All Ears

“Buildings demolished on your cellphone”: Ratskin Records’ experimental resilience

Ratskin Records artist Tyler Holmes

ALL EARS Michael Daddona never thought he’d own a dog. 

“What’s a dog even gonna do at a noise show?” he asks. “Or sit around while I’m tinkering with electronics? They’re gonna hate it.” 

But when a stray dog wandered into his house, flopped down on the couch and made itself at home, what could he do? “I guess I have a dog,” he figured. Blade is now sort of the unofficial dog of Ratskin Records, the experimental label Daddona co-founded in 2003.

Sudden, no-turning-back decisions seem to be a constant in Daddona’s life. A week before the dog showed up, Ratskin co-founder, Jsun McCarty, died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that took 36 lives in Oakland in 2016. Daddona knew and had worked with many of the deceased, and he almost shut the label down: “I think I just felt so overwhelmed and confused I didn’t feel physically I could even really think about that kind of stuff,” he says. 

But he soldiered on—“and that was kinda when I decided I was gonna do [Ratskin] for the rest of my life,” he says. “I don’t really believe in destiny, but I’m good enough at it, and it brings me enough passion that I think it’s worthwhile.”

Ratskin released mostly noise music early on but quickly expanded to acommodate artists across the the experimental spectrum, many of whom are women or people of color. The label’s become known for its gargantuan compilations: 2008’s Triskaidekaphobia—a 200-song album of 13-second songs by assorted artists—and the 10-disc, 183-song Ghost Ship benefit Rogue Pulse/Gravity Collapse. This weekend, Fri/7-Sun/9, Ratskin is curating Stasis: A Festival of Sound, Performance, Video, and Art at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, featuring dozens of participants including Auscultation, Las Sucias, Piano Rain, and E. Hernandez. 

Daddona lives in Oakland but maintains a day job at a homebrew supply shop in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Amid the frenzied barking of Blade and several other shop dogs, we met up with Daddona to discuss the now nearly 15-year-old label and the practicality of running a small experimental label in the Bay Area, hardly the friendliest place for DIY artists.

48HILLS: How’d you get your start in music?

MICHAEL DADONNA I grew up in the hardcore/metalcore scene in Connecticut. Most of the shows were at this place called the Hanover House [in Meriden, CT], which was this old Hell’s Angels bar. On one side was the Hell’s Angels bar where the bathroom was, and on the other side was the all-ages club. If you wanted to go to the bathroom most people would pee outside because no one wanted to go into the Hell’s Angels part.

I was getting in a lot of trouble, all my friends were getting into hard drugs, so I said OK, San Francisco, this is pretty much the complete opposite side of the country. The first house I lived in turned out to be a Russian Mafia trap house. I was just trying to go to school and I’d come home and there were 900 Ecstasy pills on the table, so I moved out and about five days after I moved out the feds raided the place. Needless to say, I never got my security deposit back.

48H What attracts you to experimental music?

MD For me it’s an appreciation of the sounds themselves. I remember even when I was a young kid hearing a sound and hearing music in it, even if it turns out to be a radiator. And I appreciate the accessibility of it. If you want to play drums in a death metal band you have to have a certain skillset. With experimental music it’s about the idea. You can be technically proficient playing experimental music, but it’s not a necessity. You can just record the sound of a building being demolished on your cellphone, that could be an album.

48H Speaking of accessibility, many of the artists on the Ratskin roster are queer/non-men/people of color. What challenges do artists of marginalized identities face in experimental music?

MD Ultimately it’s about who’s in power to write about the music, put out records, put on shows. A lot of the representation was always white men, but who’s playing the music wasn’t always necessarily white men. There would be women and people of color performing, but they wouldn’t have the same accolades, they wouldn’t have labels reaching out to put out their records. A lot of experimental music comes out of abstract jazz, from Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane. But when you look at the “history” of noise, it’s Whitehouse—it gets colonized. 

48H In the last, say, five or 10 years, what’s improved and what hasn’t as far as representation?

MD One problem that’s developed is tokenization. Maybe you have a show where they’ve booked four male artists and they think, “oh, we need to put a woman on here,” so they start reaching out to women artists who at that point are being used as pawns to make the promoters look good. What’s getting better is more women and people of color are having their work seen, and that’s in part because of the political climate. When white supremacy is addressed and talked about, we realize how it permeates all aspects of culture. Music is an extension of daily life, so what affects who a cop arrests when they go to a bar also affects who gets to play a show.

48H What are the biggest misconceptions about experimental music?

MD I think it’s brushed off as “they dont know how to make music, they never learned scales,” but I don’t think that’s true. Noise is not an excuse to not have to learn. It’s just a different investigation of things. Most of the noise musicians I know come from punk or metal or hip hop and have a certain skillset. Lots of artists we work with reference soul and pop and R&B and rock and all of that, but they do it in a way where the approach and philosophy and politics are as important as the sound, and that’s where the experimentation comes in. 

Michael Dadonna and Blade

48H What’s the biggest challenge of running a small experimental label?

MD It’s financially almost impossible to run a small label. It has to be a labor of love. If I’m not at my normal job or making music I’m doing label stuff. Every year we’ve lost money, we’ll continue to lose money next year, but if it can come close to breaking even I’m OK with that. I’ve put enough work into it that at this point there’s no turning back. 

48H What makes it worth it?

MD What makes it worth it is when someone goes up to the artist or comes up to me and says “I really love this record, thank you for putting it out,” or “I had a great time at this show, I felt safe, thank you for putting it on.” And when I see friends of mine make it to the next level, playing music festivals, opening up for X or Y band—seeing my friends thrive. 

STASIS: A FESTIVAL OF SOUND, PERFORMANCE, VIDEO, AND ART
Curated by Ratskin Records 
Fri/7-Sun/9, $25.
Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland. 
More info here

After the mudslides, Kendra McKinley’s musical dispatch from ‘Big Sur Island’

Kendra McKinley. Photo by Staci DeGagne & Sarah Jaffe

ALL EARS In the high season of May to October 2017, Big Sur was ghost town. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was under construction in the north when mudslides wiped out Highway 1 in the south, leaving 35 miles of majestic coastline accessible only by a winding, three-hour detour through the Santa Lucia mountains. 

Big Sur Island—as the locals called it—disappeared with the reopening of the bridge, but you can hear its echo in Henry Miller Memorial Library Sessions, the new EP from Bay Area singer-songwriter Kendra McKinley. For five weeks starting that September, McKinley was the artist-in-residence at the Henry Miller Library—though “residence” perhaps oversells the living conditions, which involved tent camping and boiling her own shower water. McKinley returns to the Henry Miller Library on December 7 for an EP release concert that will weave together the songs she wrote and recorded there with tales of her adventures and the characters she met along the way. Diana Gameros will open the show with songs from her own recent album, Arrullo.

McKinley offered a deep dive into the transformative power of an experience as rare as a trip to Big Sur Island: the chance for a Bay Area artist to step out of the hustle and just create art. It took battling rodents, and facing down her own demons, for the chanteuse to finally “peel back the bullshit” and delight in her own first takes. 

McKinley performing in front of the library during her residency. Photo courtesy of Kendra McKinley.

48 HILLS How did you come to do a residency at the library in the first place?

MCKINLEY I played at Henry Miller Library twice before, so I had a relationship to the place. Every single time I go to Big Sur, I just always felt like the fullest version of myself. Everything makes sense. Mental knots untie. And that was very attractive for someone who’s a songwriter to imagine what it would be like to go there and be creative. And my friend Sarah Shashaani who works there, told me that, because it was basically a ghost town, that it would be a great time to do a residency. 

48 HILLS Did you live on-site? What was the setup?

MCKINLEY I lived in a tent, for five weeks, on-site. I would work in the bookstore three days a week. I performed free concerts there every Saturday, for whichever guests managed to take the brave trek. I would just have the door wide open, and I would be playing piano, and then a cyclist would come in, and they’d be enchanted by this weird place, and they would sit down and forget what time it was. That was the default setting.

And other than that, I just got to make music there. And I could not be peeled away from my instruments. It was the first time in my life that I actually got to approach songwriting like a full-time job. Having that freedom was fabulous because that’s what I would love to be focusing on at all times, but the realities of being a musician means that you have to hustle and have a lot of jobs. On a creative level, it just was so nourishing.

