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Interview: The Ebb and Flow

SF Station is debuting a new Q&A feature profiling local musicians. The idea is to provide our readers with an introduction to rising Bay Area artists, as well a greater sense for what life is like in the trenches of our city's dense music scene. First up: The Ebb and Flow.

It's fitting that our first Q&A features a band whose name means back and forth: The Ebb and Flow. More appropriate still is how neatly the band's sound befits their chosen name; for a little over three years, Roshy Kheshti (keyboards/vocals), Sam Tsitrin (guitar/vocals) and Sara Cassetti (drums) have spliced their distinct life experiences into a sound that surges from genre to genre. Together, Kheshti's new-wave style moog lines, Tsitrin's crooner-ish vocal delivery and Cassetti's intricate drum lines inhabit a land somewhere between avant jazz and indie rock (whatever that means – but we'll get to that later.)

This is a band at a pivotal moment in their short career. They've hit all the important small SF venues, and established the beginnings of a loyal fan base on the strength of mesmerizing performances and two solid studio EPs. So what's next? We sat down over beers with Kheshti and Cassetti to discuss where they're headed, and in the process caught some damn interesting banter on their SF experience and issues relevant to today's independent music scene.

SF Station: So what do you guys listen to? The "influences" question is so typical, but we're curious because it seems like you guys pull from many different genres.

Roshy: I wish Sam were here because he really draws from a whole body of music that doesn't really overlap with me personally.

Sara: For the most part, Roshy and I listen to the same stuff. We have one CD collection.

R: One of the things that I've come to appreciate more through Sam is a more fluid and free relationship to music. He has a deep knowledge of jazz. I always try and absorb from him – he knows about certain things that I would never even feel were listenable. I like to learn from him. He's a big fan of Charlie Parker, for example. As for me, The Pixies are something that I started to get into through Sara when we were in college. And I absolutely love Joanna Newsom's record. Some nights I go to bed and I think I can't listen to her CD anymore because I can't get the songs out of my head. That was a surprising new discovery. I've been a Stereolab fan for many years and that's something that has never changed about me. And I absolutely love Broadcast—whenever I listen to Broadcast I study it, because it's so intricate and so textured and so sort of eerie and weird but really kind of happy. I also really love Afro-Beat and Fela Kuti. So that's me.

S: I second all that. I think where our tastes differ is that I also get into more "rootsy" stuff. I like Songs: Ohia, and I like Will Oldham a lot. Roshy and I are musically on the same page, and Sam is the one who tempers what we do and adds a different kind of element. In terms of direct influences on our music and not just what we listen to, he is the one that pretty consistently introduces another element that's totally outside of the vacuum that we work in.

SF Station: So the logical question is, how does that all fit into the songwriting process?

S: Sometimes it's difficult. How it really plays out is that we have to be conscious of how we communicate with each other when we're writing a song. The way that our disparate tastes come together is in recognizing that it's important that we do this collaboratively. This usually means spending a lot of time working on the most minute details just because we're trying to do it together. I mean, we spent probably an hour on a one-minute part last night. Ultimately we end up spending more time on the writing of the songs, and then trying to delicately and directly communicate our ideas to each other.

R: We were in a band before this called The Hairdressers, and it was very much the lead singer writing all the songs—he was the center of focus. It was a bizarre project for me personally to be in because of the instrument that I play. I don't do a good backing part. Before that, we were in a band that was a lot more obviously derivative of [Sara and my] influences, so it's refreshing to have someone that challenges me to go beyond what comes very naturally. Sometimes Sara and I sit in the studio and we're just fucking around and suddenly we'll come up with something and we'll laugh at each other.

S: Things can get musically incestuous with us…

R: That comes very easily to us. But the stuff that Sam brings really complicates things in a refreshing way. That causes me to step back and look at the situation differently.

SF Station: Sam's singing style is very unique, especially in combination with the kinds of sounds you guys are producing—where does it come from?

S: Sam has four solo albums. He has a pretty long history of making music on his own. He's a published poet.

R: In terms of his singing he's very influenced by Neil Young.

S: The Russian interpretation.

R: He imagines his voice to be exactly like Neil Young—that's what he hears in his head at least. I feel like his voice sounds a lot like [Sonic Youth's] Jim O'Rourke in a frighteningly similar way. Sam has frequencies that are really high in his voice.

SF Station: It's an interesting idea, Neil Young through a Russian filter—so Russian is his first language?

R: Yes, he moved here when he was 14.

SF Station: The race thing gets brought up a lot in the press, it seems like everything that's been written about you mentions it. [Roshy is Iranian and Sara is from New York]

R: It's not surpising at all. The fact of the matter is that indie rock is very very white and very very male. So when you embody something other than that, it's the first thing that people see. It becomes something that people capitalize on. It sticks in their minds.

SF Station: That makes us think of Pretty Girls Make Graves. Everything you read about them mentions that they have the only black guitar player in indie rock.

S: Of course now TV on the Radio is on the scene--so that's going to alter the face of indie rock.

R: I was actually talking to the only white guy in TV on the Radio about this and he actually said that they want to make "race music." And I found that to be so powerful and exciting. Have you ever heard that term "race music"? It's what white parents were calling black music…

S: ...rock ‘n roll

R: ...around the late 50's. When I heard that I thought it was so inspiring.

S: So TV on the Radio is putting themselves in the same context, but it's indie rock instead of rock ‘n roll.

SF Station: OK, so what the fuck is indie rock then?

R: Yeah, I don't know. I kind of know because we just played in LA with a bunch of bands that were distinctly not indie rock.

S: We know what it's not, at least.

R: We've played with these really derivative caricature bands that are trying to be something that they think works.

