Home Is Where You Hang

Virgil Shaw and Yuji Oniki inject new life into the singer/songwriter genre by writing about places they've been

At one point in time, being a singer/songwriter was a high-minded calling. Troubadours across the country told of political unrest, the rights of the oppressed, and how the times they were a-changing. Now that the times have a-changed, many contemporary artists are hesitant to be categorized as singer/songwriters for fear of being stigmatized as -- gasp! -- folk singers. Under the impression that their music should be more an expression of art than a forum for delivering personalized political views, these artists shy away from such discomfiting labels.

But two new records by local musicians Virgil Shaw and Yuji Oniki are helping to cast the role of the singer/songwriter in a new light. Following years of experience working both solo and in bands, these two artists have crafted atmospheric, highly involving albums that tackle the craft of song head-on. And while the records couldn't sound more dissimilar, they share one palpable connection: a sense that environment and culture are all-important and all-informative.

For nearly 10 years, Virgil Shaw has been collecting songs that didn't fit in with the more exuberant, country-punk fare of his regular band Dieselhed. Recently, when his group ended up with extra recording time after finishing its new album, Chico and the Flute, Shaw volunteered to use it to tape some solo material.

Yuji Oniki.
Jason Francisco
Yuji Oniki.
Virgil Shaw.
Akim Aginsky
Virgil Shaw.


Yuji Oniki performs Friday, Nov. 3, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $7; call 861-5016.

Virgil Shaw performs Saturday, Nov. 18, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5; call 546-6300.

Sample of Yuji Oniki's "Paper Tigers"

<p align="center"> If your browser doesn't play the music automatically, <A HREF="http://www.sfweekly.com/media/2000-11-01/oniki.mp3"> download it here.</A> </p>
Oniki at Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market (at Church), S.F.; Shaw at Hotel Utah, 500 Fourth St. (at Bryant), S.F.

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Because of its "accidental" nature, the resulting album, Quad Cities, contains an audible spontaneity and lack of stylistic trappings, allowing the delicately crafted songs to sparkle. Following in the tradition of Elliott Smith -- who also countered his band's thrashier material by recording a collection of more down-tempo, introspective songs -- Shaw delivers carefully constructed, country-tinged songs that focus on honest lyrics and high, lonesome vocals.

Shaw cites Tom Waits and Bahamian early folk-blues guitar player Joseph Spence as two of his biggest musical influences. But it might be his background in painting that best gave him the tools to weave his songs. Quad Cities is peppered with lyrics that seem to be simultaneously telling a story and speaking about nothing but a feeling, leaving the listener to ponder the meaning of the song long after the track has ended.

Although Shaw was born in San Francisco, he spent most of his formative years in the Marin County town of Bolinas. Long known as a haven for recovering hippies and urban dropouts, Bolinas provided Shaw with an eclectic cast of characters, some of whom found their way onto Quad Cities. One character -- a legendary trust-fund hippie who lived in a cave and crafted hand-shaped surfboards -- was the inspiration for the song "Surfboard Shaper."

"The last time anyone ever saw him, he was paddling toward a ship he saw on the horizon," Shaw recalls. "I guess that's kind of a spiritual way to go."

"I think a lot of my imagery comes from the North Coast," says Shaw, who went to college at Humboldt State. Contrary to the region's reputation as a place that supports only the diametrically opposed hippie and timber cultures, Shaw says the underground punk scene thrived there in the early '90s.

"The punk days were exciting because I was young, and the music and community were friendly and underground," Shaw says. "Punk is similar to what I am doing now. ... I just can't jump around anymore."

Much like his songs about the more rural North Coast, Shaw's references to San Francisco touch on personal experiences rather than public landmarks, such as the friend in "Volvo" who "drove and drove around ... looking for some parking and then drove right out of town." Because of the personalization of his lyrics, Shaw's imagery paints the city in a more dreamlike state than a literal one. "A lot of my songs happen in San Francisco, but it's not necessarily a real San Francisco," Shaw claims. San Francisco is more specifically represented by the musical help he enlisted on the songs, including members of Mr. Bungle, Dieselhed, and the Mommyheads as well as renowned local producers Jeff Palmer and Greg Freeman.

Place also plays an important role in shaping Yuji Oniki's music. Although Oniki has lived in the Bay Area for over 10 years, he was born in New York City to Japanese immigrants. Taught to speak Japanese by his parents, he was exposed to the culture from an early age. Even now, Yuji pays yearly visits to Japan and makes his living by translating manga comics published by Viz.

"I believe the various idioms [of Japanese living] were imprinted onto my memory," Oniki says. "I was exposed to a kind of parallel matrix from Japan through its news, magazines, comics, and music."

After Oniki's first record, Shonen Blue, was released in 1990, he dropped out of music, did some traveling, and dabbled in filmmaking and comics. Then, one night in a San Francisco bar, Oniki found out that he had not, in fact, faded into obscurity. After an introduction to Oniki, Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard expressed an appreciation for Shonen Blue and an interest in collaborating. Soon, Oniki was fleshing out songs for Orange with Gillard and members of local acts Beulah and the Moore Brothers.

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