"They're the ones that pushed E-40 into hyphy," says Hamburger Eyes photographer Dave Potes, in reference to his friends the Mall, a San Francisco art punk trio, and the hype that surrounds them.
"Yeah, we're part of the hyphy movement," adds Mall guitarist-keyboardist Daniel Tierney, 27, and his bandmates erupt into cacophonous chuckling.
I've heard the "h" word dropped incessantly for weeks now and have pretended to be hip to the Bay Area hip-hop phenomenon. As the band continues chatting about the genre and its influence on the new DJ Shadow album, bewilderment washes over me, and I hang my head and admit to having no idea what anyone's talking about.
"You've got to get on the bus then," bassist-guitarist-vocalist Ellery Samson, 29, demands when someone mentions the "yellow bus." In unison everyone chants a couple of "da, do, do, do"s as if the composition should strike a chord, like my sister's favorite New Kids on the Block track. I grin and nod even though I'm still puzzled.
Whether or not the Mall seriously acknowledge an affiliation to the hip-hop movement is questionable. However, while chilling over beers on a bar patio in the Mission District, I get a sense of buoyancy and selflessness from the mild-mannered band members.
"Up until last month, we all lived within three blocks of this bar," says drummer Adam Cimino, 28, adding that this particular area definitely inspired their recent songs.
Given the languid quiet of this cool, fogless night — punctuated by the occasional crack of a cue ball or the faint sounds from the bar jukebox — it's hard to imagine this neighborhood spawning a band whose music brims with pissed-off aggression and agitated velocity. But then, the Mall aren't exactly from this hood. The band's beginnings trace back to Montgomery High in Santa Rosa, where Samson and Tierney met and became friends. The pair worked on another musical project, called Downers, but soon found themselves seeking an additional element: Cimino.
Samson gave him a call. "I want to do this screamy, art fag, punk rock thing," jokes Cimino in a mock-Samson accent, re-creating the talk. "I was, like, 'I get it. That sounds awesome.'”
The three obtained a practice space without ever playing a note of music together and began work on the first few songs that would end up on their EP, First, Before, and Never Again (Mt. St. Mtn., 2006). From there on, the band gelled into what has become an enterprising experience for all involved.
The group's new debut, Emergency at the Everyday (Secretariat), is an exercise in emphatic pugnacity and loud-as-shit tumult. The 13 songs — clocking in at less than 20 minutes — are punishing in scope yet danceable. Casio-pop melodies ebb and flow along a thunderous foundation of crunching guitars, plodding bass lines, and dynamite-fueled drum pops.
"We get our sound from fucking up the amps, and we don't use distortion pedals," Cimino explains. "It's just little Casio keyboards and an amp turned to 10. That's what makes it so gritty-sounding."
Samson's vocals add to the mélange of fuzzed-out commotion. Imagine the throaty screech of a young Black Francis shattering through an aggro mixture of angular guitar bluster and punk avidity. During the recording of the album, Samson sang through an old rotary telephone hooked up to a PA to match the distortion of the other instruments and capture the intensity of live performance.
"The music was so blown-out it was too awkward to have clean vocals," adds a smiling Cimino. "It's a neat trick."
But even without the aid from the telephone, you can't deny the hostility of Samson's vocals. It's surprising considering his placid demeanor.
"Everybody's really angry right now, and we're just as angry as anybody else," he says.
The band backs up Samson's statement by discussing the unending Iraq war and their disapproval of the president, and though the Mall's songs don't exactly cover those topics, they certainly fuel the fire.