun, and that’s kinda new for me too,” he says with a laugh. “When I was in my 20s, I had a lot to say and I wanted to make this beautiful music and share this experience with people, but I don’t think anywhere in that experience was the word fun. Now there’s a lighthearted element there.”
Catch Sandy’s at Hickey Fest June 20-22 or at their record release party July 11 at The Mill, which Glickman promises will feature a keg and tacos. Works for me.
ELECTRO-FOREST NYMPH JAMS?
“I think we’re both just naturally more inspired when we can be in nature,” says Emily Ritz, one-half of the psych-folk duo Yesway, who released their self-titled debut June 3. She and bandmate Kacey Johansing, who’ve been moving in musical circles around one another since meeting at the Hotel Utah’s open mic in 2006 (Ritz is in the noir-pop band DRMS, Johansing’s provided vocals for the likes of Geographer, and more recently has enjoyed local success as a solo singer-songwriter) have called from the road — they’re on a mini-tour of the East Coast, with our conversation providing the soundtrack for their drive from Brooklyn to upstate New York.
Though they forged their friendship and musical collaborations in San Francisco, both musicians have since moved to small beach towns in the North Bay, whose lush wilderness and dreamy pace of life unmistakably color songs like “Woahcean” and “Howlin’ Face.” The pair’s voices layer over and call-and-response to one another in unexpected ways over fingerpicked acoustic guitar that flits like light on water; throughout the album, there’s the soothing hush of being surrounded by tall trees as opposed to skyscraper, while electronic elements, vibraphones, odd time signatures, and the odd R&B/hip-hop percussive move keep you wide-awake. This isn’t easy-listening music.
It helps, of course, that they’re strong singers; there’s an easy harmony that feels like they’re letting you in on something. “We do have a really unique musical connection, and I think that comes across to people right away,” says Ritz. “We both have voices that are really different from each other, but they melt together in a way. I think it’s rare to see two front women, two kind of powerhouse vocalists come together, meet each other as equals musically, and create something totally different together.” They’ll headline the Rickshaw Stop June 25, so you can go suss out exactly what that is for yourself.
ALSO: This coming weekend is overwhelmingly packed with good shows, so time to make some decisions. Marcus Cohen & the Congress, who bring their funk-soul-hip-hop-R&B stew to the Great American Music Hall Fri/6, are one option that will not likely disappoint. Last time I saw them live I’m pretty sure no one left without a dancing-tired grin on their face. Check the Noise blog for a conversation with Cohen this week.
LEFT OF THE DIAL Regardless of San Franciscans’ often myopic focus on the tech-employed recent college grads who can afford the million-dollar condos on the market in the Mission, a much larger percentage of 20-somethings in this country will relate to the housing situation that shaped Maryam Qudus (aka Doe Eye)’s first full-length LP: The dreaded move back in with your parents in the ‘burbs.
“There were so many transitions going on while I was writing this record, that was the mode I was in,” says Qudus, 23, the Union City-born-and-raised daughter of Afghani immigrants. It’s the week before her first headlining show at Great American Music Hall [Thu/29], and she and her band are winding their way through the Midwest on a brief national jaunt; she’s calling from Oklahoma City. “I’d moved to Boston [to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music], then moved back to San Francisco less than a year later to pursue music here. And when I decided I wanted to make a record, the way to do that financially was to move back home.”
If it felt like a stumble, that’s likely only in contrast to what had been up until that point a charmed music business debut: Doe Eye made an impressive entrance in 2011, when her four-song demo — in particular the ballad “I Hate You,” which highlighted her incredibly rich voice — earned the attention of DJs at Live 105 the week she released it. It also caught the ear of the godfather of young Bay Area singer-songwriters, John Vanderslice, who produced her second official EP, 2012’s Hotel Fire, on which the young singer got support from the Magik*Magik Orchestra.
Still, when it came time to focus on her first full-length record, living at her parents’ house, Qudus found herself in a weirdly liminal state. “Going back to the bedroom you had in high school is a very weird thing,” she says with a laugh. “It feels like you’re backtracking in some ways, but in other ways, it made me appreciate how supportive and awesome my parents are…which I definitely wasn’t thinking in high school.”
The result of her pseudo-adolescent regression is T E L E V I S I O N, featuring a more complex, full-bodied sound than her previous records have displayed, with Qudus’s raw, honest words and guitar-driven indie-rock sensibility seemingly filtered through layers of electronica, some New Wave and R&B moments; an industrial-lite kind of mood sets the base for her unmistakably strong (and getting stronger) vocals. If these songs feel distant, mediated at points, there’s a reason: The record takes its name from the activity the songwriter realized helped her unwind and turn her brain off after a day of sequestering herself inside her childhood home to write.
“I was dealing with various personal issues, and I would spend hours in my bedroom writing, and after a while when it became too much, I started turning on the TV to get away from it all,” says Qudus. “And I got into that pattern, which [I’d never done] before, and I started thinking about how people across America do this every day: Go to work all day at their job, come home and go ‘OK, I’m gonna watch Mad Men, or Conan, and try to forget everything that just happened.'”
Unsurprisingly, given the past few years of her career, the record (again, produced by John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone) doesn’t exactly sound like an artist’s debut. That being the case, it’ll be interesting to hear what the next few years bring for Doe Eye. Qudus isn’t thinking too far beyond the First City Festival in Monterey in August, though. Beyond that, she has one main project: getting her own place in San Francisco again.
DOE EYE With DRMS, The She’s 8pm, $13 Great American Music Hall 859 O’Farrell, SF www.gamhtickets.com
I promise it was unintentional to pair these two together in this fashion, but hey, speaking of good things that come from being holed up in one’s room: Life Among the Savages, the sixth studio album from Papercuts (the creative outlet of longtime San Francisco songwriter-producer Jason Quever) and his first for the LA-based Easy Sound label, is a testament to the good that can come from staying home.
