Michelle Broder Van Dyke

Pod people



LIGHTS OUT Ironically, the Bay Bridged founders Christian Cunningham and Ben Van Houten were on their yearly pilgrimage to South by Southwest when they came up with the idea for a local music website.

In 2006, the two were watching a San Francisco band whose name has since been lost to time, wondering why they’d come all the way to Austin to discover how much they liked this band from their own town. “It just struck us as odd,” Van Houten explains.

Life-long music fans, they decided they wanted to take active roles in promoting the local SF indie scene. When they returned to the Bay Area, they started an audio podcast. “Since I had done college radio, my friend kept telling me about podcasting and he finally sold me on the idea,” Van Houten says. “We just decided we would interview a band every week that was always local, and that all the music was going to be local.”

From there, the mission expanded — now the Bay Bridged is a nonprofit with a complete website that gives out recording grants and other creative support to local music groups. The podcast continues, airing every other week. During the first week of the month, the site offers tracks from a sampling of bands coming to the Bay Area. Later in the month, it releases a mixtape with a thematic binding agent, like a single artist (the most recent mix featured a set of 15 favorite Ty Segall songs) or a festival (for example, 20 tracks by bands playing at SF Pop Fest 2011). “The question we’ve been asking ourselves for the past five years is how to get people interested in local music,” Van Houten says.

These days, it’s not a Bay Bridged deal breaker if you’re not a local band. Van Houten explains that the organization’s new focus is on getting people out to see the music for themselves. “If you stay just on the Internet, then you’ll discover good things — but you’ll never have that visceral experience one gets with live music.”

Many Bay Area shows are a mix of local and other music, a combination of sounds that becomes part of the experience of seeing these bands. The site clues you into a gig with one of your favorite visiting bands, and in the process you discover a rad local opener: mission accomplished. The website also curates its own concert and festivals, including the third annual Regional Bias fundraiser showcase that will stuff four local indie groups into the Verdi Club on Aug. 6.

“On the radio waves you can’t find independent rock in San Francisco,” Van Houten says. “[But] podcasts are good for many of the same reasons radio is great. I still think there’s a value to being a passive participant in music, to being part of the audience and letting someone else do the programming.”

We’re living in an era when most of our AM and FM radio waves are stuck in a controlled loop. Luckily, it’s also the age of the Internet and for many music fans, creating a podcast is just mic check away.

The Bay Bridged recently made its 250th podcast. And Van Houten sees no end to his role as a local hype man. “Periodically we say, ‘Surely, we’re going to run out of things we’re interested in.’ But It hasn’t happened yet — and I don’t see it happening in the near future.”


With Royal Baths, Little Wings, Sea of Bees, and White Cloud

Aug. 6, 8 p.m., $10–$50 donations

Verdi Club

2424 Mariposa, SF



Lights Out: Taking the Royal Baths


“This music was what we wanted to hear,” explains vocalist-guitarist Jigmae Baer of the beginnings of the Royal Baths, “that we weren’t hearing anywhere else.” 

The Royal Baths formed two years ago, as Baer was coming to the end of playing with Thee Oh Sees, and guitarist-vocalist Jeremy Cox moved to San Francisco by way of Arcata. 

“When we first started, I’d been listening to a lot of finger-picking,” explains guitarist-vocalist Jeremy Cox. “So I was experimenting with open tuning, like Delta Blues, playing Willie Johnson and Skip James.”

“I remember the first song we covered was a Skip James song,” adds Bear. “And we covered a song by Nina Simone, the Carter Family, and Spaceman 3.”

The quartet plays rock ‘n’ roll with a pretty grittiness: accelerating beats makes the music frenzy-filled; staggering melodies shine through the noisy fuzz; extended psychedelic guitar jams are rough flourishes; and the duo delivery of lyrics is hypnotic in its repetition and raw in its simple truth.

“Jigmae writes all the lyrics,” Cox clarifies. “Jigmae brings his typewriter and I’ll have just a guitar, and we’ll have an idea about what we want the song to be about.” Together the pair’s dynamic — one fiddling on the guitar and the other typing away — brings about the dark and light of the Royal Bath’s music. “After we have a rough skeleton of the song, we’ll bring it into the studio and do it with the full band, says Cox. “And it changes further from there.”

In 2010, the band released its debut album Litanies (Woodsist Records). They’ve already recorded and mixed a new album. When I ask if there’s a release date for that one, Baer quips, “We would’ve liked to release it two months ago.” The pair explains that they recorded the album in February, but had to go back to the studio to redo the initial mixes. 

“This album is a lot different sounding to our ears,” explains Cox, “because our last album was more just writing the songs as we went. This album was mostly recorded live, so it’s more of a live rock and roll album.”

This is a good thing; The Royal Baths have a voltaic energy live. And if you’ve seen them play recently, then you’ve heard new material from this unreleased and unnamed album. 

In the new song “Faster and Harder,” Baer and Cox’s low and high registers harmonize the lines “I love my damaged girl/We share a wicked world.” The track has a British paisley rock undertone and like good classic rock ‘n’ roll, it is sexy and dirty. The double guitars spiral out of control as the duo chants the title lines faster and faster. 

When asked what inspires Baer’s lyrics, he replies, “It’s always a combination of being partially autobiographical and partially from my friends and what I see in them.” Baer adds, “A lot of times, I write stuff that makes me laugh.” He notes that the band is often regarded as being very serious, but in an absurdist way. “I am talking about the real fucked up problems that our friends and us have, in a very unflinching way, and trying to find the absurdity of our petty little problems.”

Beat-driven track “Burn,” explains Baer, “is just a story about our friend who went to Pill Hill and just got ripped off.”

As you wait for the release of the Royal Baths next album, catch the band’s live show at the Hemlock before they go on tour this August and begin their relocation to Brooklyn.


Royal Baths

With Dadfag, Nucular Animals, Psychic Feline

July 2 9:30 pm, $7

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF 

(415) 596-7777



Truly, deeply, sweetly



LIGHTS OUT That randiest of Mission District corners, 17th and Capp streets, has long been a hotbed for DIY music, art, and the occasional can-blasting block party. Now San Francisco’s best-known indie video blogcast, Yours Truly (yourstru.ly) was taking it over. The Truly team — Caleb Moriarty, Nate Chan, Will Abramson, Babak Khoshnoud — recently invited me to a live shoot at a warehouse near the corner.

Lifelong music fans, the YT foursome creates intimate videos, following videographer Chan’s vision, of musicians performing songs in unusual spaces sliced with live interview material. Inspired by blogs like La Blogotheque and gorilla vs. bear, YT wanted to create a similar platform based in San Francisco. Besides local artists, YT films bands as they come through on tour; more recently, they’ve flown out to shoots, like one with Tame Impala in a Santa Cruz forest and one in Los Angeles, where they filmed Wavves.

“It’s very personal,” explains Chan about how they choose bands to film. “Only the four of us decide.” (Luckily, their sensibilities line up nicely with the great Indie Consensus: tUnE-YArDs, Little Dragon, Tyler, the Creator, Kurt Vile … ) Chan elaborates that they’re drawn to bands with strong pop sensibilities that perform well in a live setting. “The other challenge is finding the right space for it. We want the right mood.”

I can’t figure out which warehouse the shoot is taking place in because the correct door has lost its numbers, so I call Chan. I’m quickly escorted down into the basement of the Sub. I’ve been to shows here before, but those have always been on the second floor. Downstairs, there’s a wood-shop with off-white walls, piles of wood chippings, elaborate electric saws, a cabbie’s top-light on an electric organ advertising a strip joint, doors that lead nowhere, and a chorus of fellow onlookers.

Soon Claire Boucher, the force behind Montreal synth-pop project Grimes, and her crew arrive. Introductions all around, and then Boucher begins humming, unnecessarily apologizes, and goes into even more elaborate warm-up scales. Her look is striking — the limits of beauty are one of Grimes’ musical themes, and here they carry over. Boucher wears a plaid-collar dress-shirt under a taupe thrift-store sweater whose previous owner appears to be Santa, so she literally swims in it. It’s pocked with stickers, some sporting Lykke Li’s name, whom Grimes is touring with. (The band will be performing later that night at the Regency Ballroom.) Her bangs are bright blonde and the rest of her hair is dark black and pulled into a bun.

Within the wood-shop, Chan and Moriarty start rearranging Quikrete cement bags into tables, pile crates to make stools, and turn a red-painted door into a table-top that Boucher sets her keyboard on. Next, Chan unlocks a briefcase and pulls out his DSLR camera.

Boucher launches into a new song, still unnamed, that will be featured on Grimes’ next release. After the track, she waves her hands in circular motions above her head and declares she was nervous. Chan suggests they record “Vanessa,” Grimes’ hypnotizing track that has garnered her a large following. They do three takes of “Vanessa,” then Boucher announces to the rapt room that she’s more used to performing at dance parties. I think we were all simply too awe-struck to know how to react, but in response we burst into applause. (Clapping can be dancing.)

“It has to be really unobtrusive,” Moriarty says of making Yours Truly videos. “You’re trying to ask the artist how it feels and what they want to do over again. We’re trying to build the shoot around Claire but not trying to direct her.” Close-ups of fingers or lips, interview clips that capture an ephemeral moment or a bit of personality, and stripped-down versions of artists’ songs.

“It has to be very natural,” he adds. “I think people feel that when they watch the videos, they’re in the room.”

By letting the audience feel as close to the musician as I actually was during the shoot, the videos create an immediacy for fans. “Everything we create is purely passion-based,” Chan said. We love every band — and we want them to look good.”


Four for Popfest



 The third annual San Francisco Popfest kicks off Wednesday, May 25 at Rickshaw Stop. The good news is that this year’s festival has been expanded to five days, transforming Memorial Weekend into a music extravaganza. There are shows at Rickshaw, Cafe Du Nord, and Hemlock Tavern, as well as a secret Sunday show at Dolores Park. The bad news is that you can only be in one place at a time. Here are four must-see Bay Area groups.

The opening night headliner Blackbird Blackbird is spearheaded by vocalist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Mikey Sanders. He released his debut album Summer Heart in late 2010 through Bandcamp on a “pay what you wish” system and followed it up in 2001 with Halo, which is a collection of new songs, B-sides, and unreleased tracks. With the aid of the blogosphere, Blackbird Blackbird quickly amassed a following.

Blackbird Blackbird’s music is electronic-based, although when performing live, Sanders plays with Cade Weidenhaft on drums. Sanders creates a rich, textured synthscape, as on “Sunspray,” where bubble sounds and an overall feeling of swirling makes the song seem as if it’s being sung from underwater. Other tracks, like “Ups and Down” with its heavy bass, sound dance party-ready.

