Where It's At
The Oakland Hills (and Flats) Are Alive With the Sound of Music
By Kimberly Chun
When it comes to music, Oakland is the spot to be. Check the scene at 21 Grand, when Sonic Youth side project Mirror/Dash, dashing over from an opening gig for Pearl Jam at Bill Graham Civic, packs the humble experimental-music nonprofit. Slip among the crammed @17th crew of burly swains and sizzlin’ seductresses grinding as the Coup’s Pam the Funkstress spins the latest hyphy hits. Spy on the greaser girls and wild-eyed boys frugging to blistering garage rock at the sweat-soaked Stork Club’s Budget Rock Showcase.
The city’s hyperactive, expansive, multi-genre music scene is happening, and creatives have transformed The Town into the unofficial launching and landing pad for many a revolution, from punk-poppers to laptop rockers to backpacking hip-hoppers.
This isn’t news to anyone who’s kept even half an ear cocked to rock, soul, blues and hip-hop over the years, because Oakland has played host to superstars like Sly and the Family Stone and Tower of Power, and unsung heroes like funk guitar hotshot Eugene Blacknell. Too $hort pioneered the stripped-down, bumping breed of late ’80s hip-hop in O-town, tailed by the humpty hop digressions of Digital Underground, and the city has likewise provided an earthly base camp for hieroglyphic-patterned spacecraft of such interstellar jazz experimentalists as Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.
Artists and bands—and clubs and venues—may come and go, but stalwarts like the aforementioned nightspots, plus the Paramount Theatre, Eli’s Mile High Club, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, Dorsey’s Locker, the Uptown, Mama Buzz, Lobot Gallery and off-the-grid impromptu party spaces like the Cereal Factory keep making a go of it. And new breeds and new bands keep cropping up to keep the scene fresh. Consider this compendium of selected scorching Oakland acts, laid out by genre, as a brief overview of the aural riches found here.
Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days Classic California country doesn’t get much more authentic—or heartfelt—than Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days. Blame it on longtime Oakland denizen Gleason’s encyclopedic knowledge and undying affection for a vanishing breed of guitar-based roots rock and country. Then bask in the stellar, full-blown accordion, pedal steel, fiddle and organ arrangements of Gleason, singer-songwriter Mike Therieau on bass, ex-Loved Ones John Kent on drums and Pat Johnson on acoustic guitar. The latest Wasted Days album, Just Fall to Pieces (Well Worn), is a worthy new addition to any music library touched by the sort of sun-soaked, teary, beery heartbreak first established by Bakersfield icons Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart, adopted in the late ’60s and early ’70s by the late country rocker Gram Parsons and lovingly maintained today by Dwight Yoakam and Dave Alvin.
Gleason has certainly logged enough years in the Bay Area music scene to speak—and sing—from experience. The Concord-reared singer-songwriter remembers moving to the suburbs in 1974: “It was 20,000 people and orchards and redneck kids on BMX bikes,” he says. He was soon drawn west through the tunnel to where his guitar-picking pop played on the then-white-hot C&W live music scene lining San Pablo Avenue. Eventually he got a chance to do session work as a drummer with everything from punk to metal to glam outfits. “Back when I was a kid, I would pretty much play any kind of music with anybody. I was so thrilled anyone would ask me,” Gleason, 39, recalls. He hung out with the Martinez punk combo Pariah and producer-engineers Kevin Army (Green Day) and Matt Wallace (Faith No More) and toiled in the retail record biz at Rasputin Music and then Amoeba Music (where he until recently priced vinyl) before finding his way to the guitar and songwriting.
After casting about in a rockier, Stonesier sound, Gleason has, since 2002’s Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days (Well Worn Records), settled in on the workingman’s-blues of C&W. “I never get tired of what my dad used to play around the house and those bands he was in,” he says. “Buck Owens, Ray Price, anything with big, weeping steel guitar and a hot-lead guitar, just Bakersfield barroom songs—I just never get tired of that stuff.”
Gleason conceived of Just Fall to Pieces as a “pretty traditional California country album.” But, he adds, “I always push the boundaries. I think there’s Led Zeppelin III and late-period Everly Brothers in there, which is my favorite period of music.” And he goes on to note his affection for select recordings by the Band and the Faces—“incredibly loose and crazy jam sessions that caught some magic.”
It sounds like Gleason, who recently relocated to Ventura in southern California, is searching for such alchemy, when he says, “I absolutely love chasing after that.”
