The Fresh & Onlys

The Fresh & Onlys, newly signed to Souterrain Transmissions, have crafted a seductive, shimmering San Franciscan sound. Their new album Long Slow Dance, or L.S.D., is their fourth and mixes garage rock, acoustic pop and jangly 80s influences into something very special. The band is made up of frontman Tim Cohen, bassist Shayde Sartin, guitarist Wymond Miles and drumer Kyle Gibson. We caught up with Tim and Shayde to talk Nashville tuning, melancholy pop songs and genre blending - as well as surprising influences such as The Smiths, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and punk.

San Francisco
Souterrain Transmissions

San Francisco sound

San Francisco, where The Fresh & Onlys are based, is one of those cities with a long and vibrant musical history. Tim and Shayde are positive that where they live influences what they do, and combined with a melting pot of musical references it gives them their very own sound.

It’s a major influence, it’s not just our music community which is beautiful and very vibrant and artistic, but it’s the thing about, the comfort in the weather, the overcasts, the fog, the coolness of it, the Victorian buildings, it informs our sound way more than I can really describe.

The band are often seen as part of the “Bay Area Sound” and they’re not going to argue.

People always say are you a garage band, are you a rock and roll band, are you a pop band, and I always like to just say, we’re a San Francisco band because I think that we hopefully encapsulate that city musically as much as we can.

That doesn’t mean they are unaware of its darker side, though.

It’s a very beautiful place, it’s also a very dark place and this pertains to our music. It’s because San Francisco, which is a world-renowned city and described as the most European of American cities, has its darkest places smack dab right in the middle of the city, right bunched up against where the tourists come to look at how beautiful San Francisco is.

Contrast is something the band specialise in, particularly when writing love songs.

I think lyrically what I try to attain is understanding, being in love, not always like being the best thing, or just like, Hey girl come here, let me dance, let me take you to the club, I’m totally in love with you and like I love your look and all that, like the way that modern R&B tends to do. I like to think that being in love is like being committed to a person, there’s a lot more to it than that, so I think in a lot of our music it’s like a dark love song, if that makes sense.

Romantically speaking, their songs blend optimism and melancholy.

It’s like trying so hard to feel this thing and just sensing that there’s something else there that’s pulling at you and it’s always been hard for everyone, I’m sure. There’s a case to be made about this institution of marriage and how it’s false in a lot of ways, it’s not the true nature of people to commit to someone else forever and… case in point, over 50% of marriages end in divorce, so there’s that statistic, but there is such a thing as being you know, willing to work for that, and being in love and following that. And just, you’re going to hit bumps and you’re going to hit, get sideswipes and I think in music, you know, that’s a way of working that stuff out.

So you know, to compare that to San Francisco, which is kind of weird, you have those dark places and they’re right up against these beautiful landmarks and historical architecture and what have you, so I think that you know San Francisco represents us in that way, it’s got two sides, like everything. It’s not like, if you’re going to go on vacation and say, I’m going to the most beautiful place in the world, there’s still going to be bodies buried underneath where you’re standing.

The Fresh & Onlys’ sound mixes genres and influences, as Shayde explains:

I think that our sound is, the sound of the sum of its parts, how we’ve grown together musically, obviously there are things that inform us directly, on this record, you know, Wymond’s guitar stuff is a little more informed by Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead at times and there’s a heavy British influence on his guitar as well. It’s really beautiful when you’re able to take two things that are completely unrelated. I don’t think many British musicians reference Jerry Garcia but that’s part of the magic of what we’re able to do is, put these things together and come out with something that is all our own.

Shayde’s own main influence is British, as well, and shows in the bass sounds on the new album.

I know that I was specifically referencing at some point during the recording, Andy Rourke (The Smiths) who is arguably my favourite bass player. I’ve always been afraid to play with those kind of tones and that kind of feeling because it always seems a little raw to me and it’s like an open nerve. For this record, for the first time I started to flirt with it, you know. But Kyle, our drummer, has a very distinctively discord, punk drumming style and it’s kind of just all over the map, it’s just the sum of its parts.

Tim says that it works because they take their music on a song-by-song basis.