Also on the Wednesday, May 25 bill is Sanders’ project Wolf Feet, which he started with Austin Wood. The pair recorded tracks while living in a “Hobbit-like apartment in Santa Cruz,” explains Sanders, who grew up in San Francisco but went to school in Santa Cruz. It’s a decidedly less electronic project than Blackbird Blackbird, and garage-rock influenced, with upbeat tempos, handclapping, twinkling guitars, and howling vocals.

Sanders is promoting Wolf Feet similarly to Blackbird Blackbird, self-releasing an EP in January via UFOLK Records and running a cute and informative Tumblr. The band’s homemade video for “Dead Hand,” a montage of vintage films such as Thunderbirds Are Go and Gamera vs. Zigra, was already featured on Pitchfork.

The Friday, May 27 Popfest show includes San Francisco’s beloved the Mantles. After a slew of singles, a self-titled LP, and the Pink Information EP, the group recently released the “Raspberry Thighs/Roman Hat” seven-inch single via SDZ Records. The song reveals a darker side to the band.

The Mantles have always been high on melodies, which they coat in reverb, but the sunny sounds are sometimes meant to distract from the truth. “Raspberry Thighs” starts with buoyant guitars, and Michael Olivares’ vocals are more spoken than sung as he says, “Hey there unassuming eyes/ What on earth can alarm you/ You’re too ready to derail/ You’re too ready to say goodbye.” It’s hard to discern all the lyrics, but there’s a sadness to Olivares’ farewell and description of the ephemeral summer.

The Saturday, May 28 show at Rickshaw Stop is a showcase for Slumberland Records. To put it simply, the entire lineup is awesome. San Francisco’s the Art Museums, formed by Josh Alper (Whysp) and Glenn Donaldson (Skygreen Leopards) in the summer of 2009, sing tales of artists, lovers, and imposters that read like mantras for the aught generation. The band released its debut record Rough Trade on Woodsist last year and will put out an EP called Dancing this summer.

From tales of bike-based dates and descriptions of art happenings to details of Sta-Prest trousers and even the band’s name, the Art Museums’ music is meant to be absurdly funny, and true. Alper and Donaldson craft hooks and sing in faux-British accents — their heroes include the Kinks, Swell Maps, and the Television Personalities. The band records on a Tascam 388 eight-track for its snap, crackle, and pop, and performs with Carly Putnam (Green Flash) and Virginia Weatherby (the Mantles) to fill out its live sound. 



Blackbird Blackbird, Wolf Feet

Wed/25, 8 p.m.; $12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011

The Mantles

Fri/27, 8 p.m.; $15–$17

Rickshaw Stop

Slumberland Recods Showcase

Sat/28, 5 p.m., $17

Rickshaw Stop



Heavy times



Sometimes it takes leaving a place to appreciate it. This past weekend, I went to Los Angeles. Once back in San Francisco, I walked from my apartment in SoMa by the freeway to my afternoon job at an elementary school in the Mission. I put on my headphones, pressed play, and the high-pitched wail that opens the Sandwitches’ recent release Mrs. Jones’ Cookies (Empty Cellar Records) woke me up.

The sky was endlessly azure. The sun was hitting my back as the cool breeze rushed at me, creating temperate perfection. It would be an understatement to say that the Sandwitches complemented this moment, because the music indeed heightened it. What was a routine walk felt new.

With doo-wop and old country influences, the band’s first full-length release, 2009’s How to Make Ambient Sadcake (Turn Up Records), seems to emerge from the 1950s. On Mrs. Jones’ Cookies, there are moments that sound even older, such as “Miracle Me” with its folk vibrato and flute solo, suggestive of a song for Gold Rush pioneers. then there are songs, like the slow-brewing “Black Rider,” that place the Sandwitches within the SF rock movement happening now. (The group’s Grace Cooper and Heidi Alexander were also former back-up singers for the Fresh & Onlys, which is where the pair originally met, and have released songs with Sonny Smith for his 100 Records project.) I feel that the Sandwitches’ music is from my era, but that the members have lived rich past lives. In this sense, their music is timeless.

Mrs. Jones’ Cookies‘ opening track “In The Garden” sings of forever love, narrating a tale of devotion, with images of diamonds and a locket held to the chest. “Heidi [Alexander], Roxanne [Brodeuer, the group’s drummer], and I can probably all agree that most of our song lyrics come from personal experiences,” explains vocalist-guitarist Grace Cooper, “most always experiences with guys.” On the spirited “Summer of Love,” Cooper and Alexander harmonize a romance story steeped in heated weather metaphors. The song climaxes after the two-minute mark, when the ladies’ vocals peak.

Before I left for L.A., I went to the Eagle Tavern’s second-to-last rock show, where I was able to squeeze to the front for the band’s opening set. Even more than when they fill my San Francisco-world via earbuds, the Sandwitches spellbind live. Cooper and Alexander seem to swing their jaws back and forth to create the complicated harmonies, challenging ranges, and intricate interweaving of their voices that set them apart.

“I’ve always sung a lot, ever since I was a kid,” Alexander says when asked about the Sandwitches’ unique vocals. To fight away the fear of loneliness, she sang show tunes and Joni Mitchell “as loud as I could.” After the vocal climax on “Summer of Love,” the song’s rhythm changes, a compositional surprise that’s executed with grace.

“My Heart Does Swell” is a heartbroken tale of lost love — “I’ve been wasting all my time/ Banging my head against a decorated wall of blame” — with a toy piano solo. “I try my best not to be totally obvious when I’m writing about a relationship,” Cooper adds. “I try to use a lot of fancy imagery and analogies to confuse people.”

The arrestingly gorgeous “Joe Says” talks about a man who says “impossibly beautiful things” and is “in love with every ounce of me.” But there’s an aching ambiguity to the relationship because he also “is out there doing something” and “never did believe in magic.” The song’s last line is “Joe says he has every intention of coming back to me,” but the listener does not know how this story ends.

I live down the street from the Eagle Tavern, which is near where my walk began. While I was away in L.A., the Eagle shut its doors. Most movements or institutions have limited life spans. The Eagle may return as it was, or become something new. “We all love the Eagle and are very sad to see it go,” Alexander says. “It felt good [to play there one last time] even though [the closure is] such a shitty thing. It is the end of a really good era.” 


Two for the road


MUSIC Erik “Ripley” Johnson is on the road. As the mastermind behind psych rock quartet Wooden Shijps and krautrockers Moon Duo, he spent eight months on tour last year. When he started Moon Duo with Sanae Yamada, Johnson knew that there’d be a degree of convenience in traveling as a twosome: it’s cheaper and much easier to be flexible and mobile. He was ready to tour as a full-time job.

Since Moon Duo began in 2009, Johnson and Yamada have put out two singles, the EP Killing Time (Sacred Bones) and the album Escape (Woodsist). Moon Duo’s just-released second full-length, Mazes (Sacred Bones), relays the story of a wandering life.

“We decided to name the album Mazes after we moved from San Francisco,” Johnson says over the phone, while the pair is on the road from New York to Massachusetts for their next gig. “That song is about choosing a path in life, but how you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to take you.”

Moon Duo creates trance-inducing music that builds minimalist, rhythmic repetition from drum samples and keyboards that support Johnson’s guitar freak-outs. It’s an experience of texture and tone that is sustained and then rerouted.

Most of Mazes was recorded lo-fi in Johnson’s and Yamada’s Mission District apartment last spring, when the couple was in transition. While they worked on the album, Johnson and Yamada packed up. “We needed to get out of the city because we were never there and we were paying all this rent,” Johnson says. By summer, the pair had moved to the wild highlands of Blue River, Colo.

“We thought we’d finished recording the album in San Francisco, but we weren’t happy with some elements,” he adds. So Moon Duo headed to Germany. Although Johnson acknowledges the synchronicity of recording in Berlin, he says it wasn’t motivated by his interest in krautrock, which he came to through Julian Cope’s influential book Krautrocksampler. “Every record he talks about, he’s so enthusiastic,” he says of Cope’s writing. “I can’t say I agree with all his choices, but it’s a guide book, and I went through it and bought stuff that sounded cool.”

The process of making Mazes reached Germany because Johnson and Yamada’s friends in Berlin had a studio and offered to help mix the album. “It just seemed like we should try it out in a different perspective, and go into a proper studio,” Johnson explains. There, the pair rerecorded some parts, tweaked things, and played with a collection of vintage drum machines.

The results are tight. Mazes‘ opening track “Seer” is a variant of a song off Escape, but lighter on the fuzz and denser with the rock ‘n’ roll. It gives you a good hint of where the band is heading on the rest of the many-layered album. Forerunners in the current kraut revival, Moon Duo is inspired by two-piece predecessors Silver Apples and Suicide while also exploring other sounds, including psychedelic wanderings, Velvet Underground-style hypnosis, and Modern Lovers post-punk.

“When You Cut” starts with lush synth and deep-throated vocals, and upbeat claps keep the song going steady, providing the framework for an untamed guitar solo. The band goes pop with the two-step “Run Around,” then gets dark again on the reverb-drenched “In the Sun” and on the closer, “Goners.” Ultimately, Mazes is a personal journey through music history, but one that also reflects the travels of life.


With Lilac, Royal Baths

Mon./11, 9 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455


Dolphin double



MUSIC San Francisco’s Mi Ami was a trio when it released the spazz-punk albums Steal Watersports (2009) and Steal Your Face (2010) on Thrill Jockey. Then bassist Jacob Long announced that he was going to leave the group. After Long made that decision, Mi Ami played a few Bay Area shows at El Rio, Rickshaw Stop, and the Knockout. They were full-throttle performances — high in energy, as always. But they also revealed a ripping-at-the-seams that would soon be complete.

Mi Ami’s Daniel Martin-McCormick explains that he and remaining bandmate Damon Palermo believed that “the music we’d written as trio was specific to that dynamic.” Rather than recruit a new bassist, the remaining two Mi Ami members spent the past year experimenting with different arrangements to make the band work as a duo. “We tried different combinations with guitar and drum,” says Martin-McCormick. “Then we tried with me playing keyboards and Damon playing drums.” What they settled on — “Damon playing a drum machine and a sampler, and me doing stuff on top of it” — is even more surprising.

Dolphins, a 12-inch EP released on Thrill Jockey, is a first taste of the band’s new approach, which includes a vintage 707 drum machine, a sampler, keys, and of course Martin-McCormick’s trademark squall-vocals. In its new manifestation, Mi Ami ditches any resemblance to a traditional rock band. At the same time, the ideas behind the music are similar to those the band has always been traveling along. The influences are the same; then again, they’ve always been eclectic: post-punk to Italo-disco, dubstep to krautrock. The emphasis remains on being (and feeling) very live.

