The new record from San Francisco band City Tribe rolls in triumphant, as if a cresting wave—the open hi-hat the sound of the surf, the vibrant harmonies classic California beach music transported instantaneously to the indie-pop now, re-imagined, resplendent. Pounding toms give way to a hypnotic yet eager bassline and blasts of spring-reverb Stratocaster, unfolding iconic visions of the Bay-spanning Golden Gate Bridge and, alternately, the raw and wild beauty of the Northern California coast. There’s something opulent yet primal about the way the voices of co-lead vocalists Duncan Nielsen and Jacob Jones coil around each other, as if each a sparkling strand of DNA. Their melodies seem excavated from some long-lost Paul Simon classic. In more contemporary terms, they’re a Vampire Weekend for the West Coast.
On the band’s debut LP, Undertow (out July 29), there’s a striking balance between two moods; a pensive, fog-shrouded turn for every blissful hit of Sunshine pop. And through it all, the band submits willingly to the vibe, being carried by the current of the music spilling out of them. “Undertow really reflects being pulled under by a force you can’t see or control,” explains Nielsen. “To me, it’s about being overtaken by something.”
For Jones, the album’s title references a very specific memory from an evening the band spent at Butterfly Beach while on tour in Santa Barbara. “It was getting dark,” he says, “and there was this swell coming in—this powerful undertow. It was so strong it was bouncing these big boulders along, and there was this tense feeling being in the water there. I related the physical experience to a mental state—uncertainty. Having rocky times, being unsure what’s going to happen, and feeling that same tension and pull in your life. But I’m not just talking about a depressed feeling—there was this hectic thing going on in the water, but at the same time it was so beautiful on the beach.”
City Tribe formed in 2010, though its roots go back a few years earlier to 2007, when Nielsen and Jones were a couple of young musicians kicking around Santa Barbara. They cut their teeth playing riff rock in a post-hardcore band, with Jones—who hadn’t really learned to play guitar yet—on lead vocals, and Nielsen—who hadn’t really learned to sing yet—on guitar. But the group was short-lived. By the end of the year, both went their separate ways, Jones to San Francisco and Nielsen to Berkeley, losing touch in the process. After a few years, though, Nielsen, who’d always wanted to live in the city, ended up in San Francisco, too. And as it turns out, his new apartment was just four blocks from Jones’.
So the two former bandmates started playing together again, this time stripping down to acoustic guitar and vocals. Both had come a long way, musically, and found they had a particular knack for locking in on vocal harmonies. Once they’d written some songs, they got a gig hosting a monthly show at John Colins, the downtown bar where Jones worked, and City Tribe was born. The night—curated by Nielsen and Jones—was billed as Dig Music, and fast became a showcase for top local talent. Before long, they added electric guitars, and expanded from a duo to a quartet, recruiting their old Santa Barbara friend Eric Wallace on bass as well as drummer Scott Tarango, and in 2012 recorded a self-titled EP.
“Playing those big music nights at John Colins really gave us a jumpstart,” Nielsen says. “It got people excited about the band, motivated us to write new songs, gave us time to get tight, and allowed us to connect with just about every good band in town.”
When City Tribe finally broke beyond the bar scene, they began playing with respected artists such as Rachael Yamagata, and getting booked at legendary venues like San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.
In late 2012, the band underwent a personnel change when Tarango departed and was replaced by current drummer Cody Rhodes, whose meticulous, inventive playing is rooted in marching-band fundamentals and jazz improvisation. “Cody is always innovating,” Nielsen says, “always tirelessly looking for fresh ideas. He’s probably the most talented musician in the band.”
Rhodes fell in seamlessly with the fluid, tasteful bass playing of punker-turned-jazzhead Wallace, providing a simpatico rhythm section for guitarist and melodic mastermind Jones and lead player/principal songwriter Nielsen.
The lineup once again solidified, City Tribe began sessions for their forthcoming debut LP, Undertow, in May 2013. The album was recorded by Andy Freeman at Faultline Studios and historic San Francisco jazz studio Coast Recorders, as well as Freeman’s home studio. The band cut everything almost entirely live, standing in the same room together, and the album’s nine tracks showcase City Tribe’s penchant for spontaneity and their prowess as a live band.
The result is pure Highway 1 music. A soundtrack for Romantic California. Which is only natural, considering every member of City Tribe was born and raised in the Golden State, save for Jones who—while originally from landlocked Phoenix—says he often spent childhood vacations at Southern California beaches and bolted for the Coast as soon as he turned 18. He and Nielsen love to surf, and Wallace is a skimboarder.
“We’re watermen—we love being out on the ocean,” Jones says. “If I could live on a boat, I’d do it. If I had enough money to buy a sailboat and sail down to South America and surf all the way down, I’d be there in a heartbeat. And so would the rest of the band.” For now, City Tribe will have to settle for the fact that, with Undertow, they’ve created the sonic equivalent.