"Sorry, hold on—I'm getting panhandled trying to pay my parking meter." Shayde Sartin, bassist for San Francisco quartet The Fresh & Onlys, is calling from Haight-Ashbury, the legendary epicenter of the 1967 hippie-led "Summer of Love."
His band's new album, Play It Strange, actually opens with a sunny jangler called "Summer of Love." But, as Sartin explains while dealing with the panhandler, "it's really a song about all the morbidity and the dark side of that stuff. Tim [Cohen] and I have lived and worked around Haight Street for 10 years, and some of it is like Disney World. The Summer of Love can mean tourist trap to us."
The difference between surfaces and what's below them is a theme that runs through The Fresh & Onlys' music, a bright amalgam of garage, folk and psych. The band's chiming guitars and curvy hooks recall Buddy Holly, The Byrds and R.E.M. There's something idiosyncratic, however, in their meld of rock history and of-the-moment vision. It's summed in the title Play It Strange, taken from an old recording of a country singer who the band heard while on tour. "I can't recall his name, but there's a part of one song where he tells the guitar player to take a solo," Sartin explains. "But instead of saying 'Guitar!' he says 'Play it strange!' That stuck with us—the idea of doing something typical in a way that isn't typical."
That's a fair way to describe both The Fresh & Onlys' music and trajectory. The band began as a home project for Sartin and Cohen, co-workers at the record store Amoeba. "It was just going to be us in a bedroom making tapes and putting out seven-inches occasionally," Sartin recalls. "We just wrote any kind of song we wanted to. Our spectrum was pretty broad." But after adding guitarist Wymond Miles and drummer Kyle Gibson, they quickly became prolific, producing three albums and numerous singles in the past three years. "We always said from the beginning, 'Try everything,'" says Sartin. "Don't kill an idea before you let it live."
Proof lies in Play It Strange's longest tune, "Tropical Island Suite," which began as a finger-picked acoustic song before a night of drinking turned it into a minor epic. Traversing punk stomp, delirious rave-up and beatific balladry, the track peaks with a noisy, melodic inversion that Sartin calls "this feeling of being blasted underwater, that kind of explosion where everything is flipped around." "We're always searching for things to bring out melodies or create countermelodies," he continues, noting that recording at Tim Green's Louder Studios allowed the band to try new instruments like piano and vibraphone. "It's something that I've always enjoyed about a lot of '80s guitar bands, like The Smiths or The Go-Betweens or R.E.M."
It's also something The Fresh & Onlys share with like-minded San Francisco acts like The Oh Sees, The Mantles, Ty Segall and Sonny & the Sunsets. "We go to each others' shows and we're constantly trading demos and even playing together sometimes," says Sartin. "I feel pretty fortunate that we all have each other around to be able to share that." If this is a movement, though, it's moving fast. According to Sartin, The Fresh & Onlys find stability in such speed. "We try to deal with what's in front of us," he insists. "If you stop paying attention to what you're doing right now and think two years down the road, you miss a bunch of steps along the way. If I think about what we're writing and recording, I get inspired by that, and that's all that really matters to us."