Mi Ami is bicoastal now that Martin-McCormick has relocated to New York City. But before the big move, the pair recorded Dolphins with Phil Manley. “We were puzzling over how to do the recording because the way we do it live is pretty bootleg,” Martin-McCormick says. “It’s pretty raw.” Manley suggested that Mi Ami just record the album live. So they did.

There are, of course, a few touch-ups. Even so, Dolphins is essentially a live performance, and one that encapsulates the quintessential give-and-take of the band’s music. “There’s a lot of interplay, and a lot of focus on creating, and jamming that out, and building on top of it,” Martin-McCormick said.

Mi Ami layers sounds, as on “Sunrise.” As the song emerges, there are undulating synth sounds and kraut beats. Next, steady keys slowly become awash with samples and the song transitions into jungle dub. Once the mood and atmosphere has evolved into a very different space, the track returns to the steady keys. Each song is given time to grow, build — even overflow — then fade away. And no two songs abide by the same rules. Each creates a unique evolution.

The EP’s opener, “Hard Up,” is chock-full of hypnotic beats and heavy bass, making it a perfect party starter. Its follow-up, “Dolphins,” begins where “Hard Up” leaves off — with dance-ready beats. As it unravels, however, it reveals something altogether different: ecstatic sounds turn into twisted grooves and anguished beats as Martin-McCormick’s apocalyptic cries create a juxtaposition of dolphins washing ashore while “Your wife in capris/ Drinking Hi-C and eating lima beans.” Through the sampler and keyboard, Martin-McCormick creates dying dolphin sounds, pushing his voice to an even higher register to sound dolphin-like. The track is a response, he explains, to “humanity’s assault on the environment.”

A final, poignant reinvention of the band is revealed on Dolphins‘ final song “Echo,” which has appeared in different forms and with slightly different titles (such as “Echoonoecho”) on two earlier releases. The sole through-line is Martin-McCormick’s vocal track. “We didn’t want to use Jacob Long’s bassline, but the vocal part could go over anything — it’s so repetitive,” he said.

Dolphins is proof that, although challenging, change isn’t always bad. In conjunction with the EP’s release, Palermo is traveling to New York to tour with Martin-McCormick as a duo for the first time. They’ll play a handful of shows in New York, moving on to the Midwest, and then to Europe. If we’re lucky, this journey will eventually include a return to the Bay Area.

Release me



MUSIC As 2011 begins, Bay Area rock is wasting no time staking its claim. This month brings noteworthy albums by at least a handful of local groups and artists. I’ll be covering them over the course of the next two weeks, beginning with a trio of new releases:



Since the late-2009 release of Young Prisms’ self-titled EP on Mexican Summer, this Cali quintet has been hard at work. It put out three different split 7-inches: one with Weekend on Transparent; one with Small Black on Big Love; and one with Mathamagic on Atelier Ciseaux. In the wake of performances at last fall’s CMJ conference, the band is set to release its first full-length, Friends For Now (Kanine Records), Jan. 19.

Once you get past Friends for Now‘s NSFW cover art — it’s just a little nip, and only one at that — you’ll enter into the title track, which blissfully rattles forward with undecipherable vocals, like a sun-bleached step into euphoria. “If You Want To” floats over waves of distortion; the only discernible lyrics are the title lines, nonchalantly chanted like an existential mantra. The single “Sugar” picks up the pace with yowling guitars.

The band also makes sure to include a smoke-break track, just as it did with “Four Twenty Friendly” on the Mexican Summer EP. Titled “All Day Holiday,” this one is an under-a-minute wash of echoes and effects. The opening notes of “In Your Room” are dramatic, then radiant guitars emerge over rumbles of distorted bass. Friends For Now rounds out with tightened mixes of “Feel Fine” and “I Don’t Get Much,” which were both previously released, and closes with the hypnotic “Stay Awake.” Taken together, the collection of songs is cohesive, capturing a sunlit aesthetic while giving the illusion of chaos.



Sonny Smith’s approach to recording and issuing music is unique, accentuating its connections to visual art. Using his imagination along with the help of a rotating band, he assembled “100 Records,” an art show that opened at San Francisco’s Gallery 16 and then traveled to other venues. In “100 Records,” Smith created releases by 100 different bands, coming up with names, bios, songs, and album art. Now Smith is releasing 10 of those songs as 100 Records, Volume Two: I Miss the Jams, a package of five, 7-inch singles or a single CD.

Listening to I Miss the Jams, you’ll never think “every song sounds the same,” since each fabricated band has its own rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic. The album opens with Zig Speck’s “One Times Doomsday Trip to Nowhere,” an unshackled surf-jam sung by Ty Segall. Starting off with a bang, “Teenage Thugs” is complete with gunshots and Spanish verses. The doo-wop track “I Wanna Do It” includes a surf-rock wipeout interlude and showcases Heidi Alexander’ (from the Sandwitches) wailing cries, which evoke a classic pin-up doll. Hank Champion’s country track is spoken, and more straightforward than a Doors song, with literal lyrics that tell the depressing tale of its title character, “Broke Artist at the Turn of the Century,” and how he got there.

Smith plays with rock star cliché, but never makes his characters seem two-dimensional. Providing us with a Bay-Area-rock-scene parallel universe, Smith makes us question what is real and what is not.



Sic Alps has been recording and releasing music since 2004. The band had a prolific 2008, putting out two full-lengths. In the fall of 2009, it released a 7-inch single on Slumberland, toured with Magik Markers, and made up one-half of a 12-inch split release on Yik Tak. The next year began with a handful of shows opening for Sonic Youth. And then Sic Alps went quiet for a bit … but the wait has been worth it. Now a trio, the group is set to release the new double-LP Napa Asylum (Drag City) on Jan. 25.

Napa Asylum displays Sic Alps’ flair for irresistible hooks and torrid experimentation. As usual, the new tracks were recorded with “a delay pedal, reverb tank, two microphones, $100 preamp, and Tascam 388.” There are 22 cuts in just under 48 minutes, with some delicious pop-rock morsels, including “Cement Surfboard,” “Ball of Flame,” and “Zeppo Epp.”

What’s new is how often this San Francisco no-fi band slows its tempo and explores the psychedelic side of its sound, like on the serene “Low Kid,” reverb-riddled “Ranger,” and the closer, “Nathan Livingston Maddox,” which is based on a dream Mike Donovan had about the late Gang Gang Dance member, who was killed by lightning. Napa Asylum‘s other bizarre lyrical ruminations on magic and schizophrenia prove Sic Alps, as ever, aren’t afraid to wander into new sonic and poetic terrain. *


With Ganglians, Melted Toys, and Speculator

Jan. 19, 8:30 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455



With the Blow

Jan. 30, 8 p.m., $15

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750



With Thee Oh Sees.

Feb. 9, 8 p.m., $13–$16 (benefit for the Coalition on Homelessness)

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750


Dressed in black



MUSIC “Every song I wrote was born out of being alone and frustrated in this perpetually sunny place,” explains Dee Dee, the leading lady of the Dum Dum Girls, who wrote and recorded the band’s debut full-length, I Will Be (Sub Pop), as a way to pass the time in Los Angeles. “It was a struggle to be happy and fill the hours in a day.” The album’s got a sunny-side-up vibe: the bottom-half has a fried, rough edge, while the top part remains bright and runny yellow.

Dee Dee (birth name: Kristin Gundred) is a lifetime Cali chick. She grew up in the East Bay, frolicked in San Fran and Berkeley during high school, went to college in Santa Cruz, returned to SF, and then moved to L.A. “It was such a shocking move,” she writes via e-mail while on tour in Paris. “But I’m grateful for the contrast it added to my life — for its amazing coasts and for my husband and friends, who I’d never have met otherwise.”

By herself, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter wrote tracks in her L.A. bedroom. When Dee Dee needed a band to take her songs to the stage, she recruited her a girl gang: Jules (guitar and vocals), Bambi (bass), and Sandra Vu (drums and vocals). “There was no other way to become a real band than to find the right girls and flesh out the songs a bit,” she says. “Nothing compares to playing with them.” Together the ladies are united aurally and visually — they all dress in black.

Dum Dum Girls released a rough-and-tumble self-titled EP before getting signed last summer by Sub Pop. I Will Be is a reverb-loving, 1960s girl group-influenced, rebel rock ‘n’ roll album smeared with Dee Dee’s sugary vocals. The album was produced by Richard Gottehrer, who cowrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and produced albums by Blondie and the Go-Go’s. Gottehrer polishes the group’s sound without losing the speed and shake that distinguishes it. The ascent may seem quick, but Dee Dee’s been singing since she was a wee tot and pushing her own music for the past 10 years.

“I’ve finally got a handle on it,” she adds, about living and making music in LA. “And now I’m going to fuck it up again and see what songs come out of this next move.” The Dum Dum Girls show at Bottom of the Hill will be a homecoming of sorts, since Dee Dee prepares to return to hot-and-cold Frisco. “It’s time to go home,” she remarks.

“My life is kind of plagued with heaviness right now and attempting balance always channels itself into my songs,” Dee Dee notes. Her songwriting makes it clear that not only does she have an excellent sense of melody and harmony, she also knows how to tell a story.

“Bhang Bhang, I’m a Burnout,” an upbeat and jangly song, “is a positive commentary on the creative use of marijuana,” she explains. Observations such as “But really it just opens up doors/I never knew could be/in your head” make it easy to guess what Dee Dee was up to as she hid in her bedroom writing into the late hours of the night.

Listening to the high-spirited “Oh Mein Me,” it’s easy to get caught up in the blur of sound and make-up words like “Each to each/Oh my, oh my,” but the song is actually sung in German. Dee Dee explains it is about “love at first sight” and “the dramatic cosmic connection.” The poet-at-heart says she learned German because of her obsession with Hermann Hesse, whose narratives follow wanderers as they search for the meaning of life, or for meaning in life. Hesse’s thematic influence is apparent as the album maps out the experiences one has while growing up.

The middle of the album has the sweet stuff, with an adolescent-meets-adult feel. The lyrics possess maturity but emit the feel of a first kiss. “Yours Alone” starts in the schoolyard at age five and rocks its way through first times on to forever. “It’s bits and pieces gathered from my whole life and constructed into a love story,” she confirms, “starting with Ari Radowsky in preschool.”