Favorite East Bay bands: Yard Sale (“Jill Olson of Red Meat’s side project”), Bart Davenport and Sean Smith.
Favorite local hangs: Baggy’s by the Lake and the Parkway Theater.
Track: "Just Fall to Pieces"
Indie Dance Pop
What do you get when you cross the Human League’s ’80s synth-cool with Justin Timberlake’s all-American sexuality and the Bay Area music scene’s talent for party-starting? The poppiest, catchiest and most polished combo to emerge from the wild ’n’ wooly turn-of-the-millennium Bay Area house party/warehouse scene: The Lovemakers. The group has one foot in the mainstream—witness the band’s brief dalliance with major label Interscope for its last full-length, 2005’s Times of Romance. And the band has another boot in the underground that birthed them—hence, their return to the local indie Fuzz label and their need for day jobs; vocalist-bassist-violinist Lisa Light has been on the wait staff at Oliveto in Oakland for five years.
“We always have so much on our plate!” exclaims Light. The band has just returned from a mini-tour to support its new Fuzz EP, Misery Loves Company, and she’s back at work, which she adores. “They’re very cute over there [at Oliveto],” she says, noting that coworkers posted a Lovemakers article in the kitchen. Judging from her flirtatious audacity as a performer, her taste for pushing the edges of pop and her band’s early predilection for making out on stage and stripping down for photos, Light is clearly a woman of high passion. Her flair for drama is mixed with a goodly dose of earth-centered honesty, which comes into play when discussing the artifice that their sexed-up show might require now that Light and fellow Lovemaker and ex-lover Scott Blonde have ended their relationship.
“It doesn’t seem weird to keep feeding off each other in that way,” she says a little demurely. “That’s just how we’ve always done it. It’s fun for everyone. It’s not weird.” For instance, at a midsummer Lovemakers show with LCD Soundsystem at the Mezzanine, she recalls, “This guy got totally, completely naked. My least favorite thing to hear is, ‘Take it off!’ and I’m usually like, ‘You take it off!’ ” He took it all off. “That was a successful show—lots of bras onstage!”
Love, sex, and a general loosening of inhibitions are Lovemakers trademarks. The band began in 2002 after Light hooked up with Blonde, then working at Saturn Records on College Avenue, and joined his group, Applesaucer (until the rest of that outfit began complaining about their escalating, ahem, intimacy). Taking their moniker from the Japanese film The Weird Lovemakers, Light and Blonde teamed up with keyboardist Jason Proctor. Live 105 began playing the band’s music, and major labels began nosing around. But making the Interscope album in L.A. turned out to be a special sort of hell: Light and Blonde broke up two weeks before the recording session and grew disillusioned with the glamour and discouraged by their label’s lack of support.
Now, however, Light is excited about writing what she jokingly calls “hits” for their next Fuzz EP, which they’ve been planning to record with acclaimed Chicago producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey): “It’s kind of our dream come true,” she says, looking forward to a “more evil” sound. “We’re also sick of writing love songs,” adds this Lovemaker, who’s obviously unwilling to look back.
Favorite East Bay bands: High on Fire and Keak da Sneak.
Favorite local hangs: The Berkeley Rose Garden tennis court, Tilden Park and Oliveto.
Track: "Whine & Dine"
HoneycutYou can teach old scene-ster dogs new tricks: On its 2006 debut, The Day I Turned to Glass (Quannum Projects), these East Bay–music vets have managed to dream up some of the freshest yet sleekest chill electro-pop songs—and sounds—around. Honeycut generates a sparkling, proudly synthetic brand of shadow-swathed funk informed in equal parts by ’70s soul, ’80s Euro-pop and sample-roving hip-hop. Once essentially a lab project, the band has taken on a sprightly, even deeply sexy, life of its own, stepping out of the studio and causing a stir on indie-rock dance floors. Attribute the fuss to the smart ’n’ suave, R&B-flavored sample-tecture built by Hervé Salters, who has played with Nigerian star Femi Kuti and Blackalicious and released an LP as General Elektriks two years ago; the sensuous beats of Tony Sevener, who played drums in the popular Santa Barbara alt-rock band Summercamp; and the boyish Anglo, albeit tres Malcolm X Elementary, soul of Bart Davenport, known for his own indie rock-folk solo recordings as well as his work with the Loved Ones and the Kinetics.
