Jessie Schiewe http://www.jschiewe.com Journalist ~ Editor ~ Photographer Thu, 10 Aug 2017 19:44:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.6.6 Feeding S.F.’s “Heart-Smart,” Low-Sodium Foodies http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/07/13/feeding-s-f-s-heart-smart-low-sodium-foodies/ Thu, 13 Jul 2017 20:03:10 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2521 Planning daily meals for hundreds of seniors is no easy task.

SF Weekly

feature-foodIt’s lunchtime at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, an assisted living community in Pacific Heights, and the 45-table dining room is in full swing. Uniformed and name-tagged waiters zig-zag around the L-shaped space, dodging the clientele’s walkers and delivering steaming plates of vegetarian moussaka, slices of baklava, tiny dishes of ice cream, and bowls of “heart smart” broccoli soup. Diners at one table loudly discuss the “state of Judaism today” a few feet away from a couple who are quietly reading the day’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Corey Weiner, the food and beverage director, is a face that everyone at Rhoda Goldman Plaza knows. For the last 17 years, she and chef Kelly Dame — both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena — have planned and cooked all the meals for the dining room, and residents know that if they’ve got an issue with the food, these two are the ones to talk to. So it’s no surprise when that is exactly what happens as Weiner trudges through the carpeted dining area on this particular afternoon.

“They didn’t mix it with anything,” a gray-haired man says as Weiner passes his table. He’s eating the smoked whitefish plate with cucumbers, onions, and crackers, which is one of the two main courses on the day’s lunch menu. “I like it this way. Was that an accident?”

Weiner, who by now is used to these off-hand critiques and compliments, patiently explains to the man that no, the way the smoked whitefish was prepared today was “not an accident,” but she’s happy to hear he likes it.

“They mostly don’t mince words,” Weiner says good-naturedly from a table in the back of the room as she picks at a plate of tofu, steamed vegetables, and brown rice.

Cooking and planning meals for 136 people three times each day is no easy task for any chef or culinary director, but it’s an especially difficult task when your clientele is elderly. Not only do food preferences have to be taken into account — most residents at Rhoda Goldman Plaza can’t abide spicy foods, and Weiner says even “a microscopic chip of pepper can be way too much for many of them” — but there are health and dietary restrictions, as well as generational tastes, that need to be factored in, too.

Rhoda Goldman Plaza is a Jewish establishment, so they don’t serve pork or shellfish, and the meats they do serve are all kosher. Because kosher meats are high in sodium, and because salt intake is something many of the residents at Rhoda Goldman Plaza must be frugal with, Weiner says the kitchen staff makes a concerted effort to use less salt when preparing meat dishes. Vegetables and starches, which are generally steamed instead of sauteed or fried, are also served unseasoned and without salt, and even their salad vinaigrettes are available with no salt or fat-free.

Because of physical challenges or handicaps associated with dementia, food texture and consistency is another thing that Weiner and Dame must take into account when planning menus. Most diners prefer “less-firm textures,” Weiner says, though she’s keen to point out that there are still those who “really like to chew, and like a crunch.”

Yet Weiner and Dame still put a priority on creating diverse and varied menus, and at least once a week, you’ll find either an East Asian, Indian, or Thai dish on the menu.

“One of my former bosses said that if you ate at the Ritz-Carlton every day, then you’d get bored. It’s just too much the same,” Weiner says. “So we try to celebrate everything and change it up a lot.”

Though they haven’t had one in a while, Weiner and Dame used to host “Adventure Dinners” for a select 12 to 16 people, with meals from foreign countries whose cuisines may be less familiar still, such as Ethiopia.

“We even did a vegan and raw one,” Weiner says, “which was our least successful. I don’t know why.”

Unlike the staff at other elderly and retirement homes, the kitchen at Rhoda Goldman Plaza makes all meals in-house and cooks most of its own breads and baked goods, like pies, cookies, sourdough bread, challah, pizza doughs, and onion bialy. Residents in the establishment’s “memory-care floor” knead dough every Friday that then gets baked in the kitchen. At one point, Dame even tried to convince the board to let her house goats on the roof, so she could make fresh goat cheese.

The main reason why Rhoda Goldman Plaza is able to serve freshly made fare is because of the smaller size of their establishment. Candiece Milford, the managing director of marketing at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, used to work at The Sequoias, another “life-care community” in the city that houses roughly 355 residents. Because of its larger size, The Sequoias doesn’t have the liberty of cooking meals in-house, serving meals shipped in from food service companies to their residents instead.

“My job is to know my competition and to eat at all of them and taste what they provide,” Milford says. “And food-service companies do a very good job, generally. But you can’t have the handmade, homemade kinds of food that we have here.”

And even though Weiner and Dame are no strangers to complaints about their meal offerings, the amount of positive feedback they receive from residents is so overwhelming that it helps counterbalance the negative.

Between bites of the day’s salad — “sweet and tangy apple-cabbage slaw” — Gloria Lyons, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, waxes effusive about the meals she’s been eating at Rhoda Goldman Plaza for the last seven years.

“This is simple, everyday food that is elegantly prepared,” she says, pointing to her lunch with brightly colored orange nails. “Everything is so clean, which I really appreciate, and there’s a good variety of options. And I am not unique in what I’m telling you. Everybody talks about how good the food is here.”

Rhoda Goldman Plaza, 2180 Post St., 415-345-5060 or rgplaza.org

]]>
Throwback on Wheels http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/07/09/throwback-on-wheels/ Sun, 09 Jul 2017 22:00:09 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2517 There’s just something about riding in a vintage Volkswagen van that makes taking a tour of San Francisco so appealing.

SF Weekly

feature-vwbusA vintage Volkswagen van covered in psychedelic, S.F.-centric paintings idles on the corner of Jefferson and Hyde streets, its doors wide open with Redbone’s 1974 hit single “Come and Get Your Love” blaring through its speakers. With cobalt-blue seats, orange shag rug flooring, and plastic beaded curtains, the van looks like a perfectly preserved time capsule from the Summer of Love, replete with a license plate that reads “P4PEACE” and a pair of blue-lensed “John Lennon” sunglasses hanging from the rearview mirror. It’s part of a fleet of four vans — each with their own names, like “American Pie” and “Liquid Dreams”  — owned by San Francisco Love Tours, a sightseeing company that adds a hippie twist to the regular tourist experience.

Started in January 2015, San Francisco Love Tours is the brainchild of Allan and Roberto Graves, two brothers with a passion for VW buses who learned their trade from their father, a longtime tour guide in Costa Rica. Though their buses visit many of the hotspots you’d expect for a tourist-geared business — think Lombard Street, North Beach, the Castro — the retro vans add a fun-loving flair to the experience, as well as a certain level of intimacy, since they can only sit six people at a time.

“We always wanted to create the feeling that we’re driving around our relatives and close friends that are visiting from out of town,” Allan says.

It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday when I arrive at the meeting spot near Fisherman’s Wharf, and I get assigned to a van named Sunshine, along with a family of four from Maryland who are all sipping iced drinks from Starbucks.

As we wait to board, I learn that getting to ride in an old VW van is one of the main draws for many who signed up for the tour. One dad tells me he used to own one of his own, the difference being that his “didn’t have A/C,” while another guy says he grew up riding in his father’s.

Isabelle Blanc, the Maryland mother riding with me, says she was particularly interested in going on the Love Tour because of its connections to the counterculture and hippie eras.

“That’s why we’re doing this,” she says, explaining that during 1967’s Summer of Love she was only two years old. “That’s my alter ego. I think in a previous life, I might have been a hippie.”

Though she’s never been to Haight-Ashbury before, the third grade teacher says visiting the crossroads has “always been kind of a dream” because she loves history.

