There's a perfectly good reason I'm scarfing burritos in the Mission with approximately half of San Francisco reggae/pop collective Still Flyin' on April 20, and it has nothing to do with the munchies. Admittedly, the band is less than cavalier about its fondness for the date's honorary herb — just listen to "Coupla Smokies," off its debut EP Time Wrinkle (or EJ, as the band calls it, for Extended Jam), released in 2006 on Oakland label Antenna Farm. Smokie said to me "Hey man, you don't look dry/Just take a look at the bottom of my feet as I levitate into the sky," sings frontman, songwriter, and mastermind Sean Rawls in a fine mock-reggae voice. The track, which features the horn riff from Outkast's 1998 song "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" slowed down like molasses, reprises as the dub version "Coupla More Smokies" later on in Time Wrinkle, as if to prove it was no accident.
The veiled references, or just as often not-so-veiled, don't end there. Still Flyin's second EJ, 2007's Za Cloud, features up-tempo manifesto "The Art of Jamming" and rocksteady saga "The Bird Is Aware," a song both campy (it borrows the papa-oom-mow-mow line made famous by the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird") and Dadaist (it centers on a giant talking bird). In case that's too subtle, the back cover art includes a white "Jambulance" with a burning joint painted on the side. Still Flyin' has even been known to partake onstage. "We talked in the beginning about bringing a couch onstage and having people that were in the band just sit on the couch and smoke weed or something," drummer/vocalist Bren Mead explained. "We never really got around to that."
"Actually we have — just without the couch," interjected guitarist Zach Moran, whose point was met with a round of laughter. And, finally, I'm told one band member happens to be absent from the interview due to his participation in the festivities of the day — the very member, in fact, who suggested we meet today.
But this is not a story about marijuana. It is a story about music: some of the most upbeat, life-affirming, whimsical, and downright fun music incubating in the überserious Bay Area music scene right now. It's the sort of music you can't get out of your body because the lyrics are completely original and charming, and because the music is so uplifting you don't want it to leave. Fellow indie pop collectives Broken Social Scene and the Polyphonic Spree seem staid by comparison.
That being the case, there are more important reasons for us to be gathering: namely the band's debut full-length album, a fancy-free dance party known as Never Gonna Touch the Ground, due out the next day in the USA and on the 20th itself in some European countries. This is cause for celebration, and burritos.
"The band is this really positive experience," explains Rawls in a tranquil, nearly monotone voice that's considerably less expressive than his Still Flyin' persona. "It's not like we're the happiest people that have ever existed. We're normal people, but the band is a very positive thing. The music brings it out." Indeed, the sixteen core members and thirty-plus spiritual members of the international collective embrace mottoes like "fuck the stress" and "take your shoes off, you don't need them in the sky"; declare the band a "no-harsh zone," especially during performances; and exclaim We're slammin' high fives 'cause we're livin' the life in "No Go-Kart Ideas," a song on the new CD. These things are said in earnest, without irony. It's entirely believable, and thus attractive.
But there's a flip side, if you can call it that, which is for the listener to suspect that perhaps, just maybe, the members of Still Flyin' are the happiest people that ever existed — that hanging out with them would be the most fun one could possibly have. Rawls says he and the band often receive enthusiastic invitations to after-parties based solely upon this assumption. "They probably have weird ideas about me, like I'm this weird, superhappy dude all the time," he said. "People think we're gonna be the wildest people ever."
Make no mistake: They do party. But they also have day jobs, spouses, and tour schedules. And they're not exactly kids anymore. Percussionist Phil Horan recalls being told by a group of somewhat dismayed teens in Melbourne, Australia, that the band looked more preppy and "school-teacherish" than they'd expected. This was an apt observation: Vocalist Jaime Knight teaches art at Berkeley High.
Nevertheless, if only for escapism, it's still enticing to imagine them as consummate partiers and dispensers of good vibes. That is, after all, the genius of Still Flyin's music. And it's no accident. "I remember Sean telling me at the very beginning that his vision for the band was to have a party onstage where at any one time there are more people partying than there are playing," said Knight. That may not quite be the case, but the spirit remains, and Rawls' bandmates say he works hard at maintaining it. It's quite possible to get utterly harshed out in the process of cultivating a no-harsh zone, especially when it comes to coordinating the logistics of hitting the road with fifteen bandmates.
Touring wasn't initially part of their plan. "We had never even considered going on tour," said Rawls. "It didn't even seem like an option." But that was before Australian indie pop group Architecture in Helsinki, buddies of the band who eventually ceded a couple of members to Still Flyin's ranks, convinced them to join a brief West Coast tour in 2005. At the time, Architecture in Helsinki was enjoying a small-scale explosion, while the five-month-old Still Flyin' was still an unknown, even to itself, and for reasons more philosophical than practical had amassed an unwieldy number of members.
But Architecture in Helsinki insisted. It took two vans to get Still Flyin' down the coast, and together with Architecture's expanded lineup, the two bands accounted for 24 people. Their five-day jaunt, highlighted by a successful gig at Los Angeles' Troubadour, opened Still Flyin's eyes to its potential, particularly for a group originally conceived as a "joke reggae band."
More importantly, it helped cement Still Flyin's distinct sound and outlook, generally referred to by a word of their own invention, hammjamm, as in We're gonna start a hammjamm band or Total hammjamm! No small credit for this must go to the band's so-called Guru — aka OJ Hammond, an old friend and bandmate of Rawls' who also does their album art — who initiated for that inaugural trip a practice he's maintained to this day. Before every tour, he prepares a high-spirited list of tips and activities for each day the band is on the road, to be read on a daily basis and followed as closely as possible. These itineraries have helped Still Flyin' navigate subsequent tours of Sweden and Australia with style and utmost merriment.
"Let's get it, guys," the very first itinerary begins. "5:30 — meet up in the parking lot of the practice space. ... Once everyone is there, sit down in a circle — and talk about things. Nothing lame in the chats, just awesome things. Talk about the expectations for tonight's show. Crack a few. Always remember to laugh." Four years later, they still haven't forgotten the Guru's advice, and it looks to be something Rawls will take to his grave. The final song on the new album finds him singing cheerfully, I really want to see the look on my face/Yeah, when I die.
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