It’s also really intense because there’s no internet, there’s barely any people, and you’re just kind of there with yourself. That degree of introspection can be extremely uncomfortable because you have to accept these things about you that you don’t want to accept. And one of those things about me was that I am an absolute perfectionist when I make things. And when you let that perfectionism win, you don’t get to enjoy the process. 

48 HILLS What were your goals going into the experience?

MCKINLEY I had a goal to make an EP. But I also deliberately challenged myself to abandon a sense of preciousness about the creative process. I have a lot of voice memos, one of which is: I was working on a song on the piano, and a person comes in, and I start to have a conversation with them, and now I’m writing songs with other people in the room!

One of the songs on the EP was actually the second song I’d ever written as a high school student. I wanted to revisit that to embrace this whole notion of accepting the first take in the recording process, thinking about a recording experience as capturing a moment, instead of obsessing over perfection.

48 HILLS It’s so interesting to hear you say that because I remember reading a Bay Bridged piece that was written while you were recording your first album, Treat. The writer is worrying that the song “Telling Truths” won’t even make it on the album because you didn’t like your vocal take.  

MCKINLEY Precisely. I just think that we get in our own way, in so many different areas of life. With Treat, I also was in the studio for the first time and was trying to make a definitive statement about the artist that I was, without actually knowing what that meant. I wasn’t able to direct the project or distill it into a statement because I was also just completely enchanted by the fact that I was in a studio. Each song is like a musical buffet, and I’m trying to figure out: what meal of the day are we eating? I like all these different ingredients, but how do I make a meal that I can serve?

48 HILLS Did your songwriting change as you let go of your pursuit of perfection?

MCKINLEY I think of that songwriting chapter as a palate cleanser. Treat was a very theatrical, extroverted work, and I just felt so tired from pretending that I was still that same person that made it. I needed to introspect. And that’s why, even though I brought my laptop, I just wanted to play the funky piano that was filled with excrement because it was in the woods. That’s a whole other challenge of recording there: dealing with Rodentia.

Henry Miller Memorial Library Sessions album art. Photo by Brittany Powers.

48 HILLS I was going to ask how you were able to record there! Were you dealing with rodents in more ways than just the piano?

MCKINLEY My friend Scott McDowell, who’s an engineer at Hyde Street Studios, drove down, and we just recorded when the library was closed, over the course of two and a half days.

And we’d be tracking, and then we’d hear this knocking noise and be like, “Okay, we have to figure out what it is because we can’t record if there’s intermittent knocking.” So we would investigate: “Oh, oh, it’s in this cupboard!” Pull out miscellaneous nails and books, and just vacuum it out, and clog up the hole that was created by mice—and that would take an hour. And then go back and be like, “Okay, now I’m going to track some bass.” 

48 HILLS Can you describe one of the songs that you wrote and recorded while you were there?

MCKINLEY To me, “Face to Face” is the thesis statement of the whole thing. That was the beginning of week three of being there, when the initial dazzle and enchantment started to wear off and the uncomfortability of being with yourself started to kick in. And I was experiencing some definite roadblocks with songwriting where I was catching myself thinking too much about what I wanted it to become, instead of just writing something from an honest place. 

I called my friend Sarah, and I told her about my predicament, and she was like, “You should read this article about Joni Mitchell writing Blue that just came out in The New Yorker today because she talks about a lot of those same things.” And so I read the article. It struck many chords. And I sat down, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to let Joni be the muse, and I’m just going to write about what this actually feels like.” And the song just fell out, essentially as a finished thing. It really felt like the thing that I wanted to touch while I was there: the fusion of feeling uncomfortable, feeling stoked, feeling happy, feeling sad, feeling electric, feeling acoustic, just all of the oppositions. 

McKinley on the third day of a marathon performance of Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy at the Women’s Building. Photo by Joanna Ladd.

48 HILLS You have a very arresting stage presence, so I also wanted to ask about how you’ve developed that. In particular, I think you’ve found a way of representing female sexuality onstage in a way that feels so healthy. Is that something you think about?

MCKINLEY Sexuality has always been interesting to me. And it’s such a difficult thing to embrace because the line between being objectified and being seen as empowered is relative to the person viewing it. But for me, being on a stage and playing amplified music, getting to dance about it, having this opportunity to tell as honestly as I want what I’m actually thinking and feeling—it feels like it! In the sense that your entire sense of self is activated. I feel like one of the defining characteristics of the music I’m making now and my stage show is that it is sensual, in a way that feels so feminine.

48 HILLS You’ve said that your work at the Henry Miller Library would be the basis for future albums. What’s next on the horizon? 

MCKINLEY My brother [AJ McKinley]—who is my bandmate, producer, best friend—he and I started a few months ago making demos for this new album cycle, embracing a lot of these themes. I want it to be a cross between Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark—so like very jazzy, narrative, cinematic, sensual storytelling—but with Funkadelic as the backing band. It is physical, it is rhythmic, it is funky. So we are making plans to record. Just taking what I learned from the Treat cycle and then getting the pieces in place to make a statement.

48 HILLS I’m going to pivot to another recent project: you were part of a performance art piece by Ragnar Kjartansson called Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, where 30 female musicians staged a marathon performance of famous pop songs that have misogynistic lyrics. How did you become involved with that project?

MCKINLEY I met Ragnar because I attended his trial session in March, where they had an open call for musicians to come to the Women’s Building, and he could just try different things. I was the only woman there. He said that, when they saw me play, it became clear that the piece would be more effective when women sang it, and then he asked me to be the bandleader from there. 

48 HILLS What did it feel like to play one deeply offensive song over and over for hours on end?

MCKINLEY Would you believe me if I said I felt everything? Beyond the inherent physical taxation of repeated motion, it was surprisingly energizing. That said, after a certain number of repetitions, I felt my sense of self sort of dissolve and be replaced by an acute sensitivity to the emotional states of the audience present. People would enter, weeping or visibly numb, and the intensity of their emotional state would influence how I played. Beyond that, there was a profound feeling of camaraderie and respect amongst the performers, which contributed to the feeling of women empowerment and devastation of what we have to endure as women. It was empowering to be a messenger using music to communicate such an urgent, relevant subject.

KENDRA MCKINLEY
Featuring Diana Gameros
December 7, 7pm, $10-20 sliding scale
Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur
Tickets and more info here.

Old school Chinatown funk? 50 years of Jest Jammin’ with Rev. Norman Fong

Jest Jammin' in front of 937 Clay, an SRO that Chinatown CDC saved from real estate speculation. Photo courtesy Norman Fong

ALL EARS If you’re not nostalgic for Chinatown nightlife circa 1970, it’s probably because you don’t know about it. Despite the passing of civil rights and immigration laws, it was still dangerous for Chinese Americans to venture out to clubs in other parts of the city. What to do? Create a thriving parallel music scene of all-Chinese bands that played venues like Forbidden City, Drag’on A’ Go-Go, and Lion’s Den.

Rev. Norman Fong guesses there were 50 to 60 bands in Chinatown at the time, only one of which remains: Jest Jammin’, a Motown cover band that he started with four buddies from Galileo High School in 1968. Fifty years later, the band still practices weekly and plays benefits and festivals like the Chinese New Year Street Fair. On Saturday, October 20, Jest Jammin’ celebrates half a century of grooving—Earth, Wind & Fire-style—with an anniversary show at St. Mary’s Cathedral. (The show is almost sold out, so don’t wait to get tickets.)

Jest Jammin’ playing at a hotel in 1970

Rev. Fong is a rare kind of triple-threat: beyond being a singer and saxophonist for Jest Jammin’, he is a Presbyterian minister, and the Executive Director of the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center. Proceeds from the anniversary show will support Chinatown CDC’s work to save Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartment buildings in Chinatown from real estate speculation. (Disclosure: the writer also works for Chinatown CDC.) 

The story of Jest Jammin’ is the story of Chinatown: from racism and gang violence, to the Asian American movement and self-determination. It’s also an excuse to party, for as Rev. Fong puts it, “A homegrown community band that stuck together for 50 years is something to celebrate.”

48 HILLS You’re a second generation American, so when did your parents come to the States?

REV. NORMAN FONG My dad came in 1919, so he was jailed in Angel Island because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. My mom was born and raised here, and she’s the one who taught me to love my home turf, my neighborhood. I promised them that I would fight my whole life to protect Chinatown. 

