Local music issue
Six local bands (and one thriving metal scene) to keep an eye on in 2012
Chico is a pretty great place for music lovers. In addition to the touring musicians coming to places like the university, the Senator Theatre and the Sierra Nevada Big Room, there are original local bands from every genre playing in town at a dozen or more bars, clubs and cafés several times per week. If there is a cover charge, it’s as cheap as the beer, and you’ll usually get to see at least three bands. And every year, thanks in large part to the influx of new students coming to Chico State, new bands are born to replace the ones that break up or move away. There’s always something new to experience and way too many shows to make it to them all. It’s a good problem to have.
In this annual celebration of local musicians, we try to highlight a handful of bands from a variety of genres that will likely be contributing some of the most interesting songs to the soundtrack of the coming year. For 2012, we’ve chosen six acts, plus the area’s vibrant metal scene, on which to shine the spotlight.
Not much of a secret to Chico anymore, The Railflowers are beginning to share their soothing brand of folk outside of the Chico area, including Austin, Texas, this March for a slot in the famed South by Southwest Conference.
But before all of that, the quartet of local ladies will, on Feb. 18, unveil their second full-length CD, a collection of 10 new, original songs, with a celebratory night of music and frolic at Chico’s Origami Lounge.
“The CD was produced by Nat Keefe of Hot Buttered Rum at Light Rail Studios in San Francisco,” said Hannah Knight, one of three sisters who front the band. “We are thrilled to have his creative vision umbrella this project.”
Since their first gig, as a warm-up act before a Shakespeare in the Park performance in Bidwell Park in 2006, the sisters Knight have done their due diligence, crooning and plucking their way across the North State. The Railflowers’ folk/bluegrass/gospel/Americana fusion occupies the genteel side of the aural rainbow, both on CD and onstage, with a thriving repertoire of ballads, porch songs and campfire sing-alongs.
Offering an array of perceptive lyrics, lilting voices and pleasing accompaniments on songs such as “Fly” and “By Candlelight” (off their debut album), The Railflowers bring a harmonious breath of fresh air to any venue or festival.
It is true that Beth (mandolin), Hannah (banjo) and Ellen Knight (guitar) have sung together since they were little girls, but The Railflowers, which now also includes stand-up bassist Emma Blankenship, began as a collaboration between two sisters.
“It actually started out with Beth and Ellen learning cover songs from some of our favorites, including Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and The Avett Brothers,” Hannah said. “We decided to make it the three sisters when we realized three-part harmonies are better than two!”
In addition to their Railflowers duties, Beth also formerly sang for Mossy Creek and Hannah is a top-notch local actress.
The band is cutting a similar path to success that local acoustic duo MaMuse has blazed over the past few years.
“We have been very lucky to have MaMuse as a guiding force in our musical venture,” Hannah said. “They are becoming dear friends, and we admire them so much.”
And what do The Railflowers hope to give their listeners?
“We want the audience to hear our music and have it reflect something in themselves that they may feel but may not be able to describe,” Hannah said. “We find a joy in creating songs that are a common language for every soul.”
The Railflowers’ CD-release show happens Saturday, Feb. 18, 8 p.m., at Origami Lounge. www.facebook.com/therailflowers
Listening to Soul Butter at a recent rehearsal as they worked up a sweat on a lively jam called “The Bills,” it was impossible not to think of the early sounds of Chico faves The Mother Hips. The soulful jam featured great vocal harmonies and some of those funky well-timed crowd-friendly breakdowns, with instruments dropping out and the riffs returning in unison distorted and very muscular.
“[It was] the first one that really came off,” said rhythm guitarist Jesse McDermott about the impressive song.
And the rockin’ song really does come off, as do the other tunes in the band’s eclectic repertoire—from the all-hands-on-deck ’70s rocker “The Situation” to the reggae-ish slow jam “Better That Way,” which highlights vocal interplay between co-frontmen guitarist/vocalist Chris Miller and ukulele-player/vocalist Julian Ruck (who used to be in Hear for Now with McDermott). Miller’s is the more melodious of the two voices, but in conjunction with Ruck’s soulful rasp, the combination works really well.
Overall, it’s a very Chico sound—groovy but not jammy, very catchy, and with a grittiness sweetened by the harmonizing voices.
“While we’re trying to make it funky, it’s still sounding really ear-friendly, and we’re not trying to shove 12-minute jams down people’s throats,” said McDermott.
“It’s composed,” added bassist/guitarist Jeff Spanier (who used to play guitar in local rapper Eye-Que’s band Live Assist).
Spanier is also the engineer for the EP the band is currently recording at its rehearsal space, and which it hopes to have ready in time for the next show, Feb. 24, at LaSalles.
“My goal is four-to-five, at least three songs,” said Miller, “something to start giving to people so they can actually go away from a show and put something into a CD player.”
