Five years ago, Slumberland Records released Killing Time, the debut album from San Francisco's Terry Malts. Almost instantaneously, the group became the buzz band of the season. Fourteen fuzzed-out blasts of catchy primitive pop songs and a driving and unpredictable live set earned them the reputation of one of San Francisco's most exciting new bands.
"When we started Terry Malts, we were still doing our old band Magic Bullets." vocalist/bassist Phil Benson recalls.
"Magic Bullets was pretty austere, and we wanted to do a side project after our drummer and keyboardist left," guitarist Corey Cunningham continues. "We were still paying for our practice space while we were looking for new people. So we just went in with a 12-pack and, and for the first time in any band I'd ever played in, distortion pedals. It turned out to be liberating."
"We were doing the pop band for so long and just went through so many drummers and keyboard players, we just wanted to do a punk band and keep it simple." says Benson.
Magic Bullets bassist Nathan Sweatt found himself behind a drum kit as Benson picked up the low end duties. "The thing is, Nathan is a real musician and can play everything. He plays horns in jazz bands and salsa bands, he can play the shit out of anything really, and when we were doing Magic Bullets he was playing this amazing shit on bass and it was like some C86 stuff, but when we started doing this band we wanted to keep it as simple as possible, so I took over bass — and I am not a good bass player, I can only play punk rock bass, y'know?" says Benson. "So I just distorted it and played it like a guitar."
While on a drunken walk outside a Mission Street venue, name suggestions were tossed about until a misheard joke resulted in 'Terry Malts.' The new side project quickly became a primary focus, as The Magic Bullets were winding down. "It was very weird having one loud band playing one week and this very clean, super melodic band playing the next week." Cunningham recalls.
As the band began playing out, word-of-mouth spread and audiences from many different sub-scenes of the Bay Area underground began showing up to performances. Skinheads, indie rockers, garage enthusiasts, and paisley psych fans were all singing the praises of Terry Malts. "At first we felt like we could play with the shoegaze bands because of the noisiness or punk bands because we'd play fast, but after a while you start feeling like you don't fit in," Cunningham reflects. "I feel that way more than ever now, since the contrast between the indie pop and punk of things is so much more pronounced. But it started gradually back then. I'm not sure why we transcended scenes, but I'm grateful for it."
"We never felt like we were a 'garage' band even though that was what was going on in SF," says Benson. We coming at music from this Henry's Dress kind of thing, which was way more influenced by Jesus and Mary Chain, and we wanted that level of distortion but also that pop sense. We just wanted to make pop songs...that hurt your ears...I think the skins and the punks liked us because we covered a Negative Approach song on Killing Time and we were just drunk and loud."
Alcohol consumption and partying became an integral part of the band's reputation. "Every practice, every show, every writing session, every photo shoot, every interview was a virtual contest to get wasted and see what level we could function at." Cunning ham explains. "I remember Pitchfork videotaping an interview with us one morning on my roof, I had a horrible cold, and yet we were still drinking 40s. We didn't have much money so we'd always buy High Life 40s and Clamato to mix in, then away we go. I functioned like that for years. I was doing poppers and whip-its a lot. I'd be alone at home listening to Feelies solos over and over again, going through a box of whip-its."
"We'd get trashed and forget everyone else was there and just have fun playing with each other," Benson admits. I think that creates a fun energy, but can also lead to some pretty questionable performances. Sometimes we'd be so drunk we'd just turn everything up and forget how to work our gear and just make this terrible noise but the songs were still there somewhere."
"But somehow all this sharpened our focus, created a culture and identity for ourselves," says Cunningham. "We were steering right for the ditch and it was a blast. Total Jekyll and Hyde in some ways."
Despite the party antics and ramshackle live performances, the band continued to focus on songwriting. "We kept trying to make better and better songs for ourselves and also we were hoping we could impress Mike Schulman at Slumberland. He was a legend to us." says Cunningham
The band came to Slumberland's attention in rather unconventional way. A friend of the band was wearing a Terry Malts button that was the image from Schulman's old band, Black Tambourine, with 'Terry Malts' scrawled in the corner.
"Kevin from the Weekend was wearing the button and he was hanging out with Mike, and Mike saw it and was like 'Wait — what's that? Who are these guys?' And Kevin told him who we were and gave him our demo tape. And he liked it a lot," recalls Benson.
Slumberland released "I'm Neurotic" and "Something About You" as singles in 2011. "I don't think we had any other plans of doing an album at first. We were just happy we put out a few singles and then Mike said 'Why don't you guys make an album, we'll put it out,' so we did." recalls Benson.
Recorded by Cunningham, the album was a DIY effort in the best possible way. "It was my first time engineering a real album," he says. "I used two mics, one overhead, and one in a giant cardboard box pointing to the kick drum. Then we just overdubbed everything on GarageBand. It was so simple, I hoped the lower fidelity plus Monte [Vallier] mixing would make it sound out of time, like it could be the late '70s or mid-'80s at some dingy cheap studio. Feedback on everything."
"It was pretty effortless and organic experience," says Benson. "There was very little inhibition or over thinking put into that record. We just made it sound that was because that was how we sounded. It was the culmination of the records we liked and the mindset we were all in at the time."
"I heard it in Amoeba in its entirety recently and it blew me away how abrasive and yet focused it sounds," adds Cunningham. "I almost don't even recognize it. It was really like lightning in a bottle. Everything seemed easy and natural."
Terry Malts just released their third album on Slumberland, Lost At the Party, and have curbed a lot of their on-stage partying. "We're a lot better live now that we stopped drinking as much on stage!" Benson admits. The band is set to celebrate the five-year anniversary of their debut album by performing it in its entirety at Bottom of the Hill this month. "I want to mark a pretty momentous time in the three of our lives," Cunningham explains. "We're pretty bad at doing special things like this. I love making music with these guys and I think this will be a fun way of celebrating that. We're including Mike (who's DJing) and hopefully more people from back then who were a part of that world."
"We didn't know people were going to be excited about this record when we made it," Benson concludes. "We are still surprised when anyone likes our records, but this was a really fun time in our lives. And this is a record that really resonates with people. We've never stopped playing some of these songs and it's still our best selling record. Things fell into place with this record and it really shows so we want to have some fun with it and maybe get a little crazy again."
Terry Malts headline Bottom of the Hill and will perform Killing Time in its entirety on February 21.Terry Malts