Our two-hour tour, led by a tongue-in-cheek guide named Ramone, starts in the northern tip of the city, and cruises by such landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio. Classic rock tunes by the likes of the Beatles, Eagles, and Grateful Dead soundtrack Ramone’s humorous quips — “I want you to notice something on the left that’s very rare in San Francisco,” he tells us at one point. “A front lawn.”

It doesn’t take long to recognize the transformative effects that the van has on passersby. People wave, flash peace signs, or take photos of the painted bus, and when Ramone does his signature two-toot honk for a gaggle of camp kids sitting on the lawn in front of the Walt Disney Family Museum, they lose their shit.

“Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan plays on the stereo as we enter the Haight and start cruising down the main drag.

“There’s still some hippie vibes here from back in the day,” Ramone tells us, pointing out The Red Victorian, a century-old establishment that was a free-to-low-income hotel during the Summer of Love.

“The irony now is that it’s a bourgie boutique selling hippie relics,” Ramone says.

“There’s probably a lot of irony like that around here,” adds Rick, the head of the Blanc family, who I later learn plays bass in a dad band called Soul Party.

“Yeah, that’s capitalism for you,” Ramone responds.

We drive through the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, where Ramone points out the uncommonly high streets signs that are placed there to prevent thefts. (“The signs here are high,” he says, “just like the people.”) He points out Hells Angels founding member Sonny Barger’s house, which just so happened to be on the same street as apartments that Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia once lived in.

Rachel, the college graduate daughter who has a small, white shell wrapped into a lock of her hair, recently attended her first Dead & Company concert in Virginia, and she scrambles to get a shot of Garcia’s former residence before we drive away.

“This was the epicenter of the counterculture and rock scene,” Ramone explains, pointing out the gate intended to keep Deadheads from knocking on the door and camping out on the building’s front steps in the hopes of seeing “Jerry.”

“I think it’s interesting how it’s rising again,” Rachel says of anti-Establishment movements. “There’s the same kind of hate against the government now as there was then.”

Her mother agrees.

“We live in the throes of it, because we’re near D.C., and we really don’t love all the hate,” Isabelle says. “If there’s one thing I teach my kids, it’s kindness. If you’re kind and respectful, everyone can coexist.”

Ramone steers us past Dolores Park, where we get out to take pictures of the city’s skyline, and he turns on Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” as the Volkswagen slowly trudges up a street in Russian Hill. Toward the end of the tour, as we creep through Fisherman’s Wharf, a Baby Boomer in a white visor and sunglasses runs in front of oncoming traffic to hail down our bus.

“How do I get on one of these?” she asks Ramone, clutching the rim of the van’s open window.

“You go online to our website,” he answers.

Sensing she wasn’t satisfied, Ramone then reaches into the glove compartment and snatches an old-school, paper business card to give to the woman.

“Here, have this,” he says, handing her one.

She clasps it with two hands. “Thank you,” she says, and then steps back into oncoming traffic to rejoin her family.

San Francisco Love Tours
Sanfranciscolovetours.com or 415-366-6156

]]>
California Girl http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/06/06/california-girl/ Tue, 06 Jun 2017 01:32:11 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2513 Zoe Magee of Zoe Bikini has been selling swimsuits in the Mission for a decade. And yes, you’ll find itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, polka dot bikinis.

SF Weekly

summerguide-bikinisOn 18th St. in the Mission, tucked between a salon and a wine bar, is a swimsuit boutique called Zoe Bikini. The brainchild of Zoe Magee — who designs every piece herself — its front half is filled with tropical foliage, healthy, size-6 mannequins, and racks upon racks of brightly colored bikinis.

The back half of the store, behind the desk and dressing room that Magee and her father built, is where the work stations are. Beside a cutting table littered with heaps of half-finished suits, a sewing machine sits equipped with every color thread imaginable, and there’s an entire wall of shelves dedicated to tiny glass jars filled with beads, rings, and other gewgaws.

Zoe Bikini celebrated its 10th anniversary as a brick-and-mortar shop this February, and while that’s a feat for any small, independent business, it is especially so for this shop. San Francisco is not a warm city, and bikinis can be a hard sell because there are so few opportunities to wear them. For years, obtaining a Zoe Bikini wasn’t easy for out-of-towners, as Magee didn’t have an online shopping option on her website until last November. But perhaps the biggest accomplishment is the fact that Magee has been able to retain her location in the heart of the Mission District despite all of the changes that the neighborhood has seen in recent years.

When Magee moved into the mint-green-and-white painted space in 2007, there was a fish market on the corner and her neighbors were a tattoo parlor, a noodle factory, and a nail salon. It was also thriving from a retail standpoint.

“It used to where all the fashion was,” Magee says. “There were a lot of boutiques, and we were all doing our independent, women-run fashion thing.”

But once the Mission became trendy, rents started to increase, and many of those boutiques and small businesses dissolved, making Zoe Bikini one of the last local apparel stores in the area.

“Now, the Mission is all coffee shops and restaurants and bars,” says Magee, whose store is around the corner from Gracias Madre and on the same block as a ramen restaurant, a pizza joint, and a burger spot.

A future as a small-business owner and swimwear-designer was something Magee never expected. She grew up in Santa Barbara in the 1970s and ’80s and learned early on — from her “total hippies” parents — how to sew. She began by making clothing for her dolls, and as a teenager, raided thrift stores for vintage dresses that she would then alter. After high school, she decided she wanted “to be a snowboard chick” and moved to Colorado, and later Tahoe. For fun, she and a friend started making snowboarding attire, like “giant, oversized, fleece hoodies” that they would sell locally and to friends.

Magee’s interest in constructing bikinis blossomed when she went home to visit her parents and realized she’d “got fat” and that her bikinis didn’t fit. Determined to wear one, she realized the only way to achieve that would be to make one herself. She’s not sure whether it was the intricacy of the work or the fact that she was saving tons of money, but she quickly “became obsessed with it, like nothing else [she] had sewn before.” As she had done with the snowboarding gear, she made custom bikinis for her friends and friends of friends, but it was never something she considered doing as a job.

“I didn’t know that was my thing,” Magee says. “It was just something I liked to do.”

She spent the next decade going to school, briefly studying to become a dental hygienist because she’s “really good with [her] hands” and “always had such great experiences at the dentist.” When she was 28, she moved to San Francisco, and within her first year, met the head designer of a local sample house on Market St. that designed and manufactured clothes for the likes of Bebe and Levi’s. Magee convinced them to take her on as an intern, and for the next few years, she learned the ins and outs of the business, including how to manufacture her bikinis in mass quantities.

In 2004, Magee, then 32, rented a studio and began wholesaling her suits, selling them in stores up and down the California coast. After a few years of dealing with “rude boutique owners” and feeling pressure to constantly “prove to the stores that [she was] worthy,” Magee decided to ditch wholesaling and set up her own shop.

After combing the city for locations, she settled on her current storefront and decided to construct an upstairs loft — which she now rents out to two hair stylists — so as “to ensure I wasn’t going to fail or go broke.”

Over the years, she’s studied her clientele, who mainly come into her shop, she says, to purchase a suit for an upcoming vacation. She’s learned what’s hot and what’s not — one-pieces, high-waisted bottoms, and thong bikinis are currently in, she says — and sells her bottoms and tops individually so that her customers can mix and match. Magee’s collections often include both a solids line and a prints line, and a recent perusal of her stock revealed suits in rich jewel tones, like emerald green, plus baby pink cloud patterns and reptile skin prints.