The band is at that first turning point, where they’ve played enough to start building a following (opening shows for the likes of Nevada City’s rootsy jammers Dead Winter Carpenters and playing Lost on Main’s annual Harvest Ball), and now want to make a mark with a recording followed by a raising of their profile with more gigs around town. Even though they’ve been together less than a year (with drummer Ricky Atallah having been with them only since August), with their funky chops and youthful enthusiasm, Soul Butter appears to have the potential to join the fine tradition of party-friendly Chico bands—Brut Max, The Hips, Electric Circus, Swamp Zen, et al.—that have come before.
Soul Butter performs with Alli Battaglia & The Musical Brewing Co. Friday, Feb. 24, at LaSalles. www.facebook.com/soulbutterband
‘Going all Smashing Pumpkins’
As with many young bands, the challenge for Furlough Fridays wasn’t necessarily producing and performing good material—it was solidifying an unstable lineup. More specifically, their challenge was finding a regular drummer.
If you attended one of the alt-rock quintet’s energetic live shows in Chico over the past four years, you saw one of four different drummers who have played alongside vocalist Linda Bergmann, bassist Meagan Yates, rhythm guitarist Adam Yates and lead guitarist Brian Larson since their formation. With a fundamental position in the band in constant flux, it was difficult to focus on recording and writing new material.
Enter 22-year-old Sam Casale, the bespectacled stickman formerly of Sacramento indie outfit Stasis Burden who has held down the Furlough kit for the past five months. Casale left Sacramento to attend Chico State, at which point the band made its move.
“We found out he was moving here so we stole him, and now we love our Sam,” said Meagan Yates.
With a lineup they hope to maintain for a good long while, they are in the process of recording two full albums worth of music at a couple of Chico recording studios—Strange Seed Studios and Origami Lounge. For a band with an uncertain recent history, they believe taking on such a substantial project (or “going all Smashing Pumpkins,” as Adam Yates put it) will allow them to progress creatively.
“There have been songs that stuck around and haven’t, and we’re kind of at the point where we’re done with [the older material],” Casale said. “With the two albums we’ll kind of close that chapter. Let’s just be steady now and work out what we want to do as a band rather than working through the hardships of forming in the first place.”
The members have been influenced by a variety of musicians and styles, but they all shared an interest in the ’90s alternative scene—bands that were on the fringe of rock music but still maintained a pop sensibility. Indeed, Furlough Fridays like making loud, fuzzy noises, but they also don’t shy away from the catchy hook.
“We’re not really a screamin’ band, but this new album has a lot of the grungy, alternative sound with a lot of distorted tones,” Adam Yates said of Sliver, the first of two planned releases this spring and summer. “The other one [New Growth] has a lot of more poppy songs.”
The group hopes to embark on two mini-tours of the West Coast over the summer, city-hopping north to Seattle in June and then south to San Diego in August.
Furlough Fridays performs Saturday, Feb. 11, with The Noetics, Dumpster Dandies and The Deaf Pilots, at Babylon Community Arts Center. www.reverbnation.com/furloughfridays
Vintage pop and psychedelic ramblings
Local musician/producer/musician’s friend Scott Barwick has kept his head in the ’60s over the past few years, first with garage-rock powerhouse Candy Apple, and now with his latest psychedelic pop band Gentlemen’s Coup.
The Chico five-piece doesn’t dive too deep into obscure, dusty record bins, but has cultivated a sound that pulls from Pink Floyd, The Beatles and, even more so, the post-Beatles work of Lennon and McCartney.
“I’m not even that obsessed with The Beatles,” Barwick admitted. “But back in the day I definitely dropped some LSD while listening to The White Album.”
Gentlemen’s Coup has been years in the making, as Barwick has been taking his time with the material. It was shortly after the breakup of Candy Apple that he wrote “Angeline,” a song that morphs the darker, emotional angst found on 1970s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band with McCartney’s quirkier, latter-day ramshackle pop.
Barwick insists he’s not so much obsessed with a certain time period as he is with specific instruments. While Candy Apple relied heavily on Farfisa, Gentlemen’s Coup pushes Mellotron and piano to the forefront. Barwick kept writing, while at the same time working on getting his recording space/venue Origami Lounge up and running. Though the songs got pushed aside, they didn’t go away.
“I don’t know why I held onto [the songs] for so long,” he explained. “I guess I was just waiting for the right group of people.”
That group eventually came together in the form of bassist Branden Smith, Iestin Roughton (aka Dr. Yes!) on keys, drummer Dan Olny and former Candy Appler Summer Maroste, who plays Mellotron samples and tambourine. The band’s shows are usually a mix of to-the-point pop tunes and what Barwick calls “psychedelic ramblings,” which is what he expects to bring to the first Gentlemen’s Coup record.
