Farther down the block sits an unassuming two-story home. To look at it, you wouldn't guess it houses the recording studio for one of San Francisco's finest lo-fi pop bands, the Shimmer Kids Underpop Association. In fact, if you were to enter the modest basement apartment of head Kid Josh Babcock, you might still doubt that it harbors a modern-era Brian Wilson. And Babcock would probably agree with you.
"I don't want to be pigeonholed into a nostalgia revival -- it means nothing to me," Babcock says.
For the past five years, Babcock and the Shimmer Kids have concentrated on one thing: making multilayered pop tunes that grow more addictive with each listen. Until recently, those songs haven't reached much farther than their own back yard. But with a new mini-album, Prairie Prayers, following on the heels of last year's full-length, Bury My Heart at Makeout Point, the Shimmer Kids may be about to get the attention they deserve.
There are six regular Shimmer Kids -- guitarist/main singer/songwriter Babcock, bassist Adam Dobrer, theremin player Lorelei David, pianist Dave Isbister, saxophonist Dave Dunstan, and drummer Mike Evans -- all of whom grew up in California and most of whom went to UC Santa Cruz. When they play live, the Kids add two more -- backup singer/melodica player/percussionist Robin Wageman and trumpeter Justin Walsh.
The band formed in 1996, after Babcock and Dobrer moved to the city. "It was just horribly boring going to work every day, and I just couldn't accept that that was all there was," Babcock says. "Adam was the only guy I knew that had gear and was interested in the same music as me. We fucked around with a four-track, making songs every day."
Over time, the duo added more and more friends. "A lot of people we knew were creatively starved," Babcock explains. After choosing the glistening name, the group began playing informal gigs in a Mission District space called Nidus and passing out home-recorded tapes to friends. But the band didn't really solidify, Babcock says, until Evans joined in 1997.
The following year, the Kids released the first of three volumes of The Kids Are All Fucked Up -- taking the cassette series title from the Who song. Like the group's initial recordings, these collections went only to friends and showgoers, but they displayed a marked advance in quality. Songs like "Modular Gospel" and "Let's Get Damaged" showcased the band's sonic blueprint: lovingly crafted layers of acoustic guitars, theremin squiggles, sax drone, organ fuzz, and harmonically crooned vocals, all wrapped up in a catchy melodic bundle. (Most of the numbers are still available as downloads on the group's Web site, www.underpop.org.)
Soon the Shimmer Kids graduated to clubs like the Tip Top and the Boomerang, advertising their shows via Babcock's full-color, futuristic collage posters and performing against a backdrop of David's films. Evans passed a tape to his brother, Beulah organist Bill Evans, who helped get the Kids a slot at Noise Pop 2000.
NP Festival co-organizer Jordan Kurland recalls how the band was selected. "It was serendipitous, really. [Festival founder] Kevin Arnold received a package from the band just as Bill gave me the tape. They were one of the first local bands that came up when we were plotting the festival. It was the kind of music we liked: catchy, lo-fi, and they were doing interesting things with it. And they put a lot of emphasis into the show, with the videos and everything."
After their triumphant Noise Pop performance, the Shimmer Kids released their first CD, Bury My Heart at Makeout Point. Whereas the previous tapes had been recorded in several different ways -- part by part, collectively, in the bathroom -- Bury My Heart was an attempt to use a consistent method of recording. At the same time, Babcock explains, "I wanted it to have a certain variety to it. We all have diverse musical interests and short attention spans. I hate albums where all the songs are a certain tempo and instrumental setup. Unless you're a really magnetic performer like Sam Cooke or Sun Ra or Fela Kuti or James Brown and you can imprint your personality, those records are just kind of boring."
Bury My Heart is far from tedious. Tracks range from the straight-on Beach Boys homage "Sundowner," with its slow, rolling keyboard, jingling sleigh bells, and multipart harmonies, to the spoken word and theremin travelogue of "Ray and Carla Take a Vacation" and the '50s-ish sax-led number "The Candidate." Each song has so many layers to it that you could swear it was made in a 24-track studio, rather than in Babcock's bedroom with an eight-track.