That is, of course, if you have a home studio like Quever’s, Pan American Recording, where he’s produced Cass McCombs, Beach House, and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, among others. It’s also where, most recently, Quever produced perhaps his cleanest, most sophisticated, most lush Papercuts record yet — full of a warmly melancholy ebb and flow that matches Quever’s cathartic, introvert’s tell-all style of writing. The atmospheric indie-dream-folk band has always been primarily a conduit for his songwriting; on this record perhaps more than others, you can hear the solitude in which it was conjured. (He’ll debut songs from the album, out May 13, at The Chapel this Sat/31).
“I think I did about 75 percent of the work here [at home], and yeah, it’s fair to say this one is pretty much all me,” says Quever, though he thanks friend and Beach House guitarist/keyboardist Alex Scally for having shaped some of his arrangements, like the urgent (Quever says “stabby”) strings that open the album’s title track.
“I also had some lyric help from my friend [songwriter] Donovan Quinn on one song. But other than that, I would say it was a lot of being inside my own self-hating brain,” Quever says cheerfully. “I’m working on it. But hey, it gets results.”
It’s a record two years in the making, during which time Quever left Sub Pop for Easy Sound (“They don’t have a huge roster, so you’re not going to get lost in the sea of bands the way you can with a bigger label”), placing Papercuts alongside sonic bedfellows like Vetiver. He also wrote a lot of music that he wound up scrapping.
“A lot definitely got dropped, but to me, what you’d drop is part of what you keep, if that makes sense,” he says. “It’s always moving toward something.” Papercuts songs are short stories and, contrary to what Quever calls most music critics’ impression of him, they’re not all autobiographical. He says he’s not, in fact, incredibly depressed all the time. (To be fair: Part of the oft-repeated Papercuts bio is that Quever started writing music after his parents both died when he was a teenager; there’s more than a little real trauma behind his trauma-swollen lyrics.)
On the other hand, “I’m pretty normal,” he says. “This is my outlet for all the negativity. That’s what catharsis is, right? You throw all your crap into this song and it feels good; I think that’s kind of a tennis match that’s in everyone’s head.” On this record, that catharsis is most interesting when playing with contrasts: On “Family Portrait,” things turn downright upbeat, with Quever gauzily channeling The Byrds (or maybe Ray Davies on Vicodin) through jangly guitar, while his lyrics still speak, poetically, of a vague fear, solitude, and uncertainty — tinged with hope, to be sure. The chemistry is born of the balance.
“I never want it to be all heavy or all light,” he says. “I think you naturally go through phases in writing, and that’s fine. The main thing with taking longer to make this record was I wanted songs where I felt proud of the lyrics.
“That way you’re not up there, you know, mumbling certain parts ’cause you feel dumb.”
PAPERCUTS With Fool’s Gold, Line & Circle 9pm, $15-$17 The Chapel 777 Valencia, SF www.thechapelsf.com
LEFT OF THE DIAL Earlier this month, Oakland singer-songwriter Ash Reiter was at Hipnic, an annual three-day music festival in Big Sur thrown by promoters folkYEAH!, featuring Cass McCombs, the Fresh & Onlys, the Mother Hips, Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, and plenty of other Bay Area folky faves. Held at the Fernwood Resort and campgrounds, with families gathering under the shade of redwoods, it’s one of the cozier, more homegrown summer festivals in the greater Bay Area — there’s nary a Coachella-esque VIP section in sight — but a three-day pass still comes in at a cool $240.
Looking around, Reiter saw how the ticket price had shaped the crowd.
“There was obviously some great music, but that kind of boutique festival thing is so expensive that a lot of the audience seemed like older, well-off folks, parents — I mean, those are the people who can afford to go to these things,” she recalls. “I’m sure a lot of the bands playing wouldn’t be able to go to that festival, if they weren’t playing.”
It was that kind of thinking that sparked the idea for Hickey Fest, a three-day festival now in its second year and named for its location in Standish Hickey State Park in Mendocino County, “where the South Fork of the Eel River shimmers against the backdrop of the majestic redwoods,” according to the fest’s flyers. Born of the desire to curate a “musical experience outside of just your average festival, a chance for musicians to actually hang out and talk to each other and get to know each other that’s not just in a loud rock club,” Reiter launched Hickey Fest over Memorial Day weekend last year, with a lineup of friend-bands like Warm Soda, Farallons, Cool Ghouls, and Michael Musika. The goal: A festival her musician friends would actually enjoy, in an atmosphere that wouldn’t be “as overwhelming as a BottleRock or an Outside Lands.” She estimates some 500 to 600 people attended in total.
This year’s festival, which runs June 20-22 in the same location, includes another local-love lineup, including Papercuts, Sonny and the Sunsets, Black Cobra Vipers, and more. A $60 ticket gets you three days of music and camping. “I wanted it to be about community, about putting the fun back in music,” says Reiter, who will also perform. “So I did intentionally try to make it as cheap as possible.”
It’s a sentiment rarely heard from music promoters, especially as the days get longer and the work-ditching gets ubiquitous and the college kids are all turned loose for the summer. Festival season is upon us, Bay Area, and make no mistake: It’s a great way to see touring bands from all over the country. It’s a great platform for local bands, who get the chance to play bigger stages and reach new audiences. And as a music fan, it’s a great way to spend a shit-ton of money.
FIELD OF DREAMS
In the summer of 1969, when Woodstock was changing the meaning of “music festival” on the East Coast via Jimi solos and free, mud-covered love, plans were taking shape for a San Francisco festival that, had it actually taken place, would have been legendary: The Wild West Festival, scheduled for Aug. 22-24, was designed as a three-day party, with regular (ticketed) concerts each night in Kezar Stadium, while other bands performed free music all day, each day, in Golden Gate Park.
