"The ghosts come quickly, and they leave quickly," remarks Philipp Minnig about his effective yet unorthodox approach to songwriting for San Francisco electro-disco group Sugar and Gold.
"I always call songwriting 'ghostbusting,' " he says over tapas at Picaro in the Mission District, in a German accent softened by years spent in Northern California. "There will be an idea floating around, and you zap it, throw out your trap, and there it goes. For us, our traps are chords, or a rhythm. Someone brings in the ghost, and we all work on it."
Sugar and Gold is the brainchild of the rosy-cheeked lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter and his longtime friend and collaborator, vocalist and keyboardist Nicolas Dobbratz. They met in middle school in Pacific Grove and decided after a particularly memorable acid trip to start a band. The duo - whose previous combos Dura Delinquent and Connexion were rooted in visceral proto-punk - were always set on making dance-oriented music that was inclusive, countering the snobbish in-crowd ethos of Bay Area hipster groups. It is this generosity of spirit and their infectious, unduutf8g rhythms that led to a friendship and working relationship with Oakland's dance-punk foursome Gravy Train, who recently enlisted Minnig and Dobbratz to produce their next album.
The two bands met when Gravy Train sought advice from Sugar and Gold about a hard-to-achieve keyboard effect in one of their songs. Minnig was happy to help them out, explaining that he believes in an altruistic approach to making music: "If everyone keeps their musical techniques to themselves, the scene and the music will never expand to get bigger and better."
A beautiful relationship was born. "Sugar and Gold don't have a too-cool-for-school vibe," Gravy Train's brazen redheaded vocalist Chunx writes via e-mail. "At their live shows, they are all about letting go, getting wild, and just feeling the music. It doesn't matter what kind of person you are, or what you look like, which is the same philosophy as Gravy Train." On Sugar and Gold's debut, Creme (Antenna Farm), the sextet - including Jerome Steegmans on bass, drummer Robin Macmillan, and backing vocalists Susana Cortes and Fatima Fleming - take inspiration from the voluptuous soul of Funkadelic and Sly Stone, the subversive rock 'n' roll of the Cramps, and the cerebral electronic mastery of Kraftwerk, creating the seemingly antithetical hybrid of thoughtful yet sexy dance music.
Ghostbusting aside, this musical intellectualism sets Sugar and Gold apart from dance music makers who view music not as a way of life or an extension of themselves but as part of a hedonistic event experienced by a superficial persona. Minnig believes in the music he makes, and he views the process as a fundamental and spiritual necessity. "When we recorded the album, the music was giving us a feeling that was real, authentic," he says. "Music is the only spirituality we have. It's the only way to believe in something greater than ourselves."
He has a similarly insightful answer to the question of why dance music is important. Between sips of peppermint tea, he says, "Dancing is one of those few things that, when done right, you do without an end in mind. You are free from an objective, which is rare in our society."
SUGAR AND GOLD
With Her Grace the Duchess and the Society
May 19, 9 p.m., $12
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF