The Bill Graham of S.F. Indie Rock

Andrew St. James of Fast Times wants to unify and elevate San Francisco’s music scene.

Ten years ago this month, Pitchfork — the tastemaking online publication known for its heady (and often divisive) analysis of popular music — published a lengthy feature on the San Francisco garage rock scene. In it, writer Aaron Leitko essentially proclaimed that the 415 was the beating heart of the national indie community. 

The article focused on acts like Ty Segall, Kelley Stoltz, Thee Oh Sees, and the Fresh and Onlys, without even touching upon groups such as Girls or Weekend, two other San Francisco bands making national headlines at the time. Describing the close-knit cadre of musicians then living and working in the city, Leitko detailed how many of the bands shared houses and frequently lent equipment to their compatriots.

But even during those halcyon days, there wasn’t a local infrastructure in place to unite and advocate on behalf of all the great artists who called San Francisco home. There was no common voice demanding that those bands didn’t get ripped off when opening for out-of-town acts or screaming from the streets for people to come check out their shows. That could be why so many of those venerable artists — like John Dwyer and Ty Segall—have since fled our foggy, 49 square miles, often for the warmer (and cheaper) environs of Los Angeles. Indeed, those who have relocated to the desert cities of Southern California have discovered a more mature ecosystem of recording studios, music labels, and publicists eager to support and uplift local bands.

A decade ago, San Francisco native Andrew St. James was barely a teenager, but the precocious musician was already making a name for himself, creating otherworldly psych rock as a member of his high school band, Little Big Man. By the time he was 17, St. James was making wise-beyond-his-years music, releasing the Bob Dylan-indebted folk album Doldrums.

St. James idolized San Francisco’s early-aughts rock community, but he lamented that the scene lacked a unifying force capable of drawing all the disparate elements together.

Like so many of his heroes, St. James eventually moved to Los Angeles in 2014. When he returned to the city at the end of 2016, he was despondent to see that same splintered aesthetic, although this time he was determined to make a change.

“The San Francisco scene was so fragmented,” St. James says. “There would be shows happening at the same time, so no one would be there when the bands played. People who should have known each other just didn’t. There was just no central place for artistic happenings.”

Trying to fill that void, St. James created Fast Times in early 2018, a monthly residency at the now-defunct Amnesia Beer & Music Hall in the Mission District, where he would play music with his buddies to a crowd of his artistic pals from across various microscenes. The stakes were low: He just wanted to throw a party.

“I think there was this onus on people to take music so seriously, so when they got together it didn’t really create friendships and bonds,” said St. James, who launched the effort with local publicist Ashley Graham. “I just wanted to get a lot of people in the same room.” 

Fast Times was a loose and carefree affair, wherein local bands and friends of St. James would hop onstage to play their latest material without worrying about hitting a few sour notes. Over time, the audience and the event grew a little too big for the cozy confines of Amnesia, and by the end of 2019, Fast Times had transitioned a few blocks away to the Chapel, before COVID-19 derailed those monthly gatherings.

Although one might assume that a deadly pandemic would prevent the networking reach of Fast Times, St. James managed to reimagine the power of the production by hosting virtual parties that raised money for local venues like the Rickshaw Stop and the Chapel and supported organizations like the Oakland nonprofit Hip Hop for Change. 

On Saturday, the next evolution of that inclusive approach will take place at Fort Mason, where St. James and Fast Times are hosting a drive-in movie screening of the Talking Heads classic live film documentary, Stop Making Sense. Proceeds from the event will go to the legendary Roxie Theater in the Mission District.

Poster courtesy of Zack Bolotin/Porchlight Design Co.

St. James and his frequent collaborator Scott Padden will perform a series of songs for the ticketed car-bound audience, while the event will also feature music videos from local luminaries such as the French Cassettes, Fake Fruit, Tim Cohen of the Fresh and Onlys, and Juan Wayne, St. James’ desert rock side gig with César Maria.

Expanding the footprint of Fast Times to incorporate elements of the cinema world seemed like a natural step forward for St. James, who was once again motivated to bridge gaps, this time between the arenas of music and film.

“You know, these worlds connect in so many ways, but they don’t quite overlap,” says St. James, a frequent patron of the Roxie and a longtime fan of local actors like Jimmie Fails, star of The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

“This was the result of just us looking for different ways to do something big together,” St. James says, speaking of his partnership with the Roxie Theater and its executive director, Lex Sloan.

“Experimenting with ways to bring live events to people is exciting — especially right now,” Sloan says of the collaboration. “Cinema and other art forms are so completely intertwined and events like this one are a joyful way to celebrate that. As the world reopens, we look forward to working with new collaborators like Fast Times.” 

In addition to his cross-disciplinary Fast Times promotions and the warbly, wounded folk tunes he makes as Juan Wayne, St. James is also a member of another band — also called Fast Times.

The indie rock trio makes Strokes-flavored garage rock and serves as the house band for the monthly Fast Times parties. In addition to St. James, the trio features drummer Cody Rhoades and guitarist Duncan Nielsen. They released two excellent singles in 2020, and St. James says more music and live performances are waiting in the wings. He’s also promising more music and performances from Juan Wayne, whose austerely titled 1 was one of the best albums to come out of San Francisco last year.

At just 26 years old, it’s clear that St. James has a bright future ahead of him. And the way he tells it, he’s aiming to bring his city with him.

“When I was 17 or 18 playing shows here, there was a serious lack of advocacy for showcasing local bands,” he says. “I know it sounds a little lofty, but hopefully we can change that for the younger kids coming up now.”

Fast Times & Fort Mason Flix: Stop Making Sense
Sat, April 24 | 8:15 p.m. | $49 per vehicle
Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd, Landmark Building C.

Will Reisman is a contributing writer. Twitter @wreisman

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