Breaking Out is Hard to Do

San Francisco’s next wave of music

There is a riot happening in San Francisco. Arms flail, bodies thrash about, and feet are airborne. You can’t tell if one emotion has taken them over or if a collection of feelings washed over the mob like waves swelling up and crashing atop a spring break party boat. However, this is not a vindictive political rally on Market St. or a drug-addled romp at LoveFest. Rather, at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop, the rock band Tempo No Tempo is performing a live set, and the dance party is now a next-level experience only properly described as a riot.

Tempo No Tempo is part of a crop of artists in San Francisco poised to break into national and international view. As a new decade approaches, San Francisco finds itself in the international spotlight with bands like Thee Oh Sees, Lazer Sword, Girls, Jonas Reinhardt, Grass Widow, The Fresh & Onlys and Ty Segall. It seems like the Bay Area metropolis is poised to be the home for music with challenging ideas and new takes on old tricks. This promising group of rock, indie and electronic artists would have you believe that time is now.

“San Francisco is like the Wild West for bands. It feels like something new is going to happen here,” says Tempo No Tempo’s singer and guitarist Tyler McCauley. His Afrobeat-influenced post-punk outfit, along with the enigmatic Maus Haus and genre-blurring Birds & Batteries, are at the forefront of experimental indie in the City by the Bay. “The scene here is harder to peg, and, because of that, I think all the bands tend to listen to new ideas,” continues McCauley. It’s a statement proven if only by the attendance at Tempo No Tempo’s release party for their debut album, Waking Heat. Prior to McCauley’s three-piece taking the stage, the baffling sextet known as Maus Haus had unleashed their electronic indie-punk on a crowd hungry for their influence-jumping songs.

Jason Kick, a keyboardist and singer in Maus Haus, explains that his band is uncovering unfamiliar timbres and movements in their music, “We are tempted by an accidental discovery of the unknown song.” Their efforts are strong and vibrant, being perfectly portrayed on 2008’s Lark Marvels, Maus Haus’ first album. The band, two-thirds from the Midwest, finds the experience of living in San Francisco a catalyst to making music. “It’s a special place for artists who benefit from a close proximity to the ephemeral as a means of setting off mental synapses.”

Birds & Batteries may be the most traditional of the local indie scene, blending folk elements with synthesizers and a classic rock set-up. The quartet recently released a new EP, entitled Up to No Good. Songwriter Michael Sempert says that his songs are “motivated by a curiosity about life and music and a love for certain albums I grew up with.” It’s a fitting statement and one can hear elements of Neil Young/Talking Heads/Roxy Music explode on their EP standout Out in the Woods.

Electronics play a vital part in Sempert’s band and serve as a testament to the fact that San Francisco has transformed from a “granola town” to a hub of numerous genres. Producer Ryan Merry has been working on incarnations of his Ghosts on Tape moniker for over 10 years before discovering the sound he calls “tropical bootie.” “I feel like I’ve finally, in the past year or two, stumbled upon a particular, unique style,” Merry says. At a Ghosts on Tapes live show, Merry jumps between two archaic samplers and switches beats on floppy disks between dance steps and drink sips. His performance has become a staple for anyone looking for a bass-heavy dance party in the city. The breakthrough artist just put out his release, Predator Mode, on Glasgow, Scotland’s Wireblock label. Merry’s sound is probably the most eclectic of San Francisco’s electronic exports, but the disco style of Altair Nouveau and Loose Shus is easily the most classic dance music to come from the Bay recently.

Brandon Mitchell (a.k.a. Altair Nouveau) and the elusive Loose Shus may seem cut from the same cloth, but each find boldly innovative and unique ways to approach making their own brands of dance tunes. “About six years ago I used to make cut-up video pieces, taking audio samples from the video and doing loops. Essentially just editing. I have zero background in music,” says Loose Shus, an anonymous beatsmith. His cut and paste technique is key to the funky disco-house he creates; bass loops quickly drop, vocals make brief cameos, and beats propel elements at a motorik pace. Loose Shus’ loyalties lie with modern technology, but Altair Nouveau was born and bred of the analog synth.

