The Fresh & Onlys belong to a class of Bay Area artists who make fuzzed-out, psych-infused pop songs and use prolificacy as a means of moving forward. Like their peers Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and Sic Alps, the Fresh & Onlys have grown up a little more with each new release. Their chugging, punky 2008 self-titled debut hardly sounds like the work of the band responsible for 2012′s crisp slow-burner Long Slow Dance, but both albums share a tenderness in lyrics and melody that distinguish the group from their contemporaries.
eMusic’s Marissa G. Muller spoke with the band’s core members bassist Shayde Sartin, vocalist Tim Cohen and guitarist Wymond Miles about their artistic evolution and the surprising heartbreak lurking beneath the jubilant surface of their songs.
Shayde Sartin: The first album, we had a kind of loose and punk-rock way where it was like, “Don’t overthink it.” We were trying to work really fast, and we were really getting inspired by working fast. We knew that we wanted it to be pretty guitar heavy and pretty punked out, but at the same have a sort of melancholy side to it. So we would write them on acoustic guitar in the kitchen and then take them upstairs into the bedroom studio and just sort of pummel them. There was nothing really thematic on that record lyrically. It was all just kind of haze – there was a lot of drug influence at the time. Mostly just weed and psychedelics. And a lot of drinking. People sort of underestimate the ability of the alcohol-induced psychedelics. If you drink as much as Tim and I were drinking at that time, you can be pretty tripped out.
Wymond Miles: At that point, the band was Tim, Shayde and I. We had our buddy, James Kim, on drums and two girls from the Sandwitches, Heidi and Grace, with us too. Everyone was working full-time. Life was pretty busy then, but everything about making that record was so off the cuff and fun. At the beginning of “I Saw Him,” there’s a sound of about three beer cans being opened all at once, like “Pop!” “Pop!” “Pop!” That was just coincidence – it wasn’t Pro Tools editing to create some party vibe. We were definitely in a party phase at that time.
Tim Cohen: I really like “I Saw Him,” but those are really personal lyrics. That song was written shortly after my very good friend passed away. It was sort of memorializing him in a way, and honoring him. But at the same time, he was a very dark person. I didn’t know whether he was very loved. The song is basically turning him into a ghost and creating a legend about him. The lyrics are very simple. “I looked into the ditch/ I looked into the ditch/ I looked into the ditch/ I saw him/ Imagine looking at fire.” It’s very haunting, in a way. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Sartin: I’ve known Jarvis from Woods for a long, long time. He and I have done many records together. We were both in this band Wooden Wand together. We did records for Kill Rock Stars years ago. But I never had any intention of doing a record with Woodsist or anything. I was a fan of the label, because I was really stoked on Crystal Stilts. But I just played a bunch of demos for [Jarvis] that me and Tim had worked on, and he emailed me, and he’s like, “Hey, would you be interested in doing a record or a 12-inch or an EP?” I was like “Fuck it. Let’s do a record. We have enough material.” This was about two months after we had finished the first album. To me, it was pretty key to keep moving forward, because we had moved so far forward in those two months and I wanted people to see we weren’t just some garage-punk band. I wanted people to see that we were also approaching this really sensitive, kind of dream-pop side.
There’s a song on there called “No Second Guessing.” For me, that’s a really classic kind of Magnetic Fields song. It has very much that kind of vibe. Stephen Merritt’s one of the greatest pop songwriters of our generation, I think. He’s extremely witty, extremely talented. He can break your heart and make you laugh all at once. I was rediscovering them, and Beat Happening as well. There’s a song on there called “What’s His Shadow Still Doing Here.” That’s probably personally my biggest nod to Beat Happening, who are one of the most influential bands for me personally. Coming up as a kid, that was the first punk band that I ever understood that wasn’t, like, Bad Brains or Black Flag.
Miles: We were certainly pushing ourselves a bit mentally, too. There was maybe too much alcohol going on at that moment, maybe not. I certainly remember myself nodding off over an acoustic guitar. We’d be going for so many hours.
“Invisible Forces” is probably my favorite. It kind of broke a lot of the ideas about us just being a straight-up garage ensemble. There was a lot of mystery in it too. It didn’t have to be so straightforward. I love how it sounds, too. I had just broken in a tape delay machine, and that’s what gives the whole song this warbly to the feeling. It’s just the tape echo itself coming off the rockers and not quite working right and feeding back. It’s something we’ll never be able to get again, ’cause it was the unique sound of an old Space Echo from the ’70s on its last legs.
Cohen: I think Grey-Eyed Girls, personally, is my least favorite of our releases. We’d released our first album, done some touring, then we had an offer to put out another record on a label that we really respected and admired. The excitement around that, and the excitement around being a band and having people continue to buy our records, led us to really rush release that record.
At that point, we were really intrigued with the idea of being a prolific band. It wasn’t reaching Guided By Voices level, but it was something where we like, “Let’s keep this trend going. Let’s keep this San Francisco music scene going with our band.” We were a pretty indie band at that time, and we thought that was the way to do it. We didn’t really spend a lot of time on the sound of the record, developing ideas fully. So you have really catchy, interesting songs, but there’s no context there. It’s just a selection of poppy songs and then one long, kind of over-indulgent song at the end, “The Delusion of Man.” There’s not a lot of joy on that record. It’s sort of a black hole in a way.
I was also going through a pretty heavy breakup, so there’s really no love songs on this record. They’re more foreboding like “Invisible Forces,” “Black Coffin,” “Delusion of Man” – even “Clowns (Took the Baby Away).” It’s really dark. I don’t have a very wide emotional spectrum as a person, and as a writer, you just tap into that.
There’s actually a couple songs I did vocals for in Wymond’s garden. On the song “Happy to Be Living,” it’s a genuinely happy song, and there’s a dog barking right in the beginning of that song, which is the dog that lives next door to Wymond. After my vocal take, he barked at this perfect moment, and we looked at each other like, “Should we stop the tape?” We both were just like, “Nah, let’s keep it rolling.” I nailed the vocal take and we kept the dog barking. It’s one of those happy accidents. If you listen to that song, right at the beginning, you can hear the dog bark.
Sartin: A lot of those songs were written around the same time as Play It Strange. In a way, I really wish we would’ve married those two, because there’s this feeling that they could’ve been one piece. I really like the way this EP sounds, because it’s pretty blown out, pretty weird sounding. I think it’s one of our most underrated records. There’s song on there, “The Garbage Collector,” that I truly only think we could write. That’s not to sound arrogant – I know we’re not the fucking Beatles, or whatever. But there are songs on there that really do represent us in the most unique way possible.
Miles: What I like about “Diamond In The Dark” is that it has that really wailing guitar stuff all throughout it. That was all on the fly, in the moment. It came from Tim pushing me and getting me out of my head as much as he could. Just going for this deep down Neil Young soaring guitar, keeping it simple but heavy. I was pretty excited by that. Even the little bits, you can hear us yelling out chords where the little chord changes are going to be. It was Tim on drums, and Shayde playing these guitar chords and changing it up, not quite sure where the next chord should be. Any normal band in the world would of course been, “Well, we didn’t know what chord we were playing.” But to us, it sounded great. I love the vibe of that – chord changes being made on the fly, keys changing and trying to follow this guitar that was so achingly loud.
Cohen: We actually conceived of that song and that record August in My Mind while I was on tour in 2009, with a broken right hand. The whole tour, I was playing keyboards left-handed. The songs had this sort of chugging, caveman, masculine drive to them. When I broke my hand, I don’t want to say it emasculated me, but it turned me to someone who had to use my left-hand to play an instrument I wasn’t comfortable playing. We still had to go on tour. So I was trying to use these melodic keyboard lines and singing, and I was really into the way it sounded. It almost romanticized the songs. It took away from the chugging guitar going all the time. There are songs of despair and longing and solitude, which goes hand-in-hand with the breakup which, by that point, I had gone through it and I was kind of in this lonely place like, “Well, time to move on to the next thing.” Right at that time I was on tour, I was drinking a lot, and I was being very destructive. But this other side came out when I was breaking up that was very tender and, in a way, longing. The song “Garbage Collector” is specifically written about being dumped like garbage.
Sartin: I wish we took our time with that record. Looking back, we were rushing through it. We did it the same way we did Grey-Eyed Girls. We tried to make the record completely on our own. That’s one record where Tim really is kind of isolating and paranoid. I know that sounds like really cliché, but there was some pretty heavy stuff going on his life. There was a lot of these questions about commitment and stuff coming up in his life. He was kind of wandering freely. So there is kind of a twilight desert feeling on the record, and a lot of the loneliness and sort of bizarre lyrics were all fitting. “Waterfall” sounds like gibberish to a lot of people, but it’s a song about not sitting comfortably with your surroundings.