The slowed-down “Blank Girl” is a purified duet sung with Brandon Welchez (of Crocodiles), who also plays guitar on the track. It follows an ugly-duckling-to-swan trajectory, relating the passage from shyness to finding a voice. “Rest of Our Lives” is a romantic ode written by Dee Dee for her husband. “Your eyes consume me/They always have/Before you knew me/I dreamt of them,” Dee Dee sings, looking back to her childhood ideals of romance. Informed by 1950s doo-wop and ’60s pop, it’s one of the sweetest songs about monogamy in years.

The failures of love are addressed in “I Will Be,” a rattled tale about a desperate, unbalanced affair that takes the listener back to the rough stuff. I Will Be concludes with “Baby Don’t Go,” a ready-to-make-you-cry Sonny and Cher cover. Whether slow or fast, sad or happy, sunny or rough, Dum Dum Girls captures the charms of the past, forming them into an anthem for the present. When asked what love means to her, Dee Dee simply and succulently replies, “Everything.”

With Crocodiles, White Cloud, DJ Mario Orduno

Wed/30, 9 p.m., $12

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF


Celebration at Big Sur — 2010 edition


Watching Celebration at Big Sur, the film that documents the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival, I witness the crystalline Pacific Ocean, members of the audience freaking out in face paint, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and more singing merry tunes about coming together and putting a lil’ love in your heart.

This is not the ’60s, this is not the Summer of Love  – this is the first Great Recession of the 21st century. At the Woodsist celebration at Big Sur on June 12th, 2010, we did not “freak-out.” Instead, we lied around on flannel blankets, baking in the sun. Everyone we met at the festival had come from urban zones, from Brooklyn, from Portland, from special San Francisco, or even from Hollywood – like Kirsten Dunst, as well as drummer Jason Boesel and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley.

In between sets, we explored the woods behind Henry Miller Library, hiking through creeks and over fallen trees. We drank cold beers or sipped on cocktails mixed in water bottles as we listened to bands hailing from Brooklyn’s Woodsist label, founded by Jeremy Earl of Woods. We were happy for the freedom to forget.


The Art Museums, a San Fran/Santa Cruz band at the end of their very first tour, performed with a unified front, as if ready to play Red Rover and decisively send anyone back who might try to break their ties. In between songs, while amps were tweaked, cute stage banter was in effect, with drummer Virginia Weatherby talking about lady bugs. San Francisco’s the Mantles, who include Weatherby on a complete drum set instead of a drum kit, had a few mishaps. Guitarist-vocalist Michael Olivares’ guitar strap malfunctioned, but such issues suited the group’s goofy good-time vibe.

Portland’s Eat Skull, about to move and realign, performed a stripped-down collection of songs that perhaps came up wanting. Philly’s Kurt Vile climbed on stage to join the group for a cover of Spaceman 3’s “Come Down Easy,” and then played an acoustic set while the sun speckled the stage. Letting his long locks cover his face, he stared at his strings and intricately finger-picked. Later, as he tuned his guitar, he asked if we were prepared for the weather to get cold.

San Fran’s the Fresh & Onlys played two new tracks, including “Waterfall.” Moon Duo, a new San Fran psych-band, played as the sun set and ended up in the dark — and the cold that Vile had predicted. The group’s guitarist Ripley Johnson (also of Wooden Shijps) is a madman on the guitar.

After Moon Duo, NY’s Woods mesmerized with a tripped-out opening and all their quintessential hits. The festival ended with Real Estate, who, like many of the bands, craft anthems for our times. Take these lines, from “Green River”: “Hey green river, what can I do?/If it’s alright I’ll walk next to you/Sit in the shade of your beechwood trees/Don’t you know these days I ain’t hard to please.”

The eyes of Skye Thorstenson



VIDEO Birds chirp and branches part like curtains in the opening scene of the music video for Myles Cooper’s anthem “Gonna Find Boyfriends Today.” Suddenly the pristine wilderness scene is shattered and, along with pulsating beats, a big-lipped strawberry greets us with Mickey Mouse paws. A Cyclops-peanut runs across the screen and leads us to a stack of televisions; zooming into one we catch Cooper singing, “It doesn’t matter what you wear/It doesn’t matter if you have money/We’ll find guys to buy us drinks/And tell us that we’re young and funny.”

“I think Myles’ video tells it best, because it’s this kinda caffeinated euphoria,” explains Skye Thorstenson, the mastermind behind the wild imagery of the video. “It’s unrealistic and there’s a little melancholy imbued in it, because this is sooo not the way life really is. There are no cupcakes who are going to help you find boyfriends.”

WHAT? No, wait, hold up. But I thought … So the mountain topped with lollipops looking like Candyland isn’t real? Without realizing that he’s burst my bubble, Thorstenson continues, “But I like that. I like to hide the fact that life is boring. What the world needs is some more color.”

“I never imagined myself doing music videos. For Myles, it was all about the music,” Thorstenson explains. “I wanted to do some visual thing. I told him it won’t be a music video, but it might be like a short film.” In the course of the narrative, Cooper finds puppet lovers, a chorus of gassed angels, and becomes the man-in-the-moon. In the end, a vagina dentata resembling Aunt Charlie’s Lounge — a dive-bar at Turk and Taylor streets— literally eats itself. “I feel like an Aunt Charlie’s is always going to be there, and it’s always going to eat its predecessor,” Thorstenson says. “And there are always different nights there, and sometimes they survive and sometimes they don’t. But what Myles and Alexis [Penney, who cohosts the club night High Fantasy with Cooper] created will always be there, or some essence of it.”

Throughout Thorstenson’s repertoire, he constantly plays with the notion of a fragmented past and explores how essences persist into the present. He is currently filming an experimental documentary that he named after Roland Barthes’ S/Z. It’s an extension of his earlier film, called Gunk Land, which starts at Wisconsin’s Oneida Indian reservation where Thorstenson’s mother lives. “I wanted to do a documentary on my identity: who I am and where I come from,” he explains. Highlighting the ambiguous — possibly fake — moments of documentaries, as in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which glamorizes pre-World War II Germany, or The Thin Blue Line, which reenacts a murder scene, Thorstenson utilizes reenactments with different edits and different actors playing him to construct an ambiguous reality. “With S/Z, it’s going to be more how I imagined it and colored in some ideas based on what my mom told me about my past.”

As with “Gonna Find Boyfriends Today” and Gunk Land, S/Z finds Thorstenson working with a mess of “floating fragments” left over from a childhood spent watching PBS specials and Disney movies. Pieces of puppets, stereotypes or songs — “like the plastic floating in the middle of the ocean,” as he puts it — are smashed together. In the 1970 book S/Z, Barthes explores how narrative works and how we recollect memories. Instead of linearity, Thorstenson explains, memory offers “more of a pastiche of experiences and sensations that are pulled together to bring an experience.” This, he adds, is how authors often work: the reader fills in the gaps and links the situations together.

Thorstenson’s take on S/Z turns this idea into a visual experience. It will be released online in pieces that can be navigated like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and a path through separating branches might reveal the same scene reenacted with different actors, or the same scene with alternative edits. In this way, varied connections and present-versions of Skye are constructed, based on how the past is perceived. “You’re meant to know it might’ve gone differently,” Thorstenson says, “and you can’t trust anything.”

Even the way Thorstenson speaks parallels this fragmented pattern, as he seamlessly jumps from one memory to another or from one project to the next. “The music inspired that video and we worked closely together for four months,” he explains about his work with Cooper. He also has done videos set to Xiu Xiu and Antony and the Johnsons’ songs, to local music-maker Adam Finken’s “Firebird,” and is about to undertake a movie-themed project for San Francisco electronic duo johnathan. In all of the music videos, there’s an interaction between the mood, beats, and lyrics of the music and the visual narrative. “With me, it’s more about improvisation, and something magical happens. I have no idea how it happens, but I don’t intend for people to react. I’m always surprised at how people react to something.”

In undergrad film school at the Academy of Art, Thorstenson was taught how to look at film from a business perspective — it has to look clean, polished, and intentional. Grad school at CCA, along with a filmmaking crew he befriended, dubbed Nightmare City, allowed Thorstenson to think more about process, forcing his aesthetic to evolve. “I decided I’ll show faux interpretations of my process because I was curious about what is actually real.” These are readily featured in his work and create meta-moments, which make the viewer aware. “So I’m playing with this fake façade, and the truth hidden behind all these bright colors,” he said. “It’s the same thing with Myles’ video. There’s something behind all that happiness.”


A hologlyphic story



FILM/VISUAL ART The first time I witnessed Walter Funk’s Hologlyphics, I’d spiraled up the whimsical stairs of Jaina Bee’s Granny’s Empire of Art, parted curtains and slipped inside the otherwise dark, slanted-roof attic. A circle floated in the center of the room that slowly morphed into a rhombus, then a rectangle. It was three-dimensional, but not real. Along with its movement, sound spread from keyboards and motion-sensor instruments and bounced off the walls.

Remember when R2-D2 projected Princess Leia’s message “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope”? What was once just an idea imagined by George Lucas is now Walter Funk’s Hologlyphics — although the images are abstract and more like Leia’s famous coiled buns. Unlike the 3-D technology Avatar is hyping, Hologlyphics requires no glasses and presents a 90-degree view of the object, allowing a viewer to walk around the image and see it from multiple perspectives.

Funk developed a system for live auto-stereoscopic movies along with music and created a family of real-time spatial image synthesis and processing algorithms that he has coined Hologlyphics. The system takes information from keyboards, controllers, motion sensors, and acoustic instruments and projects a 3-D image that interacts with the sound it is simultaneously producing. “So as something gets bigger and smaller, something might get louder or softer or lower or higher in pitch,” Funk explains as we talk over a café americano (him) and black coffee (me) at the Marsh Café. “The sound and the visual are considered one thing. For every visual, there’s an associated sound, just like in the real world.”

Funk has been pursuing holography ever since he went to the now defunct Museum of Holography in New York in the 1980s. In 1987, he ordered his first holography kit and played with graphics on the now-ancient Apple IIe. But he kept running into walls and was frustrated by monetary and technological constraints. He considered abandoning his work. Then, in the early 1990s while doing research in old technical journals, he discovered Homer Tilton’s display system and got in touch with Tilton.

“He [Tilton] was really open to the idea of doing art with his parallactiscope system, even though it wasn’t what he did,” Funk explains. “He actually put together some early hardware for me. Here I was, this freaky artist in California. And he didn’t necessarily share my same visual aesthetic, but just liked the idea that people wanted to do other stuff with his display.” By 1994, with the aide of Tilton, Funk had put together his first prototype.

Currently the display projects green, morphing, 3-D shapes. But Funk has big dreams for the future — although there are still the same two limitations: money and technology. In an ideal future, the system would be “larger, full color, and photo-realistic.” If the system was larger, multiple people could view it at a time — just like Avatar. But for now, Hologlyphics works best as a one-person-at-a-time experience. “Everything I’m doing is pretty much abstract, which is good, since I’m doing a lot of abstract music,” Funk says. “At the same time, I’d like people to incorporate real-world imagery with it.”