48 HILLS What was Chinatown like when you were growing up?

FONG Growing up here in the ’50s and ’60s, we saw everything on TV, but of course, there were no Asian American bands or role models until Bruce Lee came out in the late ‘60s. But we wanted to feel proud of ourselves and our growing up in Chinatown. On the one hand, Chinatown is one of the poorest neighborhoods, so we all grew up poor. And on the other hand, we don’t want to be like our parents and just be too passive and quiet. 

And then, because of segregation, all of us that grew up in Chinatown went to the same schools. So, we all kind of knew each other. We knew that we weren’t quite accepted yet, even though we were born here. I remember going to Jean Parker Elementary, and all of us were Chinatown kids, but the teachers were all white, at that time. “Speak English only” was the main thing then. And then I had to go to Chinese school, so after school, you had to speak Chinese. It’ll drive anyone crazy!

At an immigration rally in Portsmouth Square in the ’90s.

48 HILLS You were getting it from both sides.

FONG The worst part was in junior high, when I had to go leave Chinatown. I was a real happy Chinatown kid, and then I went to Francisco [Middle School], and I think it was the first or second day that I got tied to the fence on Filbert. This group was called the DACs: Damn All Chinamen. They tied me to the fence, and they water balloon tortured me. The first time I felt real anger. 

I remember talking to my mom saying, “Why do Italians hate the Chinese?” But my mom said, “Life is about balance. Did you know we’ve been evicted many times? But it’s an Italian landlord that charges us 90 bucks rent, and he never raised the rent.” I never forgot that. We got evicted from another apartment because a Chinese bought the building. You get it? Sometimes it’s more about financial interest than race.

48 HILLS You’ve said that you started playing music partly just to stay out of trouble. What kind of trouble were you getting into at that time?

FONG The ’60s was crazy, right? Violent. There were a lot of gangs in Chinatown, for different reasons. So, in my case, my boys—the police called us the 880 Boys—we were a good gang that defended our neighborhood. There’s groups that wanted to harass our women, especially, back in those days. Pretty much, if anyone messed with us, we would fight back. Aretha Franklin, “Respect”—we wanted respect! 

Our roots were also in Cameron House: we were part of a community center. Somebody donated money for equipment—somebody wanted us to get off the streets and play music. 

Jest Jammin’s annual ranch party in Pacifica, 2017.

48 HILLS Is that how Jest Jammin’ was born?

FONG Our band started by playing for friends. It was five of us—Brad Lum, Stevie Monteclaro, myself, Al Louie, and Edmond Toy—we all grew up in Chinatown, we all went to Galileo High School. And then in ’68, one of our friends was drafted to Vietnam, so we wanted to throw him a party. That was the beginnings of our band. 

48 HILLS How did you decide you wanted to play soul music?

FONG At the time, it was either surfer music or Motown, so we chose Motown. Earth Wind and Fire, Chicago: those are brass groups that are great for dancing. 

Motown—you know, it’s street music. Diana Ross and others grew up in public housing. Motown coming out of Detroit and a neighborhood, too—we resonate with that story. We’re a Chinatown band, and proud of it.

48 HILLS It occurs to me that you probably didn’t feel comfortable going to other neighborhoods for nightlife, even to see Motown acts when they came to town.

FONG Yeah. Basically, we didn’t feel welcome to attend different nightclubs. We wanted our own safe space, our own community dances and stuff, where everyone feels free. Nobody harassing our people. So there were a whole bunch of bands—50 or 60—that started in Chinatown and Japantown in the late ’60s, but blooming in the ’70s. 

Then, in the early ’70s, there was the Third World movement, and the fight for the development of Ethnic Studies, and the Asian American movement. We started to play for all these dorm parties and Asian American studies programs, from San Jose State up to Sacramento. We were busy every weekend. So that broadened our world. 

At the ranch, which also serves as their practice venue.

48 HILLS Do you think that playing in a band affected how you saw yourself?

FONG A lot of us grew up feeling like nobodies—you know?—in Chinatown, and people don’t like us. When we play, it’s empowering like you won’t believe.

Motown also helps us cross bridges. We’ve played in the Bayview for Black History Month and other events, and it’s always a shock, at first. I love it, though. I love us feeling a part of American history in pop music and soul music. We grew up with that, so why not? 

48 HILLS Has your taste in music changed at all over the past 50 years?

FONG We still play Motown, but then, as we play for more community events and dances, some people want newer music, right? So we have to adapt. We play some Bruno Mars, or other styles.

There’s 10 of us now. And we have a tight brass section that’s better than ever, so we play more brass songs. Victor Ng, our guitar player—he started with us in the late ’70s—he loves playing Santana, and he’s a great guitarist, so we do more songs that feature guitar solos. Sometimes we get sentimental, like I just re-learned “We Were Always Sweethearts” by Boz Scaggs. So we bring back stuff over the 50 years to mix it up. 

48 HILLS What do you think has kept the band together after all this time? 

FONG We’ve always been a community and friendship band. I mean, making music is empowering, for sure—especially when we do the songs right! But making music with old friends that you grew up with, since kindergarten, is powerful. 

And then playing for so many causes and community events, others have pride in us, too. Whether it’s playing for the Japanese bilingual program for free, or Self-Help for the Elderly, or Asian Law Caucus, or even Chinatown CDC. And then because we play for friends, community, and causes, we’ve grown to have a huge fan base. 

48 HILLS A lot of your professional career has been devoted to youth programs in Chinatown. What were you trying to give the youth that you had growing up?

FONG I wanted them, like me, to have pride in the community. I wanted them to fight for social justice issues. 

I’m worried about the next generation. We’ve donated our playing for our old high school, Galileo, and at one concert, I found out that Galileo no longer has a band program. And that was our roots! If they [the youth] don’t have roots, you know, then you end up with Crazy Rich Asians. [Laughs.]

48 HILLS Your 50th Anniversary party is also a benefit for the preservation of the Single Room Occupancy apartment buildings in Chinatown. Can you explain why SROs are important, and why they need help now?

I call SROs the hidden poverty. Many working families and low-income seniors have no choice but to live in single room occupancy apartments, with no private bathrooms, toilets, or kitchens. Almost half of our community live in these SROs, which are about the size of a large walk-in closet. Chinatown CDC is purchasing and rehabilitating SROs to save them from demolition, skyrocketing rents, and conversion into tech dorms. So we hope to raise some money by bringing our friends together—no corporate sponsors!—and hopefully we can make quite a few thousand for our SRO work.

JEST JAMMIN’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
October 20, 8pm-midnight, $50
(proceeds benefit Chinatown CDC’s SRO preservation efforts)
St. Mary’s Cathedral, SF
Tickets and more info here. Ticket sales end Wednesday 10/10.

The Mekons’ Sally Timms twangs in to support Community Land Trust

Sally Timms

“The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” —Lester Bangs

Emerging in Leeds, England, in 1977, the Mekons came from the British punk scene, but haven’t squeezed comfortably into any genre. Country, bluegrass, and roots music were stirred into political-minded punk, with often poetic results.

Long-time member Sally Timms will likely go down as one of the best vocalists of the post-punk family tree. 48 Hills sat down with her for a quick chat over the weekend. The Mekons play a special Thu/4 benefit show for the San Francisco Community Land Trust at the Lab, under the assumed name of the Sturdy Nelsons, with Mission District favorite La Familia Peña-Govea. (The Trust‘s mission is “to create permanently affordable, resident-controlled housing for low to moderate income people inSan Francisco through community ownership of the land.”)

48H Are the Mekons the world’s longest-running punk band? That is, a punk band that never stopped touring and recording since 1977? What makes the Mekons so durable?

SALLY TIMMS I’m not sure if we are the longest-running punk band, we’ve had some lineup changes I suppose and now the original band reformed as mekons77, because we like things to be as confusing as possible. They have a new album out and it’s great. I think the reason for the longevity is that we made the situations we found ourselves in work for us, not against us. (That wasn’t exclusively the case but for the most part it has been).

So basically we carried on putting out new material and played it regularly, we kept it interesting for ourselves and so hopefully kept it interesting for the listeners who cared. We make sure we don’t go off on huge months-long tours, we don’t rely on music to pay our rent because usually it doesn’t work that way, we adjust to our restrictions and we try to be inventive, and I suppose we are just bloody minded about what we do.