Her swimwear is also forgiving and accommodating. Big-chested? Try the halter top with the wooden buckle. Want to show off your behind? Check out the cheeky Brazilian cut. Feel like a little flashy? Opt for the suits decorated with gold beads, metal rings, braided detailing, or lace-up sides.

But though Magee has been able to stay afloat in San Francisco’s changing economy, she knows that if she wants to grow, she can’t stay here forever. She’s considered opening a “lifestyle boutique” in Marin that would sell clothing and accessories in addition to swimsuits. And, a few years back, she even toyed with relocating to or expanding in Southern California.

“I was just thinking, ‘How can I make more money?’ ” she says. “Because I barely just get by here.”

But neither idea seems right to her, at least not now.

“I came to the conclusion that I should just chill out and be grateful for what I’ve got,” Magee says. “My heart didn’t want to be down there. My world’s up here. This is my scene.”

She’s not ruling out the possibility of moving, but for now, Magee is content to remain where she is — at least for another four years, because she just signed a new lease.

Zoe Bikini
3386 18th St.
415-870-3372 or
zoebikini.com

]]>
I Rubbed Snail Goo on My Face and It Obliterated My Acne http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/06/06/i-rubbed-snail-goo-on-my-face-and-it-obliterated-my-acne/ Tue, 06 Jun 2017 01:30:06 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2510 Pop Sugar

Credit_Hadrian_ShutterstockSome partners call their lovers “bae” or “boo.” But my boyfriend? He calls me “Snail Face.”

Technically, he’s correct. Twice a day, every day, I rub a tablespoon of snail mucin — also called snail secretion filtrate — over my face and neck. Even though it tastes bitter — my boyfriend learned this first-hand by trying to kiss me on the cheek — it’s the only thing that has worked to clear up my adult-onset acne.

I wasn’t a pimply teenager and never had problems with it until I hit my early 20s. Suddenly, I was forming blackheads seemingly overnight, and I had a particularly difficult time battling zits on my cheeks. I had every kind of pimple you could imagine: stubborn whiteheads, deeply embedded pustules, pus volcanos, and fiery-red bumps.

Though I’d been using a Cetaphil face wash for years with positive results, it obviously was no longer working. I turned to other tactics, and over the course of the next five years, I tried a number of zany and not-so-zany treatments. I used Proactive, which worked relatively well, except for the fact that it dried my skin out. I saw multiple dermatologists who recommended myriad ointments, like Differin and Tazorac, as well as prescription antibiotics, all of which I dutifully used, to no avail. Facials became a monthly ritual, and I tried everything from intense extractions to LED Blue light treatments and glycolic-retinol masks.

After meeting a woman who claimed using oils on her face rid her of acne, I did the same, rubbing coconut, avocado, and rose hip oils all over my face. (Note: This tactic didn’t work and only made me more pimple-y.) Somehow 3 percent hydrogen peroxide got added into the mix, and I started swiping that on my skin after washing. It worked well in preventing breakouts, but it bleached my eyebrows blonde, which wasn’t a good look. I swapped the hydrogen peroxide for apple cider vinegar, which also made an impact, but it was too smelly.

I also experimented with my makeup, switching to pore-friendly brands like Bare Minerals, Origins, and Cover FX, and taking days off from wearing products at all. I started using primers and washing my brushes obsessively. I even stopped using a washcloth to clean my face, opting instead for konjac sponges and paper towels to dry my skin.

While some of these treatments worked, none solved my acne problems entirely. Maybe my skin would be clear, but my nose would be peeling or still full of blackheads. I’d still get breakouts every now and then, and I had a few pores that were hell-bent on getting clogged and flaring up on a regular basis.

Fast-forward to today, and getting acne is but a distant memory. My trick: I started using snail mucin. At this point, I was willing to try anything to get rid of my pimples, so even though using a product made out of snail slime sounded a bit gross to me, I was game. I first learned about it through the Korean beauty website, Soko Glam, but I didn’t take the plunge and buy any snail products until my facialist recommended one to me by the skincare brand Biopelle.

The first two topicals I tried were Biopelle’s Tensage Daily Serum ($125) and Cosrx’s Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence ($21). After cleansing and washing my face, I applied both creams to my dry skin in lieu of lotion. They differ in texture, color, and feel.

The Tensage Serum is thick and white, and leaves your skin feeling slightly tingly, while the Advanced Snail Mucin is clear, sticky, and hydrating. Within a week, my skin was almost entirely clear of pimples, and now, after a using snail mucin for a year, I feel confident enough to go out in public without foundation on.

The funny thing is snail mucin isn’t even intended to treat acne.

Made of hyaluronic acid, glycoprotein enzymes, antimicrobial and copper peptides, and proteoglycans, it’s marketed as an anti-aging tool that helps diminish fine lines, reduce inflammation, and increase fibroblasts and collagen. The fact that it reduces pimples, is just a lucky addition.

Snail mucin is also not cruelly obtained. There is no one way to collect it. Different companies use diverse methods, as well as different species of snails. And the snails aren’t killed or injured in the process.

Biopelle uses a species of snail native to the Mediterranean called Cryptomphalus aspersa, and the secretion is collected through stimulation. Several hundred snails are put into a five-gallon bucket and they’re lightly swung around for a few rotations. This activity agitates the snails, who release the secretion. Biopelle president Elliott Milstein said this secretion is different from the mucin they produce for mobility.

“It’s not like you can just put a snail directly on your face and have it move around to get those results,” Milstein said. He explained that the secretion produced by the snail’s movement does not contain the glycolic proteins and growth factors that the secretion acquired through agitation has.

After going through a few swings in the bucket, Biopelle’s snails then get to rest for a couple of weeks in “a sanctuary,” where they basically get to eat and have a lot of sex. Biopelle collects their eggs and uses them in its Tensage Stem Cell line, which helps produce new skin cells that can reduce signs of aging. The snails get a break in the Fall and Winter and are taken to a swamp in northern Spain to hibernate. According to Milstein, the average lifespan of their snails is twice that of snails living in the wild, which translates to about eight years instead of four.

The snail mucin used in the products Soko Glam sells is acquired differently, and most of the companies they work with are based in Asia.

According to Charlotte Cho, Soko Glam’s cofounder, the snails are placed over a mesh net in a dark and quiet room and left to slither about for a good half-hour before their trail of mucin is collected. Unlike Biopelle’s snails, the snails used to create Soko Glam’s products do not get agitated or stressed because Cho said, “optimal mucin production occurs when snails are well rested and comfortable in their habitat.

There are different theories about how the healing qualities of snail mucin were discovered. Cho explained that Chilean farmers were the first to recognize snails’ beneficial traits. “They noticed that their hands were visibly smoother and their cuts were healing quickly after handling snails,” she said.

Milstein had another take. He said that radiologists discovered the mucin’s healing effects after subjecting snails to x-rays and noticing that the substance they secreted helped heal their burns.

Snail mucin still has a ways to go before it catches on in mainstream formulas and loses its “ew” factor, but there are a fair amount of products on the market already. Quality varies, and Milstein warned that there are some companies that “actually just grind up the snail and don’t use the extract.” In other words, if a 12-ounce jar of snail mucin for $5 seems too good to be true, it probably is. While snail products aren’t as expensive as, say, a La Mer cream, you’ve got to remember that you’re paying for something that takes a lot of time (and a lot of snails) to make. But generally snail products cost anywhere between $20 and $200.

By now, I’ve recommended snail mucin to many friends and family, and of those who have been brave enough to try it, I’ve only heard positive results. Sure, it might deter your partner from kissing you on the cheek, but who cares? Your skin will look fantastic.

]]>
Nasty Dad http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/05/28/nasty-dad/ Sun, 28 May 2017 19:27:11 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2506 U.K. grime producer Mr. Mitch tackles the subject of fatherhood, and tries his hand at singing.