Funk has an optimistic view of the latest 3-D craze. “There are some negative aspects because some studios are just going make things 3-D to make money. But there’s a whole new world of storytelling going on. Done right, it can be amazing and even evolve into a different art form beyond film.”

With Funk’s system, viewers witness multiple perspectives while moving, just like the hologlyph, thus integrating it fluidly into the real world. “This is a cheesy example, but everyone knows it,” he says, with more energy than a mere cafe americano can provide. “Imagine Clint Eastwood when he says, ‘Go ahead, make my day.’ What if you were watching that movie for the first time, and right at that scene you’re looking at the back of his head because you can — that takes away a lot of effect and power from the filmmaker. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a different art form.”

Hologlyphics illustrates the potential for enhanced viewing experiences and new ways to tell stories. “The thought of it is very common, but the existence of it is not,” he says. “I think once this stuff does exist, there’s no putting it back. It’s like Pandora’s box — people are gonna love it.”


Maker Faire

Sat/22, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sun/23, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; free–$25

San Mateo County Event Center

346 Saratoga Drive, San Mateo (650) 574-3247



San Francisco gaze



MUSIC On certain mornings in San Francisco, I step outside and feel as if I’m enveloped by clouds. Dew drops slide off of wiry branches, sparkling as they hit the cement sidewalk. Is it pretty or is it dark? It’s pretty and dark. Before I lived here, it wasn’t clear to me that this was even possible. As the day unravels, it reveals both sunny and stormy moments.

Much like a San Francisco day, the no-fi psych-rock of Young Prisms casts sunbeams and rain showers. Sitting with the group on the rooftop of Ruminator Audio, a studio space in the Mission, I ask about the moods it aims to create and receive. I hear the words "dream-state," "California," "tripped-out," "engaging," "engrossing," and, finally, guitarist-vocalist Matthew Allen’s breakdown: "It’s made so you can hear it two different ways. So each time you listen to it, whether at a show or on your headphones, you’ll discover totally different things."

Four-fifths of the group spent their childhoods in all-boy or all-girl schools on the Peninsula, where a strange amalgam of suburbia and house parties drove them to wage war against ennui by making music. Randomly — once — they performed as individual musicians at an improv show at Mills College before they found each other as a band. Bassist-vocalist Giovanni Betteo played a miked typewriter; Allen and guitarist-vocalist Jason Hendardy played guitar.

Eventually, in a desperate attempt to escape the suburban boredom that bubbled outward as they got older, the barely 20-year-olds moved into a house in San Francisco. Here they met Jordan Silbert, a Detroit native, who completed the prism as drummer. As Silbert jokes, "It’s been the worst two years of my life."

In the YP’s Mission house, the friends became a band. The energy of "a crammed, shitty apartment," as Betteo deems it, led to productivity and tomfoolery. "But at least we were able to practice there," Betteo notes. To which vocalist Stefanie Hodapp adds, "And play music how we wanted to."

"We had just started writing songs again for the first time in years, and also had just met Jordan. So things were really weird," Betteo elaborates. "We were trying to understand each other’s personal styles for a while and what we’re into. We would try different techniques, like jamming together or individually bringing in parts of songs."

"One day it all freely came out," he says. And the band’s self-titled EP for Mexican Summer was born. Its combination of shredded chords, dreary drumbeats, and nostalgic crooning is luminous and murky.

SXSW and an accompanying tour forced YP to abandon their San Francisco rental, and on returning, they’ve found themselves scattered across the city — in the closet spaces of their friends in the group Weekend and on borrowed couches. "We are certain there will be a new YP home," the band declares. "Sometime soon, we hope." The house had negative and positive aspects, they explain. Someone on their block was shot in the dick. There was blood on their porch for weeks.

Young Prisms’ upcoming show with Weekend celebrates a new split-single on Transparent. It is the first in a succession of releases from the prolific band: a split 7-inch with Mathemagic on Atelier Ciseaux, a live 12-inch on Under Water Peoples, and a full-length that might be released at the end of the summer.

According to Batteo, the track on the Weekend split, titled "I Don’t Get Much," is a precursor to the sound of the upcoming full-length. The album is being mixed by Monte Vallier beneath the roof where we sit. "It’s the last song we wrote in the apartment," Betteo says. "From there, the songs have become more cohesive. There is more focus and more of a mission."

"I Don’t Get Much" slowly flows in with shoegaze reverb, rises up, and then drags the listener down. The water levels eventually re-rise and plateau. There are echoes, heartbeats, and an apocalyptic romance, as male and female vocals repetitively discuss the end.

When I ask the band to explain the existentialist undercurrent that ripples throughout the song, Allen rhetorically asks: "If you don’t do anything, what does it really matter?" And vocalist-partner Hodapp notes, "It’s about how dying does not matter once you get in the ground."

Can a dark day be textured with the pretty? Or is the sunny sky filled with clouds? Young Prisms have the answers. *


With Weekend, Grave Babies, and Swanifant

Sun/30, 9:30 p.m., 8 p.m., $8

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk St., S.F.

(415) 923-0923


Believe it!



VISUAL ART What would you do if you had been born with a treasure chest? This is a real-life Pippi Longstocking-tale: Jaina Bee is a quirky lady who sports a pink glam crewtop, was raised with minimal parental interference, and is undeniably devoted to her friends. Like Pippi, she was given a suitcase full of gold coins and owns a home.

Thirteen years ago, when Jaina Bee was in her late 20s, she purchased her Potrero Hill property with a vague vision of creating a collaborative-art utopia.

Each chamber of Granny’s Empire of Art has been given a fitting nickname. Sitting in the trophy room, named for its collection of taxidermy, it’s hard to imagine it as just another blank slate with off-white walls. “There’s a difference between decorating and transforming,” Jaina Bee says. Now: antique sofas, stripes of plaid and French country wallpaper, a haunting brick-based collage of cigarettes and electrical plugs, a hanging chandelier, and portraits of Jaina Bee with chickens — and of the benefactors of her inheritance, her step-grandfather Fred Davis and his father Edwin — fill the living room.

“Seriously, the deepest and most inescapable influence was my mother, who was a total prankster, trickster, nonconformist type,” she says. “As soon as I got out of high school and went into college, she lived out her trippy communal fantasy in Santa Cruz.”

As an experiment based around her deep curiosity about people, Jaina Bee’s mother threw open her doors. Those who came in were mostly freeloading Dead Heads of the 1980s. It was a madhouse.

“I took what I learned from observing that and inevitably turned this into my own semi-open house,” says Jaina Bee. “There are lots of people who make this place their home when they’re in town. They’re all creative, and they all contribute in some way to the household, whether it’s designing lights or creating rooms. And when I’m out of town for months at a time, people come and go just as freely as if I were here. So the house has a kind of life of its own. It’s bigger than all of us.”

“You can’t try to control it,” responds Jenny B, who did the lighting for the house and is staying over.

While her mother was watching her lawless social study, Jaina Bee was attending San Francisco Art Institute, where she befriended many artists who would later be involved with Granny’s.

Her professor Tony Labat challenged her to test, trial-and-error-style, without knowing the results. “That gave me the courage to experiment with collaborating with people not necessarily knowing where it was going to go,” she explains. She took this mentality seriously when she began working on her home. “The whole reason things have turned out the way they have here is that I didn’t try and control it too much — just enough to keep it from going into complete chaos.”

Of course, this is not the first art-home assembled by an eccentric heiress. Granny’s Empire of Art follows a tradition extending from Isabella Stewart Gardner and Sarah Winchester to Peggy Guggenheim and Doris Duke. But none of these comparisons quite fit because of Granny’s particular emphasis on collaboration and experimentation.

“It’s an unusual circumstance with Jaina, because she really wants people to do what they’re good at doing. She’s not sitting there saying she wants it this way. She has a lot of trust with her vision,” explains Christine Shields, who met Jaina at SFAI and has done work on the home since the initial painting sessions when she chose red for what would later be known as the opium den.

“When the whole house started, I thought it was so disparate. It seemed very hodgepodge and very crazy-quilt style. But the more time that goes by, the more it becomes this big vision and it has this cohesion that I couldn’t really see in the beginning,” Shields says. “But I know Jaina saw it.”

Granny’s two homes — an old farmhouse in the back and a Victorian in the front — contain a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not!-worthy staircase covered with pencils that leads to a vintage Circus Circus carpet, a Gaudi-meets-the-Yellow-Submarine bathroom with glow-in-the-dark-slices hidden in the tiles, a fur meditation room, a haunted parlor with multicolored drywall, found photographs compiled into a pseudo family albums, and an old-timey phonograph. All this — and more — comes together to form a fairytale dollhouse that expands with the bite of a cookie, just like Alice’s wonderland.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams of the perfect environment. I’m always discovering things I didn’t notice before,” says Jaina Bee. “I think sometimes my friends have actually stuck things in here without telling me.”

Unlike the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there’s an energy that emanates from the life within the home. Jaina Bee says she’s thought about the future of Granny’s Empire of Art and the possibility that it might become a place for an artists residency program, but says she’s made no official plans. Granny’s is alive and growing.

There are even lovely sister cats, Crackle and Quilty, who share the home. “They wrecked a lot,” Jaina Bee says matter-of-factly. “I think in one year these kittens did $1000 in damage — to masterpieces. But that’s art as life. I don’t want it to be so precious I can’t be comfortable.”


A chillwave primer



MUSIC Chillwave is atmospheric and can fill the background, washing over you and allowing you to float through the world, or it can work as foreground with drastic beats that make you dance. Chillwave relaxes and excites. You feel it all around yourself. It’s multifunctional: the perfect backdrop for walks through SF on blue-sky days, for dipping your toes in the sun-speckled sand, for stealing kisses with your lover, for dance parties. It’s faded and fuzzy synth-pop of blissed-out beauty.

The group of artists who’ve been dubbed “chillwave” or “hypnagogic pop” or “glo-fi” or whatever disparate adjectives you want to throw at them includes Georgia’s Washed Out, South Carolina’s Toro Y Moi, Denver’s Pictureplane, Brooklyn’s Small Black, New Jersey’s Memory Tapes, Texas’ Neon Indian and Los Angeles’ Nite Jewel (the latter two perform at Mezzanine Fri/26). Most of these acts emerged in the summer of 2009.

