Pretty Vagrants 

How SF's Loquat quit their day jobs (okay, got fired) and got serious about music

Did we tell you about the 'band gun?' " asks Loquat's lurid lead singer. Without moving her hypnotically intense green eyes, she slowly takes a long, exaggeratedly flirtatious sip from her beer as the four young men who make up the rest of the band chuckle softly behind her on a white leather sofa. It's a very farcical, Clockwork Orange kind of moment. "We're thinking of buying a 'band gun' and naming it 'manager,' " she continues. "That way we can tell bookers, 'So, you're only giving us a hundred dollars for playing your club? Maybe it's time you met our manager!' "

Meet Kylee Swenson, an urban survivor of sorts. Despite getting laid off from her former job and suffering from a maddening hearing condition, she can write songs as sad as those penned by Cat Power's Chan Marshall. But unlike most mope-rockers, Swenson retains the kind of funny bone that can make gray clouds appear silver at the lining. Part Sylvia Plath and part Strangers with Candy's Amy Sedaris, Swenson's bordering-on-dangerous sense of sardonic humor still finds its way into her most melancholic musings. Her bandmates also seem to share this unique sense of humor. After an hour of drinking with them, one can't help but wonder if Loquat's balanced ability to laugh at the very dire straits that inspire their music is the San Francisco zeitgeist of its economically forlorn era.

Loquat is the new indie-pop-cum-trip-hop quintet that SF has been needing for years. Local musicians and journalists are talking about Loquat's live shows, which draw more diverse people each time the band plays out. In the band's six-month existence, it's already played weekend shows at Bottom of the Hill, Cafe du Nord, and Spaceland in LA. It's charted at the top of mp3.com, attracted a good lawyer with a keen ear, and garnered major label interest. The band's mp3.com song "Half-Assed Mechanic" is a swirling strum 'n' bass ditty loaded with electric hooks, a contagious melody, and somehow-humorous lyrics about not being able to fix one's broken and pathetic self. Loquat's other songs balance diametric forces with grace just as easily -- they're catchy compositions made up of indie-pop melodies that are both bubbling and moody. The musical textures carry both the organic chemistry of guitars, bass, and drums with the electric injections of samples, synths, and loops, all on top of Swenson's wistful, cooing vocals.

But not all the songs she sings are dark and funny. Some of them are just dark. "I write some depressing songs," she admits, "but I don't think I'm really a depressing person. Still, though, I guess that my sad songs are important to me because they are cathartic." She seems to segue into a pensive moment, and then adds, "Other people break things. Some people throw snakes. I wouldn't want to know those people."

Founded by songwriters/guitarists Swenson and Earl Otsuka, the band also includes driving bass player Anthony Gordon, keyboardist Ben Kasman, and Christopher Lautz on drums and backing vocals. Together Loquat could very well be the new poster children for the City's on-the-mend music scene; proof that something great can come from the loss of Downtown Rehearsal Studios and the ongoing crises of the local work shortage. Six months ago Swenson, Gordon, and Kasman were each laid off within the very same week. Gordon and Kasman were let go from their respective jobs at the SF Bay Guardian. Three days later it happened to Swenson, who was senior editor for the still-fledgling Miller Freeman music and technology magazine MC2.

"It was like, 'What the fuck?' " says Swenson. "But now that it's been six months, I kind of feel like we were dealt those cards for a reason. Losing my job made me realize that I should just do what I'd been holding back from. We were working at a slow pace for a long time and all of the sudden we all lost our jobs and the band's momentum just took off."

Having a full-time job wasn't the only issue preventing her from getting Loquat out of the home studio. "I've always had things stopping me from taking this band further. Like the permanent ringing in my ears." One of Swenson's biggest obstacles has been her ongoing battle with tinnitus, a condition characterized by a persistent ringing sound in the ears that almost never goes away. Tinnitus often occurs as a result of long, prolonged exposure to loud music or sounds.

"I thought that I'd never be able to play live," she says. Swenson first became aware of her tinnitus and her hearing loss in 1996, when she and Otsuka began writing and recording Loquat songs. "I was always scared to take it to that level because I had an ear specialist tell me that I needed to be very careful. For a while I thought that I needed to give up the pipe dream."

While many musicians in similar predicaments swear by custom-made earplugs, Swenson finds it impossible to perform with earplugs when Loquat plays live, despite the risks. "I can't hear myself if I play with earplugs and I've tried every kind, even the expensive ones," she says. "But I don't listen to Walkmans anymore, and I do try and wear earplugs when I see other bands." She pauses for a moment and adds, "If I'm going to go deaf, it's going to be from my own music, damn it!"

But while Loquat's music is quite powerful, it's hardly deafening. The band can engage an overflowing audience without blasting festival-friendly Marshall stacks, and this can be quite a refreshing break on the ears of anyone who has ever been stuck inside a 300-capacity room while young and angry men crank their amps up to eleven. In fact, Loquat may not be a rock band at all. Even though the ratio of guys to girls is four to one, the band's tone hardly resonates any wallet-chained testosterone. Swenson agrees that the music is perhaps more feminine than that of most California bands, but she's not about to pigeonhole them as any one thing in particular.

"The truth is," sighs Swenson, "we don't know what we are. I probably once said we were trip-hop, because to me, that means electronic and organic music mixed together. But I know there's no real catchphrase for what we play. I like Mary J. Blige as much as I like Björk and Built to Spill. And the guys all have equally similar and different tastes." Coming out of Loquat's tenth live show (this time at Cafe du Nord), concertgoers compared Loquat to the Sundays as well as Oakland's Call and Response. Others dropped comparisons like Komeda and Björk. "There's no telling what we're trying to be. I can only say that we're poppy and sad at the same time -- kind of like the Smiths." She takes another sip of her beer and smiles. "But don't tell our drummer that. He hates the Smiths."

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