It's a Tuesday night in San Francisco, and the Flipsides are at Brain Wash contemplating their cheese fries, which are bright orange and very gooey. "They have pretty good cheese fries here," says the band's young singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sabrina Stewart. "That's what I've heard."
The Flipsides are a little like those cheese fries. Well, just a little. They're not all that cheesy, nor are they really orange, although Iranian-American Stewart is a redhead, and drummer Jim Lindsay is also in the dreamy local retro-rock trio Oranger in his spare time. But the Flipsides' pop-punk is bright and cheery, packed with ooey-gooey pop hooks that recall the Brill Building at its best (assuming you're really into the Chiffons and the Shangri-La's -- and who isn't?). And at this point they're spreading almost entirely by word of mouth, playing all-ages gigs at skateparks and whatnot. It would be a stretch to say that all that's going to change when their debut album, Clever One, comes out on SF's Pink & Black Records this week; the band doesn't even have a record-release party lined up. But it's still a tasty platter for people who like their punk light, catchy, teen-oriented, and female-fronted.
Pink & Black is a label catering entirely to such tastes. An offshoot of SF punk label Fat Wreck Chords, Pink & Black started up in 1999 with a record by the Dance Hall Crashers, who had recently parted ways with merger-plagued MCA. Since then the label's roster has expanded to span the alphabet from D to F, acquiring all-gal outfit Fabulous Disaster and now the Flipsides. Though Stewart is outnumbered on the gender front by lads Lindsay and bassist Mark Bradin, her voice (both lyrically and at the mike) fits in awfully well with the other bouncy girl-powerhouses on her new label.
"The good thing about the record label is that they understand indies' need to specialize," Bradin says. "I mean, most of them do, anyway, I think. Most indies tend to be genre-specific or even subgenre-specific. Motown, to get more stuff, had four sub-labels. It makes sense. A lot of indie labels have their own sound that's distinct."
"But do you think Pink & Black has its own sound?" Stewart protests.
"I guess not as much," backtracks Bradin. "You're right. I don't know what I'm talking about." While it's a good thing for a label to have a signature sound, the same is true of bands, and not many musicians go willingly into a tidy little box to be branded.
"I'm right again!" Stewart crows. "Just kidding. I totally know what you mean. I think Pink & Black's probably too young a label to really have a sound, which perhaps is a good thing. But it's still kind of in the whole pop-punk, melodic, high-energy vein."
High-energy is right. Clever One is bursting with infectious ditties that make you bounce involuntarily as if you have a nervous disorder. (Which maybe you do. You ought to get that checked out.) Each song seems to build on the last: an anthemic "Two Weeks" ("I don't need the mailman or a phone/I will say it to your face/I want you for my own") after the even more anthemic "The Best of Times"; the especially girl-groupy "I Like You" (which could easily have been a Shirelles song in another life) after "So Disgusted," a deliciously propulsive track with brief nods to rockabilly and ska and a jubilant refrain about puking. The lyrics are simple, universal tales of teen romance -- after all Stewart, now 22, was a teenager when she wrote many of them. The mixture isn't gonna start any revolutions in musicology, but it makes them a little more than just a three-piece pop-punk trio that rose from the ashes of another three-piece pop-punk outfit from Pinole.
"We kind of started out as another band based out of the East Bay back in '97, and it just evolved into this band," Stewart says. "People left, and one day there were no original members left."
The reality may have been a bit more messy, judging from Bradin's reaction to Stewart's version: "Did people leave or were they fired?"
Stewart doesn't take the bait. "They were actually killed," she replies enigmatically.
The former threesome was called 5th Limb, featuring Stewart and Bradin with second-generation drummer Gary Lynch, whose dad was in the Greg Kihn Band. After whatever happened happened, Stewart and Bradin packed up Sabrina's songs and left 5th Limb behind, coming up with a new name and looking around for a new drummer. They found Jim Lindsay through a bit of musical matchmaking.
"We met this guy Tim Gorman, who used to play keyboards for the Who," Stewart says, turning toward the bleach-haired fella in question. "And he knew Jim. How did you guys know each other?"
"He had seen the other project that I play in," Lindsay replies.
"AC/DC?" Bradin asks.