It’s difficult to categorize or unify a bunch of disparate artists. Unlike musical movements of the past, chillwave doesn’t spring out of a locale, like grunge did via Seattle. Instead, these bands share aesthetic similarities that were discovered via the Internet, rather than through a physical community in the old fashioned sense.

The “alt” blog Hipster Runoff recently wrote that the Wall Street Journal announced that it (HR) is the christener and thus, in some sense — but which sense? — the creator of chillwave. This meta-moment examines how hype and musical genres start and what, if anything, make them real.

Carles of HR pointed to overlapping aesthetic qualities and to the fact that these acts tend to be single musicians working mostly with a laptop. These artists blend guitar, synth, and vocals into a hazy amalgam coated in the effects and echoes of their lo-fi approach. Looping and sampling are common features, which makes chillwave highly referential, and casts a déjà vu sense of familiarity, like dusk’s repetitious shadow, over the music.

Chillwave sounds sun-bleached, like it was once bright but is now faded, and it plays on nostalgia and sentimentality, perhaps recalling an idealized youth. When you can hear the lyrics despite the layer of dust they’re covered in, you make out simple repetitions of phrases such as “don’t look back” (to quote Toro Y Moi’s “Blessa”).

Washed Out, a.k.a. Ernest Greene, lived by a peach orchard with his parents after he graduated from the University of Georgia because he couldn’t land a job. With much free time and open space, he spent late nights writing and recording music himself. This approach is common — chillwave is largely composed of one-person bands, individual musicians.

Which leads to another key point: chillwave’s DIY recordings and distribution. Seattle’s the Stranger proposes that chillwave is a reflection of our ailing economy, which has left college graduates with no job prospects or money, because this music can be made easily and cheaply. These broke musicians look back to a brighter, more sequined past, particularly to the 1980s, both for its sound — New Wave samples are common, as are shoegaze-style sound-walls and Eno-esque ambient moments — and perhaps because it is the era when most of these musicians were young. It’s a perfect combination of old-meets-new, of vintage and technology.

Washed Out originally expressed no interest in touring, partially a result of Greene’s ambivalence about how to perform his music in an interesting way. Eventually he decided to recruit a backup band, a decision Neon Indian also made. He got his friends/touring mates Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner of Small Black to join him at South by Southwest and now comes to SF for the tail end of his North America tour with them. Next he’ll be opening for Beach House, whose dream-pop is a clear predecessor to chillwave’s aesthetic.

Greene says that while living at home in Georgia. he made his tracks to help him feel good and to allow him to escape. Through WO’s pastel pop, we can enter clairvoyant-style into an enchanted world of pulsating beats, precise hooks, and hazy mantras. *


With Small Black, Pictureplane, and Young Prisms

Sun/28, 7 p.m., sold out (limited tickets at door)

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011


Light into darkness



MUSIC High Places’ upcoming release High Places vs. Mankind (Thrill Jockey) opens with the slow-tempered "The Longest Shadow." The chorus offers a supine first-person perspective of the sun’s effect on the earth at dusk. The first verse focuses on letting love in, but by the second verse Mary Pearson’s lyrics narrate the end of a relationship, which includes that universal nostalgia (a.k.a. confusion) of not really knowing why a relationship terminates, and includes the ritual stages of longing, wondering, and finally, remembering.

High Places’ music is designed to be lost in; it infiltrates and instigates meditation, but it also manages to keep the listener constantly moving. That’s how good the beat is as it weaves in and out of Pearson’s vocals. When the second track "On Giving Up" begins, it’s hard to determine if Pearson’s extending the last poem, and is talking about the actual breakup night, or if she’s talking about quitting cigarettes, booze, or some addiction, as she sings: "It’s all because I feel everything that’s gone. It’s all gone. Well, tonight is going to be the night." But that ambivalence is part of the charm, allowing the listener to relate and reflect.

Pearson and Rob Barber are High Places. The pair explored the natural world on the 2008 compilation 03/07-09/07, and on their self-titled album from the same year (both on Thrill Jockey). But on High Places vs. Mankind, there is a clear shift toward "humanity," as Pearson defines it, "for lack of a better word."

Weather — the hot, the cold — as well as spatial relationships, and differences, have a large impact on how we as humans live and operate. The band moved from New York to Los Angeles roughly a year ago. "We really had no good reason to, other than the weather," Barber says when I ask him over the phone why they decided to move. L.A. literally exists because it averages 320 sunny days a year, which made it the ideal location to film, and thus Hollywood emerged. After settling down in L.A. and taking a pause from touring, the duo suddenly had a great deal more space and time. They began writing and recording. But curiously, the warmth, space, and time led to icier sounds and darker themes in its new recording.

Pearson explains that High Places’ music made in New York "is based on escapism and trying to create our ideal environment. But because it’s so beautiful in L.A. all the time, we don’t need to talk about that stuff quite as much." This allowed the band to explore new ideas.

On High Places vs. Mankind, the blissed-out melodies and undeniable dance rhythms along with the complex layering and tidbits of dub are still apparent. But there is more: guitars sounding like guitars, unlike before, when they could’ve been mistaken for steel drums or sitars. And Pearson’s vocals are less affected, allowing them to be vividly heard.

The back of High Places’ self-titled release reads: "recorded at home by High Places." In New York, the band/best friends lived together. "I think that made us write every note together," says Pearson. In L.A., where they no longer share an apartment, they’ve taken a different approach. The pair discovered that they desired different types of workspaces. "I would work at home, and she would work in an outside studio," Barber explains. "We’d meet up and smash it all together. We’d go back and forth with it, responding to each other like call-and-response."

The change in sound is cooler at times, but it is also more direct in its message. "It was much more based on human relationships, and life and death," says Pearson. The album is dark and light at the same time — tragic contemplations are matched with stretched-out synths, as well as those bouncing beats and rhythmic hooks High Places has utilized in the past to keep things airy. The music makes you pause, get lost, question your own mortality, think about your last heartache, and when the daze is over, you feel one step closer to the infinite.

High Places’ forthcoming show will add one more twinge in its exploration of human relationships by including Pearson’s sister Laura on vocals for the first time, and she’ll continue on most of the U.S. tour. Pearson explains that she and her sister have been singing together informally all their lives — "Karaoke," interrupts Barber — and that HP has wanted to include her on tour for a long time now. *


with Mi Ami and Protect Me

Wed/24, 8 p.m., $10/$12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell St., SF


A gate so golden


Van Dyke Parks — who’ll be perfoming Fri/12 at Swedish American Hall — boasts an outstanding resume as an arranger, producer, lyricist, and studio musician for the likes of the Byrds, the Everly Brothers, Randy Newman, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Rufus Wainwright, Frank Black, the Doobie Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Joanna Newsom, Ringo Starr, Saint Etienne … the list goes on. Under the heading “additional experience,” Parks could include actor: he was a minor child star, appearing in the Grace Kelly vehicle The Swan 1956), and in 1990, he showed up on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. He’s also written film scores.

Considering this array of accomplishments, it’s surprising that Parks is still primarily renowned as a musical whiz within niche circles. Perhaps this is a consequence of his intricate and somewhat inaccessible solo albums, commercial failures to roughly the same the degree that they are creative successes. Whatever the case, he has a keen awareness of his legacy. “I prefer not being celebrated because I think that it brings only dangerous results,” he says, when the topic is broached during a recent phone interview. “It brings a self-importance. The best thing I can say is that I’ve created some works that I think have a shelf-life that is longer than a jar of yogurt.”

Born in Mississippi, Parks gravitated toward music early in life. He was deemed a child prodigy, and his interests led him to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pennsylvania. But California is his “adopted reality,” the place where he’s lived for more than 40 years. He began to fill up his now extensive resume as a studio musician, arranger and, songwriter in Los Angeles. In 1966, Brian Wilson commissioned him to write lyrics for the now-legendary SMiLE (Nonesuch). In 1968, at the age of 24, Parks released his first solo record, Song Cycle (Warner Bros.).

This year, Parks is finally adding “touring” to the “additional qualifications” section of his resume. For the first time, he’s going on the road with his material, from Song Cycle to Orange Crate Art (Warner Bros.), which was released in 1995.

When I called Parks to interview him, one of the first things we touched on was the similarity between our names. For me, multiple names make for a confusing mouthful. VDP explained that he was named for his paternal grandmother’s “beloved” cousin, who was killed over the English Channel by the Nazis the same week he was born. He also said he’s never sobered up — I think this was a joke — because he can’t take his name to AA meetings. Hearing this, I realized that the complications of having a two-part first name might be more inconvenient than a three-part last name. After VDP initiated questions about our names, he continued as an interviewer and asked me my musical tastes and my age, at which point we established that we have 43 years between us.

“My goal is just to try and create things that will stand the test of time, Parks said. “That’s always been my goal. I have a great work ethic, and I put my heart into everything I do hoping it’ll be my life-defining moment.” At the moment, Parks is finishing a new album that he hopes to put out at the end of the summer. It’s been more than 15 years since he has released any of his own material. “I believe my work is better than it’s ever been,” he asserts. “And in a town [L.A.] that celebrates and worships youth at the expense of any other consideration, I think I’m going to be able to prove that my best work is ahead of me — and that’s what gets me up every day.”

Parks’ manner of speaking has a similarity with the music he creates, nonchalantly integrating influences from far and wide. Explaining himself, he blends in metaphors and proverbs: “I’m a black ant on a watermelon.” “It’s like going from zero to hero.” “There may be snow on the roof, but a fire rages within.” When making music, he moves through and fuses musical genres from every direction, finding new points of entry and exit. In 32 minutes, Song Cycle spans almost every American musical genre, from bluegrass to jazz to show tunes. It’s an idiosyncratic soundtrack of America’s musical history.

Parks’ solo work has the feel of a soundtrack, or even a Disney score, with its oddball yet familiar style of joining orchestration and instrumentation (i.e. strings with banjo and harmonica, or French horn with mandolin). The literate and witty lyrics — “Palm Desert” turns L.A. into Never-Never Land; “San Francisco” is a lovers’ paradise “with a gate so golden” — conjure vivid imagery like a film projected onto the inside of one’s skull.

Perhaps VDP is a culture-sponge. As he says about his musical tastes, “I like it all. I eat everything that’s good.” But his gift is more complex than a talent for simply absorbing sounds and spitting them out again. He has a tendency to find connections in unlikely places and among unusual things. One man’s genius is another man’s idiot, or however it goes. But Parks doesn’t care what either of those guys think — he just wants to make songs.

“A song is the lightest piece of cultural goods,” he says. “You don’t need to pick it up in your hands. You can take it out in your head. It encourages you to do something, hopefully the right thing. It’s why we shall overcome. It’s what gives peace a chance. The song moves people to political or social action like nothing else because it has melody. And melody creates feelings, and the words, of course, address the thoughts. And no kidding, I want to keep writing and being surrounded with song forever. I want to bop till I drop.”