48H The Mekons have always covered way more lyrical ground than just protest and politics. How does the international swing to the right impact a band like the Mekons now in their fourth decade?

ST I think it’s easier when there’s an obvious target, Reagan and Bush were pretty clear ones, but I didn’t have much faith in Clinton and Obama, either. However, it can get tough to write songs about neo-liberalism and make them catchy. We’ve always used the personal to highlight the political, or at least that’s when I think we have done our best work. So things are still the same, people being squeezed by the rich, endless war, frigging fascists on the upsurge. I think we’ve always been affected by whatever political situation was ongoing. Things are quite hairy right now, but for a lot of people that’s been the case for a while.

48H You yourself have an excellent solo catalogue of music. What’s next for Sally Timms?

ST To quote Billy Wilder…”Death,” or at least a long period of lying in bed watching TV in my dotage.

THE MEKONS (AS THE STURDY NELSONS)
SF Community Land Trust Benefit
Thu/4, 6:30pm, $5-$50
The Lab, SF.
More info here.   

Making noise and empowering girls: 15 years of Women’s Audio Mission

Girls on the Mic students in WAM's San Francisco studios. All photos courtesy Women's Audio Mission

ALL EARS For 15 years, the sound engineers at SoMa neighborhood-based Women’s Audio Mission have been applying their skills to one of the field’s trickiest problems: how to get girls involved in STEM. (That’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, for you English majors out there.) WAM, a pitch-perfect acronym, is a professional recording studio, run entirely by women, that doubles as a playground where 1500 girls and women a year learn how to create the media they consume every day. Terri Winston, WAM’s founder and executive director, is an electrical engineer who designed the studio and much of the recording equipment herself. She laughs while revealing the simple hack that all the adults in STEM seem to keep missing: “You guys aren’t even talking to the girls.” 

On September 21, WAM celebrates its 15th anniversary with—what else?—a benefit concert at the Brava Theater, which shares WAM’s mission to support women in the arts. Winston asked the luminous duo St. Beauty to headline the event, after she and her students were invited to the soundcheck for Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer tour and were blown away by St. Beauty’s opening set. The Bay Area’s own Diana Gameros will start the evening with a set of traditional Mexican songs that she recorded at WAM last year. Proceeds from the event will fund WAM’s expansion to a new location in Oakland, where they expect to double the number of girls they reach. 

WAM is expanding its programs to Oakland.

In WAM’s gadget-filled studio, Winston mapped out how she became a sound engineer at a time when training programs like WAM didn’t exist. It takes a special kind of brain to see building a recording studio from scratch as the simplest way to fix intractable gender bias. Fortunately, Winston’s path started in the same sort of technology wonderland that she has created for her students.

48 HILLS You had a pretty unique childhood. Your dad was a research engineer, and you were exposed to his workshop at a young age. Can you paint a picture of what was in there, and what you played with as a kid?

TERRI WINSTON My dad is a mechanical engineer—a metallurgical engineer. He invented something like the largest oven, where they were baking all of these industrial machinery parts. This is pre-personal computer, so computers were huge room-sized things, but I remember playing on the little terminal. I remember his co-workers playing tricks on me so that it looked like I broke it—I got used to being in an environment of all men really early. 

48 HILLS What are some of the things you learned about in that environment that you’ve tried to impart to your students?

WINSTON It seems inconsequential, but I learned a lot about hand tools and drills. I think training women to see the freedom of, “Oh, I’ll just build one, and not worry about it” is so important. That’s why they took me so seriously at all my engineering gigs: If something broke, I could fix it. Because women—we all know this—have to go way beyond. I really try to get them [the students] thinking like that.

Terri Winston of Womens Audio Mission.

48 HILLS Do you have a sense of how you developed the confidence to build things yourself, or to become an electrical engineer?

WINSTON That definitely came from my dad. I had physics teachers in high school say, “Girls can’t think spatially.” And I would go home and say, “Dad, Mr. So-and-So said….” And he’s like, “That’s bullshit.” And so I would go then, take the test, ace it, and then he’d go, “Yeah, go back to him [the teacher] now with that test.” But what if all the other girls in the class—which there weren’t many—didn’t have a dad that said, “That’s bullshit?” 

And then I was in a punk rock band in the ’70s and ’80s. The whole DIY thing in that movement was pretty influential to me too.

48 HILLS What was going on then?

WINSTON That was right off the heels of disco and pop music. There are awesome things that came from [those genres], but living in it felt artificial, and a little too perfect. 

Everybody [in the punk scene] stopped trying to do what was traditionally musically happening: people who didn’t know how to play instruments were playing instruments. The house party thing started in punk rock, so that was just scrapping together whatever equipment—like, “Let’s use somebody’s stereo system and wire that up to be the P.A. tonight because we don’t have one.” There was something cool about not being really fussy and precious about the songs, the music, the environment. 

Scenes from Girls on the Mic’s new lab in East Oakland.

48 HILLS Was it out of that DIY environment that you ended up getting into music production?

WINSTON Yeah, part of it was. During that time, in the early 80s, you had to have a lot of money to make a record. This is when engineers were getting paid properly, so I don’t begrudge any of it, but no one could have self-funded. Everybody was trying to get a record deal, mostly to get in a studio. We had these little tape machines that we were making demos on all the time. I can remember dubbing cassettes to sell at shows, until somebody took notice, and then we did get signed and made records. 

I got into production because, when I got into the studio, I quickly realized that’s the place I like to be. I had stage fright, I didn’t love to be on stage. I just was lucky that I worked with some really great producers. Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith Group was really influential. He was the one that said, “Hey, you’ve got this electrical engineering degree. You have the perfect brain for this.”

48 HILLS Had it occurred to you before?

WINSTON No, because you couldn’t get in the studio. Nobody had that kind of access. And when I went to college, none of these schools existed.

That’s why it’s hard to buck this whole production system and the record label system: It was very Wild West, male-dominated, and close-knit. You became this because you knew someone that did it who was your friend. There’s no H.R. department, there’s no external recruiting, there’s no interface to the outside world. To get women involved in that was like pulling teeth. Because they see it as, “Now my friend doesn’t get a job.” They don’t look bigger than that. And it still exists that way. It’s so ingrained. 

That’s why we [at WAM] chose to flip it. Like, “Well, if we can’t work in those studios, then we’ll build a studio, and then we’ll have women work here.” I think that’s why it’s been pretty successful: instead of us doing a lot of advocacy, it’s been better for us to just do it. We’re not hurting anybody. And if clients come to us, clients come to us. They can’t argue with it as much.

48 HILLS Why did you want your studio to have an education component?

WINSTON In between record deals, I would teach math for a semester at a community college and make some money. I had guest spoken at City College once, and then the department chair was like, “Hey, I want you to apply for a job here.” She pretty much gave me carte blanche to make the [Sound Recording Arts] degree program what I thought it should be.

I started Women’s Audio Mission as a club there, just to get more women in the program. WAM officially started because the manufacturers that I had known for so long were so supportive. I had all this gear donated. They were like, “You have to build a studio, Terri. If we give this to you, will you build a studio?” I said, “I’ll try.” And these are all men! That’s why I don’t like making generalizations about men in the field. It’s not effective. The good ones get mad, and we want the good ones to really stick with us.

Victoria Fajardo teaching mixing to Girls on the Mic students

48 HILLS How do the girls you work with respond to being in the studio?

WINSTON We all know that there’s a gender gap in technology, but nobody is really addressing the part of why girls aren’t interested. We’re serving a pretty vulnerable population: 96 percent low-income, 91 percent girls of color. This environment is just a really easy way to get them interested in technology in a way that’s on their terms and becomes useful to them to amplify their voices and express themselves. 

The middle school girls’ program’s called “Girls On The Mic,” so a lot of the girls think they have to be on the microphone. You’ve got some that are really drawn to it, but then you’ve got a much larger group, actually, that are like, “Woah, I don’t want to do that part.” It’s really fun for them to realize that they could be a part of this, but not be behind the mic. It could be anywhere. And a lot of the ones that don’t want to sing, end up wanting to sing at the end because they’re like, “I’m in an environment that I’m not usually in. That was really fun to watch my friend do it. Now I’m gonna do it.”

