TOFU AND WHISKEY New DIY record labels? Minimalist two-person ukulele bands? These are not the signs of fast-paced, modern, glossy hi-tech lifestyles. While San Francisco is at a crossroads, on the verge of an identity crisis splintered throughout many a start-up, at least a few of SF's musicians (and likely plenty more) have made an artist's leap farther north to even grayer Portland, Ore.
Magic Fight's Alex Haager is one of those expatriates. He started a new indie label — Breakup Records — and moved to Portland with his partner, Sierra Frost, another musician, from the bands clintongore and Downer Party. "It's a great place for music and a great place to live if you make less than 200k a year. And we like the rain."
They started the label last month with an indeterminate interest in dreamy, brainy pop acts. There are already plans to release records by Frozen Folk, Magic Fight, Jesus Dude Mom, and a few more in the next six months or so. Right now, the roster of acts soon to be rolled out is all from the Bay Area.
"We each have tight relationships with some great independent bands whom we have worked with in different capacities over the years," says Haager, from his newish home in Portland. "Our goal is to help grow the bands that inspire us — especially musicians with approaches and aesthetics that we find interesting within the realms of what can be considered pop."
"Frankly, we're both underwhelmed by garage rock. We plan to release records that offer an alternative to the overly nostalgic, blasted out stuff that has become so prevalent in California in the last 10 to 15 years. We want to showcase what the West Coast sounds like to us."
One of the label's first releases will be the debut EP of Kitten Grenade, a deceptively named duo made up of old-timey vocalist-ukulele player Katelyn Sullivan and drummer Ben Manning. Breakup previewed it with a single release a few weeks back, for a song titled "Gray."
The minimalist pop track is arresting — occupying a space between bright and dark, it's both melancholy and lightly fluttering over heavier vibes, with much of those emotions pinned to Sullivan's jazz-inflected vocals. "That was very intentional," says San Francisco's Sullivan, who lives in the Mission. "'Gray' started out being about my inability to make decisions, and is another play on opposites; it felt like a great song to pick as our first single."
The video for the track, shot in black and white, similarly plays with light and dark shadows. It features crisp repetitive images cropped in closely around Sullivan's face and bare shoulders, and dancing orchids and roses twirling around her. Like Georgia O'Keeffe's storied paintings, the close-ups of the flowers can resemble female sexual organs, in particular the still from the video that was chosen for the cover of the single.
"In a way, the orchid in the image — with its vaginal undertones — could represent purity, which then fades into the muddled gray of the real world in the background. Using it as the cover wasn't so much planned as it was a happy accident. It's an image that happened to be in our video that really resonated with me," Sullivan says.
The full four-track debut EP, Nice Day, on Breakup is coming in January 2014. Sullivan — who calls Philz Coffee, the Phone Booth, El Rio, and Hog and Rocks her favorite local spots — says the album title references her experience with drummer Manning when they were recording during the "beautiful San Francisco summer we had this year."