OUTTA THE GARAGE AND INTO THE FIRE Fresh & Onlys

Or, how
the beloved San Fran band evolved and learned how to love the bomb.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“We never really did identify as a garage band,” says Tim
Cohen, the singer and main songwriter behind San Francisco’s
shambolic Fresh & Onlys, a jangly, melody-obsessed outfit whose latest
album Long Slow Dance (Mexican
Summer) is anything but lo-fi.

 

The band’s fourth full-length was recorded with TransAm’s
Phil Manley on a mixing board once used for Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of
London.” It is noticeably cleaner sounding than anything the band has done to
date. “Part of it is maturing as a band and asking, ‘How are we going to become
the band that we want to be?’ says Cohen. “We came together to say, let’s not
put limitations on ourselves. Let’s not hide behind layers of reverb and
distortion. Let’s let the lyrics stand out for once.”

 

 “There was really no
concerted effort to make a clean sounding record,” he adds, “but we did get
money to record. We had time to record. We were like, ‘Let’s make this sound
like an actual record sounds.'”

 

 


The Fresh & Onlys – Presence Of Mind by Mexican Summer

 

 

From
hip hop to SF psyche

 

Cohen grew up a hip hop kid in Northern Virginia, obsessively
listening to classic rap records until he knew them by heart. “I’d just sit
there with my headphones and listen over and over. I wouldn’t hear the beats. I
would just hear the lyrics. And I would go around reciting them all day in my
head. And I still…there’s so many rap albums that I could recite every lyric
to. And I think that sort of made me who I am today. It was never chemistry or
trigonometry for me, it was rap lyrics,” he says.

 

Then at Wesleyan
University
in the late 1990s, he met up with future El Guapo/Supersystem frontman Justin
Moyer. “I picked up an acoustic guitar and started to learn the triads,” he
says. “But I still had this fascination with hip hop and the verbal commitment
to it. So I was continuing to write rhymes and practice on my own. Eventually,
and unfortunately the two merged into something, an amalgamation of the two. I
formed a band with my friend, Justin Moyer and Mike Fogg. We had what you’d call the first strains of rap rock, and it was
really unfortunate.” 

 

At the same time, Cohen was also getting back into the soft
1970s rock his parents had listened to, the melodic songs he had rejected,
early on, in favor of hip hop. He began playing guitar and trading verses with
another Wesleyan student named Davey Hausin. They took to calling themselves
Don Gordon, after Don McLean and Gordon Lightfoot. “We had all these 15 cent
records that we got at the record store in Waterbury, Connecticut,
and he would pick out these soft rock records, which he had this secret
affinity for. We both realized that we loved this music that came from our
parents and they passed on to us. It was sort of like not cool at the time.”

 

Both sides of Cohen’s musical life flourished when he moved
to San Francisco. He continued to
rhyme with the Forest Fires rap collective, as the Latter. (Even now, he
records about one hip hop full-length a year with his collaborator Kwame
Harrison.)  He founded the beat-making,
indie-psych band Black Fiction with Evan Martin in 2005 and released a single
album, Ghost Ride, before the band
disintegrated. 

 

A tube
amp leads to psychedelia

 

The Fresh & Onlys started in 2008, as Black Fiction fell
apart (one member died, another struggled with substance issues). Cohen’s
girlfriend at the time Heidi Alexander (of the Sandwitches) bought him an old
tube amp, whose sound completely reoriented Cohen’s approach to music. “I had
this whole new way of sounding. I had never listened to garage rock per se. I
had just been introduced to the 13th Floor Elevators, and I was just getting
into that lesser known psychedelic late 1960s music, like the Seeds…I had never
really had a relationship with music like that,” he remembers. “When I played
the guitar through the amp, I hearkened back to that music. I just connected
with it somehow.”

 

Cohen was working at San Francisco’s
Amoeba Music alongside Shayde Sartin at the time and passed him some demos.
Sartin, a punk-rocker from West
Virginia and Florida,
immediately bonded with the songs, and the nucleus of the band was formed.
Drummer Kyle Gibson, guitarist Wymond Miles (whose latest solo album was recently reviewed at BLURT), and Heidi
Alexander joined in, and the Fresh & Onlys began playing in San Francisco’s burgeoning psychedelic pop scene.
John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees caught their second or third show, and took a liking
to the band. His Castle Face label released the Fresh & Onlys first album
in 2008. Kelley Stoltz, another mainstay of the Bay Area scene, put out their
first single “I’ll Tell You Anything” on his Dirty Knobby imprint the same
year. The Fresh & Onlys gained momentum with their Grey-Eyed Girls LP on the Woodsist label in 2009 and Play It Strange on In the Red in 2010.

 

Fourth
time’s the charm

 

Long
Slow Dance
comes four years into the Fresh & Onlys’ run as a band,
following an intense two years of touring. “We’ve toured six months out of each
of the last two years, and just have been inundated with each other. We really
know each other’s ins and outs musically now,” says Cohen. “That’s manifested
in this record.”

 

Long
Slow Dance
is the band’s first on Mexican Summer, and Cohen sounds
happy to have found a permanent home. “We put out 15 to 20 7s” and two EPs,
three full-lengths and two cassettes all on different labels, and at one point
last year, we just got together and we were like, you know, let’s find a label
that has a structure and we can be part of that structure and we don’t have to
think about which of our friends is going to put out our next release,” he
says.

 

“We just got a really good feeling from Mexican Summer. They
weren’t wearing suits. They had their one musical appreciation hat was the one
that really stood in the fore, as opposed to their business hat. We were just
able to communicate with them, and get what we needed and what they needed,
very easily without a lot of red tape,” says Cohen. “We all really like the
record, and they really like it, and I can’t wait for it to see the light of
day.”

 

Not that Cohen is anything but grateful for the
artist-operated labels – Castle Face, Woodsist, Captured
Tracks and others – that gave his band a start, or for the Bay Area scene that
has supported it. Cohen says, “People want to put us in a box, which is great,
there’s no one I’d rather be in a box with than Kelley Stoltz and John Dwyer
and Ty Segall and Sonny Smith. It’s really amazing. It’s really a blessing
actually, to have had that have happened at the same time we decided to be a
band. It really has bolstered us and given us a lot more confidence.”

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