48 HILLS How do you make girls who may not have access to technology at home—or who may never have touched a musical instrument—comfortable in this space?

WINSTON I think an important part of how people go through our program is that all of our instructional staff started as students here. It’s a combination of me being an educator for 20-odd years, and training them in what the learning outcomes need to be, but the mentors are the ones that are going to understand the students and understand how this plugs in for them. 

48 HILLS Do you have a story about a particular kid that’s illuminating about the work that you do at WAM?

WINSTON Oh god, there’s so many. Somebody lost their father, wrote a song about it, and played it front of their school. I think that’s a testament to how safe they felt in that class, where they could do this incredibly difficult thing. We were like, “This is so sad.” But the teachers said, “You know, that process helped her, because she’s a lot better in school now.” 

48 HILLS I interviewed Diana Gameros about her album Arrullo, which was recorded at WAM. She talked about the way working in an all-female environment that understood her aesthetic opened her up musically and made the recording better. It made me wonder how much good music we’re missing out on because female artists don’t feel comfortable in the studio. 

WINSTON A lot. What really made me think about it was we had so many men recording here. And then we realize there’s a huge chunk of men that don’t want to record in that kind of aggressive environment, where they feel like they can’t do the right thing. Anybody that’s going to be uncomfortable in a very traditional male environment comes here. 

All that aggressive, blustery behavior—that’s because they’re afraid. So we’re really careful that we’re not pushing that fear onto the artist. Also this idea that what we’re doing is rocket science: “This is the hardest job in the world, and only I can do it.” That’s not helpful to the artist. Instead, try educating them and having them feel a part of it.

48 HILLS What are your goals for the benefit concert and the next year of WAM?

WINSTON The 15-year anniversary is definitely looking towards Oakland. We opened a location in Oakland, and that location is actually going to serve more girls than this one over here [in San Francisco]. We have to start fundraising to look towards purchasing something there, and then we’re also looking at other parts of the country as well. So, Oakland this year, and others to follow! 

WAM’S 15 YEAR ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Featuring St. Beauty, Diana Gameros, and Chulita Vinyl Club
Fri/21, 6-10pm, $75 (includes light food and beverages)
Brava Theater, SF.
Tickets and more info here.

Opera singer Russell Thomas on diversity, drive, and ‘Roberto Devereux’

Russell Thomas, currently starring in SF Opera's 'Roberto Devereux'

ALL EARS When opera singer Joy Davidson heard tenor Russell Thomas sing in his high school choir in Miami, she asked him if he’d ever considered voice lessons. Thomas didn’t understand right away what a big deal that was. 

“I thought that meant something was wrong with my voice,” said Thomas, who was at the opera house after a rehearsal. “She said, ’No, that means you have something to work with.’” 

Thomas did work with his voice, and now he’s a rising star in opera: The New York Times called him “a tenor of gorgeously burnished power.” He just sung the title roles in Otello at the Hollywood Bowl and La Clemenza di Tito at the Salzburg Festival with Peter Sellars.

He’s in town, again for a title role, this time in the San Francisco Opera’s Roberto Devereux (through September 27).

Thomas didn’t learn about opera through his family or friends. He found it on his own, when he was eight years old, and after school was turning the dial on the radio and heard someone singing. 

“That voice, and how they could make that sound intrigued me,” he said. “I wanted to know how that happened.”

Every day when he came home from school, Thomas would search for opera on the radio. He didn’t even think about being a singer then—that seemed too far away. But his choir teacher in high school got dress rehearsal passes for students to go to the opera. Once he saw the singers on stage, he knew that was what he wanted to do. 

“The first one I saw was Carmen, with all the passion and the drama,” he said. “Opera has everything: visual arts, drama, music, singing, and literature. It’s the only art that has absolutely everything.”

Davidson became his voice coach, giving him lessons for free when he couldn’t afford to pay for them. She told him if he auditioned, he would get accepted to every school, and they would offer him a full scholarship. And they all did. He went to the school where Davidson was teaching, New World School of the Arts in Miami. In college, he auditioned for the chorus of the Florida Grand Opera. The choir director told him he needed to take it seriously—he says he was a bit of a party kid—and then he could make it a career. 

Thomas says although the subjects in opera often aren’t regular people (such as in Roberto Devereux, which tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I and her ex-lover, the Earl of Essex) we all understand the emotions in opera. 

“Everybody can relate to loving someone and losing love and being angry,” he said. “Opera is dealing with things all human beings feel and go through.”

Thomas would like to see more inclusivity in opera. And he thinks that starts with where decisions are made.

Russell Thomas in ‘Roberto Dvereux.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/ San Francisco Opera

“There’s a lack of diversity generally in the office,” he said. “And because that’s what you know, the first person that’s going to come to your mind to play a role is not going to be someone who doesn’t look like you. This is a problem we have in classical arts. Yes, we’ve had great famous African American opera singers—Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, George Shirley—but they’re fewer African Americans stars in opera today than in the ’60s and ’70s.”

When opera companies post pictures of their young artists, often all of them, or nearly all, are white, Thomas says. 

“Arts institutions should look like their communities, and often times they don’t,” he said. “So the stage doesn’t look inclusive, and then the audience isn’t inclusive. Minority groups will go and support something when they see other minorities onstage.”

Thomas says in Los Angeles when he performed Otelo, the audience was diverse. 

“They see someone who looks like them, then they’re interested in what’s going on,” he said. “When I did Otello in Atlanta, three of the main cast members were black and the audience was full of black people. They said they don’t usually see that in the audience, but you would if you thought a little more about this, and not just in Porgy and Bess.”

Thomas is hoping that companies will pay attention to who makes up their cast, and not only during Black History Month. He mentions Sellars, who he has worked with several times, and who recently did the libretto for composer John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West at the San Francisco Opera. 

“You look at what Peter Sellars did there, and this is in every show he does,” he said. “It’s never just all white people on the stage. He makes a concerted effort to show that these people can be black or Asian or Latino, and the world needs more people like him for the survival of classical art.”

ROBERTO DEVEREUX 
September 8-27

San Francisco Opera
Tickets and more info here

A swell wave of female talent rolls in with TIDES

Suzanne Galal, TIDES organizer. Photo by Brittany Powers

ALL EARS It makes sense that Suzanne Galal wants her new monthly party to be inclusive.

A professor of pharmacy by trade, Galal started writing and playing music just four years ago, after her husband (Andrew Laubacher of Con Brio) gave her an electric bass for her birthday. The local music scene has instantly embraced her band, Suzanimal, and debut EP, Body: El Rio, the storied, 35-year-old venue, hosted the EP release show, and approached Galal right afterwards about starting a monthly residency. 

Suzanimal’s EP release party at El Rio was a big success. Photo by Andrea Kash

Galal turned around and invited five Bay Area women from different fields (collectively, the BAYbz) to help her pull it off. The result is TIDES: a showcase of women-led bands and visual artists with a charitable twist. The series kicks off August 29 with the music video release for “I Am Woman” by Cava Menzies, performances by Suzanimal and Future Twin, and an arts market with work by Menzies, L. Herrada-Rios, and Deb Leal. A portion of the evening’s proceeds will go towards Access: Women’s Health Justice, an Oakland-based reproductive rights organization.  

From the genre-defying lineup, to the panoply of artforms, it’s clear that TIDES is a reflection of its multifaceted creators. Galal and Tracey Holland (one of the BAYbz, and a bandleader in her own right) explained how the pieces came together, starting with Galal’s most humble roots in a band of non-musicians. 

Tracey Holland. Photo by Kyle Garrett.

48 HILLS Suzanne, I can’t believe that you didn’t even consider making music until your husband gave you a bass for your birthday. I think it’s easy for music appreciators to look at the people onstage and think, “Wow. I could never do that.” Did you have that feeling— or other doubts—and if so, how did you get past them?

SUZANNE GALAL Music has always been a huge part of my life, and I was always very passionate about it, but my role was as a fan, not the performer. A few weeks after I got my bass, my longtime friend Laura Thornton decided, “It’s time for us to start a band.”  She had played drums for fun in college, but was never trained or in a band. So the first rule in forming our band was that no one can be a “musician.” 

