The Fresh & Onlys might be one among many bands to explode out of San Francisco's burgeoning garage rock scene, but they're undoubtedly one of the best of the bunch. After years of relentless touring and consistently strong albums and singles, 2010's Play It Strange helped the band gain a foothold with the indie music-consuming public at large.
Epitonic caught up with F&O bassist Shayde Sartin and guitarist Wymond Miles at Pitchfork Music Festival, where we discussed the pluses and minus of a faltering music industry, why you should stop referencing the Nuggets albums in reviews, and what you have to do to get a job at Amoeba Records (spoiler: you don't have to kill a guy).
How do you think your set went today?
Shayde Sartin: It went great!
Even though it was so fucking hot.
Wymond Miles: It's like, "You get to play! But you've gotta play at 1 o'clock…"
S: We kind of had a lot of fun playing around with equipment today, which is not normal at festivals. So it was nice to see our gear up onstage, getting those familiar sounds. It was really fun. Playing in the daytime…I'm starting to enjoy it more. I don't know about you.
W: I was just happy that we were the first band of the day and people were still dancing and moving. It's like, "well, these people are giving it, I'm gonna give it, too."
S: It's not like those festivals where you're the first band of the day and everyone's still hungover and crawling out of tents. Which has happened before.
It's really easy to trace the bloodlines of psych rock music, and it seems like people always talk about it in throwback terms. I was wondering what your take was on that phenomenon. You guys are very original musicians…do you find that a little dismissive that people always talk about this genre in reference to the past?
S: Yeah, absolutely! I mean, I always say this -- and this is no jab at journalists, but a lot of times -- especially with psych -- they use that word very loosely, very carelessly. It's just an easy way to describe something that's not James Blunt or Third Eye Blind or something. And if you want to talk about tracing a bloodline…psychedelic music is not something you can necessarily put in a cage or draw a box around. It doesn't work that way.
W: You always know when a journalist Googled you for about five seconds.
Name-dropping the Nuggets catalogue…
W: Oh, that's the worst!
S: I hate that! I love Nuggets; I sincerely and genuinely love those albums, but when someone drops Nuggets on me, it's like -- man, try harder! You don't even have to dig that deep. I swear, I think the Nuggets thing started because Tim [Cohen, the Fresh & Onlys' lead singer] looks like Roky Erickson sometimes. I swear to God, that's my theory!
Anytime I'm writing about a garage band and I feel like I'm about to drop a Nuggets reference I always stop myself. It's kind of a lazy, cop-out way--
S: It is! It totally is. You should always keep that in mind. I do that when I'm about to drop a lazy line in a song. I'd expect the same thing from a rock writer that I do from a song. You know, I'm not gonna drop a bass line that's from a Yardbirds jam. And if I do, I'm gonna do it in my own way. It's not going to be obvious, and I'd expect the same thing from a journalist.
One of the things I think is most interesting about the San Francisco music scene is that musicians tend to expand their artistic focus beyond music. They partner with visual artist, things like that. What do you think it is about San Francisco that encourages that kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary approach?
S: Oh, absolutely. Community, first and foremost, much like the Providence scene in the late 90s-early 00s. I mean, John Dwyer from Thee Oh Sees came from that Providence scene. He really affected the San Francisco music scene in a huge way when he moved there. He didn't hit the city and just sort of disappear and come out of nowhere; he hit the city with a bang and had a huge influence on that. A lot of visual artists mingle with the rock artists, and writers. There's just a rich history in San Francisco; it's an artistic city. It's that simple.
W: It's also only seven square miles, so people are on top of each other.
I always forget how small it is.
S: The only people in San Francisco you don't hear enough about are the comedians. There are great comedians coming out of San Francisco that no one knows about.
S: Brent Weinbach. They're all over. They just don't mingle with the regular art crowd. But they're significant. Brent Weinbach is a genius. He's a brilliant comedian.
Any particular comedian he's sort of similar to in style?
S: Not really -- he's unique in that he makes you extremely uncomfortable. Very good delivery. I guess the closest thing in delivery is something like Mitch Hedberg, where it's not drawn-out storytelling. It's very exact. Like darts. He's just throwing things at you.
So what are some of the highlights of your recent tour through Europe? Anything notable?
W: The whole thing, really -- it was our first time over there. The Black Lips shows especially, playing in Berlin [when] King Khan joined us. We wrote a song the day we showed up in Berlin. Tim [Cohen] busted out this beautiful song…[and we played it] with the Black Lips with King Khan onstage.
S: It was completely off the cuff. We showed up, wrote a song, then performed it. For us, one of the most daunting things about touring is that you don't always get a chance to do things creatively. You're sort of recreating things you've already done. So getting to do something new and spontaneous…that was actually the highlight for me. We felt like we were actually doing something and not just playing our songs for people.
Are you guys going to release that song as a 7" or anything?
What's the title? Does it have one?
S: "Wait For Me". That's what it was.
W: It was a working title.
S: Yeah, "Wait For Me Baby". It was a total R&B jam.
So King Khan is sort of becoming active again? He fell off for a little bit for a while there.
S: It was a really short amount of time, though. I feel like it's way overhyped.
W: Yeah, because he's been going nonstop for so long!
S: He's just so incredibly talented and he's got so much inside of him. If someone else doesn't stop him, he's going to have to stop himself sometimes. And that's what happened. He stopped himself and recouped and he's doing great. He's working with [singer-songwriter] Mary Ocher; they're doing all sorts of weird collaborations right now.
W: He wasn't necessarily taking a break. He just wasn't as much in the public eye.
S: Well, and he's also a father -- an amazing father. So it's not like he's taking a break from anything -- he just gets to be a father for a little while.
I've got a question for you about working at Amoeba Records. What's the hiring process like?
S: [laughs] Are you looking for a job?
What on earth do you have to do to get hired there?
W: I worked there for a bit, maybe two years. But the only thing I remember from it is that you do a spine test. They line up all these records and you can't see the covers. I was like, oh yeah, I know 60s rock. And I saw Manfred Mann and was like, oh yeah, the jazz guy with no shirt.
S: Ohhhhh! You blew Manfred Mann!
W: They were like, yeah -- you did alright. But you said you knew 60s rock...
How many are you allowed to miss before they're like, "nope -- you're not working here"?
W: Well, they hired me.
S: You know, I think that whole spine test thing is weird. For me, working there was just about pretending I knew more than the person interviewing me, which I probably did. Or maybe just pretended I did. You learn, just like anything. It's a great place to work; a bunch of sincere, wonderful people. All of them except one of the guys.
So you're all balancing day jobs with this?
S: As best we can. I'll probably lose my job by the beginning of next year. Tim -- he should probably have been fired a while ago. We all just kind of do what we can.
It's definitely what people have to do in the music industry these days. You have to be able to support two things.
S: Yeah, it's not the 90s. None of this Toad the Wet Sprocket shit where they're throwing money at talentless assholes like they used to. You've really got to work. Which is great -- I'd rather it be that way. Most times I don't feel like I'm getting anything undeserved.
For sure. I mean, I do the same thing. I'm a writer at a communications agency.
S: Oh yeah, all of us artists, whether you're a writer or painter or whatever. We all have to work harder because the playing field has been leveled.