Unlike so many of their contemporaries, The She’s are San Francisco natives, and they’ve been creating music together since the 7th grade. While most middle schoolers were busy shifting around in their oversized shoes, The She’s armed themselves with instruments and set out to harness a sound of their own. Although starting a band at age 12 sounds rad on paper, they weren’t immune to the harsh fluorescence of the inevitable Awkward Years. Six years wiser and almost a year out of high school, these young veterans look back on their formative years with some advice for their 7th grade selves.
“Don’t be embarrassed about what you’re doing,” vocalist and guitarist Hannah Valente offers. “When we were in middle school playing, we didn’t feel cool about doing it at all,” she describes. “Even now looking back, that was so cool, but people didn’t think we were cool. At least to our faces, maybe behind our backs. They kind of made fun of us.”
Guitarist Eva Treadway adds, “No one in middle school or high school got it at all. That was sort of empowering in itself, in a way.” Her advice? “Nobody is caring about what you’re doing as much as you think.”
Bassist Sami Perez agrees and puts it simply: “Do your own thing.”
Hesitating, drummer Sinclair Riley says, “I don’t know…hang in there,” and they all share a laugh that reflects both amusement for their middle school memories and relief that those days are behind them.
“We all liked listening to music and we had similar music tastes,” says Eva. “So we just sort of decided to learn instruments. We were all mostly self-taught and have learned together the whole time.”
Sounds easy enough, but they didn’t stumble out of elementary school with the sunny pop sensibility they are known for. When describing their sound, Sinclair explains, “It’s been evolving for a while. It started off as kind of more punky, angry.”
Sami adds, “We were all really into The Donnas for a long period of time, so we were trying to do their thing. The first band that I started listening to that was like more of our current genre was Girls. So through them, I got more into what we play now.”
For those unfamiliar with the recent history of San Francisco’s local music scene, Girls were the city’s indie rock darlings, and the band’s mysterious yet accessible, endearing air only intensified when they selected the 15-year-olds of The She’s to open for them at the Fillmore in 2011. But more on that later.
“I think our pop is really reflective of San Francisco pop, if that makes sense,” describes Hannah. “We started listening to more local bands and that’s when our pop sound really evolved. I think that, for me, our early punk phase was for us to find an image to band us together, a sound to follow because we didn’t have our own sound yet, and this pop sound is finally something we would call our own.”
Weeks away from dropping their latest EP Dreamers–which they are self-releasing on Coke-bottle clear vinyl and celebrating at their release show on Friday, April 18, at Rickshaw Stop–The She’s have mastered a more seasoned and dynamic version of their classically-minded, three-part harmony-driven sonic tapestry, and they’re eager to share it with the public.
“We waited basically three years for this release and now we’re just trying to put more music out there,” explains Sami.
“It’s going to sound a lot different,” promises Hannah. “On our first album, there are songs that we wrote in eighth grade.”
According to the group, there is one particular song off the record that acts as a snapshot of their current style and overall attitude.
“‘Dream Girl’ is a special song because it’s really different than a lot of the stuff we’ve done before and I think it shows us pushing ourselves, both lyrically and in the song structure,” says Eva.
“I like the haunting quality of it, that’s something I identify with now,” adds Sinclair.
Sami explains, “It’s satisfying to do three-part harmonies, but then it’s also equally as satisfying at the end (of the song) there’s a riff part and no vocals. People often focus on our vocals but that’s not our focus necessarily, so it’s nice to feel empowered by the instruments at the end.”
The evolution of their sound can be traced to their songwriting process: someone brings a small piece–a riff, melody or part of a verse–and they build each track together, each adding their own flavor. Now six years deep into their shared musical ventures, they have come a long way from the 7th grade songwriters they started off as.
“Our song structure is definitely getting more complicated,” Hannah explains.
Eva continues, “I’d say we spend 20% of the time on the song and the melody and the rest all on structure and variations.”
For The She’s, it’s those subtle variation that make all the difference. “In the end it’s like, ‘Ah yeah, that makes sense!’ But when we’re writing we’re like, ‘Whoa! No this! No, No this!’,” describes Sinclair.
“That’s when we argue,” Hannah laughs.
“It makes it fun for us to play, because we are, at the of it core, playing pop songs,” Eva explains, revealing her band’s innate pop sensibility. “It’s really subtle things that keep us interested, and hopefully if someone’s listening really closely they’ll notice that. That’s what’s exciting for me when I’m listening to pop music. That’s the difference between a good pop song and a bad pop song, for me, is about subtle things and structure.”
She continues, “And then we play songs live forever before we record them usually, which is I think unique in some ways. I know a lot of bands write in the studio but we usually have been playing a song for a good few months at least before we record it so it definitely evolves a lot.”
The evolution is happening fast, too. Sinclair notes, “We’ve already moved on. Sometimes we don’t play all of the songs on our upcoming EP. We’ve already moved past that.”
While the two-week recording process of Dreamers was considerably streamlined in comparison to the year-long process of their 2011 debut, Then It Starts to Feel Like Summer, the band ran into their share of issues.
