On the Rise 2014

On the Rise 2014: A mixtape


Dear local musicians,

There’s kind of no non-awkward way to say this, but: We like you. A lot.

In honor of this week’s On the Rise issue, which celebrates the diversity and energy and inspirations and favorite sandwiches of some of the Bay Area’s most promising bands, we crafted this mix that’s rife with coded messages about our true feelings for you made up of songs by this year’s OTR artists.

Track Listing
1. “Harlem” — Cathedrals
2. “Change My Ways” — Tony Molina
3. “Leaving Soon” — Meklit
4. “Ode To Russia” — Major Powers & The Lo-Fi Symphony
5. “Betray The Sea” — Annie Girl & The Flight
6. “Wake Up” — Rocky Rivera
7. “Sadie” — Astronauts, etc.
8. “Integrated Circuit” — Useless Eaters
9. “Collapsing Obsidian Sun” — Friction Quartet
10. “Black Friday/Soul On Ice” — Nu Dekades
11. “Church of SoMA [excerpt]” — Avalon Emerson

…so, did you, like, have a date for the prom yet? Just out of curiosity. We have a flask.

Your friend,
The SF Bay Guardian

On the Rise: Avalon Emerson


That delectable boom you hear on dance floors across the city and SoundCloud mixes throughout the cloud-cosmos, overlayed with an earworm diced-diva sample and frenzy-inducing keyboard clang? It’s “Pressure,” the January release from DJ and techno wiz Kahley Avalon Emerson (who goes by her last two names) on local label Icee Hot.

“Pressure’s” a seven-minute beast, and B-side “Quoi” is even deeper, with a smooth acid tune-up mix from the Tuff City Kids. The entire epic shebang has been invading parties like Honey Soundsystem, As You Like It, Icee Hot itself, and Emerson’s own monthly blast, Play It Cool.

And although “Pressure” has been hitting hard in the UK and Australia as well, Emerson is all about transmitting her electronic savvy with a distinctly San Franciscan sensibility. “My next release will drop March 25th on another SF (by way of Paris) label called Spring Theory,” she told us. “It’s called ‘Church of SoMa,’ affectionately named after a big 12-room house in that neighborhood, where I lived and learned to DJ when I first moved here in 2009. It’s more dubby and deep, and it features me singing and playing the Fender Rhodes.”

Emerson came here “to work in tech and get out of Arizona,” but she’s always expressed herself musically. “I’ve been a songwriter since I was a little girl. I was first bit by the studio bug in high school when I bought a few different kinds of microphones, pirated Cool Edit Pro, and recorded my friends’ garage bands. I always liked recording and producing much more than ‘jamming.'”

Heady electronic and house artists like dark-dubby Berliner Shed and Detroit mad scientists Theo Parrish and Carl Craig inspired her to explore more experimental production techniques, and she’s been working with expressionistic, pioneering guitar-software performer Christopher Willits “who has helped me engineer my tracks in his beautiful studio in the East Bay.”

‘Church of SoMa” will help cement Emerson’s emergence on the world techno scene, but she’s got plenty of tunes – and local inspiration — in the vault to keep her momentum going. “For the most part, my music is made to be listened to on a big club sound system — it’s a playful expression of my interests.”

How do you survive here as a musician? What’s the best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay Area?

SF is not really a place people move to in order to pursue music, and since we’ve been in quite a bit of national news lately, it’s somewhat exotic to be from here. Other than that, it’s so far away from Europe and the East Coast that it’s a little harder to tour. Being a DJ in a 2 o’clock shutdown town with a dwindling selection of alternative music spaces can be a drag, too. But there are venues here like Public Works that have a great sound system and staff, and impressive artists like Matrixxman, Aria Rostam, and Some Ember (who have a killer live show). Also, I love the pho here.

Weirdest thing that’s happened at a show?

Well, last month in Seattle the drugged-out asshat playing after me dropped his Traktor laptop on my record just as I was finishing up my set. I then punished him by playing the entirety of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which is not an easy song or vibe to follow up.