Bill Graham and other SF rock scene movers and shakers worked collaboratively on organizing the festival, which — had it happened — would have seen Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, the Steve Miller Band, and half a dozen other iconic bands of the decade all taking the stage within 72 hours.
Why’d it fall apart? According to most versions of the story, too many of those involved wanted the whole damn thing to be free. Graham, among others, countered that, while the free music utopia was a nice idea, lights, a sound system, and other basic accoutrements of a music festival did in fact cost American dollars. The plans collapsed amid in-fighting, and the infamous Altamont free music festival was planned as a sort of make-up for December of that year — an organizational disaster of an event that came to be known for the death of Meredith Hunter, among other violence, signaling the end of a certain starry-eyed era.
So yeah, money has always been a sticky part of live music festivals. But the industry has boomed in a particularly mind-boggling way over the last decade; never before have ticket prices served as such a clear barrier to entry for your average, middle-class music fan. Forget Hipnic: In the days after Outside Lands sold out, enterprising San Franciscans began plonking their three-day festival passes onto the “for sale” section of Craigslist at upwards of $1,000 each.
The alternative? The “screw that corporate shit, let’s do our own thing” attitude, which is, of course, exactly the kind of attitude that’s birthed the bumper crop of smaller summer festivals that have sprung up in the Bay Area over the past few years, like Phono del Sol (July 12, an indie-leaning daylong affair in SF’s Potrero del Sol Park, started by hip-kid music blog The Bay Bridged in 2010, tickets: $25-$30) and Burger Boogaloo (a cheekily irreverent punk, surf, and rockabilly fest over July 4 weekend in Oakland’s Mosswood Park — weekend pass: $50). Both pair bigger, buzzy acts with national reach like Wye Oak (Phono del Sol) or Thee Oh Sees and the great Ronnie Spector (Burger Boogaloo) with a slew of local openers.
“I’ve played a few festivals, and when it’s a really big thing, you realize there are just so many other huge bands that people would rather see,” says Mikey Maramag, better known as the folk-tronica brains behind SF’s Blackbird Blackbird. He’ll be sharing a bill with Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Nick Waterhouse, White Fence, A Million Billion Dying Suns, and others at Phono del Sol — which, judging by last year’s attendance, could draw some 5,000 to 6,000 people.
“I think at smaller festivals you have more people who take the time to really listen, appreciate the music more, really big fans,” he says. “There are fewer artists on this bill [than at large festivals] but they’re all great ones — I’m especially excited to see Wye Oak.”
Maramag will be debuting some songs from his new album, Tangerine Sky, out June 3; the show will serve as a welcome-home from a quick national tour to promote it.
Then there are the even more modest summer offerings, like SF Popfest, which takes place over four days (May 22-25) at various small venues in the city. It’s not exactly a traditional festival — you’re not likely to find slideshows online of the “BEST POPFEST FASHION!!1!” the way we’ve unfortunately become accustomed to from Coachella — but for the small contingent of super passionate ’90s indie-pop fans in the Bay Area (hi!), this is one not to miss.
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who think it’s a very different kind of festival than it is. App people. This one guy had some kind of offer about a parking app for festivals, I think? Which would really not make any sense at all,” says Josh Yule, guitarist for SF jangle-pop maestros Cruel Summer, who received the mantle of SF Popfest organizer from his predecessor in the mid-aughts (older history of the festival is a little hazy, as it’s always been primarily organized by musicians for musicians — for fun and, says Yule, absolutely no profit whatsoever). There was talk of getting some beer sponsors at some point, but he decided against it. “We have friends working the door at most of these things. I was a punk kid in high school, I guess, I tend to stay away from things that would make this go in a more corporate direction.”
This year’s fest is centered around reunions of bands who’ve been broken up for a while, like cult-favorite Sacramento popsters Rocketship, who haven’t played together in at least a decade; the band will be at the Rickshaw Stop Fri/23 for a Slumberland Records showcase. Dressy Bessy, Dreamdate, the Mantles, Terry Malts, and plenty others will all make appearances throughout the fest, as well as a few newer bands, like the female-fronted Stockton garagey-punk band Monster Treasure.
“Obviously it’s not gonna be thousands of people, it’s not going to be outside — it’s going to be 100 to 200 like-minded individuals who all enjoy the same thing, and they all get it,” says Yule. “We got these bands back together to play and they’re all excited about it even though there’s no [financial] guarantee…It’s that community that I’ve always been involved in and sometimes I feel like it’s not around anymore. So it’s nice to go ‘Oh wait, there it is. It’s still there, and it’s still strong.'”
For local bands just starting to make a name for themselves, of course, there’s nothing like a larger and yes, very corporate festival for reaching new audiences. Take the locals stage at LIVE 105’s BFD, the all-day radio-rock party celebrating its 20th year June 1 at the Shoreline: Curated by the station’s music director, Aaron Axelsen — aka the DJ who’s launched 1,000 careers, thanks to his Sunday night locals-only show, Soundcheck, as well as booking up-and-comers for Popscene — the locals stage at BFD has a pretty good track record for launching bands onto the next big thing. The French Cassettes, one of SF’s current indie-pop darlings, sure hope that holds true for them.
“Aaron Axelsen has been really generous to us. I think we’re all clear that none of this would be happening without him,” says singer-guitarist Scott Huerta. The band will be playing songs from its newest album, out on cassette (duh) at the end of May. “But we’re super excited just to be in there. Hopefully we make some new fans. I know I used to find out about new bands by going to BFD and just passing by that stage. It’s by all the food vendors, so as long as people are hungry, we’ll be good. Don’t eat before you come.”