SF Weekly

music2-mrmitchIn the early 2000s, while Americans obsessed over Justin Timberlake’s solo debut and all things Britney Spears, a new branch of electronic music called grime was bubbling up in London. In the beginning, it had multiple names — nu shape, sublow, and eskibeat — but it became known for its pairing of industrial and occasionally discordant sounds with lightning-fast raps. An aggressive and energetic subgenre, grime got its start in underground parties and on local pirate stations like Rinse FM and Deja Vu FM, and The Guardian recently hailed it as the “most significant aural rebellion since punk.” Early grime champions, like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, and Lethal Bizzle penned wordy albums about gang violence, street life, and being different, and the adjective “nasty” is now a commonly used term within the musical style.

But though grime has reached critical mass in the U.K. — albums by grime artists have received Mercury Prizes, and tracks have been adopted as anthems by political groups — it’s only now spreading to the U.S. In fact, it wasn’t until this year that Skepta and Stormzy, two of the biggest grime stars, made their Coachella debuts. But that’s progress, at least to British producer Mr. Mitch, who hopes grime continues to expand in both scope and reach.

“I want it to be as broad as house,” he says. “I don’t want people to think of grime as just one thing.”

Mr. Mitch was a pre-teen when grime’s progenitors were dropping their debut albums at the turn of the century, and his music was greatly influenced by it from the get-go. Around the time most of his peers were graduating from university, Mr. Mitch — who had dropped out of a media-studies program to pursue music and host a grime club night called Boxed — was forming his own label, Gobstopper Records. In addition to a string of his own EPs, Gobstopper releases records from fellow experimental and electronic artists whom Mr. Mitch believes “wouldn’t get any attention otherwise and just needed to be heard.” Well-known avant garde musicians have since taken notice of the label: Bjork played a Gobstopper song during a set in New York, and Aphex Twin included a Gobstopper track in a festival playlist he later shared on Reddit.

Mr. Mitch’s debut album, Parallel Memories, was released in 2014 and consists of tracks he wrote and recorded in his parents’ house and while riding the train to and from work. The mostly instrumental project is a study in restraint and minimalism, and marked an abrupt left turn from Mr. Mitch’s work from only a year before, which saw him dropping projects like the bassy, trap-drenched EP Suave.

Devout, Mr. Mitch’s sophomore album, came out in April and follows in much the same direction as Parallel Memories, except in one key way: It has vocals. Granted, most of them are from featured artists, but you’ll hear Mr. Mitch cooing lyrics on a few tracks, marking a change for the producer who has never before sung on a project.

Calling it “new territory,” Mr. Mitch says the main reason he decided to sing was because he finally had the privacy to do it. After releasing Parallel Memories, Mr. Mitch signed a deal with Domino Publishing that came with the added perk of being able to use their studio. For the first time, Mr. Mitch felt emboldened enough to try his hand at singing because, he says, “I knew no one was going to walk in on me mid-song.”

With its gauzy, languid beats, the grime elements in Devout are also hard to pick up on, making for something that’s more of a dreamy listen than an aural assault. While Mr. Mitch says the change in tone wasn’t intentional — “I never try to make a specific thing,” he says — he still thinks Devout qualifies as a grime album, if only contextually.

“Grime is a feeling, too,” he says. “It’s an attitude of ‘I’m going to do what I want to do and take this sound where I want to take it.’ ”

Devout’s rebellious streak lies in its songwriting, which focuses on the not-so-sexy topic of fatherhood. At the age of 22, Mr. Mitch — now 28 — had his first child, and while he was writing Devout, he and his partner were expecting their second son. The album starts with “Intro,” a murky, ambient number comprised of only a handful of lines — ostensibly directed toward the mother of his children — like “Do you remember when we made our love?” and “We’ve done it again.”

“Priority,” arguably the record’s strongest cut, sees rapper P Money grilling a soon-to-be dad on whether he’s ready to take on the responsibilities and challenges of fatherhood, and the bouncy album closer “Oscar” directs its lyrics toward Mr. Mitch’s newborn.

Focusing Devout on parenthood was something Mr. Mitch felt strongly about, as he hopes to change negative stereotypes of absent Black fathers with the album.

“In the media, a lot of stuff you see is dads not doing their jobs as fathers or not being around,” he says. “That shouldn’t be a normality, and that shouldn’t be the image that I’m seeing all the time.”

]]>
The Music Industry Hates Trump http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/05/22/the-music-industry-hates-trump/ Mon, 22 May 2017 00:21:54 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2502 A look at the myriad of songs that have been released since the Commander-in-Chief entered the picture.

SF Weekly

feature1Los Angeles rappers YG and Nipsey Hussle spearheaded the trend of anti-Trump songs when they released their boom-bap track “Fuck Donald Trump” in March 2016. Since then, a number of artists from a wide range of genres have followed suit, releasing their own resistance songs and proving just how widespread hatred for Trump is within the music industry.

Dave Eggers launched the musical project “1,000 Days, 1,000 Songs” (originally 30 Days, 30 Songs) last October, which consisted of songs from acts like Death Cab for Cutie and Local Natives that urged listeners not to vote for Trump. (After Trump was elected, the project changed its name and transitioned into a playlist featuring one motivational, inspirational song per day.)

About a month before the election, Eminem dropped the minimalist freestyle “Campaign Speech,” which includes a line intended to make Trump supporters think twice about their candidate of choice. “You say Trump don’t kiss ass like a puppet / ’Cause he runs his campaign with his own cash for the funding,” he raps. “And that’s what you wanted / A fuckin’ loose cannon who’s blunt with his hand on the button / Who doesn’t have to answer to no one? Great idea!”

Over Christmas, two artists used holiday songs to lambast Trump. Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan gave a nod to trump in his solo track, “Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again)” with the line, “You could be any horrible thing and rise to the top of this shitheap,” while Fiona Apple performed a scathing rendition of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” at a Standing Rock benefit concert. Instead of singing the classic lyrics, Apple swapped in some of her own, like “They know that Trump is on his way / He’s got Black boys in hoodies locked up on his sleigh.” Less than a month later, Apple released another tune calling out the Commander-in-Chief, this time for uttering his now-notorious catchphrase “Grab ’em by the pussy.” The track, called “Tiny Hands,” became an unofficial anthem for the Women’s March, with participants chanting “We don’t want your tiny hands / Anywhere near our underpants.”

The week of Trump’s election, artists released a deluge of protest songs against the incoming president. Sister duo CocoRosie urged listeners “to rise, shout, and burn the house down” in their fuzzy, electronic tune “Smoke ’em Out,” while Arcade Fire urged people to stick together during tough times in “I Give You Power.”

On Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration, New York rapper Joey Bada$$, who also happened to be turning 22 that day, released the flashy, ’80s indictment, “Land of the Free.” Over a synthy beat, Bada$$ relays the hardships of being Black in America and decries the country’s failed mass incarceration system. Unlike Arcade Fire, which doesn’t reference Trump by name in “I Give You Power,” Bada$$ has no such reservations. “Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over,” he says in the track. “Let’s face the fact, ’cause we know what’s the real motive.”

In fact, Trump’s inauguration even motivated a band who hadn’t released new music in six years to drop a song. Titled “Hallelujah Money,” the psych-electronica tune by the Gorillaz blasts Trump in vague, poetic terms and exhorts listeners to embrace money as their new god, so as to highlight the influence that wealth has on our country’s politics.