Cohen: We’d just been working really hard and didn’t let up, and it felt like that was the only way. No one was going to go out and give it to us, we had to go out and get it. So the process of recording Play it Strange was a new thing for us, whereby we didn’t have to sit there and turn the dials ourselves. We had someone in the studio doing it, I still really like that record, I think it’s got some good songs on it – but you can tell there’s more patience to it, I wanna say. We kind of had it worked out. We’d written 40 or 50 songs for that record, and ended up recording 14 or 15, maybe 16. This was the first time where we actually had a studio where we could sit back and actually listen to what we were doing and take stock in what we were making. I can tell from listening to that that Tim Green, the guy who recorded it, did a great job. And we stopped worrying or thinking too hard about what we were doing. You could say, “I want my guitar to sound like this,” and he would just reach up and turn a dial or go grab his amp and a mic, and he would make it so it was pretty effortless to record. We weren’t relying on our own bedroom sensibilities. This was the first record for me that sounds like it has that extra life to it. It’s not like a charming bedroom record. It’s like approaching what I think we achieved with the new record.
Sartin: Part of the enthusiasm for releasing so much stuff early and so quickly, for me personally, was that when I started buying records, I was really into Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, the Grifters and Pavement, and I really liked that those bands were constantly putting things out in low run pressings. They would put out a 7-inch every month or two. Quantity was a way to keep ourselves inspired and keep moving towards the next new thing, as opposed to dreading it.
A lot of times, I think that’s one of the downfalls of a lot of bands early in their careers: They put all of this weight on one record and then fail to grow during the most promising and important time of their career, which is the first three years. That’s when you’re not sick of each other and you’re inspired. Everything you do has some sort of insane magic to it. So if you’re sitting there and going, “I’ve got to make the best first impression possible,” then you’re going to fuck it up and you’re a sucker.
You have to look [at those first three years] as sort of an amplified state of being clumsy. Those are the times when the synapses are firing, things are connecting. You’re deciding what you’re going to be as a band. For us, that shit wasn’t going to happen in a rehearsal space. It had to happen on a tape machine.
Sartin: That EP is the first time we put everything in Wymond’s hands. We basically just recorded it, tracked it at his house and just let him mix it. That EP is also the first time that we fully collaborated. Tim and I wrote the music and the words, but the musical influence is so significant on Kyle and Wymond’s part that I feel like it’s truly the first Fresh & Onlys record made as a quartet, the way it is now. I think as a live band, it was the first time we ever really let that free. That was after years of touring together and playing hundreds of shows. Wymond was really getting heavily into the Gun Club, and playing with this super heavy twang. Part of why that record sounds so different is largely due to Wymond’s musical influence blossoming a lot more than it had in previous releases.
I think for Tim, the title track is a lot about his elusiveness, and his vagary as a person. The song is saying that you’ll be there for someone, but then basically you’re only physically present – you’re emotionally not-so-present. That’s a really hard thing for someone that you’re with, whether it’s your friends, family or your partner. It’s a really fucking complex thing to have to deal with. It’s horrible for people. It’s something that Tim and I have talked about a lot in discussing relationships and problems, which are for he and I both an extremely difficult thing, because we’re both selfish people. We both struggle with alcohol problems and it’s ugly. I think Secret Walls is kind of like a subconscious nod to keeping things inside. If you read the lyrics, it tells a lot more than I can tell you on the phone here.
Miles: I think Secret Walls is better than anything we had done before. That was where I took on the producer reigns more than I ever have. We started out it so democratic, but you need a leader with a vision sometimes. We started to learn to let go. We stopped fighting as much, because we could trust one another. When we were making records before, we were arguing as much as we were recording.
Sartin: We didn’t want to make a record where [every song] sounds like it was recorded on the same instruments, in the same week, by the same person. We were just doing press in Europe and someone said, “It sounds like every song is a different band.” That’s a huge compliment. You can’t approach a song like “The Executioner’s Song” in the same way you would “Presence Of Mind.”
“The Executioner’s Song,” which is really minimal sounding on the record, that song took a lot of time. It’s an extremely textured song. There’s a lot of guitars and a lot of acoustic guitars. There’s really staggering rhythms. It was really hard to get the feeling of that song because of the way the rhythm staggers between the verse and the chorus. There was all this rhythmic dissonance as opposed to harmonic dissonance. There was something really weird about that song. When Wymond started putting guitars on top of it and the textures started to set into place, and the song really took on a life of its own.