As the saying goes, genius is patience.


Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m., $22/25

With Clare and the Reasons and Josh Mease

Swedish American Hall

2174 Market, SF


Potrero punk power


When I meet with the triad that makes up Dadfag at Four Barrel Coffee, Eva Hannan explains that they are operating on no sleep. She and fellow guitarist-vocalist Danielle Benson had woken up at dawn to drive their Sacramento friends from Ganglians home after they’d stayed in the city to see Dadfag play the previous night at El Rio. The exhaustion doesn’t show. Instead, Dadfag have the same delirious energy one witnesses when they perform, except that Benson has blown out her voice.

What DadFag does musically is simple. Their potent punk power chords simultaneously assault and envelope. The rabid hardcore recantations (“Tits”) and sludge-y post-punk numbers (“Water”) on the band’s debut album Scenic Abuse (Broken Rekids) reflect a natural tendency to prefer extremes — love/hate, strong/soft, superfast/slow — over anything banal or middle-of-the-road. Witness drummer Alan Miknis’ description of the band: “We’re really sweet and also the biggest assholes at the same time.”

In concert, Dadfag’s fervid spirit compels curiosity. The band is aware of this. “I think having enthusiasm, like true enthusiasm about things, and life, and music, and your friends –” Benson says.

“And not just doing it to get laid,” Hannan interjects.

“Yeah, well that’s a perk,” Benson quips, before concluding, “People are attracted to that. They want to be around people who are excited about things for real.”

It’s hard to decide if the members of Dadfag are disrupting one another or finishing each other’s sentences. It seems that it might work both ways. Hannan explains how Benson “lost her shit” and moved out to the Bay, and Benson explains how Hannan “lost her shit” and followed suit.

“She came and slept on my air mattress with me for a little,” Benson says, going on to observe that air mattresses are more comfortable with two people. “Yeah, it evens it out,” agrees Hannan. “But you both roll to the middle, so it’s always funny.”

The members of Dadfag knew each other back in Athens, Ga., where Hannan grew up, Benson went to graduate school, and Miknis drove up from Americus, an even more secluded Southern town, to see shows. But their friendship didn’t truly commence until they all landed in the Bay Area. “We had the same circle of friends, but we never talked,” Miknis explains. Through another Athens transplant, the now-defunct fuzz-rock band Long Legged Woman, the three eventually found each other.

Dadfag didn’t just find each other, they also found themselves here. “Living in San Francisco is so great, everyone should move here,” says Hannan. Their explanation of why they despised Georgia is a bit fragmented, but with no shortage of reasons: “It’s a drag.” “There’s nothing going on.” “Everyone is drunk all the time.” “I got called a fag a lot more.”

The three found (or rediscovered) music after arriving in San Francisco. Hoping to start a band, Benson and Hannan began sharing the song scraps they’d written. Justin Flowers of Long Legged Woman suggested Miknis join Dadfag, and the three subsequently started squatting in Long Legged Woman’s practice space in Potrero Hill. “Sometimes with music, people will really match up well,” Hannan says. “And it just so happens that our first real experience playing music with one other person or trying to write with one other person worked that way.”

A year-and-a-half and more than 200 shows later, they’ve come a long way from not being able to follow Miknis’ drumming and just trying to play as loud and fast as possible. “Until I played in this band, there were a lot of things I didn’t feel empowered about, especially playing music loud in front of people,” says Benson. “It gives you the confidence to say or do or be anything you want to.”


With the Baths, Neighbors and Making Tents

Thurs/28, 9 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923

The mighty uke


MUSIC The ukulele has gone viral, again, via YouTube phenomena like the adorable Uke Kid and virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who both perform interpretations of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — originally by George Harrison, himself a professed uke-aholic.

The history of the ukulele is choppy. It has passed through waves of cultural significance and kitsch popularity. Its origins are commonly misremembered — it first appeared in Portugal as a small Madeiran guitar. Brought by Portuguese cane workers to Hawaii in the 19th century, it was given its new name of “ukulele,” which translates to “jumping flea.” King Kalakaua, a major proponent of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, fell for the instrument and incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.

The ukulele floated from Honolulu to the Bay for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, where “the Hawaiian Pavilion” launched the first continental fad for Hawaiian songs and the uke. The Bay Area soon became an international gateway for the ukulele.

Today’s vibrant ukulele scene continues this legacy. The current crop of Bay-based ukulele players have little connection to the instrument’s Hawaiian history and utilize the uke for a wide spectrum of musical genres: the Corner Laughers play bouncy indie power pop; Tippy Canoe incorporates early country music, ’30s jazz and ’60s pop; Ash Reiter accents her jazz-infused indie folk with the ukulele; Uni and Her Ukelele takes ideas from burlesque dancers, comedians, light rock and soul; and in a haphazard YouTube video made by Sandy Kim, ubiquitous garage rocker Ty Segall plays a ditty on the uke.

“As soon as I picked up the uke, I started writing a song,” explains vocalist-ukester Emily Ritz of HoneyComb. “Its size was perfect, and I liked the challenge of making a uke sound dirty, dark, and dangerous.” Influenced by everyone from Billie Holiday to Joanna Newsom, Ritz turns the ukulele into something mysterious and haunting.

Some Bay Area ukesters emerge from the kitsch appeal that the goofy-ginger TV personality Arthur Godfrey left in his wake. Godfrey learned to play the ukulele from a Hawaiian shipmate while he was in the Navy, and when he went on television to promote the new plastic ukuleles, more than 9 million ukuleles were sold, in the second great-wave of ukulele popularity.

Camp taste has an allure, and Uni and Her Ukelele — deliberately spelled the British way, according to Uni, because “I just like how the ‘e’ and ‘l’ loop together in cursive” — mine that appeal by including mermaids, rainbows, and unicorns as subject matter. “While I was learning the basic chords on the ukulele, I found it easier to write more quirky songs,” Uni explains via e-mail from New Zealand. “Fun is a good place to start.”

Post Godfrey, the ukulele’s second wave ended with the annoying falsetto voice of Tiny Tim. Baby boomers threw their plastic strummers into their closets, associating the instrument with all things cheesy. Many guitar distributors ceased making ukuleles during the 1990s, but a third resurgence began in the early aughts, due in part to two significant events: Paul McCartney played the instrument at a tribute concert after George Harrison’s passing, and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” medley became familiar through countless radio-plays, movies, commercials, and weddings. Now even the iPhone has an application that mimics and teaches ukulele chords.

Introductions to the ukulele are often random rather than contrived, much like the ebb-and-flow history of the instrument. Ash Reiter, who fronts a band of the same name, got a uke as a gift from a friend in high school. She later acquired her own, only to have it stolen at a performance with fellow ukesters. She stopped playing, but eventually inherited another one from her grandfather. “It’s one that he got while he was stationed in Hawaii for a while,” Reiter says. “It’s just one of the few things that we shared, and I remember he used to sing a lot of dirty songs that he learned in the war on it, like ‘One-Eyed Dick.’ Then when he was in the nursing home, I would play the ukulele for him.”

Like all good things, the ukulele comes in different shapes and sizes: there are traditional pear-shaped ukes; pineapple-shaped ukuleles that produce a mellower sound; DIY ukuleles made from cigar boxes and plastic lollipop knobs. Godfrey designed the first baritone ukulele, and then there is the “banjulele” popularized by Englishmen George Formby during the ’30s and ’40s. Formby is also an inspiration for Karla Kane, vocalist and ukulele-player of the Corner Laughers, who describes its sound as “twangy” and explains that she found her 1930s banjulele at an antiques fair in San Rafael.

Berkeley-based ukulele artisan Peter Hurney specially designed Tippy Canoe, a.k.a. Michele Kappel-Stone, a ukulele. “At the time I was playing a ukulele that was all black, and he came up to me and said, ‘You need an ukulele that matches your personality,'<0x2009>” explains Kappel-Stone. The two collaborated and chose imagery from a 1913 Bauhaus poster, which circles the ukulele’s sound hole.

Musically, each of these Bay Area musicians advance the uke in different ways. “We put the ukulele on almost every track on the new album,” explains Kane of the Corner Laughers. “But a lot of people don’t even recognize it because we put a lot of cool effects on it. I have an electric ukulele, so I put it through an amplifier, and a space-echo box, and distortion.”

Uni and her Ukelele write songs on the uke, whereas Ash Reiter uses the ukulele only occasionally, often as an accent or a layer within the song. Outside the Bay Area, the instrument has been used by everyone from Kate Bush to Elvis Costello to tUnE-yArDs in recent years. As Tippy Canoe says, “I love that it is such a universal instrument. Anyone can pick it up and play it.” In the Bay Area, and beyond, an increasing number of bands are doing exactly that.


With Annie Bacon and her Oshen, the Spindles

Wed/20, 9 p.m., $7

Elbo Room

647 Valencia St., SF



With Photons

Sat/23, 7:30, $7

The Make-Out Room

3225 22nd Street



Feb. 17, 8 p.m., $10

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell St., SF



With Anna Ash

March 4, 9:30 p.m. $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk St., SF


Manic pop thrill



MUSIC In Guitar Hero 5, the avatar of Kurt Cobain is wearing a tee adorned with the cover of Daniel Johnston’s 1983 album, Hi, How Are You? (High Wire). The t-shirt presents a pop-eyed frog, Jeremiah the Innocent, one of the recurring characters within Johnston’s creative world.

Cobain helped catapult many musical cult heroes, among them the Melvins and the Raincoats, to new notoriety, and his devotion to Johnston was no exception. Although it’s hard to pinpoint which moment transformed Johnston into a somebody — K Records selling his homemade cassettes? his serendipitous MTV appearance? Cobain’s adoration? Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston? — most Daniel Johnston stories are part of a narrative that defines him as an unstable artistic genius.

Johnston was born in 1961 to a Christian fundamentalist household in Sacramento. In the early 1980s, he spent most of his time in his parents’ cellar, writing songs. He recorded his seminal cassettes on a Sanyo mono boom-box. After a corndog-selling gig with a traveling circus, he eventually found himself — and went on to lose himself — in Austin, Texas. There, his popularity as a musician grew as his mental stability declined.

Johnston’s story has more twists than most — he’s been institutionalized multiple times, crashed a small plane his father was piloting, and contributed artwork to the 2006 Whitney Biennial. But in Fuerzeig’s documentary, Johnston’s odyssey ends where it began, with him making art at his parents’ home.

