FALL ARTS The clouds hang over San Francisco like a brumous, early evening warning sign. It's late summer on the back patio of popular Mission street bar El Rio. Small pockets of people huddle near outdoor heaters, and vintage pop songs come pumping through the speakers. Three men dressed neatly in sweaters and hoodies sit at a long picnic table clutching cheap beers.
This is the story of il gato, a San Francisco band that describes itself as indie-baroque-folk. Its music is baroque in the sense that it's melancholic yet upbeat, lyric-heavy yet leans towards the classical, and highly decorated with a wide array of instrumentation. The band's 2010 long-player, All These Slippery Things (self-released), and similarly-named followup EP All Those Slippery Things (released last month) feature banjo, mandolin, piano, a string quartet, and trumpets, along with aggressive acoustic folk guitar, looping pedal, upright and electric bass, and complex drumming.
After years of dutiful practice in tiny apartment kitchens, labored songwriting, and intimate live shows, the group finally recorded (thanks to a grant from the Bay Bridged blog) in 2009 at legendary studio Tiny Telephone, owned by revered local musician John Vanderslice. "I...remember how eclectic and fresh their instrumentation and arrangements were," says Vanderslice. "They were a blast to have in the studio." But this all came a decade after the first seedling of the il gato concept. Fittingly, the band's journey — a mildly operatic one, given the twists and bumps along the way — began in Italy.
THE PROLOGUE: Daimian Holiday Scott is studying architecture abroad in Vicenza, Italy. The year is 1999; he hasn't picked up an instrument since middle school. All of those niggling emotions involved with overseas travel had led to an outburst of emotions, which, naturally, led to buying a guitar. The initial concept was performance art: he'd speak with a fake Italian accent but sing cover songs in English. That never actually happened. "It's the story before the story," says il gato drummer, Johnny Major, "the prelude."
THE FIRST ACT: fast forward five years. Scott shuts the door to the bedroom and asks his girlfriend to listen to the songs he's been working on from a safe distance in the living room. "It took a long time for me to break free of being super shy and inhibited," Scott says.
Scott was in his native Gainsville, Fla. writing songs on acoustic guitar and harmonica, learning that to be a songwriter, one must evolve out of the bedroom. He moved to the Bay Area in 2001, first to Berkeley and later, the Mission District of San Francisco, playing as il gato with a rotating cast of talented musicians friends. Years later, when he longed for consistency, he put up an ad on Craigslist seeking musicians.
Major, a San Francisco native who had recently returned from a two-year stay in Chile, answered it. "I liked the name," says Major, "And of course, I really liked the music. I thought he sounded like a combination of Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse and Doug Martsch from Built to Spill, two of my favorite bands."