We’re not beholden to any particular genre or descriptor and it’s very freeing as a musician to be able to be confident to do that and there’s a song right here, let’s chop into it, let’s cut it up and see what happens. And wherever it winds up, you know, we’re free to go with it and there’s, yeah, as I always say, there’s no rules to making music.

They’ve released a video that takes a look behind the scenes of their recording. The album is available as a limited edition blue/green vinyl in Europe and clear vinyl in the US, as well as from the usual download sites and record stores such as Rough Trade records with a bonus CD.

Long Slow Dance was recorded with the aid of producer Phil Manley, another San Franciscan. Shayde says:

We didn’t want to be fearful of embracing a certain style and juxtaposing it with another so I think that we were able to achieve through the sequencing and the expert recording techniques that were used by Phil Manley our engineer, that the quieter dynamics and the louder ones could feel at home with each other and I think that’s an accomplishment for us where, had we recorded it ourselves, for example we would not have been able to achieve successfully.

They used Lucky Cat Recording studio in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, which meant they had access to some fabulous vintage synths.

String synthesizers are something that we’ve always loved and for this record we had, my personal favourite string synthesizer which is the Crumar Orchestrator, it’s an Italian synthesizer from the 70s. It weighs a ton but it’s worth every ounce. It just has a really rich and dense string sound which is hard to achieve with synthesizers.

They also experimented with Nashville tuning for the guitar parts.

Another really significant thing that we used on the record sonically was Nashville-tuned guitar as a backing rhythm guitar, we did a lot of the guitar tracks where we did a 6-string and a 12-string and a Nashville, and we would shoot the Nashville right up the centre of the recording and it gave a brightness and a brilliance to the sound, not totally dissimilar to what you hear on The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, even though I don’t believe they used that, but it did have that sort of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side feeling, really bright and you know, rhythmic.

Nashville tuning, as Shayde and Tim explain, derives from country and western music.

It gives the effect of having the high strings on a 12-string guitar, which would be the octave strings. It’s strung with entirely the highest strings. The lowest gauges of strings, which is the highest frequency. So to give the effect of a 12-string guitar being heard where the regular guitar strings are in one ear and the high-pitched strings are in the other ear. So it’s a great dynamic effect.

The band mixes up rare vintage kit with new gear. Part of their trademark guitar sound comes from a 1964 Fender Jaguar.

An early 70s Rhythm Line bass from Japan is a staple, and they have a very ‘characterful’ Vox AC 30 tube amp.

A heavily-featured instrument on the new album is the marimba, it seems they can’t get enough of it!

The marimba is another thing that we tend to use on most every one of our demos and on this record it’s pretty prominent, it’s used on between four and five songs maybe even more. It’s an instrument that I picked up about six, seven years ago, it’s a one-octave, wooden, C-major marimba. The marimba is an African instrument and it’s basically wood blocks stretched across a wood basin to create the acoustic effect and it’s C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C and that’s it.

Shayde admits to wanting a bigger one, though - and would love a present!

It has a nice soft percussive quality, you hear it on a lot of My Way, by The Psychedelic Furs and the Violent Femmes use it quite a bit, but the nice big full ones, we’d love to have one of those, if someone wants to donate a full marimba, please do.

When it comes to songwriting, the Fresh & Onlys believe in finding the melody and the chords first of all, as Tim explains.

In most cases, or a lot of cases, I’ll write the song or I’ll prepare the chords and the melody and… what you do is you sing that over and over and you grab the guitar and you’re like, what chord is that? You find the chords, you develop the chord progression and you develop the second part, if you want, a third part, as you wish, maybe a fourth mid-part, usually we just stick to two parts. Then you have the melodic line, the chords and then you arrange it by placing the parts next to each other, maybe adding a bridge, and then basically, once you have the melodic line and the melody which is to me the primary thing in the song, it sets it apart, you have a rhythmic sense of the song because you have this instrument, you are playing the chords underneath it.

Lyrics tend to come after everything else is in place.

Pretty much without fail the lyrics are always last and we’re not thinking too hard when we’re composing. We’re not setting out to write a certain type of song. Usually it’s going to be sort of a melancholy pop song, you know. We know that from experience, that’s kind of our bread and butter.