It wasn't long ago that I stood in a small gallery, getting the same feelings I have on the F train in August: I'm going to get stampeded or dehydrate, and no one will notice. But since the Tea Elles had come highly recommended and was the only band playing, I stuck it out along with a pack of sweaty citizens who, despite the B.O.-heavy sauna atmosphere, didn't budge from the front of the room.
Months later in SoMa, I'm sitting in an airy kitchen with three of the four Tea Elles. It's a bit like you imagine the "cool kid" dorm room to be: people with rolled cigarettes and guitars filing in and out and obscure music crackling out of a boom box.
"We picked the name, thinking Tea and Elles are like British and French. The most pansy, flamboyant name, which is kind of fitting for what we are doing," drummer Jigmae Behr tells me. "I mean, we're not tough."
It's true, the Tea Elles which includes vocalist-guitarist Jeremy Cox, guitarist-vocalist Amelia Radtke, and bassist-vocalist Tanner Griepentrog are not "tough." But funny enough, I'd have to say they're kind of punk. Kind of punk and kind of surf and kind of psychedelic too. Oh, yeah, and they're also amazing.
The randomness of the band's music is its most enticing aspect. It's like a cocktail made by a mad scientist that hangs out at your favorite record store a little Billy Childish with some Ventures and a dash of Syd Barrett thrown in. It makes a lot of sense when you hear it, but I'm amazed someone made this monster walk.
And the Tea Elles aren't alone. The more independent shows I go to, the more I see this style emerging. Behr has his theory. "There was a mass consciousness," the 26-year-old explains, rolling another cigarette. "There were a lot of kids all over the country, going to the same shows, buying the same records, and loving the same bands. We all made these projects that came from the same cesspool. We are just all coming through the same filter of a punk aesthetic.
"So we evolved and whatever direction we take is going to be through that lens. If we decide we're gonna be surf-oriented, or have more girl group harmonies, it's all coming through that lens."
Oh. Where was I when everyone was getting so awesome? While some of us feel like having instant access to every type of media in the world has become daunting, other young musicians are pulling muses from every vine they can reach. And in a city like San Francisco, where unlike Los Angeles or New York City you won't have a talent scout from MTV at every show, these performers seem to be making music for all the right reasons.
"When I'm writing a song or playing music I'm not thinking about any of that shit," says Cox, 19. "I'm thinking about a handful of people whose music I like."
The so-called egocentric notion of a frontperson is out, too, along with the idea that a band would ever release an album unless it was done independently. It's as if groups like the Tea Elles never imagined anyone would ever help them, although David Fox of local art collective Wizard Mountain recently recorded the band free of charge. That session, along with a recent Portland, Ore., jaunt means the Tea Elles probably have enough material for a full-length, which means I can finally stop listening to the melodic howling of "Chance of a Trance" on the outfit's MySpace page. Before the band left for Portland, they felt that their songs weren't "album material" but apparently now they are. And regardless of whether San Francisco listeners are finally handed a DIY-burned CD or some indie label gets wise to the Tea Elles' innovation, I just want to hear them.