A family affair
Holiday Flyer, the California Oranges and the Sinking Ships combine to form a new band, Safari
John Conley sat at a table with his bandmates from the new local aggregation, Safari, and concentrated hard on the pint glass in his hand. He’d been asked what makes this core group of musicians, from some of Sacramento’s seminal pure-pop bands, work so well together.
“The thing ultimately about this band is that we’re like a family first, and the band is kinda—” Conley started saying before Verna Brock chimed in.
“Well, a lot of you are family!” she said, amid laughs.
It’s been a longstanding inside joke among Sacramento musicians, especially downtown bands, but the scene is, truly, incestuous. Like bees woozy on nectar and wanting to cross-pollinate, a few cats in a jazz combo might find their way into a noise ensemble, or a couple of bands might swap members, and voilà, you get a whole new flower. It makes for a convoluted family tree, but the fruits are delicious. But in Safari’s case, the lineage is more than musical, and it’s anything but incestuous.
Safari is guitarist and vocalist John Conley; his sister, vocalist and burgeoning keyboardist Katie Haley; twin brothers Matt and Ross Levine on guitar and drums, respectively; and Verna Brock, Conley’s longtime partner, vocalist and bassist. The five started Safari after Holiday Flyer ended a year ago “with a whimper” and after the California Oranges (consisting of the Levines, Brock and Conley) and the Sinking Ships (the same lineup minus Conley and plus Haley) got tired of what Ross Levine described as “competing with ourselves.” So, they put those two groups to rest and concentrated all their talents on the new band.
In what promises to be one of the great new pop groups in Northern California, Safari has four strong songwriters and three seasoned voices with years of harmonizing together. Safari’s songs are deceptively complex, with well-thought-out arrangements and two guitars that give the sonics a bit more heft than in the previous incarnations. The six-strings chime and shine as the rhythm pushes the songs along like a stroll through a pile of fallen leaves on a sunny autumn day. Conley acknowledges the influence of the Bats and the Clean, two New Zealand bands that share the brilliant songwriter Robert Scott, but you also can hear such bands as the Church, the Pastels and the Feelies in their songs. Conley and Haley both enthused about their love of Young Marble Giants, a late-1970s Welsh band that provided the blueprint for indie-pop. So, what’s different about Safari’s sound compared with that of past bands?
“Even with the Ships’ record and the Oranges’ record, people were mentioning the ’80s, in certain parts,” Conley said affably. “For me, it was like, ‘That doesn’t sound ’80s!’ and I was kind of defensive about it. Now I see that but in a good way. I just want to embrace it, take it back and go with it.”
“More like Brit-pop ’80s,” Haley added.
“And the more underground stuff—labels like 53rd & 3rd,” said Conley, name-checking the label on which such bands as BMX Bandits, the Pooh Sticks, the Shop Assistants and the Vaselines got their start.
But Matt Levine thinks that it’s more than just musical influences. “The big jump that I see is we all use our assets,” he explained. “In the California Oranges, John was the main force, even though we all brought a lot to it. And in the Sinking Ships, Katie was the main focus. In Safari, everyone feels like they have something to contribute. For me, personally, I think my guitar work is a lot more interesting.” To add more color to Safari’s rich palette, Brock—a 25-year piano veteran—is teaching Haley to tickle the ivories.
“Once someone comes in with their sketch, everyone paints on it—leaves their stamp,” explained Conley about their democratic songwriting. They have eight songs near completion; they’re just putting final touches on their vocals. “It’s been a while since I’ve sung with my brother,” Haley enthused, “and we’ve been doing separate vocal practices, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I love this! I love singing with John!’ It made me realize how much I love doing that.”