Avalon Emerson on SoundCloud

On the Rise: Major Powers & the Lo-Fi Symphony


Surefire way to stand out in the musical landscape right now: Have an obviously playful, self-aware, lyrical sense of humor about your music, and also be exceedingly good musicians, songwriters and entertaining live performers — i.e., take it seriously without taking it too seriously. It’s not easy to do, but man, do Major Powers & the Lo-Fi Symphony make it look fun.

Pianist Nick Powers and brothers Kevin and Dylan Gautschi, on guitar and drums respectively (they all sing), are from the North-East Bay towns of Crockett and Port Costa, where they all grew up playing in bands from a young age. But it wasn’t until the trio formed in 2011 that the Major Powers sound emerged, fully formed, ready to conquer the world — or, at least, the eardrums of anyone who assumed there’d never be an heir to Queen’s glam-rock throne. When pressed, Powers says the band’s genre could be described as “Adventure Rock™” or “Mary Poppins meets Weezer” or “Freddie Mercury and Tom Waits in a cliff-diving competition” or “Danny Elfman making out with Indiana Jones while they play Dungeons & Dragons.”

Throw in an educated series of jokes about Russian history, sweeping musical theater-style choruses, They Might Be Giants-esque verbal gymnastics, and serious piano chops, and you get a grin-inducing live show, to say the least. The band gained traction with a few singles and a 7-inch last year, but they’re currently in the studio, hammering away on a full-length that they hope to tour with by the end of 2014 (working title: Now This Is Happening). In the meantime, you should catch them on March 26 at Slim’s and/or at BottleRock Napa at the end of May.

Where does the name come from?

Nick: I woke up from sleeping on the couch one night after my wife kicked me out of bed for snoring too loud. And I sat up and said, “the Lo-Fi Symphony.” The band was tossing that one around along with some other options. Then a week or two later Dylan (the drummer’s) girlfriend Alana says, “name it Major Powers & The Lo-Fi Symphony.” I like to make it clear to people that I didn’t name the band after myself. I think I’m awesome, but not that awesome. But what am I supposed to do, turn down a band name with my last name in it?

Weirdest thing that’s happened at a show?

I have a half-sister who likes to come to shows sometimes and yell at me that I’m fatter than Zach Galifianakis in between songs. I love her dearly. Also when we did a release at Slim’s last year, and another one at Bottom of the Hill before that, the front 10 or 15 rows were singing along with every lyric. That’s fucking awesome as fuck, and super-duper surreal.

Everyone loves Queen. Why aren’t there more Queen-inspired bands right now?

I think every music epoch has a zeitgeist. Musicians see some A-wave band hitting it big, so it behooves them to emulate that band. It makes financial sense. Nirvana starts blowing up, and then bands all around the world start getting their grunge on…the Lumineers play the Grammys with a two-minute hey-ho bridgeless Nu-folk anthem, and then like 600,000 Nu-folk urban prairie bands start storming the scene. There’s certainly a ’70s-blues-rock-swamp revival going pretty strong right now that was spurred on by some popular A-wavers. Right?

I think it’s great. It’d be easy to lament some ostensible groupthink mentality, but I don’t…also, whatever kind of music a band is playing is just basically the kind of music they like the most. It moves them.

Part 2 of the answer: Theatrical-style stuff is a little more dorky than your average whatever. It’s not as sexy or cool as a lot of genres, and the road to Cleveland is littered with the bones of sexy, dangerous band corpses. Singing about dorky shit for five minutes with intricate Disney melodies isn’t really a recipe for getting laid (a lot).


On the Rise: Friction Quartet


Opening for infamously iconoclastic, 40-year-old Bay Area contemporary music heroes Kronos Quartet, as the young Friction Quartet did earlier this year, might launch even the most experienced string player into a bow-snapping fit of nerves. But the Friction foursome was built on determination and fearlessness. “I wanted to start a contemporary string quartet since I was in high school,” co-founder and violinist Kevin Rogers explained. “Doug [Machiz] and I decided that if he ever moved to San Francisco, that we would form one together. A year later, we founded Friction Quartet.”