Miles:: Here’s a great thing: So we used Lionel Ritchie’s Neumann U67 microphone. The very microphone Lionel Ritchie used when he made all his hits, like “Hello”. This really killer microphone. All of sudden, we didn’t have to mess with anything. We didn’t have to EQ it much. We didn’t have to do much of anything. We put a little reverb on there, maybe. The studio owner has been collecting amazing gear for a long time. It was his mic. He was the tour manager for the Melvins. He basically got to tour the world looking for gear pre-eBay. Basically the whole record we were using Lionel Ritchie’s mic.
Cohen: When we signed with Mexican Summer, we’re like, let’s make a record that reflects that we have a label; we have resources, we have time. Let’s be patient about recording it. Let’s make something that stands the test of time. Let’s not make something that hides my lyrics behind fuzz and reverb and delay. That’s not really the band that we are. We’re not beholden to a lo-fi aesthetic by any stretch of the imagination. We all feel really confident in the record.
The Solo Outings
Miles: I think the EP startled people when that came out. [People thought] that I was trying to assert my identity away from the band. But really, it was just me without any consideration. It was written right before the Onlys started as a band, and then recorded later. It was a much different worldview, it was my mid ’20s, very cosmically-oriented. My concerns were totally different from the Onlys. There’s a song on there that was seven minutes of viola and classical guitar.
Miles: If there was any narrative to the Onlys, I’d say it was in the spirit of playfulness. Even when it has the mood of something darker. Everything with the Onlys to me is laced with our humor. We’re kind of like the Muppets, together we’re all just kind of these characters. We shine with both things, but it’s that real playful spirit that allows us to be that prolific, give the songs the feel that they do, that are really dreamy and driving. With me, I know what I was going after [with this record]. I was doing this big, romantic, guitar-pop record. There’s this starry-eyed romanticism to us both, but this propelling heavy side as well. They’re not laid back per se. I think both things are filled with a lot of romantic, star-gazing notions.
Cohen: The title is totally tongue and cheek. Some of those songs’ original destination would’ve been a Black Fiction album – Black Fiction was the band I had before Fresh & Onlys. When Black Fiction kind of dissolved, one member went into an alcoholic rage and one member died. I was sort of just left standing there, holding my head in my hands. I put those songs away for a minute. That record became very personal for me, so I took them, put my name on them, and thankfully had these two small labels that were like, “We want to put your record out.”
Cohen: My favorite moment is probably my dad singing on “Small Things Matter.” My dad is just an amazing dude. He’s not a musician by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s so cool. He’s a community psychologist. He’s had this crazy job and career for like 40 years. He’s still looks at me and what I do and he doesn’t get it, but he fully understands that this is what I want to do, and this is what I’m supposed to be doing. He’s always been really supportive. I had to help with the melody, because he has no melodic sense. I’m surprised he could even sing the notes. It was one of those things where I know he could sing, but people always told him that he couldn’t sing, so he never sang. So now, in his late 60s, I’m the guy who has to be like “You can do this! You can really sing!” I was now encouraging him, and he’s been the one doing that my whole life.
Cohen: The central narrative behind that album is actually a funny story. I was at this cocktail party and our friend was putting these flowers in her face. I was a trying to flirt with her. I was like, “The stalk looks like celery. You should eat that.” She was like, “Nah.” I was like, “Well, I’ll do it. I want to see what it tastes like.” So I ate the stem of a flower. Everyone stood around and watched.
Almost immediately, I felt this burning sensation in the back of my throat – this sharp, pins-and-needles feeling in the back of my throat. I felt my throat starting to swell up. I started trying to spit out the flower. The girl who was working the bar or something – there were only five people there – started pouring me shots of whatever she could find. I was like “More! More! More!” I was just trying to make the burning go away, but it just made it worse. I went to the bathroom and tried to make myself vomit up the flower. Then, I just had this horrible feeling in my throat, my upper chest and my mouth. I was trying to eat as many peanuts as I could. We went to this place the Homestead – one of those places where you can throw peanuts all over the floor â€”and I was just trying to take a ball of peanuts and cram them in my throat. Kevin looked up the flower on Google and it said that eating the stem of this flower can cause convulsions and death. It actually is a poisonous flower to swallow. I refused to go to the hospital. I’m not going to let a flower kill me.
So one of the songs on that album is called “The Flower.” It’s about the near-death experience. It’s sort of the over-dramatization of the fact that I ate the flower and knew that my life was over. I felt like I looked death in the eyes. There’s that and there’s another song on that record, “I Looked Up” which is about passing. One of the lines is “I crossed the long way into dreaming.” Then there’s the song “I’m Never Going to Die” on that album. The pretty central theme of that is “I beat death” sort of thing in a way. That was my magic trick.