By ADAM SAWYER
In the Bay Area, rain in the winter just isn’t a good enough excuse not to go out. On a wet January 20th at the New Parish in Oakland, the LA-based Races opened for El Ten Eleven, with whom they’re currently on tour. The southern California sextet released their Big Broom EP in November 2011 and will share their debut full-length album, Year of the Witch, in the Spring of 2012 (Frenchkiss Records). This was my first time checking out this venue. I realized that I’ve been missing out. It’s both intimate and spacious, what with the upstairs balcony wrap-around which reminds me of a slightly smaller version of the DNA Lounge in San Francisco.
The Oakland native band Mwahaha was the appetizer of the evening. The four men on stage rocked it the best they knew how. Their electro-pop-rock sound paired with modified vocals is somewhat unique but not my style.
From the moment they slide on stage, the members of Races convey a great spirit that is infectious. Now mix that with a smooth, mellow rock feel, a constant yet comforting guitar drone (Garth Herberg), and the magnetic vocal harmonies offered up by singer-songwriter/guitarist Wade Ryff, Devon Lee (vocals/percussion) and Breanna Wood (piano/vocals). A good part of the band’s repertoire is a lament of lovers lost or introspection in the absence thereof. Pretty universal stuff, and tragic without being cynical. I was utterly enchanted. Maybe it was Wade’s voice, smooth and controlled, or perhaps the lulling guitar. Devon, a relatively untrained musician, offers a lively and beautiful performance with backup vocals. She was brimming with life, always a big smile on her face. Lucas added to the excitement, standing up from time to time so he could really beat on those drums, while Breanna kept it demure with her pitch-perfect harmonies. The keys danced under her fingers, adding so much character and even some light-hearted moments to otherwise melancholic numbers like “All for You.” People often overlook the bassist, but it’s hard to forget such great additions to songs like “Hope and Gloom.” In short, I approve. Check ‘em out, people. I mean, if you want to. I’m not your mother.
El Ten Eleven, the instrumental post-rock duo from LA, took to the stage last. Frontman Kristian Dunn plays a guitar/bass doubleneck while Tim Fogarty has fun on both the electric and acoustic drums as well as a synth. Cue lots and lots of looping, fun guitar melodies and great energy. I found them fun but it didn’t move me to the point of poetry by any means. Maybe they’re more your thing?
Before the show, I had the chance to sit down and parley with five of the six musicians in Races. I must say: they were a great time. Chemistry within the group spilled over into our conversation, making the whole process much easier for me. Check out the interview after the jump.
So, tell me about the infamous event that brought you guys together.
WADE: A friend of mine had asked me to do a solo show, so I started writing some songs and stuff. Then I talked to Garth about putting a group together.
ALL: Garth’s the one who’s not here.
WADE: But yeah. We wanted some girls singing and my friend knew Oliver. So we kinda pieced together this band for this show. We weren’t trying to start a band by any means. It was supposed to be just for one show but it felt good and we got asked to do another show and we kept doing it. [Takes on a joking affectation] Actually, I put up an ad on Craigslist and was like “Hey, I wanna start a band.”
LUCA: Cuz that’s how great bands are formed.
Of course. That’s how everything great is formed, no? So when exactly did you guys sign with Frenchkiss?
ALL (each chiming in one after the other): Like, the beginning of last year? Last March? April? Technically the deal went through in the Fall so it was kinda in the bag.
WADE: I think Spring of 2011. Yeah, they wanted to give us like three Hot Pockets and we were like, no we want 5 Hot Pockets.
LUCA: At least a Hot Pocket for each band member.
OLIVER: Which at the time was 7. So that’s a lot of Hot Pockets.
WADE: Yeah, we lost a member. She’s no longer with us.
OLIVER: We got to keep the Hot Pocket though.
Do you guys all have similar music backgrounds?
OLIVER: I don’t think we fully know each other. We don’t even know each others’ names. We’re just like “You’re cool. I don’t hate you.” [Laughs all around]
WADE: I think it’s pretty mixed.
(And indeed it is. From classic piano training and a strong curriculum in the bass to a Music Business education and just plain natural talent, Races has a nice mixture of influences and perceptions.)
Who does a lot of the songwriting in the group?
[All point to Wade]
LUCA: Wade is the main songwriter. Absolutely.
DEVON: For the first album. But I think with Frenchkiss and all this.. I think the songwriting process will probably evolve.
So, Wade, you’ve been through a lot of bands right?
WADE: Yeah. I’ve been through a few bands. Always playing bass though.
