Up & Coming
She adds a number of vital elements to San Cisco’s deceptively sunny sound, including lead vocals and drum parts that can catch you by surprise with off-the-cuff wildness and well-thought-out weirdness.
by Arminé Iknadossian
Two bars into the hit song “Fred Astaire,” from San Cisco’s self-titled 2012 debut release, most people would have trouble not tapping their feet or wiggling their bum. Yes, it’s pop. And yes, it’s indie. And yes, there’s an audience call-and-response part, a keyboard solo, and rhythmic clapping. But to quote Jordi Davieson’s vocal hook, “it’s a common misconception” that pop this sweet has to leave you with a toothache.
On San Cisco’s sophomore album, Gracetown, the band’s alternately sincere and tongue-in-cheek persona and retro sounds continue to keep things light and tight. But it’s a strong bet that the young band from Fremantle, Australia, is no flash in the pan, and a prime reason is the presence of drummer Scarlett Stevens.
MD is chatting with Stevens by phone as she’s sipping a fruit smoothie and making her way south toward Mexico City to perform in the annual Vive Latino festival. Her charming Aussie accent is the kind that immediately lightens the conversation, even when she’s talking about the health status of bassist Nick Gardner, who suffered severe foot injuries after a hunting rifle accidentally went off in a car in which he was a passenger. Gardner had to stay home for this leg of the U.S. tour, but Stevens is clearly relieved that the mishap didn’t turn out a lot worse.
The child of music-industry professionals, the twenty-three-year-old Stevens is wise beyond her years in terms of how the biz works, but she maintains a healthy outlook on the pressures of staying relevant on today’s scene. “You can get caught up in thoughts like, Is my band going to make it? or Am I going to be able to do this forever? and forget that what you’re doing is making an impact on people,” she says. “That’s one of the beautiful things about music and [working in] the music industry.”
Stevens, who’s been drumming since she was ten years old, says that she’s “chuffed” when young girls come up to her after shows—like at a recent in-store gig at Amoeba Music in Los Angeles—and proclaim her influence on their own musical journeys. Though many take the stance that they simply want to be thought of as drummers, not female drummers, Stevens says, “Gender does come into it. For young girls there is something really empowering about seeing another woman on drums.”
No doubt one of the songs that make the girls and boys take notice at a San Cisco concert is one that Stevens herself chooses as among her favorites to play, “Wash It All Away.” Featuring lots of fun and fancy fills—including the savagely stunning one that kicks off the tune—“Wash It All Away” is a drunken track in need of a hair of the dog. Eventually it succumbs to massively distorted guitars and a classic “tumbling down the stairs” drum fill, but not before Stevens has her way with its slow, slinky groove and long hi-hat swoops.
Another highlight from Gracetown is its leadoff track, “Run,” with its unforgettable, breathy “mouth percussion” and jaunty four-on-the-floor disco beat. It’s aggressive and sexy but still pure pop, full of perky fills and dramatic pauses that highlight the tragi-romantic lyrics. “Josh [Biondillo, guitarist] came up with the bass line and the drumbeat,” Stevens says, “but I knew things had to change for the chorus and pre-chorus. I had to make it more funky and more groovy. That’s kind of what I try to do: pump up the beat or make it half time, which the boys tend to like.”
Stevens says she particularly enjoys playing “Run” live due to its copious but well-placed fills. “For the recording,” she explains, “I completed different fills and then called on producer Steven Schram to edit various ones together. That’s the really cool thing about working with Steven—I’d never think to play it like that. Then I’ll play it that way for the live show. It’s fun bouncing ideas off the producer, and I think I’m learning more.”
Much of the band’s artistic process is similarly collaborative. “We always come up with a really grand idea for a song,” Stevens says, “and we’ll talk and talk about it: ‘What gear do we need to get to make it happen?’ And we procrastinate a lot. But then we all get in the room and jam it out, and it all comes together.
“I do think that you can get really caught up with how things are recorded,” Stevens warns. “There are songs on the album that I thought would be really easy to play live, and songs that I thought would be really hard…but you [eventually] feel it, and you come up with cool new parts as well.”
Behind the drums, Stevens appears loose yet confident—her timing is solid, her posture strong but relaxed. So it’s a bit surprising when she says, “In school I didn’t want to do music as a subject. I just always treated it as a hobby. I never really put pressure on myself to be this amazing drummer. Now I’m actually getting back into learning songs on piano, which is really fun.”
Like Scarlett herself, San Cisco’s music is so upbeat that you might forget how grueling the band’s day-to-day activities can be. The group has done some serious international touring over the past five years, which, as every traveling musician knows, can wear on even the youngest, most fit bodies. Stevens has benefitted from diligent yoga practice, which also helps her maintain correct posture and breathing during performances. “It helps keep my stamina up too,” she adds. “It’s hard on tour, because it’s not just the drumming—you’re lugging gear around. Relieving that stress is really important. It’s important for the mind as well.”