The threesome met through friends and ended up all working the same day job—listening to music, writing reviews and analyzing musical data for the Web site Mongo Music. A Microsoft buyout moved them all up to Seattle to work for MSN Music until they were finally laid off. It’s a sad yet familiar dot-com tale of boom and bust that eventually proved Honeycut’s creative boon as the three began to collaborate on what Salters now describes as “little chemical experiments.”
“It was only a lab project, not a band per se,” he explains, “and we didn’t really know if we were going to make an album or not, until eventually we stumbled on what the band could become and played some of these experiments to Chief Xcel [a member of Blackalicious and co-owner of Quannum Projects], and he liked what he heard. That sealed our fate in a sense, and that’s what kicked us in the butt and made us finish the songs and really forge this thing into a band, because we hadn’t played on stage at that point.”
Using studio techniques established by hip-hop and electronic music producers, Sevener sampled old vinyl and programmed rhythms with those sounds. Salters grabbed and tweaked string, horn and guitar samples, fit them to chord progressions and then did some radical “sample Frankensteining on the computer.” Combined with Salters’ vintage ’60s and ’70s keyboards and Davenport’s soul-tinted singing and classic dance-club lyrics (which grew darker and more abstract at Salters’ urging), those approaches led to Honeycut’s new school-meets-old school sound. Now, a year and a half after Honeycut completed its final mix and played its first show, it seems like all the band needs is a hit—something Honeycut’s manager, Braden Merrick (who once managed the Killers), is attempting to accomplish with the release of the combo’s first single, “Shadows,” in England this fall; that strategy, well, killed for the last group under his charge.
Favorite East Bay bands: Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, the Moore Brothers, Mystery Trend, Country Joe and the Fish, Shuggie Otis, Too $hort, the Rubinoos and the Time Flys.
Favorite local hangs: Kitty’s Bar in Emeryville, Mama Buzz, 21 Grand, Children’s Fairyland, the Parkway Theater and Mountain View Cemetery.
Saviours It’s hard to imagine the tough-looking, black-clad rock dudes of Saviours—one of the hardest rock-metal combos in the Bay Area—kickin’ it like the Monkees in their band clubhouse. Yet that seems to be the vibe of the group’s home at 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland: Drummer Scott Batiste, vocalist-guitarist Austin Barber and guitarist D. Tyler Morris all bunk down together, and extreme togetherness and a very unified hard-rock view of the world have been the result. “We get along,” says Batiste, on the phone from his mother’s home in Phoenix, where the band was “detoxing” after a short tour before heading into A&M/Henson Studios in L.A. to record the group’s first album for the respected indie label Kemado.
Yet don’t mistake theirs for the archetypal den of rockin’ chaos à la the infamous Stooges house in Ann Arbor, Mich., or even the notorious Barrington Hall in Berkeley. “I’ve lived in enough punk houses that I can’t do that anymore,” confesses Batiste. “I can’t live in filth.” You might guess as much listening to the full-throttle yet bracingly disciplined bottom-heavy metallic stomp of the Saviours’ immensely satisfying last album, Crucifire (Level Plane, 2006). Tracks like “Rise to Pyramid Form” race for the hills with the breakneck ferocity of classic Motorhead, Reign in Blood–era Slayer and a particularly frenetic Iron Maiden. Throughout, Barber shouts for the devil while the rest of the ensemble keeps it lean and mean, even when Morris breaks open rippling, almost lyrical, flourishes of lead guitar over the inexorable rhythms of Batiste and bassist Cyrus Comiskey. Propelled by a powerful live show and a key opening-track appearance on Kemado’s 2006 Invaders compilation, the band seems poised for even more intriguing turns with Cavern of Mind, a one-sided 12-inch EP, due out this fall, and the Saviours’ Kemado debut, slated for February. The new tunes, says Batiste, are “longer, heavier, a little more aggressive than before.”
The quartet formed began in 2002, rising from the ashes of Batiste and Barber’s old combo, Yaphet Kotto. “The band was named before we even practiced,” Batiste says. “It’s kind of disappointing to go try to look for heavy records and find that most punk is garbage these days, just a lot of weird eyeliner. We’re just a heavy band; we’re not trying to be a punk or metal or hardcore band, and we’re just filtering all our influences over the years and trying to just be brutal and pissed.”
Which explains the transgressive, sacrilegious lyrics and cover artwork of these rock ’n’ roll saviors-of-a-sort. “Austin grew up in Arkansas and Colorado, and he’s a product of a super-conservative environment, and he rejected it all, rightly,” says Batiste who grew up in Santa Cruz along with two other Saviours. In belief, as with music, the Saviours go it alone. “In our own way,” says Batiste, a tinge of defiance in his voice, “we do what we want.”