Cellist Machiz, who hails from Washington, D.C., had his own contemporary music conversion high in the Italian Alps with Rogers, playing Philip Glass’s third string quartet with Rogers at the Zephyr Music Festival. (They opened for Kronos with an exhilarating take on Glass’s fifth string quartet). Friction’s other members — Alaskan violist Taija Warbelow and violinist Otis Harriel, from Arcata — joined for a breathless, edgy past two years, featuring a run of festival dates, 26 commissions, and 22 premieres. Highlights include Transmediation, “a ground-breaking exploration of composer-performer-audience interaction through technology”; Unmanned, a resonant, war-themed environmental-electronic piece by Ian Dicke; and the odd haunting Radiohead cover here and there.

“Initially, finding other like-minded musicians was difficult,” Rogers said, but now the quartet seems up for anything — including reaching a larger audience with their upcoming debut studio album EQM. “It stands for Electronic Quartet Music, a play on the Electronic Dance Music genre, and reflects our interest in all kinds of music.” In May, the quartet will perform “A Show of Hands” at ODC Theater with dance company Garrett-Moulton Productions, and June will see an appearance at the Switchboard presents series. Oh, and they’re also involved in “Little Opera,” an after-school program that guides children through the process of creating an opera, from music to story to costumes.

Rogers summarizes the friction between life and art that sparks creativity and draws many to contemporary music: “Despite, or possibly because of, growing up in the South, I was opposed to a lot of the ideas from the culture. Specifically the conservative ideas about how one should act, or what political party they should follow. I always stuck out a little bit, being this guy that played violin and wrote poetry and advocated for the rights of those who were different. What better place to move to than San Francisco?”

What musicians or works of music have inspired you?

Taija: March from The Love of Three Oranges by Prokofiev — I used to listen to it endlessly on repeat. The work ethic of Midori and Hilary Hahn. Cat Empire also makes me very happy.

Otis: Henryk Szeryng’s Bach Ciaccone, watching violinist Jascha Heifetz’s first movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, Justice, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Doug: Radiohead, Tortoise, and Bang on a Can All Stars are huge influences for me. Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” is the piece that inspired me to study the cello.

Kevin: My three major teachers; Nan Hudson, William Terwilliger, and Bettina Mussumeli; Radiohead, Johnny Greenwood, Gidon Kremer (violinist), Kronos Quartet, and eighth blackbird.

What’s the most underrated local act that people should know more about?

Kevin: The Living Earth Show, another post-classical group. They are an electric guitar and percussion duo that slides easily between the realms of the most esoteric contemporary art music and the dirtiest rock-influenced traditions. Check out “north pacific garbage patch” on Soundcloud.


On the Rise: Rocky Rivera


Take it from this one: Most music journalists are not secretly very talented musicians, toiling away in writers’ clothes. Most emcees, of course, are not Rocky Rivera — a San Francisco-born rapper whose love of hip-hop first took the form of a journalism career, including covering the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene for this very publication, Rolling Stone, and others.

In 2008, “trading her Moleskines for microphones,” as she puts it, she became Rocky Rivera, cribbing her stage name from a fellow Filipina-American heroine in the 1996 novel Gangster of Love, by SF author Jessica Hagedorn. The book now also shares a title with Rivera’s second full-length album, which dropped in October 2013.

It’s an album that commands hip-hop fans to sit up and take notice — sharp but not overproduced, lyrical and gutteral, with beats that both pay homage to the ’80s and ’90s (when Rivera was a teenager going to Balboa High School, then SFSU, listening to Queen Latifah, Salt n’ Pepa, and MC Lyte) and showcase the emcee’s lightning-quick tongue and take-no-BS feminist message. Her devotees range from hardcore rap fans across the country to the East Oakland kids who are part of the after-school programs she helps coordinate in, yes, her other other life as a teacher. Suffice it to say, she’s a busy woman.