“Lyrics typically come last. I feel like sometimes even when we go into the studio, I’ll be singing a song that we’ve been singing for months and they’re like,” says Hannah, motioning to the other girls, “‘Those aren’t the words!,’ and its like, ‘What? that’s what I always sing!'”
They laugh, and Eva adds, “That happened a lot when we were in the studio recently.”
Another point of confusion was rooted in the band’s affinity for infectious, sing-a-long moments. Hannah explains, “When we’re in the studio the producer always has a hard time knowing which ones the chorus and the verse. Our A and B parts are equally as hooky, usually, or not hooky. In one of our newer songs we made a part we decided is called the ‘chorverse,’ so it’s like a chorus slash verse. A verse happens in the song, and a chorus happens in the song, but then there’s the ‘chorverse.’
The She’s recorded Dreamers at Different Fur in the Mission, and the producer in question was the studio’s head engineer, Patrick Brown, who according to the band, was a key figure in not only how the record turned out, but how they have evolved thus far.
“He’s been really, really good to us for a long time now. We hadn’t actually done any formal recordings in there up until this EP and we were super stoked to finally do that,” says Eva.
“He’s kind of like our mentor,” says Hannah, although she concedes, “He would probably be mad if we said that.”
Laughing, Eva says, “He’d probably be like, ‘Shut up. That’s gross.’ But yeah he’s the best.”
Sami explains, “The coolest part about working with him is that, on the EP, you can tell he pushed us sonically, and with his production he definitely made us sound more like what we sound like live or what we’re aiming for, whereas our first album was just like ‘Ooo the studio, lets try to make it sound good!’ Now we’re trying to make it sound like us.”
Demonstrating that sharp pop sensibility once again, Eva describes:
What he always says is that it’s easy for us to do what we do well, but if we want to push ourselves, that’s when its going to be interesting for us and for everyone else. It was good to have someone to say that. And I think that on the next album, it’s going to be even more, to the extreme. We could have pushed it harder, so this (Dreamers) could sort of be like a transition kind of album.
Sami calls it, “More of a collection with a purpose.”
During our conversation, it’s easy to forget The She’s are all 19. It’s easy to forget that we met at Trouble Coffee, instead of the usual bar, because they’re still three years away from their first legal drinks. Yes, they’re fresh out of high school, but let’s not forget: The She’s have been around for six years. They’ve released an LP and two, almost three EPs. They’ve solidified themselves into the music landscape of San Francisco, a city to which they remain irrevocably loyal.
“I feel really lucky that we started here and grew up here because the music scene was super inclusive to 7th grade girls in a van,” Sami explains. “New York would have been just fucking so hard to break into. But all we did was MySpace message Christopher Owens from Girls and he came to our show and was like ‘You guys are cool, play with me at the Fillmore.”
And so they did, when they were 15 years old.
“We played as sophomore in high school,” she continues. “I don’t even remember it. I was so terrified, but it was really fun, I think. Once we said we played the Fillmore we could get other gigs. San Francisco is good because they’re inclusive and all the venues are sort of a community in themselves.”
They know that The She’s story could have only happened in a city like San Francisco, and they remain tied to the Bay Area without reservation. “We haven’t really left for an extended period of time,” admits Sinclair before brushing it off. “It’s like-eh! We’ve gotten to make really good relationships with all the venues and the different people who handle music stuff here. You just get to know a lot of people.”
The community they feel goes beyond music makers. Hannah explains, “Everyone is really supportive, from bands to venues and fans, the whole connection of the three parts is really supportive.”
Eva argues, “I think even the people you meet not necessarily in bands–the city draws really cool people and I think there are a lot of people who want to make really cool art and experience live music and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
With absolute certainty, she continues:
I know there are certain people who are leaving right now and stuff like that, but there’s always going to be more happening. You just need to look for it in a different area. It comes in waves. This wave might sort of be ending and people are kind of freaking out but that’s just makes room for something cool and new to happen and I don’t think everyone should panic because its happening.
The She’s approach the shifting scenes in San Francisco with such a level-headed cool that it makes me wonder how anyone could question the fact that the music scene is alive. For all the talk of locals and transplants, New San Francisco versus Old San Francisco, here are four artists, born and raised right here in the city, who understand its dynamic nature and see nothing less than opportunity.
Hannah continues, “Maybe certain figures are leaving right now, but that just give room for more. Part of being a figure of the San Francisco music scene is inspiring people like us. That’s how we were inspired.”
“It’s like passing the torch in a way,” Eva agrees. “I don’t really think of it as abandoning San Francisco as much as giving space for the new headliner, the new ‘San Francisco Band.’ Like this is the San Francisco music scene. It used to be like five names that were listed off every time, and they’re all great bands and they’re still great bands, but it needs a fresh breath of air.”
That breath of fresh air is exactly what The She’s personify. They are young veterans, seasoned songwriters, grounded individuals. They are strikingly gracious, and entirely grateful for San Francisco and the people who call the city home.
“That’s another cool part of SF,” Sami describes. “The artists aren’t so pretentious where the audience members are distant from them. I feel like I’ve been an audience members as many times as I’ve been a performer and we enjoy each other, we feed off of each other and I know that when we play, everyone in the audience probably has their own cool thing too, and that’s just San Francisco to me. Everyone has something.”