Even though Trump’s now firmly ensconced in the highest office in the nation, musicians are still voicing their disapproval of him and churning out negative songs. A few weeks ago, Maryland rapper Logic released his first-ever political song, “America.” Over a looped sample, the 27-year-old spits lines about how white power dominates in the U.S. and how ludicrously easy it is to obtain a gun. He disses George Bush and Trump — “George Bush don’t care about Black people / 2017 and Donald Trump is the sequel” — and he throws Kanye West under the bus for initially voicing support for the Donald — “Shit, I’ll say what Kanye won’t / Wake the fuck up and give the people what they want.”

Perhaps the most entertaining musical work that’s come out of Trump’s election is the parody music video for BadBadNotGood’s Snoop Dogg-featured track, “Lavender.” Set in a fictional world where everyone is a clown and Snoop Dogg does infomercials for a cereal called Snoop Loops, the video includes a Trump impersonator named Ronald Klump, who holds a press conference to announce the deportation of all dogs. Later, Snoop holds a gun up to the Clown-in-Chief’s head and fires, resulting in the release of a flag that says “Bang!” instead of a real bullet. The video ends on a cliffhanger showing Klump in chains and Snoop and his homies smoking weed and dancing by their lowriders.

The hyperbolic project — which director Jesse Wellens came up with while smoking weed — ended up eliciting a response from Trump himself, who tweeted: “Can you imagine what the outcry would be if @SnoopDogg, failing career and all, had aimed and fired the gun at President Obama? Jail time!”

But while Trump may make threats, it’s clear his intimidation tactics have no hold on the music community. In April, Bruce Springsteen released the soaring classic rock gem “That’s What Makes Us Great” in a bid to remind listeners of all the good in our country and the power that we have to “turn this thing around / Before it gets too late.”

And just this month, indie duo HDLSS released its first single, “False Flag,” which celebrates hackers and whistleblowers, whom the band believes could be key in bringing down the Trump administration.

With one of the lowest presidential approval ratings in history, it’s clear that many people are unhappy with our head of state — and it’s likely the music being made in his disfavor has something to do with this. Never before has one president served as muse to so many works of art in such a short period of time. Artists across genres are contributing tunes to the movement, and a growing number of young musicians — like YG, Local Natives, and Kyle Craft — are becoming politically vocal for the first times. No longer relegated to hippie lore or basement punk shows, resistance songs are so popular they’re becoming necessary additions to any band’s discography. Regardless of age or genre, it’s now cool to make political references in music, and so long as Trump is in office, the sonic vitriol will keep coming.

]]>
Groovy Fungi http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/05/22/groovy-fungi-2/ Mon, 22 May 2017 00:19:46 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2498 Chicago DJ Mark Farina brought ‘mushroom jazz’ to S.F. in the early ’90s. Now, he’s taken it to Dallas.

SF Weekly

music2-1On Twitter, musician and DJ Mark Farina recently posted a photo of two song waveforms. Over one that looked like a solid bar, Farina wrote, “I prefer this…” Above the other — a segmented line with uneven heights — he wrote, “…more than this.”

The first waveform is representative of music with an even tempo and steady instrumentals, a style of producing that Farina has championed and emulated since 1989. But it’s the second waveform that is most in line with today’s musical tastes. Most dance songs played on the radio or in clubs posses similar peak-valley-peak structures that denote buildups and drops — common ploys used by EDM acts like the Chainsmokers.

But Farina couldn’t care less. For close to three decades, he’s made a career pushing smooth, adroitly produced Chicago house and a blend of downtempo and hip-hop he calls “mushroom jazz.” He says he’d rather his tunes “have a groove that goes on,” than consist of erratic transitions or interruptions — even if doing so diminishes their chances of charting on Billboard.

“If what I do gets popular, so be it,” he says. “But I’m going to keep doing what I do whether or not it gets any more received beyond the underground.”

Farina grew up in Chicago in the ’80s and was exposed to Detroit acid house and experimental industrial music through Wax Trax! Records at a young age. A drummer, Farina joined myriad cover bands as a teenager and became the first student in his high school to own a Yamaha drum machine. He began making his own compositions soon after, adding an early Korg synthesizer to his collection.

“I learned early on that you can make electronic instruments do cool stuff on their own without having to have an in-depth musical knowledge to do it,” he says.

Farina started DJing local club nights in Chicago and released Mushroom Jazz, his first mixtape in an ongoing series comprised of laidback, mostly instrumental tunes from various artists and beatmakers. The name and sound of “mushroom jazz” was inspired by the mid-’80s British club subgenre “acid jazz,” which had qualities Farina both resented and wanted to emulate.

“Acid jazz was too light and floaty for me,” he says. “I liked the melodies, but it sounded like old funk, redone. With mushroom jazz, I took the bass back end of hip-hop and mixed it with jazz.”

When Farina moved to San Francisco in 1993, he started playing mushroom jazz on Monday nights at the SoMa nightclub Oasis, and was surprised to find that “unlike in Chicago, San Francisco people didn’t mind dancing to slower tempos.”

For six years, Farina DJed at Oasis, churning out Mushroom Jazz compilations on the side. Though originally released as cassettes, vinyls, and CDs, Mushroom Jazz went digital around its sixth release. (It’s currently on its ninth iteration.) As his fan base grew, so too did Farina’s production costs, and it wasn’t long before he was selling upward of 500 units per record.

In the early days of Mushroom Jazz, Farina was more hands-off and trepidatious when dealing with the artists whose songs he was using.

“I didn’t really know any of them, so I’d just take the tracks as they were,” he says.

As the volumes progressed, Farina got to know the artists on a more personal level, which emboldened him to start making suggestions like, “Can you extend this or leave this part out?”

Now, Farina — who has worked with San Francisco house producer and DJ Miguel Migs, East Coast producer Pete Rock of Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Jurassic 5 emcee Chali 2na, and Los Angeles hip-hop group People Under the Stairs — is more involved in tweaking the specifics of each song, describing what he does as “re-editing,” compared to “sort of taking records I liked and licensing them.”

Recently, after more than 20 years of living in San Francisco, Farina relocated to Dallas to be closer to his family, “try something different,” and save a bit of money.

“I still love the city and all,” he says, “but obviously, many things have changed.”

Rebuilding one’s name and brand in a new city is a challenge for any artist, but it will probably be less so for Farina. Not only did he create his own subgenre, but he’s also a house DJ, meaning he spins more than just relaxing fusion tunes.

In the past, he has DJed multiple rooms at venues, playing mushroom jazz in one and house in the other. He also segments his sets by subgenre, often opting for mushroom jazz early in the night and dance music later. (“It’s a good ploy to get people to come out earlier,” he says.)

He’s already booked one gig at an East Dallas dance club called It’ll Do, and he’s hopeful that his dual skillset will lead to more opportunities.

“Having two genres to play is a unique element that gives me a lot of musical freedom,” Farina says. “There’s 24 hours in a day, and sometimes time frames call for music other than just four-to-the-floor house.”

]]>
Cash Rules Every Song Around Me http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/05/22/cash-rules-every-song-around-me/ Mon, 22 May 2017 00:18:30 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2495 The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers recently sued nine venues around the country for playing members’ music without paying. The Grand Nightclub in San Francisco is one of them.

SF Weekly

music1-1We’re living in a golden age for live music.

Seemingly every week, new festivals are sprouting up around the world, in far-flung places such as limestone quarries in Sweden or the middle of the desert in Arizona. Bands are also touring more, often looping around the country multiple times a year in the hopes of playing as many shows as possible. Even older acts like TLC, the Monkees, and Bush have reformed and started playing shows again.

As for why more musicians than ever before are performing live, the answer is simple: money. Ever since streaming sites like SoundCloud and Spotify entered the picture — in 2008 and 2011, respectively — the record industry has been in a state of flux. Sales are declining as listeners opt to stream rather than purchase their music, and in 2016, streaming reigned as the No. 1 way that people consume music, according to Nielsen Media Research.

