San Francisco quartet The Fresh & Onlys have garnered national attention atop the wave of their city's burgeoning garage-rock scene, but don't let their big beats, buzzing guitars and swells of psychedelia fool you: At day's end, they are a pop band. Born out of a longtime friendship between bassist Shayde Sartin (Kelley Stoltz, Ty Segall) and singer-songwriter Tim Cohen (Black Fiction), the band may benefit from the attention their contemporaries have garnered — and the "garage" tag that goes with it — but they don't fit the mold.
"I think we do something very different," bassist Shayde Sartin says. "You won't hear a lot of [makes chugging guitar riff sound] with us. ... We're way more pussy than that." He's referring to the band's affinity for left-of-center pop song craft, which is apparent throughout their growing discography of lo-fi ditties. According to Sartin, if one thing sets his band apart from their contemporaries it's their uncoolness. When told they sound like Sebadoh covering a Nuggets box set he responds, "It's funny that a lot of people don't get the Sebadoh thing. There are some songs, to me, where [the influence] is so painfully obvious. ... [They] had this weird awkward uncoolness to them, like the fat kid at the lunch table type of feeling. I feel like we do that [too]."
While there was a longtime mutual admiration between the two friends, it took hearing Cohen plug into a newly acquired vintage amp to pique Sartin's interest in a collaboration. "[Sometimes] when you get a new toy it'll pull [new] things out of you," Sartin says. "[The amp] pulled this batch of songs out him, and they resonated with me. So we decided after years of drinkin' together, gettin' high together and listening to music together, that maybe it was time to try [collaborating]."
Creatively, they hit the ground running, writing and recording their first song together in a mere 30 minutes. Realizing an obvious chemistry, they each took off work for a week and proceeded to write and demo their self-titled debut LP. "It was just like something catching fire," says Sartin. It was a start — and a fast one at that — but something was still missing. As Sartin puts it: "We're both cavemen as musicians."
So in came the ringer: ace-up-the-sleeve axe-man Wymond Miles, whose arsenal of nuanced chops provided the touch of texture they needed to codify the off-kilter idiosyncrasies of their songwriting. "He makes us seem a lot cooler than we are," Sartin says of Miles. "Once he [joined] it really started to jell, and we realized we had a band on our hands that had a longer lifespan than a couple 7-inches."
Two years later, and helped by the addition of drummer Kyle Gibson, the relentlessly prolific band has released two LPs, a cassette compilation and a handful of 7-inch singles, each translating that feeling of getting high and listening to records that initially built the bond between Cohen and Sartin.
Admitted record nerds, the pair are distinguished by having worked at San Francisco's Amoeba Records, a mecca for zealous audiophiles. And part of what endears them to a like-minded audience is connecting the dusty fingerprints they cover their compositions with. "I romanticize the idea of sweaty miscreants who dig through [record] bins, listening to us and trying to read our language," says Sartin. But while the band doesn't shy away from openly acknowledging their influences, he says it's not calculated. "I never say, 'I want this song to sound like The Clean, or that song to sound like Roxy Music.' You never set out to do those things consciously, but in the clusterfuck and mayhem of recording you'll come up with an idea from something you're channeling. ... Whenever that happens, we [get] extremely excited."
While artists like, say, Times New Viking have made lo-fi records as willing sonic contrarians in an age where technology makes it easy to polish bedroom recordings (though TNV are reportedly heading into a proper studio for their next effort), Sartin says that with his band, the hisses and pops on their records are simply the result of limited resources. "We have a lot of broken equipment, and struggle really hard to make our recordings not sound like they were [made] in a tin can. I think we succeed, for the most part, but we work pretty chaotically and drunkenly and, you know... "
That ramshackle spontaneity only punctuates the casual charm of the records as their sideways chord progressions, winding melodies and deadpan, dead-ringer-for-Jonathan-Richman vocals bleed out of the speakers, transforming a living room into a yawning chasm of reverb. But Sartin says they don't want to hide behind effects. "[We] want to give these melodies greater depth and vision," he says, explaining why they chose to venture into a proper studio to record their forthcoming third LP, "because we're a melody- and song-based band."
As of late, the buzz surrounding the band and San Fran-tastic contemporaries such as Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and The Sandwitches resonates far beyond the city by the Bay they call home. When describing their scene's camaraderie, Sartin paints a picture that stands in stark contrast with the dog-eat-dog grind that bands in Nashville are used to: "It's not one of those places where there's camps," he says. "People don't really hang out with Third Eye Blind, but everybody is supportive, everybody goes to shows. ... It's not tainted by some bullshit cynicism." So let's make The Fresh & Onlys feel at home when they make their Music City debut.
Well, they said they wanted it stuffed and mounted.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
Yeah, fuck Dan Auerbach.
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