Favorite East Bay bands: High on Fire and Annihilation Time.
Favorite local hang: Silver Lion Buffet.
Track: "Cavern of Mind"
Mistah F.A.B. He’s super sick; so, so quick with the hot rhymes; the so-called “Prince of the Bay;” and the rapper voted most likely to guest on every hyphy disc out of the Yay Area. And Mistah F.A.B. didn’t title his second album Son of a Pimp (Thizz Entertainment) for nothing.
“I’m a hustler,” he drawls from the Oakland studio where he’s making beats with Moses of the Click. Of his father, Stanley Cox Sr., F.A.B. says, “I think I’m the spittin’ image of him and just very driven, though maybe for a different goal. We have the same drive and ambition and gift of inspiration and good soul.” Behind the pimp, he asserts, was an intelligent man, a mason who was involved in the Black Panthers and another fatality of the AIDS epidemic. Fans might have gleaned a little of F.A.B.’s heritage from Son of a Pimp’s eloquent tracks like “Where’s My Daddy,” “If Papa Was Home” and the ode to a wayward but loving mother, “Mama Song”—slices of reality tucked between hits like F.A.B.’s anthem “Super Sic Wit It” (with turns by Turf Talk and E-40).
That background as a survivor has helped the rapper deal with more recent adversity as well. First, a December 2006 Associated Press story linked his Atlantic debut Da Yellow Bus Rydah’s advance single, “Ghost Ride It”—which spun off the popularity of ghost-riding, or throwing your car into neutral as you walk and steer—to two quasi-ghost-riding deaths in Stockton and Canada. Second, last March, the video was hit with a cease-and-desist letter for copyright infringement, stopping Yellow Bus in its tracks indefinitely. Third, F.A.B. came forward publicly with charges that hip-hop powerhouse KMEL was not playing his songs because he hosted a now-defunct show on rival station Wild 94.9.
But F.A.B. isn’t letting those speed bumps stop him. “The music industry is cutting back on the number of projects they’re putting out and getting behind. What you have to show them is the ability to push forward and stay relevant without help from the majors’ machine,” he says, hailing the Heiroglyphics’ Casual, who enters the studio as we talk. “We’re trying to cultivate a movement.” F.A.B. has certainly kept rolling: May brought Da Baydestrian (SMC/Fontana) and August saw a new F.A.B. freestyle mixtape, The Realest S--- I Never Wrote and his Prince of Da Bay DVD (In Yo Face/Hooker Boy Filmz). An all-freestyle compilation CD, The Tonite Show, produced by DJ Fresh, is on the horizon, as is the North Oakland–reared F.A.B.’s cross-hood mixtape collaboration, N.E.W. Oakland, with J-Stalin and Beeda Weeda representing West and East Oakland respectively. “I’m not really worried about radio politics,” says the man who recently won Best West Coast Rapper at the Ozone Awards in Miami. “They’ll just wonder, how am I in all these magazines? How is it that every artist is after me? That worries them.”
Favorite East Bay band: Chris da 5th.
Favorite local hang: Hiero Compound in East Oakland.
Track: " Ghost Ride It"
Maldroid Cocky, rockin’ and brash as they come, Oakland’s Maldroid could be the poster child for a new music-industry paradigm: Teaming with its San Francisco label, Fuzz, the band is dreaming up highly interactive—and still somewhat top-secret—schemes for its next four EPs, which will comprise a complete concept album, to be released over the next year. The series will be designed to work fans into a lather with a prize-dangling scavenger hunt, complete with clues embedded in music videos, CD art, stores, Web sites and, natch, the music itself.
Arty and enterprising, the project is completely to be expected from a group led by Academy of Art College dropout Ryan Devine. The Maldroid mastermind launched the band’s buzz-snagging career by thinking of it as “the ultimate art project.” He made the video for the group’s first über-catchy modern-rock number, “He Said, She Said,” which he conceived, shot and drew panel by panel over the course of a year, loosely basing its retro-’80s imagery on a-ha’s 1985 “Take on Me.”
“I think one of the problems with music videos is that everything’s like an episode of Cribs. They spend about $50,000 to talk about their cars and how much money they have,” declares the 25-year-old Devine, who “begged, stole and cheated” to get the gear and taught himself how to use the software needed to produce the kicky clip, which references the first music video ever played on MTV (the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”).
