Those Who Dared

Why the three San Francisco music scene vets who make up Virginia Dare have happily retired to home and hearth

Virginia Dare songwriter Mary O'Neil and her husband, guitarist Brad Johnson, both work day jobs. They rent a tiny but cute Bernal Heights cottage, which they share with Kit, their 4-year-old son, and a cat. Some nights they strum music together -- Mary on her autoharp and Brad on his electric guitar, supplied with a screwdriver for a whammy bar to get that perfect twang -- but most nights they don't.

"Mary writes songs if nobody's home," says Johnson, sitting at a table among all the right vintage stuff in the couple's sunlit kitchen; on his left sits his wife and to his right, bandmate and bassist Greg Freeman.

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"The truth is, at the end of the day, we're just so wiped out," says O'Neil. "It's having a kid. We always lament, 'We should play some music,' and then nothing happens."

No member of the band has ever been in rehab, nor is there a signing to a major label in the offing. Virginia Dare is simply a dark, folk-pop-punk band comprised of O'Neil, Johnson, and Freeman, who in recent months have had publications across the nation and throughout cyberspace calling them everything from "homespun and charming" and "roots music winner" to what Spin describes as "halfway between the moon and West Virginia" (whatever that means) and "the next big thing" -- the last of which is highly unlikely since a) they could really give a fuck what anyone thinks about them, and b) they don't get out much.

"Bands that are together because they want to 'make it' -- those bands suck," says O'Neil. "And those bands don't have any fun. It's really about the people -- people you like and get along with -- which to me is almost more important because this is a human endeavor."

Freeman, a longtime local musician, engineer, and producer, agrees wholeheartedly with O'Neil's philosophy. "We're not driven to succeed at all," he says while O'Neil giggles. "We don't know why that is. It's a hobby. Sort of. Not really."

" 'Hobby' makes it sound like there's decoupage involved," says O'Neil as she bursts into laughter.

"Music is important to all of us," says Freeman, "but it's valuable to do music and not be completely consumed with it or look at it as a possible career. I think that's a problem for a lot of people."

Ah, the anti-thing: It worked for R.E.M. and later for Nirvana, Pavement, and plenty of others, right? But Virginia Dare has no marketing plan, doesn't tour, and doesn't plan to. Nor does the band have a smartassed independent label with a fat wallet in its corner.

"I think that's why the band works so great. We have the same realistic feeling about what we're doing. If we get to go to interesting places, that's just a perk. If people want to pay us money, that's great. And if people want to put out a CD, no one's thinking we're going to buy a house," says O'Neil, laughing. "Especially not in San Francisco."

The underachiever credo did not, however, dissuade a fan, Cory Brown, from chasing the group down for a year in an effort to get them to sign to his modest label, Absolutely Kosher Records -- refuge to the recently defunct P.E.E. He released the follow-up to Virginia Dare's two 10-inch EPs for Nuf Sed -- and their first proper album -- the 13-song Baby Got Away.

"I wish success for all my bands, but that's not what I can offer them. I'm basically a bedroom label," says Brown. "I find their humble band-next-door attitude extremely appealing."

Named after the first baby born to the first European U.S. settlers (but also a brand name of wine and artificial flavorings) -- "We didn't really know any of this," says O'Neil -- Virginia Dare the band was born in San Francisco in 1993, when O'Neil and Johnson hooked up with Paula Frazer on bass and Jonathan Segel, formerly of Camper Van Beethoven, on violin. Freeman was recording them at his former studio, Lowdown. Though Segel was sent off once the trio no longer thought his fiddle fit, when Frazer quit to work on other projects -- specifically Tarnation -- Freeman raised his hand. "I weaseled my way in," he says. "Because nobody has an agenda, and it fits in so nicely with our lives, it seems like it could go on indefinitely."

"Hopefully," says O'Neil. "Until Greg does something horrible."
"Why me?" he asks, somewhat defensively.
"Because you're Satan," she says.
"Oh, that."

In the band's bio, penned by Johnson, there's the tiniest suggestion that Freeman once got the boot from an early '80s Santa Cruz band, the Call, because of his alleged affiliation with Satan.

"The hatchet's long been buried," is all Freeman will say on the subject, but he gained some experience with major label/big studio/big budget recording technique in that time, as he did with his time served in the on-again-off-again, once-signed-to-Geffen instrumental band Pell Mell. He also observed the path of the bands who came through his studio, from locals like the Donner Party, Cat Heads, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, to touring acts like Royal Trux and Faust.

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