Shannon and Spence Koehler onstage at Great American Music Hall, June 6, 2015 (photo: Jon Ching)
It wasn’t long ago that Shannon and Spence Koehler were just two brothers from the boonies.
“He was like a little church mouse,” squawks Shannon, talking about his brother Spence’s transformation since the two set out as part of the Stone Foxes, way back in 2007. The two are currently ensconced in a studio in San Rafael with the other Foxes, putting the finishing touches on Twelve Spells, due out in August. “Personality wise, he talks a lot more (now). He’ll go get drinks with people; for a long time he wanted to stay home.”
Spence isn’t the only one the Stone Foxes has exerted its maturing magic on — Shannon has changed, too. Just take the second night of their November 2014 residency at the Chapel — once a meek kid, barely out of his teens and stooped behind a drum kit, Shannon, having sweated straight through his shirt, stands firmly at the foot of the stage. He closes his eyes and clutches a closed fist to his chest—his shirt buttons open, Pacemaker scar on full display, representing one of the loudest, rowdiest bands to bring real rock and roll mayhem back to San Francisco.
It’s an unreal and somewhat unbelievable scene for anyone who knew them before they were Stone Foxes, and really, for anyone who knows them outside of their touring life. How did two goofball brothers from the mountains found one of the raunchiest-sounding rock and roll bands playing today?
It’s hard to find a clear answer to that question, just as it’s hard to get a clear answer out of the Koehler brothers, period. Ask them a question, and it doesn’t take long for them to start drifting into some anecdote from childhood, or, if they respond at all, sandwich their response between a few bouts of brotherly joshing. “Well, Shannon is…Shannon has always been a real kinda character,” says Spence, dropping into a folksy sentence structure that betrays his mountain upbringing. “We could always tell he had a great persona behind the drums, and when we brought him out we realized…he is so good with an audience. Shannon loves to be at the front of the stage, shouting at people.”
“…Shut up, Spence,” says Shannon.
The story starts in Tollhouse, California, a Sierra community in some of the most remote reaches of the state. “The gas station is 20 minutes’ drive,” says Shannon. “If Spence was playing guitar and wouldn’t play catch with me, there was nothing to do.”
“Our parents didn’t have much music,” says Shannon, although relatives worked to foster a musical appreciation in them. Their uncle John had a record collection, and used to make Shannon mixtapes — pop stuff; Michael Jackson and the like. Spence got an acoustic guitar for Christmas from an aunt. Shannon got a drum set a short time after, from the same uncle. It was a Ludwig, and having no idea of its value, he gifted it to Shannon. Shannon had no idea either, and after playing around with it for a while, he gave it back. Uncle John eventually sold it at a price indicative of his lack of knowledge about the brand. “The guy who bought it from him laughed in his face, which was not a very nice thing to do.”
But sparks of their rock-star future were always present. More out of boredom than a beating, passionate drive to play music, they started exploring their acquired instruments. They played a few community events — the high school regional talent competition (which they won with a composition entitled “Hush the Funk.” There was beatboxing involved), Mennonite church socials, those kind of things. Even still, it seems the only people that didn’t see a band in the Koehler brothers’ future were the Koehler brothers.
Spence eventually went to San Francisco State, seeking not to further his music education but to pursue design. In the freshman dorms, Spence met Aaron Mort. “Aaron was playing the open mics in Mary Ward (Hall). I was playing by myself in the dorm room.” Spence approached him about working together. James Marsugghi was Aaron’s roommate, and the three of them eventually formed a band called Grit. Shannon came to State shortly after and Spence asked him to joined the band. (“Was it that Mom felt bad for me or that you wanted