What were your inspirations for this record?

The new album was inspired by all the happenings in the world since my first album in 2010. So much had transpired politically across the globe, from the Arab Spring, to Oscar Grant, Pussy Riot — all of that affected my need to write something as a soundtrack to an uprising. I also got a ton of inspiration from reading the Hunger Games trilogy, which made me want to create something that would be a drumbeat to political and social change and have the perfect amount of agitation and aggression.

I also have the fun songs in there. “Jockin’ Me” was one where I just told my best friends and bandmates, DJ Roza, and Irie Eyez, to drink a bunch of whiskey and hop in the booth and talk shit.

What are you most proud of so far as a musician?

Providing people an alternative to the kind of hip-hop music that is damaging to the human psyche. There is no more introspection or social analysis in music anymore, and every song I write is a personal way to connect to my fans. I found myself complaining about the lack of this and that and saw it was more constructive to create what I found missing in hip-hop, not just as a woman, but as a progressive person of color who is proud of her history and of growing up in San Francisco.

Weirdest thing that’s happened at a show?

Someone heckled me about Breaking Bad not being progressive or something. They obviously have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. I almost kicked her out for not respecting the legacy of Walter White.

Bay Area food item you couldn’t (metaphorically) live without?

Roxie’s sandwiches!


On the Rise: Nu Dekades


“If Rakim and MC Lyte had a baby” is the short version, when you ask the Oakland duo Nu Dekades — made up of writer-emcees RyanNicole and K.E.V., for Kickin’ Every Verse — for a description of their sound. But the longer version is worth hearing, too.

“By iTunes standards, we are defined simply as hip-hop, but we describe our sound as the convergence of Black music combining elements of jazz, funk, soul, and reggae…as expressed through hip hop,” explains RyanNicole, an Oakland native who’s also stage actress — this spring she’ll appear in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production of A Raisin In The Sun. The pair considers themselves anthropologists for the genre, describing their second full-length album, 2013’s NEXUS, as “a love song to our people…people of the African diaspora, experiencing life in the context of color, be it beautiful or tragic.”

What that means sonically: A warm, energetic landscape of old-school hip-hop built over the French producer Dela’s jazzy beats, be-bop influences that recall Digable Planets, but with the emcees trading verses that displays a thoroughly modern determination — a lyrical focus that’s not afraid to be directly political or spiritual, or both at the same time.

“We’re not studio revolutionaries,” says RyanNicole. “Kev and I are products and servants of our community, and our stances and statements do not come from a thin veneer of political experience or social awareness, as may be the case with many ‘conscious’ artists.” The duo is at work on their third record, tentatively titled Recomposition, and have plans to tour in the second half of 2014.

How do you survive here as a musician? What’s the best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay Area?

A mentor of ours used to say to us that “Real MCs have day jobs.” We certainly do, as we are the primary funders of our own projects&ldots;also, we are learning that, ironically, as much as we love the Bay, the best way for the Bay to love us back is to perform elsewhere. Gil Scott Heron said “home is where the hatred is.” We’ve come to learn that home doesn’t necessarily love you until another place validates you. That truism is the best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay.

Weirdest /coolest thing that’s happened at a show?

Everything about performing is cool and weird! Rocking shows and being respected in cyphers with people we grew up listening to, like MC Lyte, Camp Lo, and Phife of A Tribe Called Quest. One of our weirdest shows — we performed in front of a very small audience of mostly drug addicts. It was one of the smallest and liveliest crowds we’ve ever rocked!

