Social Studies have developed a reputation as a “smart” band, something they kind of scoff at. Still, when I find them sitting in a coffee shop on 24th St. last Monday evening, singer Natalia Rogovin is lamenting the hooliganism that had erupted in her neighborhood the night before, the night of the Giants’ win (a viewpoint that isn’t limited to “smart” people, but she’s expressing herself pretty eloquently). Jesse Hudson is nestled in a sunny corner with a music theory book by one of the brainiest musicians out there: David Byrne.
As the release of their second album, Developer, approaches, they admit to being both nervous and excited – as new parents should be. “I think I keep offending my friends who have kids by saying this, but it’s kind of like having a baby,” says drummer Michael Jirkovsky. “We really just want to share it,” says Natalia. “We’re incredibly proud of it and we just want it to breathe life and for people to hear it.”
It hasn’t been that long since Social Studies got their start, while Michael and Natalia were living in Santa Cruz. “(Our first show was at) a co-op house in the hills of Santa Cruz,” Natalia begins to tell me. “A house party in Santa Cruz on St. Patrick’s Day. (It was called) The Mudhouse, I think…” she trails off.
“Wait, why was it called the Mudhouse?” Michael cuts in. “Was it really dirty or something?”
“It was so dirty,” Natalia says emphatically. “It was around 1-2 in the morning, everyone was super-wasted and started blasting us with green beer…
“It was kind of an awesome way to start.”
Social Studies’ sound has changed dramatically since then, but not that dramatically. “You know, we’re doing less of the proggy stuff, getting in that groove, learning to play slower and not changing all the time,” says Jesse of the band’s new work. Songs on Developer are a little more layered, which may read to fans — in comparison to past work which has typically stayed pretty upbeat — as darker; more somber. “The new songs are a lot more personal,” attests Natalia. “More intimate. I had a little bit of a fear of music being too emotional, especially as a woman,” she says. “We didn’t write the last album right away. Because of that I felt a little more comfortable with my influence.”
And yet, there’s a familiar undercurrent that runs through all they do. Social Studies are suckers for what scholars call “tension”, a concept that I’m going to assume Byrne covers in that book Jesse is reading: creating excitement in music by, in short, keeping listeners guessing. In previous work they’ve achieved this by amassing several different styles in one song; abruptly veering off in a different direction if they linger on a particular pattern for too long. On Developer, things are a little more linear but still full of depth. “As music lovers, we wanted things that were interesting to our ears,” says Natalia. “We had explored being bombastic and genre-hopping; we wanted to go in kind of a different direction.” To achieve it, they called in the help of Eli Crews, who lent a slick finish to Developer. On the lead single, “Terracur,” Natalia’s velvety vocals feature prominently, and this time the genres swirl around each other rather than take turns.
The shift is something they felt was happening naturally, due to changes in lineup (Jesse is a recent addition – “He’s still in his probationary period,” the rest of the band cracks) and, well, just being in San Francisco. “It’s . . . a city of people that aren’t from here,” says Jesse. “It doesn’t have a distinct sound or look. Everybody brings their own taste, own experiences and it becomes the San Francisco sound.”
“That’s always been a part of the band, being unique,” adds Natalia. “You make the music you like and hope other people like it too.”
And about that whole ‘brainy’ label? “If the band has been brain-versus-heart, I’d say the heart is beating out the brain,” says Michael.
“What we’re really interested in is music that’s hitting you in both places,” says Natalia.
Check out the video for “Terracur” below. Social Studies plays The Independent on Friday, November 9th.