For the Tumbleweed Wanderers, an Oakland-based soul-folk-rock band that’s been hustling back and forth across the country for the past year, hitting the stage at Outside Lands (Aug. 8-10) — that festival everyone loves to hate and hates to love — will be the culmination of years of playing around the festival, quite literally.
“In 2011, we busked outside, and I think that’s the year [our keyboard player] Patrick almost got arrested?” says Rob Fidel, singer-guitarist, with a laugh. “Then the next year we got asked to play Dr. Flotsam’s Hell Brew Review, which is this thing in the park just outside Outside Lands, and we did that for an hour and a half every day for free. And then busked outside. I like to say we played Outside Lands more than any other band that year.
“But to be on the other side of that all of a sudden is awesome,” he says, noting that the band will be playing some tunes from a new record set for release later this year. “It was the same when we played the Fillmore for the first time — we used to busk outside of there and the venue would get super pissed, and now, oh look, that same guy’s carrying our amps…but I think the experience of working our way up like that has kinda taught us you’re gonna see the same people on the way up as on the way down. And we’ve worked really hard these past few years. It’s nice to feel like we’ve earned it.”
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say there are roughly 1,000 other music festivals happening throughout the Bay Area this summer — at the Guardian, our inboxes have been filling up with press releases and show announcements since February; check out the roundup below for a mere smattering of what’s going on. And, ticket price hand-wringing aside, you don’t need to be rich to rock out: Stern Grove’s free Sunday lineups, with heavy hitters like Smokey Robinson, Andrew Bird, Rufus Wainwright, and the Zombies, are among the best we’ve seen. In the East Bay, the Art+Soul Festival is always a source of up-and-comers in hip-hop, funk, and more — this year for the whopping price of $15.
So, yeah, we never got that Janis and Sly and Jefferson Airplane show. So be it. As a music fan in the Bay Area, there’s no better time than summer to smack yourself, remember that you’re super lucky to live here, grab a sweater (because layers), and get out to hear some music. Call it your own damn three-month-long Wild West Festival. We’ll see you in the bathroom line.
LEFT OF THE DIAL As rock ‘n’ roll narratives go, it’s a rather familiar one: Singer and bandleader who has achieved moderate success with one full-band sound announces that he’s been repressing his true musical instincts for far too long, decides to go solo, and puts out an album that’s a sonic 180 from what fans are used to. History tells us that this is either the moment when stars are born (Michael Jackson, Lou Reed), or the moment when everyone goes, “Oh, maybe the other band members are responsible for way more of the stuff I like than I previously realized?” (Hall, without Oates).
Birds & Batteries frontman Mike Sempert doesn’t seem overly concerned about this fork in the road. For one, when the singer-songwriter began teasing new songs out into the world last month in anticipation of releasing his first solo effort, Mid Dream (out May 6 on Blue Velvet), it became clear that longtime fans of his old band — a San Francisco staple of the last five years that blended Sempert’s husky vocals and Americana influences with an indie electro-pop danceability (aka plenty of synth) — weren’t going to be upset. Far from it: While the album is a clear departure from the heady, airy detachment of Birds & Batteries’ oeuvre, the element that brought those songs down to earth — the understated soulfulness of Sempert’s vocals and songwriting — has emerged in full force on Mid Dream.
A richly introspective album written and recorded in the months before Sempert left the Bay Area for LA last year (to be with his now-wife — SF music scene doomsdayers, calm down), Mid Dream is equal parts wistfulness and hope, uncertainty and a surprised sort of satisfaction about growing up; in other words, it sounds exactly like those rare, heightened moments when you can actually feel one chapter of your life coming to an end and another beginning. Stripped bare of synthesizers and most other electronic elements and loaded up on melody, wall-of-feeling choruses, and ocean imagery, the album also serves as a kind of coming-out party for Sempert’s love of ’70s folk-rockers like Tom Petty, Harry Nilsson, and Randy Newman. Sempert will play these songs for the first time on home turf at the Rickshaw Stop May 14.
“I always had two personalities that I was exploring with Birds & Batteries. Initially it was this merging of the folk-Americana-singer-songwriter thing with the synthy art-pop stuff,” says Sempert. “But I’d gotten to a point where I wanted to zero in more on a sound, and instead of taking my singer-songwriter stuff and trying to adapt it, I just started putting those songs to the side…so I’ve had this stack of songs I wanted to try developing for a while.”
After a few years in a row of hustling full-time in B&B, the timing felt right last year to take a breather and consider the pile, he says. “That’s a hard-working band, and we had a lot of good times and successes, but frankly I got pretty burned out…especially with the kind of ‘take over the world’ thing we were trying to do. I got married, I moved to LA; it just felt like time to focus on making music for the right reasons and from the heart, without a big agenda.”
To be clear, that shouldn’t be read as a dig at his old bandmates — two of whom, drummer Colin Fahrner and bassist Jill Heinke, he invited to make up his current rhythm section. Sempert emphasizes that the entire record is a family affair of sorts, with regulars from the Bay Area folk scene and many an Oakland friend-band — including Sonya Cotton, Kacey Johansing, Emily Ritz, Andrew Maguire, Anton and Lewis Patzner, and more — adding backup vocals, strings, percussion; the list goes on. Sempert gives an extra-special nod to TaughtMe songwriter-engineer Blake Henderson, who helped him shape his vision for the record.
“I had so much help, so many supportive people around me in the songwriter community in the Bay Area,” he says. “Honestly, at the beginning of deciding to make [the album], I was just thinking ‘I bet my friends will like this.’ And for this one, the idea of just getting to share it with them — that was enough.”
Mike Sempert (CD release) With Farallons and Kacey Johansing Wed/14, 8pm, $20 The Rickshaw Stop 155 Fell, SF www.rickshawstop.com
What kind of person looks at a massively expensive three-day music festival whose inaugural year was widely considered an organizational failure and public relations nightmare, not to mention one that cost the city in which it took place thousands of dollars, and says “Hey — I want to be in charge of that next year”?