Nu Dekades on Bandcamp

On the Rise: Annie Girl & the Flight


The first time I saw Annie Girl & the Flight play, I started thinking about what it is, exactly, that makes a frontwoman: Annie Girl’s voice is a disaffected sing-song (Mazzy Star meets Kathleen Hanna?) that belies a dark, jagged well of feeling at the heart of the music; that’s surely front and center, layered over bandmate Josh Pollock’s slow-building wall of guitar. But it’s her absolute lack of showiness, her refusal to be anything other than exactly what she is, and her tendency to attract the entire room’s focus and energy not in spite of but because of that quality that makes her someone to watch: She has all the specific makings of a star who doesn’t seem to give a shit that she’s a star.

A Colorado native, Annie moved to the Bay Area three years ago, at age 17, on something of a whim: “I’d been attending community college, getting ready to transfer to the state school, when the dean accidentally gave me the wrong date for the application deadline,” she says. “I missed it by a day, took that as a sign, and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco.”

Having grown up playing in Denver punk bands, she found that Northern California brought out a different sound in her songwriting — what she now calls the band’s mix of “super slow, hypnotic folk and loud, trance-inducing, art-rock.”

Add in supporting players who are veteran musicians — Pollock’s played with psych-rock giants like Gong as well as SF bands like Foxtails Brigade and the one and only Bobb Saggeth; bassist Joe Lewis is a regular on the local folk circuit (Rupa and the April Fishes, Kacey Johansing, Fpodbod), drummer Nick Ott also plays with Emily Jane White and Vanish — and the result is magnetic. Their recently released single “Betray the Sea” is the first off their new EP, Pilot Electric, which they’ll debut May 2 at The Chapel.


Best and worst thing about being a musician in the Bay Area?

Josh: The best thing is that it’s the Bay Area, which seems to be one of the better places to live on this Earth. Also, if you want to do something artistically, you can do just do it — you don’t need a Kickstarter campaign, or a board of directors, or investors, you can just do it. Maybe no one will care, but you don’t have to wait around for some higher power to give you the keys to the kingdom. The worst thing is that everyone knows this, so everyone wants to live here, so it’s laceratingly expensive.

Most underrated local act (other than you)?

Nick: Most underrated local act is probably Bronze. They are the best psychedelic art rock band since Silver Apples.

Annie: Ash Reiter, Everyone is Dirty, Li Xi, Yesway, FpodBpod, Lee Gallagher & The Hallelujah, Sugar Candy Mountain, Kelly McFarling, Michael Musika. The Bay Area is overflowing with incredible music, all you have to do is go out and find it.

First record you remember loving?

Annie: “Once In A Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. When I was a baby my parents discovered that playing the Talking Heads kept me from crying.



On the Rise: Meklit Hadero


How to describe a Meklit Hadero performance? Warm, bluesy upright bass; bright trumpet and saxophone. Elements of classic ’60s folk by way of acoustic guitar, a lean toward R&B and soul, lyrics that blend personal and political, the intimate and the universal. The unmistakable influence of the music of Ethiopia — the singer’s country of birth — shapes her music as it darts between genres. But what sucks you in, what keeps your eyes and ears locked on Meklit, what makes an unselfconscious Damn start to grow at the back of your mouth is her voice: Lilting, sensuous, capable of the leap from staccato jazz-cat to honeyed songbird, she conveys both fragility and great strength in a single line.

Meklit, who often goes by her first name, grew up in Washington DC, Iowa, Brooklyn, and Florida after her family moved to the US when she was just shy of two years old. Throughout the moves, she was always singing. “As a kid I saw two paths…[one] that led to a kind of cult of fame, which wasn’t really my thing. The second path was a more academic approach to music, which I also didn’t like,” she says. “I was interested in music that engaged with the world around it, and artists who were cultural voices that mattered.”

She didn’t begin making music professionally until moving to San Francisco, however, post-Yale, at age 24. Here, she found an artists’ community that was “still reeling from the first dot-com bust,” with “artists picking up the slack and making noise with all sorts of street-level organizing.” The Red Poppy Art House and the Mission Arts and Performance Project both served as launching pads for her live performances, which led to recording. Ten years later, she’s been a TED Global Fellow, served as an artist-in-residence at NYU, and completed musical commissions for the San Francisco Foundation and the Brava Theatre.

