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
When they emerged in 2008 with their self-titled album, they were hailed by blues aficionados as rare young revivalists of the genre. They hit their popular stride around 2010, with the release of Bears & Bulls.
While Bears & Bulls was indie du jour at the time — vaguely fuzzy; heavy on the twang — some abrupt and unexpected lineup changes took place shortly after the record’s release. The next effort, Small Fires, found them more mainstream success, but was a departure in sound — the exuberant tambourine rattles of Bears & Bulls gave way to cleaner production and uncharacteristically heavy themes. “Everyone in the band was looking for that next thing,” says Shannon. “Small Fires was a marriage between our roots as a rock-blues band and our search for another universe to expand in.”
Lyrically, The Stone Foxes are quite tame — topics hover around social justice and city life; nothing that out of the ordinary for rock and roll. Sonically, they’re something else: riffs borrowed from the blues canon and blended with classic rock guitar heroicism. It’s no wonder their songs have been co-opted by companies like Jack Daniels and shows like Sons of Anarchy to sell lifestyles known for sticky-floored roadside bars and leather jackets — lifestyles far removed from the Koehlers’ actual offstage personas. As an example: They’ve only smoked weed once, and it’s a pretty good story. Ask them about it sometime. Snoop Dogg was there.
Shannon at Great American Music Hall, June 6 (photo: Jon Ching)
Twelve Spells is the band — and the brothers — entering their musical adulthood. They came into the world wailing the blues, experimented in adolescence, and are now finding their footing on their fourth full-length, without leaving behind the lessons — good and bad — they learned in their early years. “It’s not an accident that the new stuff has more bite and moves at a higher heart rate (than Small Fires),” says Shannon. “We can’t run away from who we are. We’re kids with rock and roll inside.”
In their current formation, they number six or five in total; depending on the day. They brought Elliott Peltzman in 2011 on keys, and have since collected Ben, Vince, and Brian (also known, somewhat confusingly, as “Buff” or “Buffalo”). “We knew them forever. I mean, I’ve known Buff forever,” says Shannon. They actually went to high school with Brian, and Ben and Vince came from Buxter Hoot’n. “They’re both bringing in really good songs,” agrees Spence. “I’ve played music with you forever,” he motions to Shannon, “And Vince is kind of a breath of fresh air for me.”
The band goofing off backstage at Great American (photo: Jon Ching)
While prior incarnations of the band achieved great things, the current lineup is taking them into a new era. “As (Small Fires) was coming out, we were all talking about what we actually love to play, the up-tempo rock and roll,” says Shannon. “When we went looking for new guys to join the crew, we found kindred spirits in Vince, Ben, and Buff, who were looking to do the same thing.”
“(The band) was really blues-oriented to begin with, but I hope we’ve grown,” says Spence. At this point, they’ve actually started removing themselves from the lineup — though Spence is still thought of as a Stone Fox, he’s in fact no longer officially part of the band. He’s currently going to school for landscape architecture and only joins the band on local dates.
Eight years ago in the dorms, they had no idea they were founding what, in band years, is practically a San Francisco institution. It’s been a weird and wild ride. “I’m 27 now, and I’ve been in this band…a long time,” says Shannon sagely. He and Spence are seated on the edge of a concrete planter box, under the fluorescent light of a strip mall in Oakland. They have a show at Leo’s tonight, and they’re talking a walk down Telegraph in the brief window between sound check and showtime. “We’ve played a wake, we’ve played a bar mitzvah — ”
“A b’nai mitzvah,’ interjects Spence. “That’s for twins.” By the time this goes to press, they will have taped their first live release, and, as proof of their deep roots in the city, Shannon will have sung at San Francisco City Hall’s Centennial celebration.
That night at Leo’s, the lights dim. They enter to the subtle, yet self-important rumble of a John Williams score — Jurassic Park — and a packed house. “Hold onto your butts!” Shannon wails into the mic as they six of them rushed the tiny stage. Spence fires up his axe.
“Holy shit!” someone shouts as they close a caustic version of “Ulysses Jones.” Hours ago, Shannon was skipping around on the corner of Telegraph, mimicking one of the many times he made fun of his brother as a kid, while Spence sat next to him and laughed. Now they’re scowling a little; jutting their chins forward. This crowd has never known them as anything other than rock stars.