Coming out of the small coastal resort of Fremantle, a beautiful town nestling in the shadow of Perth’s gleaming monoliths and separated from the more fashionable parts of Oz by thousands of miles of red dirt, you might expect the music of San Cisco to be limited in vision, comprising flimsy surf-ditties extolling the ephemeral pleasures of sun, surf and sex. You would be wrong, however. For while it would be untrue to claim that the unholy trinity of sex, sun and sea are absent from their songs, on their new album, Gracetown, the band — singer Jordi Davieson, Josh Biondillo (guitar), Nick Gardner (bass) and Scarlett Stevens (drums) — extend their sonic palette to new territories. There is a deeper, chillier feel to songs such as ‘Snow’ and a looser, funkier feel to ones like ‘Jealousy’ that signals a new sophistication and maturity. Less sun, then, and more muted shades, as well as a deeper exploration of the hormonal tangle that is postmodern sexual politics. If there is a band that better explores the ache, paranoia and oestrogen-rush of young love I don’t know it. The album shows San Cisco growing up, and this growing up is scary and magnificent to behold.
San Cisco are not newcomers to the scene, of course. They released their debut self-titled album in 2012 to international acclaim and have toured the world several times since, headlining shows and festival performances such as Lollapalooza, Pukkelpop and Reading. The fruit of this time on the road is reflected in the new sound, and sound which has paid its dues and has a sharpness born of hangovers, air-miles, homesickness and displacement.
The band first touched a global nerve with beguilingly fraught earworms such as 2011’s ‘Awkward’, a song that garnered almost universal critical and popular acclaim. San Cisco’s sound at that time approximated to their own definition of ‘squelchy, crispy, streamlined, hairy indie’, an acknowledgement of the band’s eclecticism, embracing as it did a quirky mix of ringing Rickenbacker guitars, pounding rhythms and soulful vocals. Yet there was always more at work than energetic pastiche. Other hits from their 2012 debut such as ‘Wild Things’ and ‘Fred Astaire’ managed the trick of being great pop songs that nonetheless contained a hint of menace or madness, something that suggested the band was more interested in classic pop than indie navel-gazing. Their sources of inspiration always came and still come from unlikely sources. Guitarist and songsmith Josh has admitted to a deep love for US satirical cartoon series such as The Simpsons and American Dad, and you can see it in the music. Think a sonic version of Neighbours scripted by the creators of South Park. Think quirky humour, twisted desire and bright colours, and then add danceability. If the original mix was intoxicating the new album is even more so.
On Gracetown San Cisco have enlisted the help of producer and long-term collaborator Steven Schram, and the presence of this ‘fifth Beatle’ is manifest from the first. Schram has furthered the band’s experimentation with new styles and textures to great effect. Prior to visiting The Compound (studio-home of fellow Fremantle friend and musician John Butler) Josh and Jordi crafted the bones of the album at Rada Studios with friend and musician Matt Gio. Schram then encouraged them to tread boldly where they had not yet gone in sonic terms.
And so to the album itself. The mysteriously titled Gracetown is no homage to Paul Simon’s 1986 anti-Apartheid opus Graceland, for the band doesn’t address a preoccupation with world beats and racism, but rather their own more prosaic roots and backyard. ‘Gracetown is a small coastal town in the South West of WA where our families have second homes and where there’s an annual music festival,’ Josh explains in a Skype interview across a scratchy line. The title is symbolic, he and Jordi say, of a nostalgic fondness for a childhood retreat, one that evokes the Swallows and Amazons hedonism shown in the video of their sun-dazed hit ‘Golden Revolver’ on their debut LP. The new album feels even freer in artistic terms, I say, and they tell me why. ‘We’re releasing Gracetown on our own label (Island City Records),’ explains Jordi. ‘So there were no men in suits from the label sitting in on recording sessions and demanding hits. We were in control of all facets of the music, and that was a massive relief. We could do anything we wanted, and we did.’
This freedom extended to matters of look as well as sound and feel. Guitarist Josh explains how the band commissioned the sleeve’s eye-catching cover-art from Pete Matulich. He explains that this forms part of the album’s self-crafted sensibility, comprising as it does memories, found sounds and serendipitous encounters. This search for ‘authenticity and localism’ is present in the lyrics too. Jordi explains how the words are rooted in personal experience, either his own or that of those he has closely observed. ‘Lyrics must have some truth about them otherwise they’re just a bunch of words,’ he says flatly. ‘I can’t just fabricate a scenario. If I make stuff up I can’t remember it, and the song falls apart.’ His method, he continues, is to ‘objectify’ the words so they are not too literal but, rather, universal. ‘We don’t include a lyric sheet in the CD for that reason. We don’t want to dictate a response. We want the listener to encounter a song and make it their own, even if they mishear it,’ Jordi says with a sparkle in his eye.
When I say that new songs on the album — songs such as ‘Jealousy’ (which features Isabella Manfredi from The Preatures), ‘Super Slow’ and ‘Just For A Minute’ — are a massive leap forward in terms of depth and texture both guitarist and singer look humble. Instead of citing contemporary influences they speak of ‘golden oldie’ artists that inspired them – Isaac Hayes, The Turtles, The Beatles, Bob Dylan. ‘We like timeless, ageless melodies,’ Josh explains, ‘and a solid groove. We may not have written a classic of our own yet but we are getting closer.’ This growing interest in classic song structures shows itself in the new sophistication of the sound, one that tips its cap to disco and soul, funk and hip hop but still remains defiantly its own beast. There is a lushness and sense of space in the new songs that the band once filled with youthful brio, with clattering and frenetic la-la-las. Now there is gorgeous languor and a supple muscularity that pulses under the beat. Jordi’s voice, especially when wrapped around drummer Scarlett’s or guest vocalist The Preature’s Isabella Manfredi’s, reveals itself to be what it always promised to be: one of the great soul voices of all time. And yet paradoxically the singer admits to worrying that the well of the global creativity may soon run dry. ‘The world is running out of melodies,’ he confides in a moment of seriousness, for all the world as if cosmic entropy will consume us before the end of the interview.
Fortunately the band’s ease with melody and beat gives an elegant riposte to that fear. Jordi looks up again and grins, showing himself to be no precious artiste and far from the ‘narcissist’ he feels he might become as the band’s fame grows: ‘We don’t write to fulfill our own musical fantasies,’ he says passionately. ‘We want to communicate and touch people. We want to write great pop — there’s no shame in that. We don’t want to record a hundred year old piano and run it backwards through a shoe just to make a statement. We are entertainers, not artists.’
On the strength of this album the band are both, and there is much to look forward to, for both us and them.