Matthew Melton has heard that oranges are good for you, especially if you smoke a lot of weed. Something about Vitamin C depletion. He shared this partly as explanation as he surreptitiously siphoned orange slices from a glass at the bar into his hand, sitting in a high-ceilinged San Francisco art gallery. A few feet away, the gallery's previous event, some kind of tech conference after-party, wound down. Women in pointy shoes and men in suits buzzed around, there was guy at the front with a clipboard, and everyone was wearing a nametag. Uniformed employees boxed up huge, thousand-dollar flat-screen televisions to clear room for Melton and his band, Bare Wires, to play a show. In his leather jacket, cabernet-red corduroys, and matching polyester T-shirt unbuttoned about a quarter of the way, still stealing the oranges, Melton couldn't look more out of place. He didn't even have a cell phone on him.
It's fitting. After all, in all facets of their existence, the members of the Oakland three-piece seem to occupy a universe slightly separate from the rest of the world. They don't have credit cards, bank accounts, or even real day jobs, and they use pay-as-you-go cell phones. "Don't Ever Change," the band's latest and best single, is a joyous nostalgia trip through Seventies surf-pop by way of The Stooges, The Flaming Groovies, T-Rex, and The Ramones, to whom they're often compared. It's an aesthetic firmly rooted in a specific place and time, but Melton insists all this is far from calculated, and you have to believe him. Bare Wires is nothing if not thrown-together, in the best way possible.
Singer-guitarist Melton is originally from Memphis, drummer Nathan Price is from the Central Valley, and bassist Fletcher Johnson is from upstate New York, but each made his way here independently and proudly calls the East Bay home. ("People try to say we're from San Francisco and we'll cross that off the flier and say Oakland," Melton said.) And they found each other like they found Oakland: organically and happily. Melton and Price met while working at a vintage clothing store together; they quickly bonded over music and found that they both lived on the same block of Telegraph Avenue. When recording their second album, the standout Seeking Love, they needed a bassist, and Fletcher Johnson appeared, as if out of nowhere. "It's about as thrown together as you can get," Price said.
A couple weeks earlier, on a sunny late-May afternoon, Melton maneuvered the band's van, a silver 1995 GMC Rally G250 bought at a government auction, up the hill to the Piedmont Cemetery over the hum of the radio — oldies AM 1550, naturally. The van is exactly the kind of vehicle you'd imagine Bare Wires to drive: The seats have been replaced by a pastel-floral couch, crammed in lengthwise, a string of guitar-shaped Christmas lights adorns the back, and the floor is littered with water bottles, papers, and a single black leather boot, size ten. The passenger door is busted from an unspecified run-in with Canadian customs, and there's an avocado the texture of Play-Doh on the front seat; when asked about it, Melton shrugged.
The cemetery is one of the guys' favorite places in Oakland — "it's so high up, you feel like you're floating," said Price. The same could be said for the band's trajectory, which, so far, seems gleefully boundless.
Through no apparent concerted effort of its own, the trio appears to be a perfect storm of buzz-bait. This isn't empty puff-piece hyperbole, but rather the result of honest, simple, right-people-right-place-right-time calculus. The members are attractive and aesthetically minded in a way that's neither too precious nor too calculated-seeming, and they already seem to dress like they're in a permanent, private music video. They're also willing to work hard, unbelievably hard, logging long hours on the road and playing pretty much every show they can find, but they never seem to be tired. Musically, they're interesting and inventive enough to be accepted by the elites, but accessible enough to appeal to everyone else, and they're right at the thrumming, electric nexus of a well-documented Oakland garage-rock renaissance begging for a poster band. Combine ingredients and mix well.
Indeed, the three-piece has already been quietly building press attention and a fan base. It's currently weighing interest from several labels, and is preparing to be the subjects of a Vice magazine documentary; if they play their cards right, Bare Wires' time could come very soon.
Lately it seems like every garage in Oakland has a skuzzy hipster with a guitar attached to it, but what sets Bare Wires apart from the rest is their allegiance to melody: Melton's guitar, Johnson's driving bass, and the band's overall lo-fi, fuzzy effect are interesting enough, but this isn't just noise. Take the staggering number of descriptors they give to their sound: smooth punk, glitter fuzz, the charmingly inventive "slop-pop." "Somebody said we sounded like leather-jacket rock, which I think is cool," Price offered.
But beyond that, "There's absolutely no concept," Melton insisted. "We really don't even practice that much."
"Yeah, when you boil it down, we're just a shitty garage band," added Price.
They're selling themselves short, obviously. According to Melton, the band has put in 60,000 miles on the road in the last year alone, as they crisscrossed North America too many times to count. When we spoke, they were fresh back from a tour that included the South by Southwest Festival, plus countless other warehouses, clubs, and concert venues, the likes of which tend to blend together. ("It was a long tour, and after each show, we just climb into our spaceship and go to the next city," Price said. "Also, we've smoked a lot of weed since then." Fair enough.)
Touring is, indeed, embedded in the band's image, and the guys approach the road as they seem to approach everything else: with a laissez-faire attitude and a willingness to be surprised. They have never paid for a hotel room, which means, as Price put it, "Every night at our shows, we're trying to find the coolest person with the biggest couch."
This has led to more than a few nights sleeping in the car, but it's also how they found themselves shacking up with middle-age vinyl nerds in western Washington State, eating the best home-cooked spaghetti Price estimates he's ever tasted in Durango, Colorado — and, a few months ago, crashing in the presidential suite at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. In that last case, they'd made friends with another band — neither Price nor Melton can remember which one now — that was staying there, and after a night of partying, Melton and Price fell asleep on the floor. In the morning, they found Johnson — shirtless, greasy-haired, and well-worn from a night of drinking — passed out on a beach chair next to the pool, surrounded by confused tourists.
As metaphor, it's irresistible. After all, the three of them probably spend a lot of time looking out of place, but they always seem happy to be there. And that attitude extends to their music. "We don't really have any aspirations beyond what we're doing," Melton said. Price jumped in: "We're definitely not trying to be famous — we're just trying to get food to live. ... We just want to keep traveling the world and making music."
At this point, we're sitting on the ground at one of the cemetery's highest points — floating, indeed, with the spaceship parked a few feet back, rolling hills to the left and right, and the band's whole beloved city laid out in front. Up here, that sounded like a pretty good idea.
Seven Days - February 24, 5:52 PM
Culture Spy - February 23, 2:42 PM
What the Fork - February 23, 2:12 PM
Seven Days - February 21, 3:30 PM
Culture Spy - February 19, 1:45 PM