Small-Town Serenades

El Capitan delivers a rootsy California tapestry

Grass Roots Records, a cool little indie label nestled in Joanna Newsom's new folk hotbed of Nevada City, has been building a buzz more for its retinue of elfin-voiced songwriters like Mariee Sioux and Alela Diane than for its roots-rock bands like El Capitan. But while the San Francisco act enjoys sharing a roster with delicate acoustic artists, you're more likely to hear El Capitan play an electric-charged number about skateboarding than witness it embark on a mythical, milk-eyed freak-out.

That's not to say the group is a typical skate-punk act — although frontman Ryan Henry has worked for years as an editor at Thrashermagazine. El Capitan's influences range from J.J. Cale and Neil Young to old Motown funk and '70s roots-reggae, but its sound centers on old-fashioned, grit-specked country-rock. "Roots music is the core for all music players and lovers — stomping your feet and clapping, and singing a tune together," says Henry. "It's the steadiness and the heartbeat you hear in any old country or reggae song."

Stickeen, El Capitan's new album for Grass Roots Records, reflects this need for basic storytelling that's slightly rough around the edges. The album opens with "Happy All the Time," a twangy ode to a blackberry-moonshine-brewing mountain woman named Miss Berryessa. It features clean slide guitars reeling over a prickly bed of distortion. "Seventeen Year Cicada" is a lush reminiscence of youth led by plaintive acoustic guitar, while disheveled vocal harmonies deliver wistful lyrics like "Seventeen more years: Where will we be then? Will we still be friends? Will the summer end?" "Cloud's Rest" is a dreamy bedtime tale that balances along a tightrope of electric guitar feedback.

El Capitan: NorCal country at its finest.
Jeremy Conant
El Capitan: NorCal country at its finest.

El Capitan is named after a 3,000-foot rock formation in Yosemite, and many of its songs similarly call upon California signifiers. Towns like Bonny Doon, Twain Harte, and Catalina all make appearances on Stickeen, creating a sense of place that's both universal in feeling and specific to the areas. "I was raised in California, in the Sierra Nevada, in a town that might as well have been built for a bunch of elves," says Henry. "[Guitarist] Chris [Connolly] and I are singing a lot about where we grew up, and when I mention something about 'Ye Olde Sierra Belle,' which was the little bakery in Twain Harte, most people have never been there."

Like the two El Capitan albums preceding it, Stickeen was recorded without computer aids, at Bart Thurber's House of Faith studio in Oakland. "Bart has been recording punk bands in the Bay Area for more than 20 years," says Henry. "He doesn't have Pro Tools or anything, and a lot of the gear that he uses — preamps and compressors, old tube bass technology — really adds warmth to a recording." While a limited budget partially explains this recording approach, Henry maintains that it also forces the band to focus on the quality of what it plays. "Most people today, if a drumbeat is in the wrong place, they don't really have to worry about it — they can just go into the computer and tighten things up," he says. "But we're learning that you don't need to tweak everything to death to sound good."

In the final assessment, El Capitan has more in common with its Grass Roots labelmates than it seems: With a love for the foot-stomping fundamentals of songwriting and the drive to tell a good story, its sound should appeal to skate punks and folk freaks alike.

 
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