Dave Graham, it turns out. As the CEO of the brand-new BottleRock Napa Valley — a festival now in its second year, spanning May 30 to June 1, with headliners OutKast and The Cure, but, as Graham emphasizes, one owned and run by entirely different people than those responsible for last summer’s debacle — Graham has gotten used to answering the question: Why the hell would you want to take this on?
“For one, I had an amazing time last year,” says Graham, a Napa native and entrepreneur. “I was born and raised here, this was just the coolest thing that I’d ever experienced, and I couldn’t believe it was going on in my own backyard.” He noted what mistakes had been made, he said, and when the chance arose to invest in a partnership for 2014, he saw an opportunity to make something great. The only problem(s)? A boatload of debt, and the task of trying to find investors for this year’s festival in a community of merchants still stinging from 2013. Then there was the fact that, at the time of signing on in January, Graham and his partners had less than three months to book a lineup.
“It’s been challenging, to say the least,” says Graham. “Once we bought the rights to the name BottleRock, it was difficult, and understandably so, for people in the music industry, creditors, and just the general population to understand that we had zero to do with the mess that was created last year, and that we had no obligation to make a bad situation better…but we’re committed to doing just that. The main thing was, we just wanted to keep it local.”
Time will tell whether or not Graham and his team succeed in winning back the hearts of Napa residents and business owners. Given the time period they had for booking, the lineup they pulled off is pretty impressive on its own — if a little ’90s-tastic, stacked with alt-rock staples like Cracker, Weezer, Third Eye Blind, and Blues Traveler. But hey, if your idea of a good festival is getting super nostalgic with a slightly older set over a nice glass or two of pinot noir (note: nothin’ wrong with that) and you have the dough to spare (single day: $149), it’d probably be worth your while to see what else the new guys can pull off.
Two other shows you should probably go to this week: San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls, who make some of most unpretentiously happy, jangly, beach-brat garage pop you’ve ever heard, are headlining The Chapel Thursday/15. And A Minor Forest, SF math rock veterans who made lots of people very happy when they got back together last year, will be there Saturday/17.
In case you hadn’t noticed, The Chapel’s bookers are killing it lately. And despite lots of angry internet buzz about noise complaints from The Chapel’s neighbors — let’s be real, our reaction over here was something like “If you rent an apartment next to a music venue on Valencia and then complain that there’s music coming out of it, you are everything that is wrong with everything, please leave,” — a representative from the venue says there’s really no news, nothing to get up in arms about.
“The Chapel had the normal, required Planning Commission ‘look back’ hearing [May 8] where they make sure the business is in compliance with Planning conditions,” Patricia Dedekian, a manager at The Chapel, told us. “There was only one neighbor who has done 99 percent of the complaining and he appeared at the hearing. We passed the hearing with flying colors, with unanimous support from the Planning Commissioners.” Still, you know. Support your local venues. It’s not hard to do when they’re putting on several rad shows a week.
I was 12 years old in 1996, which is the year Jawbreaker, the punk band that’s been (somewhat controversially) called “the sound of the Mission,” disbanded for good. I started listening to them about four years later, and really only started listening-listening to them, in the way that Jawbreaker fans listen to Jawbreaker — obsessively, open-veined, with every part of your body engaged — a few years after that, when I was in college in San Diego, 500 miles from the ’90s Bay Area punk scene that I had only just begun to realize was special once it (and I) was all but gone.
I suspect, however, and a few friends’ Jawbreaker-love stories have confirmed this, that it doesn’t matter how old you are when you start listening to Jawbreaker, because Jawbreaker songs — in the universality of their lyrical angst, wedged as they are in that the puzzle-piece-shaped sweet spot between well-crafted pop and sore throat-inducing (in singer Blake Schwarzenbach’s case, throat polyp-causing) punk rock — will make you feel like a teenager. And not in the hopeful, peppy way people usually mean when they say something “made them feel like a teenager.” I mean, really, confused, hormonal, nostalgic, angry, in love, frustrated, drunk, fist-in-air triumphant, wistful about something you can’t quite place, and generally just fucking waterlogged with feeling.
The band’s enduring popularity and the reverence with which it’s still treated among the ’90s punk/emo-loving population — Google image-search “Jawbreaker tattoo” if you don’t believe me — is certainly, in large part, thanks to that: As an adult, that mood gets harder to access; you don’t often stumble onto art which opens a portal into that level of emotion. Jawbreaker picks you up and hurls you down it before you know what’s happening.
Drummer Adam Pfahler, the driving force behind the past few years of remastered re-issues of Jawbreaker’s iconic albums (on his own label, Blackball Records) has been plenty busy since that band met its demise. He opened Lost Weekend Video on Valencia, and still works there a few days a week. He lives in Bernal Heights; he has two teenage daughters. He’s played in at least a dozen other bands, including J Church and Whysall Lane. So does it bug him that people still mainly associate him with Jawbreaker, some 18 years after they broke up?
“Not at all — I’m totally grateful for that band, and the fact that people still feel that strongly about it is insane,” says the drummer, during a phone interview in which he multi-tasks impressively: He has about 20 minutes before it’s time to run to an evening practice with his new band, California, and he’s making pasta for his kids while answering questions.
“I’m definitely not running from that legacy. I love it, and so do Blake [Schwarzenbach] and Chris [Bauermeister, Jawbreaker’s bassist],” he says. “It is a little funny because I’ve been playing all along…it’s just that certain things take hold or get seen better than others.”