That’s when our band, Sub Sub Par was born, made up of five women with no real musical experience. Our slogan: “Exceed expectations.” That was our only goal. We were very committed to playing at least once a week. We jumped on any opportunity we could to perform: friends’ birthdays, talent shows, house parties. We had fun, no pressure, low expectations, a lot of heart and commitment, and most of all, the most wonderful and supportive friends and musicians from the Bay Area. The support we received made all the difference and inspired me to just keep at it!    

Emma Silvers. 

48 HILLS Do you think you approached making music differently after so many years as a fan? Did you have a clear idea of the sound you wanted? 

SUZANNE Definitely. While I appreciate music of all kinds, my favorite live music to see will make me want to move my body. When I started to make songs for Suzanimal, I started with a basic drum beat to keep me on beat and then played around with a bass line until it made me want to dance. From there, I added the instruments and layers to finish off my own personal dance party. I even stand up while I play the music back to make sure that it makes me want to dance. 

48 HILLS I remember you saying that the TIDES series grew out of your Suzanimal release show at El Rio. What happened that night that created the impetus to do it again?

SUZANNE That was one of the most magical nights of my life. It was a packed room full of friends and musicians to support these three female-fronted bands. Everyone that I got to play with and share the bill with was so incredibly influential in allowing me to get over those doubts and fears and just go for this dream. I think the love and support was so strong in that room – everyone felt it, including the El Rio staff. They wanted more nights like this. Lynne Angel reached out to me shortly after and asked if Suzanimal would be interested in doing this monthly residency, and if we could use the night to specifically showcase women-fronted bands and musicians from the Bay Area. 

Future Twin. Photo by Stefan Aronsen

48 HILLS Tracey, your band, The Old Grey Whistle Test, were also on the bill that night. What do you remember? 

TRACEY HOLLAND I was! I was so honored and excited to be a part of Suz’s special night! I opened the night with my solo project, The Old Grey Whistle Test, and another one of our fellow female musicians, Katie Day, also released her new record at the show. We were joined onstage by more Bay Area female powerhouses: Kendra McKinley and Kelly McFarling with Suzanimal, and Molly Kozma with OGWT. Simply put, there was just this really palpable, powerful female energy coursing through the room that night. We all go to and/or play a lot of shows, but this night just felt different. Everyone was there to rally around Suz, who’s done something really inspiring, frankly: within a few years’ time, she taught herself to play bass, put a band together, and wrote and released this record that is really just so damn good. 

As a female in the music business, you’re frequently the only woman in a room amongst a ton of men. And I love my fellow male musicians, but it absolutely is still a boys’ club, and we really do still deal with a lot of sexism. So to be on a bill of three powerful women who are captaining our own ships – it felt really powerful. The three of us collaborated on some songs together: there may have been a rendition of “All I Really Want” by Alanis Morrisette, as well as some choreographed dance-action to “I Love You Always Forever” by Donna Lewis, just saying. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever gotten to play. 

Laura Thornton. Photo by Emily Sevin

48 HILLS What needs were you looking to fill with a monthly series, either for music-makers or fans? Why did you decide to include a visual art/merchant component?

SUZANNE After getting the news of the opportunity, I reached out to some amazing female friends—Tracey, Emma Silvers, Laura Thornton, Sara Gerstel, Emily Sevin—in different fields, with different strengths, to get this thing off the ground. At our first meeting, we all decided we want this to create a community space to highlight and showcase women of all types and talents. We want it to be inclusive, for both artists and fans. We do not want to limit it to a specific genre or even art form.  

Emily Sevin, self-portrait

48 HILLS What was the idea behind the name TIDES?

TRACEY After a hilarious brainstorm session, we settled on TIDES because it seemed to be the right confluence of pieces that are integral to what this event is going to be about. TIDES is a nod to the Bay Area. It is also a nod to the idea of cycles – cycles we all go through in life, from month to month, and also, more specifically, as women. The idea of planting new seeds throughout the months of our lives, watching them grow and reach fruition, and eventually, die or give way to new endeavors – this seemed to resonate with each of us, both personally, and as artists. We really wanted to touch on femininity but without being exclusionary to trans women or non-binary people. TIDES felt like a way to touch on that, and honor it, but also leave it open for interpretation on an individual level.

48 HILLS Why was it important to donate some of the proceeds to nonprofits? 

SUZANNE We all felt it’d be a disservice if we didn’t use this opportunity to also bring awareness to needs and injustices that many women face. It’s important for us to make sure we support the artists and the cause. 

Sara Gerstel. 

48 HILLS Which nonprofit are you supporting this time?

TRACEY Access: Women’s Health Justice. Access is Oakland-based but provides reproductive health care and abortion access across California, specifically for lower-income communities, who may have more barriers to receiving this kind of care. Planned Parenthood is amazing, and we love them, but Access goes a step further to ensure all women can access safe, legal abortion. They provide the pieces that most people don’t think about, coordinating transportation, lodging, and sometimes even financing for girls or women who might not have a support system to help with those considerations. They are an amazing team that works so hard, and they deserve every bit of help and recognition they can get!

TIDES 
Doors 8pm, show 9pm, $10
El Rio, SF. 
More info here

A hot-button ‘Ring’ at SF Opera? You bet your Brünnhilde

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde in Wagner's "Die Walküre"—part of the Ring Cycle at SF Opera. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

ALL EARS With great art comes great baggage. And quite possibly no work comes with greater baggage than Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle (opening at SF Opera Tue/12 and continuing through July 1, accompanied by some lively programming). With its Lord of the Rings-inspiring premise, instant recall of rampaging Rubenesque women in Viking helmets and/or murderous Iroquois helicopters, “Kill the Wabbit” musical themes, and dark echoes of nationalism and anti-Semitism, it’s an indelible cultural touchstone. 

Consisting of four full-length operas, the Ring Cycle was first produced in the period from 1848 to 1874: Wagner wrote the libretto and the music in an act of volcanic auteurism, helping to bolster the contemporary myth of the heroic genius, among other fustier notions. But with its sweeping powers and gorgeous score, this archetypal work—with its mythic quests, clashes of Teutonic titans, flashes of chthonic magic, and vivid, often weird chromatic score—continues to fascinate, drawing thousand of jet-setting Ring-lovers to minutely compare each production. 

How can you put a new spin on such an idolized classic, without seeming too desperate for that illusive (and often counterproductive) quality, “relevance”?

Opera director Francesca Zambello brought a revelatory Ring Cycle production to SF Opera in 2011—complete with gold-panning 49ers and corporate CEO-types. Now she’s back, updating the production with “new features, including technologically advanced projections, new imagery and restudied stage action.” But the giant gewgaws we’ve come to associate with the Ring—itself a massive special effect, in a way—pale for Zambello in comparison to the stories of the characters. Her great insight is that honing in on the personal tales of these gods and monsters will spark a fuller connection to the work, and reveal some striking parallels to our own time.

“The world scene has changed drastically in terms of politics, social issues, sex and race, Zambello said in a director’s statement titled “What Has Happened Since 2011?” “Hopefully, at some point in our lives, everything will be born anew. I am an optimist and pray for the country and the world to find its way, the same way that Brünnhilde leads us to positive change at the end of the Ring.”

Zambello elaborated on the phone to me, “For me and many of the performers, the best part of the Ring is that the gods in the story are also mortals, that they grow and change despite having this enormous stature and power, but they’re also called to account as well. You can really delve into their relationships. Wagner gave us these profound characters in the music and words, which he expressed in a sophisticated, poetic German, so it’s both exhilarating and challenging to flesh out all the meanings embedded in them.”

Director Francesca Zambello on the set of ‘Gotterdammerung’ at the Washington National Opera. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I asked Zambello to tell me some examples of how the characters’ growth translates into contemporary issues.  

“One of the great things that comes through, and that directly applies to our #MeToo era, is that the women in this work cover an amazingly broad spectrum, and unfortunately face things we continue to face,” she said.

“For instance, Sieglinde is a demi-god who lives with a hideous mortal named Hunding, who’s like a character directly out of Deliverance. She’s famously abused, and has been forced into marriage. She ends up reuniting with her twin brother—they are two parts of the same soul—but he alone doesn’t free her. They do it together. Watching her go from this abused soul to someone in possession of herself is an amazing journey.

“Another character is Gutruna. She’s psychologically abused by her half-brother and brother. The abuse may have other dimensions as well—Wagner leaves that open. She lives in a very complicated situation. In rehearsals we talked a lot about this, about how has to adapt while accommodating her own ambitions. 