A large number of artists, especially older acts and bands that have broken up, rely on royalties they earn from licensing their music to streaming services. The pay is paltry — streaming one song can pay anywhere between $0.0003 to $0.007, depending on the platform — but it’s better than nothing, especially for songwriters and producers who don’t have the option of touring or playing festivals.

Streaming isn’t artists’ only source of royalties. Any business — be it a restaurant, bar, or nightclub — that wants to play music at its venue must also pay a fee. Purchasing a Spotify Business account is one way to do this, but the majority of establishments opt to get licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).

The organization — with 600,000 members and more than 10 million licensed works — functions as the middleman for artists and businesses. It is through ASCAP that musicians receive royalties, and it is up to them to make sure that streaming sites and businesses pay members for using their music.

Most of the time, this system works without fail, but every now and then, there are a few businesses that shirk licensing fees and play ASCAP members’ music for free. On May 3, ASCAP announced that it was putting the kibosh on this behavior and taking legal action against nine venues nationwide that were doing just that.

Located in SoMa, The Grand is an upscale, Las Vegas-style nightclub with bottle service, V.I.P. areas, and lingerie-clad servers. Radio personality Chuy Gomez often hosts parties there, and a range of local and well-known DJs, like Mind Motion and Oasis, spin there on Friday and Saturday nights. On a recent weekend, Bay Area DJ Acme headlined a Latino night at the club, playing a medley of cumbia, merengue, and bachata tunes. He also played a reggaeton remix of Beyonce’s ASCAP-licensed hit “Single Ladies,” which The Grand didn’t pay a cent to use.

Not only is this illegal — under the Copyright Act, businesses must receive permission from songwriters before using their music in public — but it’s just wrong.

“The whole purpose of ASCAP is to ensure that when a songwriter’s music is being played in public, they’re being properly compensated,” says Jackson Wagener, ASCAP’s VP of business and legal affairs. “It’s also not fair to their neighbors and other business who are paying to play artists’ music.”

Records show that The Grand was licensed by ASCAP back in 2008. But “at some point a couple years after that, they simply stopped paying,” Wagener says — and for a good two or three years, The Grand continued playing members’ music without paying fees. After multiple efforts to get in touch with the club and educate them about the importance (and legality) of paying for music, ASCAP decided to terminate its license.

To prove definitively that the venue was playing members’ music at its events, ASCAP hired a private investigator to attend the club and take notes on the songs that were being played, Wagener says, adding that the investigator’s findings proved what ASCAP had suspected and “formed the basis of our lawsuit.”

But before ASCAP resorted to legal action, it made one last effort to settle the matter amicably.

“We sent another letter and made another offer to settle the action, get them a license, and work out some payment from past periods,” Wagener says. “We never heard back from them.” (SF Weekly’s repeated phone calls, emails, and texts to The Grand were also not returned.)

ASCAP is suing The Grand for three different claims of copyright infringement based on the findings of the private investigator they sent to the club. While Wagener says “there were many ASCAP works played that night,” the organization is only filing suit for three songs, because their goal is to educate The Grand, “not put them out of business.” It’s up to a judge or jury to determine how much the Grand should pay for each infringement, which can cost between $750 and $30,000 per song.

Though ASCAP views litigation as “an extraordinary step,” it is no stranger to taking legal action. As recently as Jan. 31, it filed lawsuits against 10 venues for copyright infringement. Due to the organization’s efforts to communicate and educate business owners, Wagener says ASCAP was able to avoid taking many of those cases to court and “almost all of the lawsuits have resulted in an amicable settlement.”

In fact, as ASCAP’s experience with The Grand proves, it often spends years trying to solve the issue on its own before pursuing litigation. And even then, efforts are made to avoid a lawsuit. With ASCAP’s recent spate of nine lawsuits, Wagener says they’ve “already settled at least one and are talking about a settlement with several other owners.”

“Our goal is to work out what’s fair, not put people out of business,” he adds. “We view litigation as a last resort, but at some point, when you’re not paid, you have no other choice.”

]]>
Oddisee Has All The Answers http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/05/07/oddisee-has-all-the-answers/ Sun, 07 May 2017 18:56:56 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2489 The D.C. rapper has perfected the art of speaking his mind without sounding moralizing.

SF Weekly

music2Fans who chat with Oddisee — a D.C. rapper who likes to sit at the merch table after finishing shows — often critique his set list or tell him about their favorite songs.

But instead of dispensing unsolicited advice, fans should be asking Oddisee for answers. Because he seems to have a lot of them.

For a decade, the 32-year-old has been making music, churning out two dozen albums, mixtapes, and EPs in that time. Though he started out living in his mother’s basement, he hasn’t had a nine-to-five job since 2004, and he’s been able to afford living in Brooklyn for the past seven years. His quick rhyming and acerbic observations of urban and Black life in 21st-century America have won him legions of fans beyond the DMV, and his instrumental-only albums — like 2016’s The Odd Tape — have earned him street credit as a beatmaker. He’s also married with a child on the way, and owns some real estate.

Oddisee clearly has his shit together, a blessing that he believes is possible because he “think[s] a lot more than [he] should.”

“I’m constantly observing and cataloguing and storing things in my brain,” he says. “If I really divulged my thoughts on everything, I think I’d make a lot of people feel uncomfortable and awkward.”

In “Want To Be,” a simplistic horn and guitar number from his February album The Iceberg, Oddisee touches on this, intoning, “And the time I’ve wasted, trying to fit in norms / People like me more when I pretend I’m basic.”

Throughout The Iceberg, listeners get glimpses of the emcee’s life and views on the world. In the bouncy synth track “Hold It Back,” Oddisee acknowledges the existence of sexism in today’s society with comments about his sister: “I make more than my sister / ‘Cause I was born as a mister / And I ain’t never been to college, and she graduated honors / Yet the bosses think that I’m a better fit.” He uses a story about his childhood best friend, who was white, to muse about the roots of police brutality and terrorism, in “You Grew Up.” People’s biases and inability to recognize inequality or racism are the focus of “Like Really,” a ricocheting song filled with rhetorical questions like “How do you police the streets of a neighborhood you do not engage in?” and “Why a brother get three for a sack while your brother go free for a raping?”

With his whip-fast vocals — Oddisee can spit just as quickly as chopper rap legends Twista and Busta Rhymes — it’s hard to realize you’re not hearing cussing, slang, or derogatory statements about women in his music. Also missing in his songs are drug references, and laments about wanting to save strippers.

“I do my best to deliver music without people realizing that those things are absent,” Oddisee says. “You never want to come across as self-righteous or preachy.”

Another thing Oddisee doesn’t want is to be associated with “conscious rap.” (Even Talib Kweli, one of the most socially and politically vocal emcees, has a problem with the term, and has said, “The title is limiting.”)

“I don’t like the term ‘conscious’ because that means if you’re not considered conscious, you’re unconscious,” Oddisee says. “I think everyone is conscious. They’re just conscious of different things.”

The rapper has avoided being placed in a box by developing other musical strengths. Many of his albums are filled with a combination of live instrumentation and electronic production, ranging in style from jazzy and old-school to stripped-down or dance-y. He’s also one-third of the Diamond District, a D.C. crew known for its ’90s-era East Coast rap, and has a bunch of atmospheric, chill, beats-only albums.

“I’ve built a career understanding that I have to cater to the general audience and not specific individuals,” he says. “I’m not simply in love with it because I’m responsible for creating it.”

