Shine a Light

The Shimmer Kids Underpop Association may be ready to go aboveground

The sun is setting on another unseasonably hot June day. On a quiet street in Potrero Hill, several Young Turks practice tricks on a makeshift skateboarding ramp. Nearby, a few underage smokers cheer the difficult maneuvers from beat-up couches parked on a lawn. The lazy days of summer are here. Any second now, an ice cream truck should come around the corner, strains of tinkly circus music wafting from its speakers.

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.

Shimmer Kids: Like a rainbow in a bubble.
Jennifer Hale
Shimmer Kids: Like a rainbow in a bubble.

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.

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