In the process of "growing up," most people put away the piano, the paintbrushes, and pen-and-paper in exchange for something practical. When contemputf8g the artist who never gives in to societal obligations, it isn’t uncommon to entertain the notion that creativity springs from craziness.

Some scientific evidence supports a link between creativity and bipolar disorder. Clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1993 book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament explains that during a manic phase, there is often a "fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought … and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connection." Ideas often occur during the manic phase. During the artist’s melancholic periods, there is a refinement of such thoughts, requiring a more logical perspective to put the new ideas into practice.

Jamison discusses artists’ resistance to undergoing drug therapy — who would want to give up the highs and lows for mild numbness? In The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Johnston spends 1987 in bed on meds, and it does appear dismal. But Jamison advocates that untreated bipolar disorder may lead to suicide.

"All great artists are crazy," Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black says in The Devil and Daniel Johnston. "But there is a difference between the abstract creative person being crazy and this person doing damage to you or himself." Black questions how we, as individuals and as a society, should deal with the mentally ill. If we drug or institutionalize the crazy artist, who benefits: the individual, the friends and family, the fans — or art history? And which is most important?

If there are answers or solutions to such questions, they doesn’t reside in rotely accepting a cultural myth or a scientifically provable connection between creativity and craziness. First it helps to realize that there is a continuum between the "healthy" and the "mentally ill." Indeed, the collective understanding of what is sane and what is insane needs reevaluation. Many people live with psychotic traits but no debilitating symptoms. Each of us who has found comfort or a moment of recognition in Johnston’s lyrics has probably felt a tinge of what might be deemed mental illness.

With a distinctive quavering voice, Johnston sings tormented lyrics about universal themes — unrequited love and not giving up on your dreams — over ebullient and charming pop melodies. His music possesses a combination of craft and sincerity that appeals to the most basic human emotions. He is an oddball phenomenon whose biography provides clues to how the creative mind works. Amid all the chaos and the pain, Johnston continues on — with and without drugs, and definitely with the assistance of his family. His music, art, and life reflect a dichotomy between good vs. evil, hope vs. despair, and genius vs. madman. In the end, as captured in his most recent release Is and Always Was (High Wire), the good wins.


with Hymns

Thurs/22, 8 p.m., $22.50–$25

Regency Ballroom

1290 Sutter, SF


I heard a tumor



INTERVIEW Sacramento quartet Ganglians daydreams blissed-out harmonies — ones made hazy by distortion. As its sun-kissed psych-pop sounds become garbled, the band creates a prismatic realm, a sonic state of being somewhere between waking and dreaming. This polychromatic province, where myoclonic twitches and hypnotic jerks occur, is conjured by variations between fuzzy, thermal jams and abstract, pensive chants.

Vocalist-guitarist Ryan Grubbs grew up in Bozeman, Mont. In 2006, he moved to Sactown after visiting the state capitol with his grandfather, who was attending a big horn sheep convention. Guitarist Kyle Hoover, drummer Alex Sowles, and bassist Adrian Comenzind all grew up in Sac and jammed together in Comenzind’s attic.

"Ryan worked down the street from that attic and when he’d walk home, he could hear us playing," says Sowles, explaining the band’s serendipitous formation. "Ryan had a show lined up and he asked us if we wanted to play with him. It just kinda worked out." After a pause he adds: "And then there was a car crash right in front of the venue that we played at …" Hoover, Grubbs, and Sowles rally back and forth about the group’s chemistry, which "wasn’t actually all there at first," before concluding that "the chemistry was there, but we weren’t exactly sure how to pull it off."

In biology, clusters of cells perform the same function within a ganglion — for instance, dorsal root ganglia relay sensory information from the skin to the spine. This process is a metaphor for the band’s rapid maturity: progressing from the first show, which was an interpretation of Grubbs’ solo work, to the chemistry-click when the members began writing songs together (and finishing each other’s sentences).

It all makes sense, except: the plural of ganglion is ganglia, and the band’s choice of name has nothing to do with the neurological term. Instead, Ganglians is a haphazard smooshing together of words. "Mostly I just liked aliens, and a gang of aliens, so I thought of ganglians," says Grubbs. "I had never heard of it before, so it sounded really cool, mysterious and iconic. I found out later it was a cyst or something, spelled a little differently, which is cool because that’s kinda weird and it’s like a bundle of nerves, and nerves are all about perceiving things and stuff. It worked out perfectly, I guess."

Ultimately, the randomness of Ganglians’ name, and how it came into being, is probably a much better metaphor for how the band operates. Its two releases to date, a self-titled EP (Woodsist) and Monster Head Room (Woodsist/Weird Force), were released almost simultaneously. The EP came out first, but features many songs written after those on Monster Head Room. The latter "was more of a production thing," says Sowles. Or as Grubbs put it, "It was a labor of love, we really nourished it." Monster Head Room‘s relative polish is illustrated by re-recordings two tracks of "The Void" and "Candy Girl" from Ganglians’ self-titled release.

Ganglians usually build songs around a melody. Grubbs often finds his during a "mindless" and "routine" job as a busser/server at a sushi restaurant. "I just go into this trance, " he says. "Then I’ll run into the bathroom and record a little snippet off of a melody on my phone."

After piecing together Grubbs’ cell phone recordings, the band jams for a while, with each member contributing different ingredients for the song. Most contributions are based upon a theme or an idea, such as sounding like a forest, or like being underwater, or trying to conjure the feeling of a journey.

Grubbs’ lyrics spring forth from themes and sounds, as in "Valient Brave," from Monster Head Room. "From its rhythm-guitar," says Grubbs, "I knew it was going to be a war chant." Grubbs also builds lyrics around vowel sounds, as is evident in his use of slant rhyme: the same album’s "Cryin Smoke," for example, pairs "pasture" with "bathroom."

The idiosyncratic moments in Ganglians’ music express a randomness but also reflect an increasing attention to detail. These particulars are most easily perceived while listening to Monster Head Room on headphones: the back-and-forth thumps that begin "Valient Brave," the UFO blast-off in "The Void" (produced via an oscillator and space echo), and the field recordings of crickets, frogs, and wood crackling that permeate "To June." There is a charm in not knowing whether these moments were fortuitous, like the band’s formation and name, or calculated. The ambiguity only heightens Ganglians’ ability to bring its listener into its half-dream sphere.


With Wavves

Sun/6, 7:30 p.m., $10–$12

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011


Outside Lands Night Show: Gang Gang Dance


PREVIEW Comparable to a mystical experience involving contact with a transcendent reality, Gang Gang Dance forges a celestial, almost cultlike sound fitted with primal drum beats that elevate listeners to the beginning of time while electro chimes simultaneously fast-forward to an unknown era.

Instead of utilizing a typical verse/chorus pattern, GGD constructs freeform songs focusing on the fusion of juxtapositions. The quartet relies on a rhythm-driven foundation as it integrates a diverse range of influences: dubstep, dream pop, reggaeton, hip-hop, grime, and art rock. Its percussion-laden sound is topped by Lizzie Bougatsus’ intense, idiosyncratic vocals.

Keyboardist Brian Degraw and drummer Tim Dewit met in 1993 at a Tower Records in Washington, D.C. — Dewit was stocking shelves and Degraw was shoplifting CDs. The pair immediately started playing together in a spaz-punk band called the Cranium. By the end of the decade, that group had disbanded and the two had moved to New York City, where they began experimenting with Bougastos, vocalist Nathan Maddox, and guitarist Josh Diamond, and were reborn as Gang Gang Dance.

In ’02, Maddox was fatally struck by lightning on a rooftop. Taking this as an omen, the remaining members began focusing all their energy on GGD. On the cover of God’s Money (The Social Registry, 2005) Maddox’s eyes peer out from behind a mask, as if watching over them.

At first, GGD improvised during rehearsals and performances. This improv approach has gradually become fundamental to GGD’s writing process. The band members play for several hours, listen to the rehearsal recordings, pick the sounds that work best, then conjoin them. Saint Dymphna (Social Registry, 2008) creates the illusion of a perfect jam session — it plays like one continuous song, with revelatory midperformance noodling sessions ("Vacuum," "Dust") interspersed between catchy hooks ("Desert Storm," "Princes").

Paradoxically, improv is no longer as integral to GGD’s current performances. But the group still transforms mood into matter. As emotive states are molded into music, they become real.

GANG GANG DANCE With Amanda Blank, Ariel Pink. Sun/30, 8:30 p.m., $10. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. (415) 861-2011. www.rickshawstop.com

Bill Callahan


PREVIEW If Bill Callahan is a shepherd of the lo-fi reformation, his musical evolution suggests a shell-like spiral. His initial releases in the late-1980s to early-1990s were ramshackle home recordings, mostly instrumental. In the realm of the professionally recorded, his mid- to late-1990s creations utilized more instrumentation and experimented with lyrics, while allowing him to hone his vocal style; his post-2000 releases mildly reduce the instrumentation while maintaining the consistent, almost affect-less, baritone singing Callahan developed under the Smog moniker.

After Dongs of Sevotion (Darg City, 2000), Callahan changed his alias to direct attention toward the music itself, rather than the idea of "Smog." After 20 years, the dissipation of Callahan’s Smog marks another transformation. Disposing of the nom de plume, he’s become more direct, plain, and open. The woeful and despair inherent to Smog has lifted — the sky seems visible once again, albeit occasionally cloudy.

Bill Callahan as Bill Callahan has already revealed a mini-spiral, like a mirror reflection of the larger spiral of Smog: his initial releases in 2007 reveled in a rhythm-driven aesthetic that abandoned most of his lo-fi leanings. But this year’s Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle (Drag City) returns to the intimate, acoustic-based Smog sound. "Jim Cain," the opener on Eagle, starts like a Callahan thesis. Using poetic enjambment for effect, he declares, "I started out in search of /ordinary things … I started telling the story /without knowing the end /I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again." Brian Beattie’s subtle string arrangements compliment the sentiment in Callahan’s slight reversal from the lightness of Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City, 2007). But the sun peeps out when "Rococo Zephyr" finds Callahan momentarily "jaunty as a bee."

On Eagle, Callahan radically confesses an inherent inability to know everything. Not knowing the end of the story allows for ideas to evolve, and each Callahan album captures his sentiment at that moment. But a shepherd never strays too far from his flock, and even as Callahan’s overall travels take the form of a spiral, he returns to similar themes and sounds. "Well maybe this was all /Was all that meant to be /Maybe this is all /Is all that meant to be," he sings at one point on "Rococo Zephyr." Sounds like an epiphany, even if it takes him a few tries to get it out.

BILL CALLAHAN With Bachelorette. Tues/30, 8 p.m., $16. Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, SF. (415) 474-0365, www.bimbos365club.com