]]>
Doug Hream Blunt’s Funk Revival http://www.jschiewe.com/2017/05/07/doug-hream-blunts-funk-revival/ Sun, 07 May 2017 18:18:46 +0000 http://www.jschiewe.com/?p=2486 Three decades after its release, the 67-year old San Francisco musician’s debut album finally enters the limelight.

SF Weekly (Cover Story)

Screen_Shot_2017-05-03_at_5.59.09_PMDoug Hream Blunt was watching TV in his first-floor, Visitacion Valley home when the phone rang. It was the middle of 2015, and the 67-year-old — who doesn’t own a computer and only recently upgraded from a flip-phone to a smartphone — had just returned from dropping his daughter Juanita off at middle school. Blunt wasn’t expecting any calls that day, least of all from a boutique record label in New York City.

“I looked for Doug online and called him up,” says Yale Evelev, president of Luaka Bop Records. “The conversation was along the lines of me saying we loved his music and we’d like to put it out, and him laughing and saying, ‘OK.’ ”

Unusually late in life for a musician, Blunt began recording his kaleidoscopic, guitar-forward music in 1985 at the age of 35, but he hadn’t released any new material for almost two decades. The label, formed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in 1988, had learned of Blunt through an obscure DJ mix that contained his late-’80s, fuzzy, psychedelic jam, “Gentle Persuasion.” The song’s hypnotic melodies and Blunt’s breathy, stream-of-consciousness lyrics impressed Luaka Bop, which had just finished a five-year record-release project with funk musician William Onyeabor.

“We found [Blunt’s music] really mind-blowing and interesting and weird and hard to explain,” says Eric Welles-Nystrom, Luaka Bop’s director of communications. “It sounded like it was from the ’70s, but at times, it had an ’80s and even ’90s sound.”

The other songs in Blunt’s collection were similarly spliced, imbued with the fierceness of soul, the seductiveness of R&B, the upbeat vibes of yacht rock, and the grooviness and nonchalance of funk. Like Curtis Mayfield on his 1972 album Superfly or Gil Scott-Heron in his 1974 jazz-funk classic “The Bottle,” Blunt embeds his tunes with socially aware parables and ruminations about the state of the world. “Fly Guy,” a swirling, wind instrument-filled ditty, is about a poor role model who is able to “teach the youth about drugs and abuse,” while “Gentle Persuasion” is a paean to a prostitute whom Blunt sees “walkin’ down the street” and wants “to save.” Generally sprawling productions, Blunt’s songs average at least five minutes in length, and, more often than not, they’re sprinkled with extended electric guitar or flute solos.

On Oct. 16, 2015, Luaka Bop released My Name Is Doug Hream Blunt, a 10-track album that, for the first time ever, combined Blunt’s myriad songs onto one record. It didn’t go unnoticed. “Gentle Persuasion” appeared in an episode from Season 2 of Broad City, and Pitchfork called the album “charming.” British DJ Gilles Peterson has spun Blunt’s tunes in the U.K., and many artists — like indie rockers Yeasayer and chillwave musician Dean Blunt — are fans of his music. Los Angeles lo-fi legend Ariel Pink has called Blunt’s music inspiring, and the DJ Peanut Butter Wolf even made Blunt a silk-screened sweatshirt with his name on it when he visited Los Angeles.

In 2016, Luaka Bop organized an international tour that included stops in Moscow, London, New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. In a few months, Blunt, joined by a backing band, will sing in Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Australia.

In the last year-and-a-half, Blunt has received more attention for his music than he has in his entire life, and he’s even become a belated cult music icon of sorts.

And to think: Fame was just a phone call away.

 

It All Started With a Community Music Class
In 1957, after Blunt’s father died in an explosion at work, his mother moved him and his seven siblings from Arkansas to San Francisco’s Fillmore District. One of Blunt’s earliest musical memories is playing bongos with one of his brothers at Fisherman’s Wharf, and he later played them on college campuses in Claremont, Calif., where he moved as a teenager.

By his 30s, Blunt had returned to San Francisco, working in construction before deciding it was “too scary” for him. He pursued a career in nursing instead — “It seemed more compassionate and safe,” Blunt says — and became a certified nursing assistant at the Forest Hill hospital, Laguna Honda.

Around that time, Blunt, who had previously studied at Blue Bear School of Music, started taking songwriting classes at the San Francisco Community Music Center. In 1985, he signed up for a class called The Garage Band Workshop that was held off-campus in the garage of a home in the Richmond. Taught by drummer Victor Flaviani, the class was less about learning how to play an instrument than about learning how to play in a band with others.

Blunt, who joined the class because he wanted to learn guitar, was one of Flaviani’s earliest students, and it was because of him that the class shifted its attention from playing cover tunes to original songs.

“Doug’s this entrepreneur, and he’s got great ideas,” Flaviani says. “So one day Doug says, ‘I’ve got some music that I wrote. Can I bring it in?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, sure. Let’s do it.’ ”

Blunt handled the vocals and electric guitar, while the rest of the students — never more than seven people — filled in on other instruments, like bass, flute, horns, and vibraphone, or backing vocals. The band members changed depending on who was taking the class each semester, a tactic that Blunt says worked fine “as long as they didn’t try to go outside of the norm and kept it simple.”

Their weekly classes evolved into practice sessions, and at the end of each semester, Flaviani made it a point to record one of Blunt’s songs to cassette. Over the years, he brought in numerous compositions — like the smooth, groovy rocker “Ride the Tiger,” or “Whiskey Man,” a cautionary tale about the dangers of drinking — all of which Flaviani recorded.

Love is another favorite subject of his, and Blunt often portrays himself as a slick-talking lothario in his songs, wooing women with lines like “Like ice, your butt is like dice now, damn” and “Come on girl, break free / And dance with me / I’ll love you through the night, I’ll hold you desperately.” In fact, the word “girl” appears in every track on the album but one.

His music is also highly psychedelic. Lengthy free-form solos from both himself on guitar and those in his class permeate his compositions, and some of his lyrics come across as narrated acid trips. In “Trek,” a blurry, island-infused dance number that may or may not be autobiographical, Blunt warbles bizarre yet highly descriptive lines like, “Eyes glazed, a purple maze / A mystical place of vision, a scene / Smokin’ herbs in the field of dreams / Beats, prawns, and barbecue.”

In the early ’90s, Blunt and his classmates made at least five appearances on public-access television, performing songs like “Loveland” and “Caribbean Queen.”

“It was pretty easy to get on,” says Blunt, who organized every aspect of the TV appearances, from finding a director to hiring a cameraman.

Aside from Flaviani, Blunt was the only mainstay in each of the aired performances, often donning sunglasses, gold or purple suits, and a close-cropped afro. His classmates filled in the other positions, and even Flaviani’s wife and sister played in the band for a few filmings.

Around this time, Blunt compiled some of his songs into an album called Gentle Persuasion. He brought pressings to the Mission’s Aquarius Records (now Stranded Records) to see if the store would be interested in selling them.

“I remember him coming in,” says Nick Ott, a long time employee at the store. “Doug was kind of soft-spoken, and I didn’t know what to make of him at first. But then I threw the record on, and everybody in the store was immediately intrigued.”

The store added Gentle Persuasion to its mail-order catalogue and wrote an article about Blunt that was sent out to its roughly 30,000 subscribers. The initial copies Blunt brought sold out quickly, and over the years, the store has repeatedly called the musician to restock its collection.

“People were writing to us from all over the world requesting that record,” Ott says. “He’s sort of an underground outsider, but he’s well-known in those circles.”

Though Blunt was selling albums and performing on TV, he never once played a live public show in San Francisco or anywhere else. He claims this was because “it didn’t excite [him] that much,” but it’s possible the real reason is because he was already performing regularly at the hospital.

