Bay Area folk-pop septet the 21st Century finally releases the album that was "fated to never be completed."
Music Last spring there was no end in sight. The future seemed bleak for what was once a promising project — the chance of a lifetime for Bay Area septet the 21st Century. Now, a full year after its intended release, the colorful debut album, The City, will see the light of day.
The struggle for The City began in 2010 with Kickstarter. Well, technically it began with an idea. Multi-instrumentalist Bevan Herbekian had been bouncing around the world since graduating from U.C. Santa Cruz. He'd come to San Francisco, the city closest to his Northern California-born heart, then promptly traveled to Europe, back to SF, next out to the Middle East — Israel, Egypt, Jordan — a quick stop in New Orleans and he was again back to the Bay. During those years, he was collecting sound. A guitarist, bassist, pianist and singer-songwriter since age 12, he fiddled with mandolin and banjo. In Jerusalem, he was gifted a small guitar and ended up busking a few times at a local shuk.
Upon Herbekian's return to San Francisco, he decided to create the band of his dreams, an expansive folk-pop act with intricate arrangements, multi-part harmonies, and plenty of acoustic instruments. He gathered up friends, former bandmates, and a few Craigslisters, and created the 21st Century. The band now includes a lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist, bassist, drummer, keyboardists, a trumpet player, a set of musical sisters, and the occasional live saxophonist.
Herbekian then worked on a set of creamy folk-pop tunes with abstract lyrics touching on the darkness and ebullient light of moving to a new city, specifically San Francisco (though he now resides in Berkeley). Sitting in the eternally packed Mission Pie, Herbekian recounts crafting the songs for The City, while he was living just down the street from the restaurant, near 25th and Bryant. "[the song] 'We Are Waiters' has some specifics about living in San Francisco, in the Mission," he pauses, taking a moment to collect his thoughts, "[it's] about being young, living in this city, and going back and forth between feeling exuberant and like you don't know how to reconcile that with adulthood." A common refrain in this adult-kid city of ours.
He recounts the battle to release The City. "It honestly felt like this project was fated to never be completed. There was always some catch, some snag." In the summer of 2010 the band met a producer who wanted to record and promote the album. Void of funds enough to travel and record, the 21st Century turned to Kickstarter and brought in $11,000, which Herbekian describes as "nuts" and "truly amazing."
With funding in place, the band flew to Texas, recorded the album, then returned home to await mixing. Something got lost in translation however, and the mixes, which was returned to them months after recording (in spring of 2011) were "way off the mark."
"[Our music] is relatively pop-based, but I like to think that there's a sense of artistry to it. We really pay attention to the details and do all these big arrangements, but the mixes just sounded like glossy top 40 pop," explains Herbekian. He wanted more Brian Wilson, less Justin Bieber. He next made the difficult decision to part ways with the producer, gather the loose tracks, and find another way to finish the album. A few band members left at this point, and Herbekian felt the pressure weighing down.
"Four weeks after that decision was made we were left with a fraction of our musical family, still in debt, and no relationship with the person who we were hoping was going to be our ticket to something — and all these sessions we had no idea what to do with." Herbekian had worked on home recording projects, but nothing of this scale.
By chance, one of the band members was pals with Ben Tanner, a touring musician and producer who works at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. "I had him take a shot at the song that I thought was the absolute worst and he resurrected it." Tanner continued to resurrect the album, piece by piece, working closely with Herbekian. The two wrote tireless emails and many late night phone calls transpired; they were sending mixes back and forth for months. "I've never met him in person but he's a saint to me," Herbekian enthuses.
The hard work has paid off, and Herbekian beams as he finally holds the completed album in his hands. The City's release party is this weekend at Red Devil Lounge and he can hardly believe it. At this point the process has taken so long that the band already has a batch of new songs, two full albums-worth. For this one, Herbekian says, "We might just go back to recording it ourselves." *
The 21st Century
With the Blank Tapes, Mark David Ashworth, and Muralismo
Fri/6, 8 p.m., $10
Red Devil Lounge
1695 Polk, SF