“What I do now is just the product of years of Human League worship and Giorgio Moroder idolization.  Also, I was president of the Star Trek club for a few years in middle school.” It may seem Mitchell’s Star Trek comment is a joke, but titles like “Space Fortress” and the cosmic-disco to match prove his sincerity. While his analog synth-laden tracks on labels like DFA and Solardisco were written in Seattle, but Mitchell is excited about his new music. “I’ve spent 2009 moving the largest and most discerning dance floors in the world. In 2010 I am going to rend listeners’ hearts with beautiful pop songs and enchanting vocals.”

Nouveau’s love for electronics and disco is represented conversely by the city’s ever-present rock scene. It seems new bands are always popping up, hoping to be included with the garage-rock interest. Thankfully, bands like Magic Bullets, Honey and The Sandwitches are bucking tired fads for their own takes on the sound. “We have such a good time together that the music almost seems secondary,” says Magic Bullets’ Corey Cunnigham, whose band writes airy pop like The Smiths covering Television’s Marquee Moon. In their fifth year, the band has recorded a sophomore album that builds upon the catchy melodies displayed on their last EP, Lives For Romance.

Not all bands are blessed with the long history and collective experience that Magic Bullets have under their belt. The Sandwitches and Honey are essentially toddlers in the local scene, both claiming 2008 as their year of inception. What Honey lacks in recorded material they make up for in live shows that sucker punch audiences with dark, fuzzed-out pop. One of eight members, Katie Davis shared their intent, “We want to create a lot of immediate but also lasting impact. Make people dance and try to pull at some heart strings.”

The same could be said of the trio The Sandwitches. Their approach to “rock” is far looser in context, but guarantees to make lasting impacts in other ways. The Sandwitches’ switch from catchy doo-wop to subdued solo cuts, while always maintaining an air of naive playfulness and confident songwriting. Explaining her band’s unique qualities, singer Heidi Alexander said, “We’re more hormonal and have more drastic mood swings. Also, we can’t tune.” It’s a fair statement from a band born of a drunken slumber party,  whose debut is entitled How to Make Ambient Sad Cake, and goals include “just wanting to keep getting along (in this) supple, tantalizing, aromatic, esoteric, neurasthenic and translucent city.”

A rundown of San Francisco’s premiere artists wouldn’t be complete without what it is that makes the City special: the weirdoes. Between the Casio-punk of Casy & Brian, the electronic freak-out of Bronze, and mega-chill vibes of Windsurf, San Francisco continues its tradition of keeping a strong left field.

Solo producers Sorcerer and Hatchback (born Dan Judd and Sam Grawe respectively) have written hazy, Balearic epics together for six years. “We’re more about being ambassadors for California and San Francisco in the minds of people from other far-flung, less geographically-blessed locations,” explained Judd on Windsurf’s music. “We are lovers of dollar bin record racks, where ’70s soft rock harmonizers consult with discarded disco wizards, and new age hippies shake down shady jazz rippers.”

Seattle transplants Casy & Brian call their San Francisco “a playground for creative hustlers.” Casy Marquis and Brian McCarthy declare war on “guitar bands” with the same distorted Casios and cymbal-less drum kits played since the band formed as a statement against stale music in 2004. Herky-jerky beats match with simple melodies and call-and-response vocals to make their signature Beastie Boys-meets-Devo sound.

As Casy & Brian’s punk tunes are a response to stale music, Bronze’s psychedelic electronics must be the product of a vibrantly eclectic scene. Bronze scales heights both in music and performance; all apparent in live shows featuring masks of Spector’s face passed about, sparkling butterfly costumes worn, and lewd and unusual acts performed.

Singer Robert Spector summed up Bronze’s mission with a statement true for all San Francisco noisemakers. “This city has such a rich history of music all across the board. It’s nice to feel the warmth of the torch we carry. I feel the rest of the world has respect for music that comes out of here. We can’t let that torch blow out.”

Other SF bands to watch:
Bang Maiden,
Glass Trains,
Brilliant Colors,
Leopold and His Fiction,
Sugar & Gold,

1. Altair Nouveau
2. Magic Bullets
3. Ghosts on Tape
4. Manzanita
5. Casy & Brian
6. Windsurf
7. Tempo No Tempo
8. Birds and Batteries
9. Bronze
10. The Sandwitches
11. Maus Haus
12. Honey

– Patric Fallon