Of course, certain things, like this new project, have the benefit of being able to attach the words “Ex-Jawbreaker/Green Day” to a flier or listing, as the Rickshaw Stop has advertised California’s April 24 show — the band’s third official outing — though Pfahler’s a bit uncomfortable with using his star power that way. Hopefully, he says, the band will be earning that buzz on its own soon enough.
After all, California, a three-piece, is something of a Bay Area punk supergroup: On guitar and vocals you have Green Day‘s Jason White, who, despite having played lead guitar on the band’s tours for the past decade or so, only “officially” became a member in 2012; he also shares guitar and vocal duties with Billie Joe Armstrong in the long-running side project (and supergroup of its own, in a way) Pinhead Gunpowder. Bass and backup vocals are courtesy of Dustin Clark of TheInsides; Pfahler is on drums.
“I’d kind of been starting to do stuff under my own name in 2011, just to try writing my own songs again,” says White, noting that Green Day is on an “indefinite break” — though he did just get off the phone with Armstrong, who called to tell him about how crazy it was to play with the Replacements at Coachella the previous night. (White, with a laugh: “I hadn’t wanted to go at all but now I’m super jealous, and bummed that I wasn’t there.”)
White started playing out acoustically about three years ago, at places like the Hotel Utah. When he was asked to play a friend’s 40th birthday party, he invited Clark to play bass; Clark asked Pfahler, whom he’d been playing with (they’re old friends — also SF experimental rockers Erase Errata, featuring Clark’s wife, Bianca Sparta, on drums, used to play in the basement of Lost Weekend). All three are veterans of the scene; all three were excited about trying something new.
“I’m at a place where I just want to try any and everything, stretch out on my own, experiment with some different ideas,” says White, who says he’s also a huge Jawbreaker fan. “And all three of us have pretty distinct individual tastes, which has made for a really nice mix of the three, I think.”
California at the Hemlock Tavern earlier this month. Photo by Greg Schneider.
There’s no music online for fans to listen to or buy just yet — and thanks to a name cribbed from a novella by Pfahler’s friend, the writer Amra Brooks, the band’s virtually un-Googlable — but a handful of demos they’ve recorded suggest a leaning toward the poppier end of the spectrum than you might expect from these three. White’s vocals are clean, earnest, not trying too hard to be too much, reminiscent of the Promise Ring, or of the days (day?) before “emo” became code for whiny and tossed around like a dirty word; tight, punchy, early Green Day-esque bridges and hooks are grounded, kept from being overly sugary by the heft of the rhythm section.
“This is very much a new band, in the garage band sense of the word — I’m happy to pester people with texts and emails to get them to come see our shows, because I’m really proud of this one,” says Pfahler. It’s an especially collaborative band, he says, which tend to be the kind he enjoys — as opposed to “just being the guy back there, being told to count to four.” They have plans to record in the next few months, but right now is the best part, says Pfahler: seeing what works and what doesn’t after hours of practicing, seeing how people react at live shows, when the songs are still malleable. “It’s a little like the early, fun part of a relationship,” is how White puts it. Pfahler: “If you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play them out this early on in the process, once you record it’s almost like the death of those songs.”
Pfahler does feel fortunate, in a number of ways. As a longtime Mission District resident and business owner, he’s had a front-row seat for the neighborhood’s drastic changes over the past two decades. Is he tired of the conversation about gentrification?
“I am a little tired of it, but I’m no less passionate about how I feel,” he says. “It’s harsh. It limits things. We’re feeling that in the shop in a very real way, and certainly people are buying fewer records — but they’re paying for high cuisine, organic wine, you know. There’s no shortage of new bands screaming about this stuff, and they definitely have something to be mad about. It’s good fodder for angry music. When Jawbreaker settled here it was a pretty fertile time; you could get things going back then. I mean, the practice space I use now is shared between 13 people, and it costs more than my first apartment did. And there’s no bathroom! It would definitely be tough to be a kid trying to make music here.”
“At the same time, I think my kids are lucky to be here,” he says, as he beckons one of them to the stove to test the pasta. “Even with this craziness going on. They get around on public transportation, they go to shows. They’re going to be the backlash. They’re smart kids and they have really good bullshit detectors.
“That generation, I have a lot of hope for.”
CALIFORNIA With El Terrible and Vela Eyes Thu/24, 8pm, $10 Rickshaw Stop 155 Fell, SF www.rickshawstop.com
Also: We’d be remiss to not mention the musical offerings the SFIFF has planned this year: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down and Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields will each be performing live original scores during film festival offerings, on Tue/29 and Tue/6, respectively, at the Castro Theatre. Cross-media creative pollination never sounded so sweet. For tickets: http://tinyurl.com/l8srz9j
LEFT OF THE DIAL Dayvid Michael, a West Oakland native and member of the CaliMade hip-hop crew, clearly has some mixed feelings about his debut record, Frienemy.
“I mean, I wrote those songs when I was 18,” says the rapper, drinking boba milk tea during an interview in downtown Oakland. “I’m still proud of them, but I’ve learned so much since then.”
That album dropped the last week of December 2012 — which means Michael’s reminiscing at the ripe old age of 21. But, to be fair, the past couple years have been big ones for someone who calls himself a “reluctant rapper” (until about age 17, he mostly wanted to sing and play guitar).
With CaliMade, a loose collective of Oakland-born guys who’ve been friends from elementary school, as well as other young DJs and producers, he performed at Hiero Day, steps away from Bay Area hip-hop legends. He’s guested on a few songs by Iamsu, a rapper whom, Michael rightly notes, you will hear if you put on 106.1 KMEL for more than 15 minutes right now; CaliMade is now working closely with the (slightly) elder rapper’s own crew, the HBK Gang. And 2014’s shaping up to be a big one: He just got done recording a new project with Azure, an Oakland rapper poised for big things in his own right as well as being Iamsu’s DJ, and Clyde Shankle, another member of CaliMade. Michael’s also working on his sophomore solo album, which will be out by the end of the year.