It started when a patient began singing and Blunt joined in, recalls Karen Jourbert, a staffing coordinator at Laguna Honda who worked with Blunt. In the 18 years he worked as a nurse in the positive care unit, Blunt performed numerous bedside shows for patients, and concerts for the entire floor.

“I’d go from ward to ward, just me and my guitar,” Blunt says, explaining that he liked performing for patients because it helped “people to forget their problems and pain.”

His performances caught on and became something that the patients looked forward to.

“It turned into a trend,” Jourbert says. “We ended up adding another staff member who would sing along with Doug and the residents, so it really became a thing.”

Blunt retired from nursing around 2006 after suffering a stroke on the way home from dropping his daughter off at school. He believes the stroke was hereditary, as two of his brothers and one of his sisters experienced them around the same age that he did. Blunt’s right side was temporarily paralyzed, and he’s never fully recovered. (You can hear evidence of the stroke in his hesitant speech. He also no longer plays the guitar, although he still sings.)

When he went on tour with Luaka Bop in 2016, the label organized a new band of musicians in every city that Blunt played in. He sang alongside 14-year-olds in New York City, and performed with a 30-piece ensemble comprised of formerly homeless musicians in London. David Byrne joined him on vocals at a show in Brooklyn, and a range of high-profile musicians  — such as Luke Jenner from the Rapture, Ariel Pink, and Aaron Coyne of Peking Lights — played instruments for select performances.

“Doug is one of the most genuinely sweet-natured, gentle people I’ve ever encountered,” says Geoffrey Hug, a drummer who played in Blunt’s band for some of his New York shows. “His music is completely unlike anything I’d ever heard.”

The tour and album release helped drum up interest in Blunt’s tunes, and it wasn’t long before the French label Tricatel asked him to record a new song for a compilation album. Titled “Dreamin,” it marked Blunt’s first time laying down vocals in years.

People in Blunt’s life are amazed by how he’s changed since his music was revived. Not only has he been going to the gym, but he’s started songwriting again, too.

“It’s been cool to see how Doug has grown as a person and a musician,” Welles-Nystrom says. “The first time [he performed] in London, it was really quite rough. He hadn’t sung in front of a crowd in 30 years, and all of a sudden, he’s on stage in front of a million people at a festival. But then, seeing him in L.A. a year later, he was so strong, so confident, and sang really well. It’s amazing to see a person of his age just grow and learn.”

 

The Aftermath of Fame

Blunt doesn’t have social media accounts, or even a computer, so it’s hard for him to gauge his success and popularity as an artist. He can’t log on to the Facebook page Luaka Bop created for him and read fans’ glowing reviews of his music — which has been called “phenomenal,” “amazing,” and “epic” — and he doesn’t know that one reviewer on Amazon described him as “an accidental hero.”

Blunt may have encountered the trappings of fame — such as crowds and autograph signings — while on tour. But because he lives his life offline, those moments are easy to forget. When he’s home, he’s just a regular person. Instead of asking about his musical developments, his neighbors greet him with the same friendly colloquialisms as always, and Blunt’s daily schedule revolves less around making music than around ferrying his daughter to and from school. He’s also never been recognized outside of a show, which is something Blunt is both “grateful for” and “happy” about.

But surely, the last year-and-a-half has had some sort of impact. How could you not be elated that songs made decades ago just for the hell of it are suddenly being played on TV and radio waves? How could you experience an outpouring of love and support from people around the world and not be affected?

When I ask Blunt how he feels about everything that has happened since Luaka Bop entered his life, his answers are vague and unsatisfying.

“Oh, it’s great,” he says. “The stuff that they’re doing, it’s all great.”

Even the people in Blunt’s life don’t think the revival of his music has had that much of an impact on him.

“I don’t think he really cares,” says Ott of Stranded Records.

Thirteen-year-old Juanita hasn’t seen much of a change in her father either, though she’s noticed “he gets more things and stuff, like opportunities.”

Flaviani, who has kept in touch with Blunt over the decades, also doesn’t believe that the last few months have affected his friend.

“I’ll call it ‘sudden fame,’ and I don’t think it has changed him in the least,” Flaviani says. “I know people who would be freaking out and sending out Facebook event invites were they in his place, but Doug’s just taking it in stride.”

Dissatisfied with the answer Blunt gave, I had him meet me at Stranded Records, the store where he originally sold Gentle Persuasion. I knew they had an EP of his tunes in their collection, and I wanted to see if showing Blunt a physical copy of his music, in the same record store he’d visited more than two decades ago, would have any impact on him. Would he feel proud? Excited? Or perhaps just indifferent?

It turns out he felt neutral.

“It’s nice,” Blunt says when I find his record in a crate of vinyl near the front of the store. “And whatever.”

Were he to have experienced fame and exposure 30 years ago, Blunt would have been happier because he’d be younger and motivated “to use it to create more notoriety,” he says.

But then I learn there’s another factor at play here influencing his reaction: money.

“The exposure is nice,” he says, “but when I came into this, I thought I would get money from my records. And I don’t get any money from them.”

He has a point. While Blunt was paid to go on tour and perform, the dividends he’s received from selling records have paled in comparison. There are a few reasons for this. People around the world may listen to Blunt — Spotify shows that Los Angeles, Berlin, London, and Manhattan are the top cities where his music is played —  but that hasn’t translated into a surge in album sales for My Name is Doug Hream Blunt. Though Blunt was paid in advance by Luaka Bop when the album was released in the fall of 2015, subsequent payments he’s received have been minimal because the record has only sold about 700 units worldwide.

“It’s incredibly hard to just rely on album sales today,” says Welles-Nystrom of Luaka Bop. “Artists make more money on live shows.”The music industry as a whole is also not as lucrative as it once was, and it functions differently than Blunt may realize. Album sales aren’t the main way to make money anymore. Nowadays, touring and playing festivals are musicians’ bread-and-butter, and because Blunt doesn’t perform shows on his own or do any sort of self-marketing, it’s likely he’s missing out on a potential cash cow.

Still, that hasn’t caused the label to give up or lose interest.

“We didn’t expect [that] he would sell so few albums, but we also didn’t put out his music because we thought he would sell a lot,” Welles-Nystrom adds. “Our original intention was to try to get him to experience what he didn’t get to when he first put [his album] out.”

Which he has. A self-taught musician who only started recording in his mid-30s, Blunt has now toured the world, rubbed elbows with esteemed artists, and landed his greatest hits album in a number of record stores. Were Luaka Bop never to have called him, it’s likely Blunt and his creations would have faded into obscurity altogether.

Inspired by old memories and research he did in the library, Blunt recently penned two songs about “a gigolo, and the other one is about money.” When he has enough tracks, he plans to make another record with Flaviani. To do so would require finding additional musicians, because Blunt no longer has a classroom of eager students to pull from, and he’s hopeful that the whole process “won’t cost too much.”

But Blunt is in no rush to put any new material out. Unlike Lee Fields or Charles Bradley — two other late-bloomer, retro acts who regularly tour and perform in festivals — fame does not seem to have an allure for Blunt.

In the last year, he may have done more traveling and singing than ever before in his life, but he’s still the same guy. A fan of routine, Blunt is quite content being a stay-at-home dad, spending his days watching Judge Judy, cruising in his 1954 gold Cadillac, and writing down lyrics.

In the future, some aspects of Blunt’s life might change. After she turns 16, Juanita might not need her dad to give her rides anymore. Judge Judy could get taken off the air. The Caddie might get relinquished to the junkyard. But Blunt knows at least one thing in his life will remain the same: his dedication to music.

“I’ve been doing things in music since I was really young,” he says. “And I know that I’m going to continue making music until I die. Yes, until I die.”

]]>