"I've always loved music that was densely layered, especially with songs that are very simple," Babcock says. "You go back to them and hear something different every time."
What some folks may hear is a similarity between Shimmer Kids songs and those of '60s combos like the Zombies, Kinks, and the Mamas and the Papas. But most of the band prefers college rock artists like Robyn Hitchcock, Spacemen 3, Spiritualized, XTC, and Camper Van Beethoven. (Three bandmates had DJ shifts during college.) "Full Color Love Affair" sounds especially current, as if it were an outtake by indie pop fave Belle & Sebastian.
"Well, that was kind of a joke," Babcock says. "I like those first Belle & Sebastian albums, but [I thought], "Wow, I could do this, no problem.' I tried to make it a really melodramatic thing." As spoofs go, the song hits dead center. The main character catches his girl in the library reading e.e. cummings with another boy and decides, "All the poetry in Paris could never hide my shortcomings." Touché, sensitive rockers.
Babcock's lyrics do share one quality with Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch's: a narrative sweep carried by fine-tuned details and nicely turned phrases. On the epic ballad "Kiss Them All Goodbye," Babcock moons over the "rotten apple of my eye," while on the jaunty tune "Last of the Bright Young Men," he rues the appearance of a bitter rival: "It hurts me to watch you fallin' when he acts like Josef Stalin." Another tune, "There's Been a Change in the Electric Industry," bounds along on the kind of singsong rhymes and screwy pessimism that Bob Dylan perfected.
The Shimmer Kids self-released Bury My Heart in a small run of 500. Unsure how to distribute copies to stores and radio stations, Babcock wrote a letter to the Dekalb, Ill.-based indie distributor Parasol. "I said, "I want to get rid of them and I don't know how.'"
Jim Kelly is Parasol's distribution coordinator. "Initially, I lumped them in with the rest of the neo-psych pop crowd, but the Shimmer Kids are a cult of a different color. Like the rainbow you see in a bubble, [the band is] totally freaked out and totally driven in a seriously nonchalant West Coast way." Kelly took 250 copies of Bury My Heart in September and made it one of his favored records of the week on the Parasol Web site. Within several months the CD had sold out, and the band began work on a follow-up.
While Bury My Heart presented the sound of a budding band, Prairie Prayers displays the Shimmer Kids in full bloom. The album's seven songs cohere to a vague western theme but also wander down divergent paths. "The Oscillator Gang Rides Again" features fuzzed-out funk guitar, "Left Coast Neros" floats soulfully on rippling organ, and "The Hangman's Come-on" swings across the border on Tex-Mex horns and finger snaps. While Babcock's Beach Boys obsession takes center stage again on "We're All Chiefs and No Indians," he also makes room for the Americana bop of "Country Comforts."
When describing how he wrote the songs, Babcock says, "I thought, "Where do I live? What resources can I draw upon?' I hear a lot of mariachi music, the Beach Boys, faux-country crap. ... I feel kind of bad how California is represented musically; I feel like a lot of the wrong things always get emphasized. I hate how when people think of San Francisco, they think of Bill Graham's rock-blues psychedelia, which I just hate. Or when they think of the Beach Boys, they think of "Little Deuce Coupe.' Their late-'60s records are just so strange. Every song is totally different, and the way everything sounds is very unique."
The final song on Prairie Prayers, "Georgia Green," is a perfect example of the Kids' sonic complexity. Over handclaps and tambourine, Babcock tells the true story of a blind girl whose sight was temporarily restored by the first Los Alamos atomic bomb test. The rest of the band adds bits and pieces -- a slithering theremin, a percussive rattle, a rough guitar riff -- as Babcock piles on odd details about robots, aliens, and desert crackpots.
As with the previous album, the band pressed only 500 copies of the EP. Parasol offered to release the record, but the group didn't want to stick to a strict release schedule. "They [Parasol] said it'd be best if we waited to release it in September, but we don't care when it comes out," Babcock explains. "Anyway, the people who were really influential to me were the people who ran their own bands. I've always been impressed when people make more with less."
And with releases as grand as Prairie Prayers, the Shimmer Kids may soon find their tunes on that ice cream truck stereo.