In other words, he’s an Oakland kid to keep your eye on — which makes him a perfect selection for Oakland Drops Beats, a new free, all-ages, quarterly music festival that features some 30-plus East Bay artists, spread out over 10 different stages and venues in downtown Oakland; the kickoff festival is April 19.
Its lineup is, in and of itself, a testament to the range of music coming out of Oakland right now: From the jazz-hip-hop blend of the Kev Choice Ensemble to the underrated indie rock of Oakland mainstays B. Hamilton to the funk-soul dance party music of Sal’s Greenhouse — not to mention a distinctly family-friendly vibe courtesy of Bay Area Girls Rock Camp and the presence of Youth Radio — the music “crawl,” as organizers are billing it, aims to serve as both a celebration of the city’s established artists and a new platform through which up-and-coming musicians can get some stage time.
Inspired by the Venice Music Crawl in LA, musician-organizer-founder Angelica Tavella first began reaching out to Oakland event producers over the summer, with the idea in mind that there are lots of community organizers and promoters “already doing cool stuff in other parts of Oakland, but really doing their own thing,” she says.
“This was, here’s a space where we could all do that together, for a couple hours, on this one day. And I really had in mind that it should be downtown Oakland — specifically not in Uptown, which already has the Art Murmur…there are a lot of great small shop owners, a lot of great energy, and cool new things going on downtown. But there aren’t a lot of venues for something like a public music performance to happen.”
Tavella was quickly overwhelmed by the level of interest and enthusiasm from business owners and event producers — especially considering that the festival is all volunteer-run for now (including pro bono performances by musicians). The goal for the next one, which will take place in the last week of July or the first week of August, is to fundraise enough to pay musicians for their performances, while keeping admission free to the public.
Eventually, Tavella hopes to have the free daytime performances segue into a nighttime music crawl that would bring business to the venues in downtown Oakland. And with more and more musicians and artists getting priced out of San Francisco and heading East, organizers shouldn’t have too hard a time finding fresh talent to fill a bill every three months.
Dayvid Michael will be performing in the afternoon with the CaliMade crew at Le Qui Vive, a gallery at 15th and Webster. He feels at home there — it’s one of the first venues where CaliMade began performing a few years ago, and he says the folks behind it are part of the community that makes him feel so lucky to be calling Oakland home.
“When people from outside the Bay Area think about the Bay Area, they think of two things — we’re hyphy, we know how to have fun; and also the diversity of the city,” says Michael, who also does graphics work for Youth Radio (he basically “hung around” until they let him). “I feel like as representatives, the HBK Gang and Cali Made can fulfill both of those perceptions. And my personal goal is to show the world that we’re more than just party music. We can do that too — but we want to offer more than that.”
“This place is so rich in culture, intelligence, legacy. I love it here,” he says, and thinks for a minute. “If Oakland had waterfalls, I would never go anywhere else.” Fair enough.
Oakland Drops Beats Sat/19, 2pm (all day), free 10 venues between Broadway and Harrison/14th and 19th St, Oak. www.oaklanddropsbeats.com
ONLY YOU CAN SAVE COLLEGE RADIO
Talk about “left of the dial.” If you’ve only been in the city a couple years, you might not be aware that there was a time when KUSF — that’s the student-run radio station of the University of San Francisco — wasn’t in exile. It’s been over three years since the university sold the station (which had been broadcasting since 1963 at 90.3 FM) without public input or comment, for $3.75 million, to the Classical Public Radio Network, aka CPRN, via a complex three-way deal between the University of Southern California, that station, and the corporate broadcasting giant Entercom.
Since that time, KUSF DJs and friends of the station have been operating the station online, 24 hours a day, from the Lightrail Studios, growing a registered nonprofit arm with a new name: San Francisco Community Radio. All the while, those who love the station have been embroiled in — to use the technical legal terminology — a bureaucratic shitshow, as they try to prove that the sale was illegal. They’ve had some small successes in proving certain aspects of the transaction were unlawful, and currently have an appeal before the FCC.
Then, at the end of 2013, the FCC began issuing low-power FM licenses for the first time in about a decade. KUSF-In-Exile has an application in for 102.5 — but they’re up against at least seven other groups, including, as KUSF members understand it, a mega-church. The central goal, say organizers, is simply to get back on the (non-internet based) airwaves, one way or another. But “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” says SFCR board member and treasurer Damin Esper of the situation. “Which, obviously, isn’t very satisfying to us or to our supporters.”
In the meantime, the station has been throwing fundraiser shows to help pay for ongoing legal fees, and the one this April 20, naturally, is the third incarnation of their annual stoner-rama affair. Oakland punks Violence Creeps, who’ll be opening for the current incarnation of Black Flag at Brick & Mortar in May, will be headlining, alongside psych-rockers Mondo Drag and plenty of other wild, weird, woolly favorites; visuals, should you happen to have ingested anything that would make you want to look at cool visuals, will be provided by veteran stock-footage auteurs Oddball Films. All of the funds raised will go to SFCR’s legal fight; there will also be members on hand to talk volunteer opportunities — college radio-loving grantwriters, are you out there?
When it comes to the original sale, Esper says, “It’s clear that laws were broken. It could be found to be illegal in court…but one of the reasons the big guys always win in situations like this is it’s hard to keep people engaged, reminded of the situation. This is bigger than just KUSF. This is happening all over the country. College radio is under attack.”
SFCR’s Blown-Out, Blowout Benefit III Sun/20, 8pm, $7 Thee Parkside 1600 17th St, SF www.theeparkside.com
Oh, one last thing: There’s also a little event called Record Store Daycoming up, so get out that piggy bank — this is what people mean when they talk about having an “emergency fund,” right? Anyway: So much going on, so little space. Check the Bay Guardian’s Noise blog this week for special in-store events and one-day-only releases.