“And then there’s Brünnhilde, one of the main characters, who is truly a woman of our time,” Zambello said. “She’s an amazing free spirit who transforms the world and restores the balance of nature, something even more apparent in the text now, with what we’re facing on a global scale.”

Environmentalism indeed plays into all this. “The story begins with an act of defilement toward nature—the gold for the ring being stolen from a river bed—which sets in motion so many terrifying consequences,” she said. “That sense of the loss of nature is so important in the Ring. Even more important to us, as we watch agencies like the EPA be cut in half. It’s a particularly Californian theme since here people are so conscious of that.

“We see how greed destroys the environment. The Ring is an emblem of that struggle for the natural world, and how one small action can plunge us into catastrophe.”

THE RING
Tue/12-July 1
SF Opera
Tickets and more info here.  

Homegrown soul sensation Con Brio is back

Con Brio. Photo by Leila Maulen

ALL EARS It wasn’t so long ago that people thought Con Brio was dead. In 2013, its original lead singer had moved on and San Francisco’s homegrown soul sensation needed an update, in the form of new bandmates. Enter two horns (Brendan Liu and Marcus Stephens), a guitar god (Benjamin Andrews), and Ezekiel McCarter: a 20-year-old recently arrived from East Texas with James Brown dance moves and a liquid gold falsetto. The band quickly built a rabid local following that swarmed performances at gigs like the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (which, by the way, opens this Sunday ) with their hands already in the air.

Con Brio’s first studio album, Paradise , propelled them onto the international touring circuit. This Saturday, the group makes a rare appearance at home to headline the Fillmore for the first time. Its second album is due out on July 6 from Transistor Sounds records, and the first single will drop Friday, in advance of the show. (Both the album and single titles are secrets until then.) The Fillmore show is both a celebration and a family reunion: the seven-piece band will play host to Kelly McFarling, Lalin St. Juste from The Seshen, among other local guest musicians.

I met McCarter (who goes by “Ziek”) and drummer Andrew Laubacher at the house two blocks from the Fillmore where Ziek’s grandmother has lived since the 1950s. (It was the only house on the surrounding blocks not destroyed during the Redevelopment Era .) The pair described what the band’s meteoric rise has felt like from the inside, and how they’re still tied to San Francisco and that classic San Francisco value: music as a weapon of love.

48 HILLS Legend has it that Con Brio was a band without a lead singer, and you met Ziek when he was singing Stevie Wonder covers at an open mic night.

ANDREW LAUBACHER Is that the story?

48 HILLS That’s the legend! So how did you guys actually get connected?

Ziek McCarter at his grandmother’s house in the Fillmore. Photo by Joanna Ladd.

EZEKIEL “ZIEK” MCCARTER I met Micah [Dubreuil, Con Brio’s founding keyboardist, replaced by Patrick Glynn] at a jam session. Micah and I would be watching these O.G.s play for like two hours, and then they would let us up for like the last two songs. He and I would spend a lot of time quiet together, just listening intently. He would also play with me at a residency at the Boom Boom Room called the Soul Train Revival—so we were playing Stevie Wonder songs.

I think I was at the Boom Boom Room with him, and Micah was like, “Xandra [the original lead singer] is leaving.”And I was like, “Sure.” I think I saw Con Brio once, on Halloween.

48 HILLS Where were you at that point in your life? You were really young, right?

ZIEK I was 20.

48 HILLS What brought you to San Francisco from Texas, and what were you trying to do at that point?

ZIEK It was music—music brought me here for sure. But I always wanted to live here since I was a kid because my mom’s from here, like grew up in this house, and we came here a lot growing up. There was this music opportunity I came here specifically for, but it didn’t quite work out. And then I was just here, and I moseyed my way into the Boom Boom Room.

Andrew Laubacher at Ziek’s grandmother’s house. Photo by Joanna Ladd

48 HILLS Andrew, where was the band at that moment? Were you trying to pull it back together?

ANDREW Micah and Jonathan [Kirchner], the current bass player, they put a lot of it together with the old singer, Xandra [Corpora]. Around that point when it kind of split up, there was this moment where the three of us were like, “Well, let’s just keep doing it.” And at that point, it was a conscious decision to try to pull people in.

A lot of times when you start bands, you’re all friends, or you’re all in the same music scene. This was really a bunch of strangers that were like, “Let’s play some music and just see what happens.” And there was just an immediate electricity to it. It just felt like, “We gotta put this out there.”

48 HILLS The first time I saw you guys was at the Undercover Presents tribute to Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! at the Independent. I was in the crowd with one of the members of Guy Fox [a local indie rock band], and he was surprised to even see you on the bill. I think a lot of people assumed that the band died when the original singer left, and then saw it completely reborn with Ziek out front at the UnderCover show.

ANDREW It’s funny you say that because—there’s a lot of shows and stuff—but that’s one of the moments in the band that I feel were really defining. It was like everything focused. It was suddenly like, “Oh, this is a band.”

ZIEK Yeah, you saw us at a very special time.

48 HILLS After the UnderCover show, I probably saw you guys six times that year, and each show was just a little bigger than the last, to where now you only play the bigger venues locally: Stern Grove, SFJAZZ. It seemed like such a healthy way to grow the band. Was that intentional, or did it just happen that way?

ZIEK I’d say it’s a mixture of both, but yeah, we’re very intentional with the moves we make. You don’t want to exhaust the fans. You want them stoked every time—want it to feel like a holiday every time we play.

ANDREW Next album, it’s a song: “It’s A Holiday Every Time We Play.”[Everyone laughs.]

48 HILLS A lot of your songs have a “money can’t buy me love” kind of ethic. But at the same time, you’re touring a lot and trying to survive as musicians. How does that value system that’s present in your lyrics play into the decisions that you make as a band?

ZIEK That’s a very good question. I’ve thought about that specifically, since I wrote the song [“Money,” from first album, Paradise]. Yes, we may endure trying times, and you need money, but how are you invested in the relationship with money? Are you investing your money in yourself, in your family’s ideas, in your community’s ideas? Like me being able, for example, to invest in my nephew if he has a basketball team he wants to put together. That type of relationship with money is totally positive. Not just seeing it as something that you have to do appease this value that isn’t innately yours.

ANDREW With this record, we were talking to different labels, and there’s different things we could have gotten from them, based on the size of the label. And some of them were really shiny and exciting, but in looking at it further, it was sort of like, “Well, what will we be giving up?” The labels we’re talking with right now, they understand what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to jump too many steps for the quick adrenaline rush of, “Oh my god, look at what we just got.”

48 HILLS I’ve also noticed that—despite the fact that you’ve been touring—I still see you out and about a lot: at Smoked Out Soul at Monarch, or at Extra Nappy at Madrone. Why is it important to you to be plugged into Bay Area music and culture when you’re here?

ZIEK It just feels good, you know? These are our homies—and not only are they our friends, but these are our friends who have spent years doing this, teaching within the community, been so consistent, and there’s a respect for the craft that they have that we all share. Just going to support that, going to witness that—it keeps my fire lit.

ANDREW It’s inspiring. It doesn’t matter like where you come back from: sometimes we’ll fly back from playing some festival or whatever, and then you land, and you go to some tiny little bar and there’s a band in the corner, and they’re just slaying. And you’re like, “I need to rethink what’s going on. These people, this is the truth right now, and we need to make sure that we’re on their level.” That’s a beautiful thing that the city has to offer.

Ziek McCarter. Photo by Leila Maulen

48 HILLS I wanted to get into the music a little bit, but right at the top of the liner notes for Paradise is the fact that Ziek’s dad was killed at the hands of police. Do you feel like sharing any more about what happened that day and the impact that it has had on your family?

ZIEK What happened? Well. He was unarmed, and he was in the parking lot of his childhood church. The police were called on him, and the police officer was young, inexperienced—I think he was 20. He was my age. He said my father tried to reach for his gun. And he shot him. I found out in the morning. I woke up and my mom told me.

In Texas, that’s so common. I just assumed that nothing was gonna happen, that the police officer was gonna get away—that everything that happened was gonna happen. My whole family is distraught, and like, “Where we go? Who do we hit up at NAACP?” But for me, as, I guess, the next “man” of the house, I just wanted to submerse myself in where my strength was, and that was in music and creativity. I felt like I could be effective—most effective—in that arena.