"Yeah," Lindsay says, laughing. "He's a big fan."
Since irony is so '90s -- and was always a little suspect and unAmerican and helping the terrorists win and all that -- it is perhaps necessary to point out that Lindsay is in fact not in AC/DC, nor has he ever been. But he is in Oranger, which in a just world would involve a lot of fleeing from underage fans, á la A Hard Day's Night. But to hear him tell it, Orangerdom actually involves a lot of off-time feeding ducks.
"I was walking around Stowe Lake. I had nothing to do. I was bored out of my mind," he recalls. "And Tim Gorman calls me up and he's like, 'I know this fabulous singer-songwriter, Sabrina. She has this project, and I think you might be interested.'"
Calls were exchanged, and Stewart sent Lindsay a demo tape. "It had hooks all over it," he says. "I was totally into it."
"I was so excited," Stewart says, "because I had seen Jim play in his other project -- AC/DC -- and I thought he was amazing."
"That's right, you were at the record-release show for Highway to Hell," Lindsay says.
"We followed you in Dio too, man," Bradin replies. "We saw all your bands."
Stewart tries to continue running through the band history, undeterred by the telltale goofiness of people who aren't all that interested in discussing the topic at hand. "And then I met Mark through ... what is that?" She looks aghast at the pulpy, neon-orange puddle the cheese fries have become.
"It's getting oranger." Bradin marvels. "It's actually changing colors."
"Oranger?" Stewart repeats with amusement.
"Nice little plug there," says Lindsay ruefully, seeming eager to steer the conversation away from any other bands he may or may not be in and back to the project he's actually here to talk about.
But something else has arisen to distract Stewart, this time on the cafe's sound system, which seems to have been possessed by a howling poltergeist of electric guitar. "Who are we listening to?" she asks.
"The Jimi Hendrix Experience," Bradin tells her, with almost automatic readiness. He obviously knows his stuff and is called upon to do this a lot.
"I should know this," she says. "I'm ignorant."
The fact that Stewart is innocent of most of the great acts of yesteryear is one that Lindsay harps on with some eagerness -- that she manages to sound like '60s singles without being influenced by them.
""What was refreshing for me about Sabrina's songwriting was that it had that essence of song that the '60s and '70s had on the radio," Lindsay attests. "Really catchy hooks, lyrics that are on the level of the listener. Sabrina comes up with stuff that I or Mark will say, yeah, that's reminiscent of Carole King or ... some Motown act or something. And Sabrina will say, 'Um, yeah, I haven't heard that.'"
"The cool thing about playing with Jim and Mark, they're a few years older than me, and they've introduced me to different bands and records," Stewart replies. "I learn a lot from them."
"I have a question for the band," says Bradin. "Why does everyone say we have a '60s sound? That's always puzzled me, because I don't hear it."
"I totally hear it," Lindsay replies excitedly, bringing up one of the new disc's best songs as evidence. "Oh my gosh. Like 'I Like You,' that's almost borderline '50s, there's these stratifications of like '50s doo-wop and '60s Motown-y kind of stuff. There's three or four songs where the bridges you come up with are totally like, you could build a whole '60s, '70s song out of that."
Stewart says that an old bandmate of hers named one of the songs on the record "'60s" because he thought it sounded like a '60s single, though the lyrics have no more to do with that era than with particle physics. The undeniably hook-laden track is just a sassy celebration of self-sufficiency addressed to a jerk: "How fucking lame of you/To beat down my self-confidence/Consciously." Not exactly Leiber and Stoller stuff, and in its current form it sounds more brash and punky than anything else (though the '60s connection doesn't sound so much like a stretch on an old 5th Limb demo). Still, the name stuck. Lindsay testifies that he thinks the song sounds "like all the good parts" of the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday."
Stewart sighs. "Once again, I don't know it." Which, when you think about it, is pretty incredible in every sense of the word. The Monkees weren't exactly seminal, but for a couple of generations they were inescapable. Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your television, here they'd come, walking down the street.
Lest the point go unnoticed, the drummer hammers it home. "A prime example of Sabrina not hearing a song and coming up with something really similar," he insists.
Stewart just shrugs. "I have a lot to learn."
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