With roots in the suburbs of San Diego, a production space in Fruitvale, and homes across Oakland and San Francisco, Halcyonaire weaves a sound they call “California country & soul.” Tying Americana twang, dusty desert flavors, and atmospheric production together with experimental threads, the band uses its spaghetti western tunes to capture human experiences very much rooted in modern times.
Having spent his formative years playing punk and thrash in Escondido, frontman and vocalist Chris Damien followed his natural inclination to evolve as a songwriter. “I was getting really influenced by a lot of country music and folk music that I’d inherited,” he says. “I’d inherited a bunch of records from my grandparents. A bunch of different people in my life sort of led me to slowly want to explore writing more composed, folk rock.”
This transition period, which he estimates was around 2004, was the beginnings of Halcyonaire. “It was a solo effort,” he explains. “It eventually turned into this thing where people would come in and out. It was a big rolling cast of players from that area.” He moved to Oakland in 2007 along with his friends Geoff Saba and Brandt Burgess, who now play guitar and bass, respectively. “That’s when Halcyonaire started to become what it is now, and it eventually really became what it is now about a year ago. So it was a big organic process of turning into a full band, over a long period of time. The start of 2013 is when we really started acting as a larger unit, as a band, rather than me just writing songs and singing and having people with me.”
Damien met guitarist Alex Simon and drummer Joel Davidson through Saba, and as he describes it, “It all just kind of clicked. And for the last year we’ve been making our way through this batch of songs that I wrote and slowly releasing it in increments–singles, cassettes, they’re sort of taking different forms.”
Halcyonaire released the single “Young Penitents/The Healer” in December of 2013, offering their first cut of music since they solidified as a proper band, and the first unit in a series of small batches of songs that Damien eventually sees comprising a whole album. “With limited resources,” he says, “We kind of want to keep it at more episodic releases more frequently rather than a long release in twelve months or something. And we’ve produced all that work at Geoff’s studio, Itinerant Home Recordings.”
He continues, “It’s been a very steady pace, our work flow; just keep recording, keep recording, keep recording. Now that we’re coming out with Urban Arson, we’re going to take a little break and go on tour. But in the meantime, that’s the way Halcyonaire developed–slowly and surely but its consistent.”
Urban Arson, due to be released next week on April 15, is the band’s latest offering, an EP of sorts that the band describes as a “three-song vignette.” Though we’re still days away from the EP’s release, we’re proud to premiere Urban Arson here on The Bay Bridged.
“This is the first batch of songs from the larger composition that was really fleshed out in our current production process where we’re largely living in cities, whether its San Francisco or Oakland,” explains Chris. “The whole production process has been very determined by that, by the city–having to get on BART and travel and deal with all that bullshit–it leaks in, it determines the process of production.”
While the band’s music is certainly flavored by the urban setting, it is also educated by the project’s suburban roots. Describing the significance of the title track, Damien says, “I think the song itself is a good example of the band because it has a lot to do with this drive of an individual to kind of want to come to this city, this really dense area and do their best–be creative, create something awesome, use all the resources that are available to us, and at the same time deal with all the negative parts that come with it–pressure, money, all kinds of bullshit, all kinds of pain and anxiety in this place, just as much as there are very innovative and creative people.”
These themes of human anxiety, solitude and pressure pervade Halcyonaire’s music, but always through the filter of where they came from. Saba argues, “I think we’re all kind of sensitive to the whole thing. Escondido is arguably a small town and so us three coming up here and having to deal with this intense, hyper urban setting has made us really sensitive to the comforts and discomforts that the city offers. So I feel like what’s special about our group of peers is that we sort of address the of weird schism between urban life and smaller town life. A lot of people just want to fucking party in the city, but I think growing up in a small town we’ve been given a lot of time to reflect, so i think its a special thing for us.”
Illustrating how the themes of Urban Arson fit into the larger context of Halcyonaire’s unfolding release process, Damien first explains, “After we release it, we’re going to go on tour: in Tuscon we’re going to go play a Lightning Records festival, we’re going to play in Phoenix and San Diego and in-between we’re going to be doing these sessions where we go out into the desert for a couple day and do field recordings out there. We’re going to take those field recordings as basic tracks, bring them back to the studio in Fruitvale and then flesh them out into songs that we can release next.”
He continues, “That speaks to the question of how Urban Arson works for us because this is our release that was very much rooted here in this place. We didn’t go anywhere else to finish this thing, we did it all ourselves in Oakland. the next one’s going to be a little different. So we really sort of played up that current situation–all of its tension, anxiety and awesomeness and not awesomeness.”
The EP represents the band’s own story in city, the highs and lows of their urban experience, and they approached the task of encapsulating these experiences very heavily because they know that so many others, before and after them, have and will feel these same human experiences. “The fact that this was a very thoughtful release about the pressures of living in this city is important to us, and I think its important to get across because that’s a shared sentiment,” asserts Damien, before breaking the three-song effort down. “The song ‘Urban Arson’ is very much about feeling isolated and alienated. ‘Lost and Found’ is about this obsessive desire for somebody that treats you very poorly, about someone who relishes that experience. These are experiences that I think unfortunately people around here have probably experienced or know about, so to me i see that as the significance. We’re speaking to experiences that i think people share. and i don’t think that’s necessarily clear in the music in and of itself.”
Beyond San Francisco, he argues that the themes are universal to not only an urban setting, but to modern times: “If you live in any place where there’s a lot of dense human energy just packed together these things inevitably happen.”
Saba adds, “It really taps in to something universal feelings, human nature wise, just the exponential growth,” before bringing his thoughts back to the Bay Area:
There’s such a crazy dynamic happening right now in the city where the tech industry, all that gentrification stuff, there’s immense dynamic motion in the city. We’re developing into the future but so fast that you’re still, the taste of the past is still on your tongue. And a lot of people are feeling that. A lot of people are feeling the weird energy that’s pulling us into the future so fast that we’re existing both in the future and the past. We feel a little bit guilty that we’re steam rolling over the past but we are so excited to get into the future. Its profitable here, especially in SF. I feel like all these things are captured in the recordings we’re doing, because we’re exposed to it. A lot of us are right in the shit.
While these tensions are very potent in San Francisco, Damien argues that the source of the pressure–tech, money, or any other encumbering factor–isn’t the focus of the Urban Arson. “Whatever creates the pressure, whether that’s shit talking on the tech industry or something like that, that isn’t relevant to the release,” he says. “It’s just that the pressure is there and it could be anything. In any city, it could be any one industry or it could be industry-less. It can be so much more than economic. It’s the fact that you come to a place and it’s difficult to survive. Pressure is pressure and its going to be everywhere.”
Halyconaire thrives on these modern pressures. They’ve harnessed them and learned how to use them to power an antidote–their music. The band heads south next week, but you can catch them in Oakland this weekend to see their urban narratives unfold in a live setting.
Halcyonaire Tour Dates:
April 12th – Oakland, CA – The Night Light
April 16th – San Jose, CA – Blank Club
April 29th – Los Angeles, CA – Ham & Eggs Tavern
May 1st – Phoenix, AZ – The Lost Leaf
May 2nd – Soundings Session
May 3rd – Three Points, AZ – Cowtown Keeylocko
May 4th – San Diego, CA – Sycamore Den
May 5th – Soundings Session
May 6th – Santa Barbara, CA – TBA
June 6th – San Jose, CA – SubZERO Festival