LEFT OF THE DIAL It’s a question most musicians are all too familiar with. If you tell someone at a party that you’re a working musician, that person is inevitably going to ask — after a few polite questions about your hardcore band/classical jazz quartet/street-corner performance art where you alternate reading Blake passages with playing the accordion — “So, you have a day job?”
In a city like San Francisco, especially, the answer is almost always “yes.” And there’s no shame in that! Bartender, barista, Whole Foods cashier, teacher, graphic designer, marijuana dispensary employee — I’ve heard all of these in just the last month or so of musician interviews. A person’s gotta eat.
And then there’s Tim Marcus. On a recent, rainy Tuesday afternoon, the guitarist was hunkered down in a small bedroom-turned-electrical engineering workshop in the Lower Haight apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Marcus, 35, is one of the most sought after steel guitar players in the Bay Area. He spent the latter half of the aughts with the now-defunct (but much loved) San Francisco Americana band Or, the Whale. A few hours after this interview, he’ll be playing Amnesia with alt-country rocker Tom Rhodes; two days later he’s heading out on the road for a three-week East Coast tour with San Francisco folk songstress Kelly McFarling. But right now he’s at his day job: Flanked by stacks of glass tubes, fuses, and various tiny metal parts whose purpose we can only guess at, he’s building an amplifier. And not just any amplifier. An amplifier of pedal steel dreams.
As the founder, owner, and sole employee of Milkman Sound, Marcus has created a living from building toys — and he’s the first to call them that — for musicians who are just as choosy as he is.
“I started playing guitar when I was 10, and played in bands all through middle school, high school, college,” says Marcus. “I started doing it professionally in the early 2000s. And there just wasn’t what I’d consider to be a boutique option [for amplifiers] for pedal steel guitars. If you drive a car, most people buy a Ford or a Subaru, but you have the option to buy a Ferrari. As a pedal steel player, in particular, you really wound up shoehorned into buying Fords and Chevrolets, things that are made for [regular] guitar players.”
He gained the technical know-how required to build amplifiers from a couple places. Back East, he worked for a company that did repairs on audio-visual equipment, where he’d hand off old or unused parts to a friend who built amps in exchange for his tutelage. After moving out to San Francisco, Marcus went to work for BBI Engineering, an SF company that installs AV and theatrical systems for museums “and other places that use automated amps, where you walk in, push a button and everything happens,” he says. “I learned a lot about making things that work well, that aren’t going to break if they’re subjected to kids poking at them day, in day out.”
Frustrated at being unable to get the clarity and quality of sound he wanted out of his guitar, Marcus started small, ordering the best parts he could find — some vintage, some new, with a priority on materials made in America — to build one amplifier for himself. He still has it (it’s sitting in a custom Milkman slipcover in the corner of the workshop, which, Marcus notes, is more easily navigated than usual — he just shipped out a bunch of amps) but he’s revamped that first one more times than he can count.
He’s an admitted perfectionist as well as a workaholic, he says, but it runs in the family: the name “Milkman” is a nod to his longstanding family business in Connecticut, starting with a small dairy farm his great-grandfather bought and built out. “The spirit of my great-grandfather was like ‘I’m going to sell something that I make,’ and my family’s always continued that,” says Marcus. “That definitely plays a role in my work ethic.”
Since he built that first amp four years ago, he’s been crafting custom amps for guitar and steel players all over the country. He does every part of production himself — friends have asked to help so they can learn, but he’s “crazy OCD about doing everything” with his own hands — and he builds each amp to a customer’s specifications, one at a time. He’s branched out into amplifiers for regular guitarists, and for bass players. Each amp takes him a couple of days to build, and then he tests it meticulously by (someone’s gotta do it) playing guitar through it lots of different ways.
Marcus still buys parts from small US-based companies where possible, including many in California, which he says is expensive but worth it for the quality. They don’t manufacture the glass tubes that go into amplifiers in the US at all, anymore, he explains, which is a shame, because the ones produced here in the ’50s and ’60s were great — they played an unsung role in creating what we think of as the early American rock ‘n’ roll sound. (Marcus can and will explain the history of amplifiers to you, as well as the differences between every iteration of each part that goes into them, at the drop of a hat.) The majority of his cabinets come from a revered one-man shop in Nashville, though Marcus has just begun working with a family business in Oakland to try to make the operation even more local.
The price for all this care and OCD-level handiwork? Milkman amps run from $900 for a five-watt “half pint” amp to $3000 for the more powerful models. But for the musicians Marcus is catering to, that’s well worth it — last year, he sold 40 amplifiers; this year, by the end of March, he’d already shipped 20. Milkman amps have been out on tour in Eric Clapton’s band, thanks to acclaimed steel player and producer Greg Leisz taking a liking to Marcus’ simple, vintage rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic and careful technical work; they can also be heard on the most recent Daft Punk and Norah Jones records.
Maybe most impressively: Marcus seems to have cracked a code. He’s surviving in San Francisco by doing something he loves — and something that allows him to stay here as a working musician. He stopped working for his old audio-visual company about a year ago.
“I know I’m extraordinarily lucky that I’ve figured out a way to have music be something I can make a living off of,” he says. “I mean, I don’t get rich playing pedal steel. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent playing pedal steel. If I lived in Nashville, or even LA, maybe; not here.
“But there’s also pride in that,” he says. “That’s why it says ‘Made in San Francisco, USA’ on the front. It’s not easy to do things in San Francisco, so when you do I think it’s just that much more awesome. I kind of got into the pirate ship mentality, and working for myself is great. I get up early — but I haven’t set an alarm clock in a long time.”