Meklit’s second full-length album, We Are Alive, has her backed by Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorca Hart on drums, and Sam Bevan on bass. The record is currently garnering critical praise from NPR, USA Today, and other national media hot-shots, and the year is shaping up to be a busy one — in addition to touring North America and traveling to Rio for a TED conference, Meklit will be working on an arts installation with YBCA called “Home (Away From) Home” with Ethiopian and Eritrean artists based in the Bay Area. We in the Bay Area also get her record release show, at Great American Music Hall on April 2.

Influences: Caetano Veloso taught me that you could write a song about anything, Aster Aweke taught me that the human voice can express absolutely any emotion if you lead it the right way. Michael Jackson taught me that you can create an entire dance style all on your own. Nina Simone taught me that the raw moments are what stay with people once the song is done. Miles Davis taught me to never sit still and sit on a sound that is bring you success. Keep moving! John Coltrane taught me that you can hear when sound comes from intense inner searching. David Byrne taught me that a little humor and absurdity goes along way.

The first album I ever loved was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I remember being four years old and dancing to it in the living room of our tiny Iowa apartment. I really wore the entire record out. I even wrote a fan letter to MJ when I was five. It took more than a year but his fan club wrote back.

Weirdest/coolest thing that’s happened at a show? In 2011, I went on a tour of Ethiopia with my band. We were performing at the foot of the ancient castles in Gondar, with electricity borrowed from the local Red Cross. It had been storming all day long and the power in the whole city suddenly went down. Folks started driving their cars with the headlights on to light the stage. The sense of possibility was palpable. My cousin, emcee Gabriel Teodros, climbed on top of another car and begin rapping to the crowd from there. Suddenly, the electricity was back, the crowd went wild, and the band continued to play. That was pretty epic.


On the Rise



Have you heard the news? Bohemia is dying. All the musicians are leaving San Francisco. Our favorite venues and dingy little clubs are all closing up shop, and being replaced by artisan cocktail bars filled with Google Glasses and reclaimed wood toilet seats.

OK, so some of that is true. The music scene is changing, to be sure; how could it not, with the influx of wealth over the past few years? Yes, we’re sad about Cafe du Nord. Yes, we’re worried about the Elbo Room.

What’s also true: We still have one of the richest musical histories anywhere in the world, and artists aren’t going to stop flocking here anytime soon. One glance at our listings section will tell you there’s live music to be found every single night of the week, and San Francisco’s small size relative to its population — a major factor in the current wave of gentrification and the state of the real estate market — also means that the vast array of genres here, and the communities that exist around different music scenes, all hum along pretty much on top of each other.

In one night, you could take in a jazz jam session in the Haight, a hardcore band in the outer Mission, an Irish folk quartet in North Beach, a synthwave producer in SoMa, a hip-hop show in the Western Addition, and, um, Macaulay Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band in the Richmond. (I’ve done all of these recently, and I only regret that last one.) That’s not even touching on the East Bay, which — despite being pronounced almost like an epithet in the city lately, as in “Everyone’s having to move to the East Bay” — is arguably fostering some of the most interesting, nascent micro-scenes in music right now.

With that in mind, we at the Guardian set out to pick 10 artists that we thought deserved our attention in the coming year. We couldn’t narrow it past 11. (Click that first photo up there for a slideshow.) This year’s On the Rise acts come from so many different worlds, have been inspired by so many different artists — Freddie Mercury, MC Lyte, and the 19th century composer Hector Berlioz all make appearances, to give you a taste — and, unsurprisingly, they all make incredibly different kinds of music. Some of these artists are Bay Area natives; some were born on other continents. What they have in common (aside from talent) is a love of this place, its people, its weirdness, and yes, its challenges.

We love them back. And we don’t plan on letting them go anywhere else anytime soon.