48 HILLS How do you work with that kind of tragedy? When you talk about those kinds of issues in your music, how do you think about it?

ZIEK Writing and performing music has always been cathartic for me, so in my music I just talk about the dreams and realities of my life, really. It doesn’t haunt me—like we were working on Paradise, we had to record the Paradise outro, and my dad visited me in a dream like the night before we recorded it. I woke up the next day and just wrote everything out and recorded it that day. So that was a very positive push that I felt from that. I see that tragedy as a catalyst for many positive and negative things in my life. I choose to feed off the positive to empower myself and others along the way.

I was writing music and creating and performing—all of that was my essence before he passed away. His death does not immediately saturate everything musically that comes out of me. I’m still human, so I experience other shades and aspects of life. Speaking out against injustice—because the way he was killed was unjust—it comes through when it needs to come through, and there are some of those songs on the new record. 

48 HILLS Thank you for being willing to speak to that. It does come out in your music, and I think it’s part of what draws me to the band.

ZIEK My hopes were that it would speak to those who were affected by it. Whoever it speaks to, I’m glad it speaks to, but that was really my goal: to create some momentum for those whose families have endured—maybe a son who was in my position, or daughter, or wife.

Saxophonist Marcus Stephens and trumpeter Brendan Liu. Photo by Leila Maulen

48 HILLS What was the inspiration behind the new album?

ZIEK We listened to a lot of Anderson.Paak, Tame Impala, Thundercat—all those guys who are doing soul and R&B and kind of funk-inspired music, but in a more modern way.

ANDREW People always say this to us when we go to make a record: “Your live show is so great, and we want to capture that energy!” And I think on this one, rather than actually capture the live show, we tried to figure out sonically: how do you create that excitement of seeing Ziek dancing, or watching Brendan [Liu, trumpeter] jumping around onstage going crazy?

It’s very reflective, I think, of the last year of our lives. The first record, we were wide-eyed, and there’s other realities now: different fears, and different excitement.

48 HILLS What are the fears and excitements that go along with this album?

ZIEK It’s just getting back into the saddle at the time of so much affliction going on, that we’re taking in as creators, and as human beings.

ANDREW We were in the studio the day of the election.

ZIEK That night, and wrote a song. That was all part of the creative window of working on this album: what’s an antidote that we can create that will help people gravitate towards more of a positive, momentous energy? How can you feel motivated to address some of these issues?

Well, you gotta feel good, first. You gotta feel some type of confidence in yourself that you can face these things. Part of that is just simple things, like relationships, and so we’ve got some songs for that. Dance songs: you gotta dance, you gotta love your body. Travel: we got this song about traveling called “United State of Mind.”

ANDREW When we left the country, it was a little nerve-wracking because you’re like, “Is everyone going to hate us?” And then everyone was super—it’s like we had to leave the country to get our heads right.

Ziek McCarter and guitarist Ben Andrews. Photo by Leila Maulen

48 HILLS What does it feel like to be headlining the Fillmore for the first time?

ZIEK The Fillmore is…historic. We’ve opened up for bands there before, but headlining it is something else. And for me, especially, walking past it so much, it’s like my neighborhood, so it’s automatically a dream come true for me.

CON BRIO
Featuring Kelly McFarling, Lalin St. Juste, and others
Sat/5, 8pm, $25
The Fillmore, SF
Tickets and more info here.

Funky old Iceland? DJ Platurn dives into Reykjavik’s rare grooves

DJ Platurn

ALL EARS  At turns goofy, touching, mesmerizing, super-funky, and just plain weird, local DJ Platurn‘s just-released, two-part mix of unfamiliar Icelandic rare grooves and pop hits, Breaking the Ice, is a brilliant, painstaking excavation of unheard gems—and of his own past. If your knowledge of that icy island’s scene doesn’t extend beyond Bjork and Sigur Rós, Breaking the Ice will blow your mind with dozens of tunes from the late 1960s through early 80s (and clue you in to what was happening on Reykjavik’s intimate but lively glam rock, space pop, psychedelic, bubblegum, and pastoral folk scene). 

Platurn’s a very respected name on the local turntablist and hip-hop scene, laying down beats at parties from Motown on Mondays to Dre Day (which he organizes). But in 2006 he started exploring the musical variety of his Icelandic roots with his cousin, especially inspired by his father.

Platurn’s dad, Icelandic DJ Magnus Thorvardson (www.thordarsonline.com)

Platurn’s dad was Magnus Thordarson, a groundbreaking DJ and concert promoter who, in the early 1970s, brought rock and roll to Iceland’s only radio station. According to journalist David Ma, who wrote Breaking the Ice‘s excellent liner notes (buy the two-CD version for some awesome pics and documentation of the early Iceland scene), the national radio station, Ríkisútvarpið, was trying to be all things to all people, and looked down on overseas rock as “too aggressive”—so it ended up a bland morass of traditionalist tunes and propaganda. Thordarson changed all that when he scored a one-hour show and started breaking not only overseas records, but local bands who were adopting and developing new sounds.

“I was super into rock and roll, and its appeal to sexual impulses of young adults,” Thordarson told Ma with a laugh. “But I wanted to take it beyond that, I wanted to speak about the lyrics and take it into the intellectual realm.” Thordarson eventually opened Icelandic ears to everything from reggae to the Kinks, and fed a thirst for connection with the world that sparked Icelandic musicians to take up instruments and make their own noise (even if it was a cover of “Rock the Boat”).

Platurn discovered his own mission regarding the music is father had hyped so well, when he realized how much groove a lot of it had—and started thinking about how the records from that time could be mixed together in a journey through Iceland’s recent past. The seamless result toggles from energizing nostalgia to “WTF what is that?!” inspiration, much like a radio station from the past reaching our own attention deficit disorder present.  

I talked to Platurn over email about the records, his heritage, and the Breaking the Ice process that took 12 years to complete.    

48 HILLS Where you got ahold of these amazing records? Were there any specific shops you dove into? Were these mostly your father’s records?

PLATURN Many different outlets. My father’s collection (he was a DJ and promoter in Iceland back in the day), my own collection from when I was a kid, digging with my cousin in various places back home since 2006, and a couple of must-have pieces online. Almost all 65+ records came from old school excavation, not to mention the countless hours of educating myself—and maintaining broke status well throughout.

48H You and your cousin started getting really into older Icelandic rock music around 2006. What spurred you to start exploring more?

P Figuring out that said rock music had a lot more groove than expected. Was really that simple. I knew players in the music scene back in the day were bad ass musicians, I just didn’t know to what extent how soulful and interesting a lot of the grooves really were.

48H I love how you’ve talked about how a lot of Icelandic music had funky drumming “almost unintentionally.” Can you give me a couple examples of records that you recognized that on?

P Not really mentioning names, but there are very popular bands back home that many know about, like Hljomar for instance, that had great pocket drummers throughout many of their releases. 

48H How did you make the mix itself, i.e. what software tools did you use, or was it purely turntable oriented? Was there any challenge to working with such older records?

P All recorded in Pro-Tools. All original vinyl pressings, so yeah piecing it all together certainly wasn’t easy. From the time I started to completion I’d estimate it took me roughly two years to complete the actual recording process. Choosing the music and finding all the pieces where I felt like I was satisfied took roughly 12 years. Older records always present a challenge, but that’s what I love about projects like this. I’ve never been one to take the easy-street shortcut.

48H Are there any interesting or surprising connections between Iceland in general (or Icelandic music specifically) and the Bay? 

 P Not really. There is a Northern California Icelandic Society that gets together a few of times a year to celebrate popular holidays back home, but that’s about it. There’s only about 350,000 of us, and a rough guesstimate of how many live outside of the island would probably be somewhere between 20 and 30 thousand I’m assuming, spread out all throughout the planet. 
 
I did purposely put two records on there that certified the California/Iceland connection for me personally. First one is a cover of The Mamas & The Papas “California Dreaming,” a rendition translated as “Farm Boy’s Dream.” And the other a hokey pop-disco song entitled “Frisco Disco,” not to be confused with the classic B-boy break from Eastside Connection of the same name.
 
Purchase the Breaking the Ice 2xCD set here.
Follow Platurn here