City Tribe

On an improbably sunny Monday evening, City Tribe is seated in a semi-circle at a high-top table in Elite Café on Fillmore, knocking back a round of amber ales. Well, all except guitarist and singer Jacob Jones: He’s on his way, in what turns out to be an exhausting cab ride. Even with only three present, it’s already a challenge to tell them apart: so much facial hair.

As they settle in, drummer Cody Rhodes is chatting excitedly about two things: Café Elite’s art-deco ambiance, which he comments on a couple times, and the drummer that’s sitting down to his set at the front of the house, about to set the mood with a small jazz trio. They’re an enthusiastic bunch—surprisingly animated; disarmingly silly for a band that’s become known for mellow, acoustic-driven rock that almost always is described by beach metaphors. But now, just a few weeks shy of the release of their first full-length, Undertow, their ebullient nature as a band is starting to come to the surface. “Starting a writing process as a full band, immediately it’s going to have more rock to it,” says Rhodes.

In contrast to 2012’s self-titled EP, Undertow is a record full of slow-burn sing-alongs that give off some heavy vintage vibes. Whereas the last record was mostly down-tempo work, Undertow combines their ever-present harmonies with a heaping measure of rattling, reverberating electric guitars. A little less beach; a little more city.

“I never viewed it that way,” singer and guitarist Duncan Nielsen politely refutes when asked about Undertow’s departure from their previous work. “It’s more us letting loose a little bit.”

“It’s funny, ‘cause half the songs on the album are older,” says bassist Eric Wallace. “But the songs that are older have a more reserved feel. ‘Bury Me’ is one of the oldest songs we have, and that’s more arranged; restricted.”

City Tribe started as a duo—current guitarists and singers Duncan Nielsen and Jacob Jones. As is writ prominently on the Internet, it is indeed true that the two met in Santa Barbara and began their musical life together in a post-hardcore band there. They reunited again in the Bay years later and, after realizing they could harmonize like nobody’s business, started playing as an acoustic duo. “It helped generate a lot of steam; a good way to test the waters and meet a lot of local people,” says Nielsen.

As they began working with other musicians in the area, they took on a name that described their mix-and-match approach to making music: City Tribe. “It’s the community feeling with different musicians in the city,” says Nielsen. The band’s most recent acquisition is Rhodes, formerly of San Jose’s San Francesca. Rhodes’ background lies equally in jazz as it does rock ‘n’ roll, which helps bring a fresh, more urgent feeling to Undertow. “It’s a balance between doing what I think is fun and…doing what can serve the song,” smirks Rhodes.

Though all members individually come from a wide swath of musical backgrounds, (Wallace dealt in punk rock, and Jones later admits he came from a clan of singers), Nielsen and Jones’ striking and prominent vocal harmonies make a lot of people go straight to Fleet Foxes as a handy reference point. “I don’t think we sound like Fleet Foxes anymore,” says Nielsen. “Somewhere between Band of Horses, Grizzly Bear…”

“N.W.A.,” Rhodes deadpans from the other side of the table; just the slightest smirk on his face, burying his face in his drink.

It’s kind of great how the four of them can so easily slip back and forth between being quote-unquote “serious musicians”; artists that can speak eloquently and thoughtfully about their craft, and being a bunch of good-humored, goofy dudes you’d love to drink with after the show. By the time Jones arrives, breathing apologies for his tardiness as he finds his seat, they’re starting to run out of things to say about the new record. The conversation drifts towards amusing anecdotes. “Oh! We saw a guy get shot!” Jones exclaims, his voice rising a couple notes. One of the mellowest bands in the city rents a rehearsal space in one of the rowdiest corners: Hyde and Eddy. They’ve seen some shit. “You can’t wait outside too long or else you get solicited,” says Rhodes, only half-joking. “People try to sell you shit.” Then, after a brief pause, he adds: “There was a gross shirt sitting on my windshield once.” He didn’t want to touch it, so he let his windshield wipers do the work.

“It’s a high-risk band,” they joke.

City Tribe currently have a Tuesday night residency at Amnesia through July, and will be playing dates here and elsewhere on the West coast other days of the week. Undertow comes out on July 29th and can be pre-ordered here.