“He Said, She Said” found its fans, big time: It won Best Music Video in YouTube’s Underground Contest last year, and that momentum carried the band to Good Morning America and catapulted it onto Live 105. After a bout of label bidding, Maldroid chose to use Fuzz in its plan for total world domination: Devine says they’ll be making vids for every track on the EPs, and will include short samples of each song that listeners can remix and sell online. For a budding band, viral marketing seems to be the way to go, and it’s worked, judging from the rapt, mostly teenaged crowd at an energetic summer show at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. “I just think it’s a cool way to engage people, and it’s fun for them to do,” Devine explains. “Who knows, there might be some kid in Houston that comes up with a sick remix.”
Defining Maldroid as a “malfunctioning robot,” Devine sounds like he’s also embedding his own critique of technology—and the very Net that built up his band—into the massive rock guitars and slick synthesizer washes, much like his fellow uniform-sporting heroes Devo. “We’re so technology-based that I feel like we’ve become robots, doing the same thing day in and day out,” he says. “We’re the bad droid, the black sheep, and we’re going to break out of that conformity.”
Favorite East Bay bands: The Lovemakers, the Phenomenauts, Royalty and Panda.
Favorite local hangs: Mama Buzz, Radio, Ruby Room, the Stork Club, Oakland Art Murmur and the Oakland Public Library (main library).
Track: "Heck No! (I'll Never Listen To Techno)"
Subtle (Astralwerks/Lex, 2006), and assorted remix projects, the band established its genius with vocalist-keyboardist Dax Pierson, cellist-bassist Alexander Kort, Adam Drucker (a.k.a., Doseone) is a poet, and he knows it. And his sprawling Oakland six-piece Subtle puts its own psychedelia-dappled, high-art, highly abstracted spin on indie hip-hop and electronic sounds, both profane and profound. Over the course of two critically lauded albums, A New White (Lex, 2004) and For Hero: For Fool drummer-guitarist Jordan Dalrymple, beat maker Jeffrey “Jel” Logan and woodwind-synth player Marty Dowers supporting Drucker’s motor-mouth 21st-century-beatnik spiels. The sublime arrangements of samples and acoustic instruments, intermingling boom-bip beats and strings haven’t been too shabby, either.
Not the least of it is the concept threading through For Hero: For Fool, which Drucker, 30, describes as the “exploits of our hero, Yes, who begins a new life and follows his wildest dreams.” The conceit of the middle-class protagonist’s “jaunt through all things common and ordeals” continues through the band’s forthcoming EP, Yell & Ice (Lex), on which For Hero tracks have been revised by Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Hodd’s Chris Adams and others. Drucker has been rephrasing the lyrics, chopping up the songs, sending the bits out, getting them back and finishing them up with the band. “At no point is it a skin graft of a remix. Nobody in this universe wants another remix record,” he quips, going on to describe the EP as an almanac that details Yes’ imaginary world. “I’ve written 20,000 words and no first person. I don’t write anti-Bush songs or Napster anthems.”
Yet real-life events have managed to creep into Subtle’s richly embroidered dream world. The band was born when Logan and Drucker, who’s also a founding member of pivotal Anticon combo Clouddead, found a shared affinity for the same samplers with Pierson. (Drucker and Pierson were fellow employees at Amoeba Music in Berkeley.) But their carefree new project hit its greatest challenge in 2005 when Subtle’s van hit a patch of black ice and slid off the road in Iowa. Severely injured in the accident, Pierson was left a paraplegic.
After many benefits and operations, Pierson continues to make music with Subtle, working on sound files through Ableton Live software, though he’s unable to tour. Inadvertently he’s also instilled a sense of urgency in his bandmates: Drucker came to realize that, like everyone else, he’s a “ticking clock” with a limited lifespan, and that’s why he prods himself—and Subtle—to greater feats. In addition to Subtle, he’s a member of Themselves, 13 and God. “No break for the wicked. Nerds behind it all,” the rapper rambles. How does he keep all his projects straight? “My manager’s the best,” he deadpans. “She’s a small gray housecat. She doesn’t speak or read or write. I have all sorts of whimsical tabs on my imagination.”
Favorite East Bay band: Thee More Shallows.
Favorite local hang: The Parkway Theater.
Why stop with these Oakland playas? Check out these other artists:
ANTICON LABEL BANDS: TWEAKED, PSYCHEDELIC HIP-HOP
High on Fire
RETRO-MINDED ROCK ’N’ ROLL
The Time Flys
Strip Mall Seizures
EXPERIMENTAL INDIE ROCK
Street to Nowhere