LUCA: Wade and I played rhythm section for seven years together. Five years before this band got together.
So you guys obviously hate each other.
WADE: You guys don’t happen to have any OxyCoton do you? I have a really bad headache. [Laughs from the band]
No I don’t. Sorry. That’d be really nice though. I have a cold. At least I wouldn’t feel it. You guys are mostly from LA. How does it feel to have the first show of your tour be in SF? Are you guys fans of the city?
ALL (answering together): Oh I love it. Yeah. Big time. I almost moved here.
WADE: I’m a big fan of NorCal. When I was 17 I was a big fan of all the Beat writers and all that. I was having a tough time in high school. For Christmas I asked my parents to just buy me a ticket to San Francisco. So I flew here and was staying with a friend of mine in Piedmont, which is in Oakland right?
Did you just sleep on the street for the fun of it?
WADE: No. Well, I DID but not for the fun of it. What ended up happening is I said “Cool, well I’m gonna go into the city and check out San Francisco.” My phone died and I didn’t pack a charger so I had no way to call her because I didn’t know her number by memory. Then I missed the subway to get back and I didn’t know anybody in San Francisco. I’m 17 years old. It’s December. So I ended up having to sleeping on Mission Street. I slept on the BART. And then I had a total Holden Caulfield moment, and ended up staying in this hooker’s house. [Everyone laughs] No joke.
OLIVER: Did you know it was a hooker?
DEVON: All in one night?
LUCA: Did her pimp punch you in the face?
WADE: So that was my first San Francisco experience.
That’s a pretty valid first impression of the city.
WADE: It was great.
So I have to ask. Why’d you guys change your name from Black Jesus?
DEVON: Do you want the real answer?
BREANNA [who prefers “BRE”]: I think we all think it’s a different reason. I thought it was cuz we couldn’t have the name because it was an issue with trademark. I love the name.
WADE: Yeah it was trademarked and Frenchkiss was kinda “Yeah we’d love it if you’d change your name.”
Cuz it’s not people-friendly?
WADE: To them it was that it doesn’t fit our music. Like some people would think we’re a heavy rock band.
Yeah. Sounds like you would be billed with Suicidal Angels.
OLIVER: We had spoken to someone who was basically like “No commercial radio station in Middle America is gonna touch you, regardless. Maybe college stations.” So that was also something that tipped the scale a little.
WADE: Do we really want radio in Middle America to touch us? [All laugh]
(I ask them all their ages–because I love to be rude–which reveals how much the band members are still getting to know one another, as comments such as “Oh really? I thought you were older” start to surface. Everyone gives each other a hard time. Jokes and more laughing ensue.)
Before I go and let you guys get ready. Have you all talked about any plans or goals you have for the band? Or are you just going with it for now as a “haphazard ensemble?”
WADE: Well, why don’t we each share our plans and goals cuz I would love to hear them. [A big laugh from all]
BRE: Thanks for holding this therapy session for us. Oh my gosh. This is scary.
LUCAS: I’ll tell you one of mine. This is my personal goal. To make enough money in the band to fund a sustainable community. Not completely, but I mean to fund my own role in a completely sustainable community that is off the grid.
DEVON: We wanna make enough money to start a loan company actually, which was Oliver’s idea.
(Take a stab at who studied Music Business.)
OLIVER: Races the Bank. I don’t know. It’s been just over two years now and it’s been consistent pleasant surprises. We never are like “we have to do THIS” and work towards it. We’re presented with something, we react to it and it leads to the next thing it feels like. I mean, we wanna tour, live off this and have fun with it. We just keep turning corners and being surprised. It’s cool. Sorry, that was a sort of touchy-feely response.
WADE: I think mine would be – Oh. Hi. My name’s Wade. I’ve been sober for 30 days. No, I think for me, if we could just stay together as a band and be making music that we’re really proud of and happy with. And I know for me, it gets hard. You start thinking about making the money and all that shit. I don’t wanna sacrifice that being pissed off at each other and not like the music we’re playing. It’s a really hard balance. Every other band I’ve been in has broken up because of it. For me that’s the big challenge. Just keep going down the road and loving what you’re doing together.
DEVON: I think morale of the band is the most important for everybody. If we make X amount of dollars, that’s great. But it’s really about the kinship and making amazing music. And playing amazing live shows and getting better at it. But we’ve had a lot of great opportunities that have presented themselves and we’re lucky in that way.
OLIVER: Yeah it’s hard because it can feel more and more like a job and the music sometimes takes second fiddle cuz there’s so much shit to take care of.