By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Monte Vallier's booking agent thought he was nuts. It was summer of last year and Vallier's band, Swell, was preparing for an extensive tour of the U.K. and the European Continent -- traditionally fertile markets for a band that, like American Music Club and Thin White Rope before it, enjoys significant album sales and crowds everywhere but the United States. However, despite pleas from several parties to allow then-buzz band Hefner to support Swell on the U.K. portion of the tour, Vallier insisted that the slot be occupied by an unknown group from San Francisco with a peculiar name: Half Film. "I got Hefner CDs from the label, I got Hefner CDs from their manager, I got Hefner CDs from the band," explains Vallier, chuckling on the phone from his home in San Francisco. "I had to write them all back and say, 'Look, sorry, but I don't like Hefner. I want to tour with Half Film.' And everyone was like, 'Who?'" Vallier eventually got his way, and Half Film -- singer/guitarist Conor Devlin, bassist Eimer Hedderman, and drummer Jason Lakis -- accompanied Swell on 6 U.K. dates in October of last year. When it was over, says Vallier, "everyone was taking their words back."
Half Film is striking in its simplicity. Its sound -- characterized by Devlin's mechanical, arpeggiated guitar, Hedderman's keen melodic sense, and Lakis' understated, often brushed drumming -- has been called hypnotic by more than one observer. Atop it all is Devlin's Irish-accented baritone (both he and Hedderman hail from Dublin), and expressionist lyrics. The band's newly released sophomore album, The Road to the Crater, is remarkable more for creating space -- and the sense of it -- than for filling it up. It's Half Film's ability to conjure what Vallier calls "a mood" that has endeared the band to fans throughout the U.S. and Europe. "We don't get that much mail and e-mail from people in San Francisco," says Devlin, 30, sipping a pint with his bandmates one recent Sunday afternoon in a Lower Haight Street bar. "It's from everywhere else but the Bay Area. It's really bizarre."
Half Film resides in San Francisco, but its profile in town is so low that it's practically underground. While some local acts spend their time attempting to pack clubs on 11th Street, Devlin and his cohorts prefer to rehearse, play the odd show, make records, and tour. "We don't want to just concentrate on San Francisco," explains Devlin. "You're doomed if you do that. We wanted to start playing other cities." When it's suggested that many local outfits strive to be San Francisco bands as opposed to American bands, Hedderman, 28, smiles and says, "We go on further: We prefer to be a European band." Indeed, a few weeks after returning home from their U.K. dates with Swell, the band flew back to Europe to commence a tour of its own, playing nearly 30 dates throughout the Continent.
Devlin and Hedderman are intensely private, and reluctant to discuss their past ("I bury it a lot," Devlin says, cryptically). Therefore, what little is known is more mystery than history. The two were acquaintances in Dublin before meeting up again in England's Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where they briefly collaborated. Hedderman later moved to San Francisco and Devlin followed. In 1996 the duo met Lakis at a mutual friend's barbecue. Though he played a fair amount of drums in high school hard rock bands before moving on to quieter pastures, Lakis, 28, says he initially had designs on being Half Film's second guitarist. "I tried to get their drummer at the time to convince them, but he was too chicken," he laughs. "When the drummer left I said I'd help them out and it just sort of evolved from there." Devlin was pleased with Lakis' ability on the traps. "[His] sound was really loose," says the guitarist. "I thought, 'This is nice.' I wasn't really into a straight drummer." By the summer of 1996 the band was rehearsing regularly, forming the sound that would initially surface on a demo recorded to book local shows.
One of the first people to receive that demo was Swell's Vallier. However, it wasn't the first time he'd heard from Conor Devlin. "He sent a fan letter kind of thing, like, 'Hey, I'm moving to San Francisco from Ireland and I'm a fan of your band,'" says the bassist and co-songwriter. "It wasn't gushy. It was more like, 'I respect what you're doing and maybe we can get together.' I called him and we ended up meeting and hanging out." Since then, Half Film and Vallier have forged a friendship based on respect and a mutual appreciation for a shared aesthetic.
Vallier cites Half Film's hypnotic sound and simplicity as what attracts him to the band. But above all, he says, it's the tension that they create. "There are those long arpeggios, and you just wait and you wait and you wait for something to happen," he says, with genuine amazement. "And they fool you. There is no big release. It just builds and builds and there are little tiny releases." Vallier recently produced a single for the band to be released on Central California's Astronavigation label. It will be the first in a series of five singles that the band hopes to issue over the next two years. Vallier will also record the second installment in the series, which is set to include a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman." Says Devlin of Vallier, "He's been the best person to us. He's done us enormous favors."