The rough versions sound promising. “Carnival” gets a lift from a grandiose Queen-inspired chorus, while “Crystal Flowers” veers off into space running on a single, elongated guitar line topped with echo-y vocals. (LSD would probably work with this one.)
“For myself, I need to focus and get this record out,” said Barwick, although he’s not about to rush things. “With this band it’s been not about rushing, but waiting for the right moment. These songs are like babies to me.”
The young mathematicians
Hail the Sun
When drummer Donovan Melero was 19 years old he went to Slim’s in San Francisco to see now-defunct math-rockers The Fall of Troy, featuring one of his musical heroes, guitarist Thomas Erak. That night, while standing in the audience, the precocious young Melero found himself standing next to Erak and turned and shouted to him over the noise, “One day my band is going to tour with your band.”
Today, Melero is a newly graduated Chico State music major whose band Hail the Sun specializes in a high-energy brand of math rock of its own. And, as you might have already guessed, he and the band are indeed going to be touring with Erak’s band—Seattle progressive post-punk crew Just Like Vinyl—on a seven-show West Coast jaunt next month that will stop at Chico’s Origami Lounge on Feb. 24.
“Opening for them is going to be very exciting,” said Melero during a recent interview at his workplace, Woodstock’s Pizza, with bassist John Stirrat.
The tour with JLV is due to the hard work of Melero, who set up the shows and convinced JLV to pair up with his band. And that industriousness is indicative of the DIY spirit at the heart of Hail the Sun over its two-plus years. Since 2009 they’ve gone on tour six times.
“Since our junior year, we’ve been OK to give up our breaks to tour,” Melero said.
In between classes and road trips the band has found the time to put its frenetic brand of constantly shifting post-punk onto one album (Pow, Right in the Kisser) and one single (“Will They Blame Me if You Go Disappearing”)—both of which are available for free download at www.hailthesun.bandcamp.com.
And co-frontmen Shane Gann and Aric Garcia are right now putting the finishing touches on new songs that the band will be recording for an EP to be released in the spring. The funding for the EP came courtesy of a successful Kickstarter.com campaign that raised $2,500, thanks in part to an irreverent video starring the band’s hilarious bassist. “We just kind of improvised,” Stirrat admitted.
With its commitment to get out of town, Hail the Sun has always been as much a band of the road as a Chico band (a blueprint more young local bands would be smart to emulate), but with everyone having graduated, after this school semester home base will shift to SoCal. Chances are, though, that Chico will be on the schedule of many more tours to come.
Hail the Sun performs with Just Like Vinyl, Final Last Words and Cinematic Projections Friday, Feb. 24, at Origami Lounge. www.facebook.com/hailthesun
Vintage Nor Cal
“Straight and Narrow”—the first song from Chico oldies but newbies Miracle Mile—is a breezy number that brings to mind the mid-tempo twang of Gas Food Lodging-era Green on Red. Much of the song’s country vibe comes from guitarist/lick-meister Jason Willmon, who moonlights with Portland-by-way-of-Chico honkey-tonk weirdos Flash Flood & the Dikes. The impetus for Miracle Mile, however, is Kelly Bauman, known around these parts as a founding member of noise-pop legends Deathstar.
Bauman recently re-entered Chico’s atmosphere after more than a decade in the Pacific Northwest, and wasted little time getting to work.
“It’s really comfortable to settle back into playing with people I’d played with before,” said Bauman, who joined up with former Deathstar bassist Ken Lovgren and drummer Colby Mancasola, who spent years in indie-rock heroes Knapsack.
Miracle Mile joins the forces of four musicians who cut their teeth in bands while growing up in the sun-hammered plot of Redding. Back then, Willmon, Lovgren and Mancasola all played in For Pete’s Sake, while Bauman was delivering the goods in Case for Radio.
Miracle Mile is a band raised on the glorious noise of The Replacements and Superchunk, and the combined mileage under their belts only adds to their pop smarts.
While the genteel demo “Straight and Narrow” is the only thing listeners currently have at their disposal, the new material is shaping up to be a little more rambunctious, which, given their pedigrees, seems like a no-brainer. “It’s a Replacements-like version of what I was doing in Portland,” said Bauman, who released the stunning jangler Gomorrah in 2009. As for the band’s slight country bent: “I don’t want it to be all whiskey and wallet-chains. You want it to be smarter than the average bear.”
The members of Miracle Mile hit Chico’s Origami Lounge with Portland musician/producer Mike Coykendall, who’s manned the boards for M. Ward and Blitzen Trapper, among others. Bauman says the session will likely produce five songs, which should see the light of day this spring, with more shows to follow.
Perhaps it’s Chico’s warm and cozy vibe that brought these guys back together. “It’s kind of funny—20 years later and we’re all in the same room,” Bauman said. Whatever the reason, it’s going to benefit the discerning ears of those paying attention.