S: ...that incorporate different aspects of Top 40. Whether it be the kitschy Top 40 metal band, or the "dude song writer guy" a la Matchbox 20, or just generic pop punk type stuff…

R: ...or even a band that's trying to look like The Dandy Warhols—really chisled, model-esque people that have an "act" prepared.

SF Station: Like The Darkness for example?

R: Unfortunately not even that engaging.

S: Nobody did any splits or anything.

R: More revolting really. But I try not to identify [our band] as "indie rock" because I don't feel like [we] identify with that moniker at all.

SF Station: Well that's the problem with the term. There are so many bands that people call "indie rock", but they sound nothing alike. You don't sound like At The Drive In, for example.

S: It's as useful as saying "alternative" really.

SF Station: Exactly. It seems as if "indie rock" is taking over for "alternative." You have a radio station that just started in LA called Indie 103.1, operated by Clear Channel. "Indie Rock" is a new catch-all phrase for music that young people think is different.

R: And that's happening to film and fashion too. I wonder if there was ever a moment where it was actually authentic?

S: If maybe there was a moment where it meant something more specific. I don't think it's a matter of authenticity, I just think "alternative" at one point meant something like The Smiths, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and then it turned into "indie." And those bands were all major label artists. There are indie labels now that are just as huge and profitable and corporate-like as the majors.

SF Station: And a band like Modest Mouse makes "indie rock" but they're not indie at all, by the definition of the term. OK, switching gears, can you talk a bit about logistics of being in a band in San Francisco? For starters, where do you rehearse?

R: That's the downside of things—this is where it gets ugly. Before we moved to California we used to live in Indiana and everyone there has a basement. When we moved out here, it was like "Oh my god, we have to pay for our space. We have to take on a whole new lease." So we rehearse down at Secret Studios on Cesar Chavez. I'd rather not have to spend money to just practice, but that's how it works. We share a room with two other bands.

SF Station: How often do you rehearse?

S: Twice a week. It's a pretty good set-up.

R: Before the crash happened in 1999, you used to have to wait on a list forever. We couldn't even dream of finding a studio.

SF Station: You played the upstairs area at the Fillmore recently during a sold-out Modest Mouse show. How did that go?

R: It was really fruitful actually. It was great exposure and there were a lot of people from out of town who seemed to be really excited to be out and were really open-minded.

SF Station: How long have you guys been playing together?

S: Since January 2001. It was kind of a lark that we got together. I worked in a restaurant with Sam. It didn't really make sense, because I knew that he was into some weird shit, and didn't really know if I would have any point of entry with that.

R: He gave us a copy of his album and it sounded very esoteric. His solo stuff is very obscure and very avant in a queer way. Not gay queer, but queer as in weird. When we went into it we were thinking, "This is not going to work, why are we wasting our time?" And then we started playing and we wrote our first song that night.

S: It was pretty easy considering how we felt going into it.

SF Station: How did you end up in San Francisco?

R: After we moved out here from Indiana, we were in Santa Cruz. We moved to San Francisco because we were coming up here three times a week to see shows. It felt like we were commuting to our lives, rather than to our jobs. So we moved here in 1998.

S: We were writing in Santa Cruz, but the whole time we were there we just didn't have anyone to play with.

R: You need a catalyst to create music. [Sara and I] are in a relationship together so it's hard to switch gears when you go into music mode, so it helps to have someone else there to change that environment. We're much more productive when we have someone else to work with like Sam rather than trying to do stuff solo.

SF Station: So what's the dynamic like – being in a relationship with a band mate?

R: It's hard to be in a relationship with someone and be in a band with them. There are millions of examples of how it doesn't work. The Cocteau Twins…

S: Sonny and Cher! Rainer Maria, Quasi…

R: ...and Stereolab, of course.

SF Station: And how does Sam fit into this?

R: It's pretty miraculous that he can deal with it. I think that says a lot about him. Obviously [Sara and I] have a chemistry that Sam and I don't have, and that Sam and Sara don't have.

S: And Sam is also difficult in his special way. We all have this chemistry to deal with, so we give each other shit mutually and we've all learned to deal with it.

R: It's not like it's a power struggle. When you're working with someone in a band it's kind of like being in a relationship with them.

S: Generally speaking we're all happy when we're at practice because we're all doing something we really like doing. We spend a lot of our time doing stuff we don't like to be doing, so we're very appreciative to be in that space when we're with each other.

SF Station: Your website says you're going to record your first full length in July.

R: Yeah, we're writing songs for it right now. It's going to be songs from The Architects and Engineers EP [available for download on the Ebb and Flow website] and maybe one or two from the MurMurs EP [available at www.cdbaby.com].

S: We're working with the most immediate goals in mind. We're recording the full length because we feel like we've been together long enough and we want to have accomplished the task of recording an LP. We'd also like to get a label to release something of ours. For a lot of people, that may have more symbolic value than anything. No matter who you're working with, they give you an advance and you have to pay it back, so it's really no different than putting the money up yourself, except for the promotional aspect.

R: We've learned over the years that the dream that musicians have is very much like a wet dream— it's a fantasy. In reality, the amount of money that becomes owed to the label is really significant. And there's really no such thing as money from the label; they're basically a lender. They're lending you money that you have to recoup in your record sales. I have a very realistic sense of what I want. Which is a relationship with a label that is somewhat altruistic and not in it for the big profit, and recognizes my needs as a worker. It becomes a mutual relationship.

SF Station: There's the rub, finding a label that's really interested in putting out good music as opposed to turning a big profit. It seems like it might be possible to find the former in San Francisco though, doesn't it?

S: I'm hopeful that we can find something like that. In the near future, though, we would love to be doing more touring that we don't set up completely on our own and maybe have five people show up. It's one thing for us to bring out our own people that get together for our shows, but we really want to play with other bands in the Bay Area, and outside the Bay Area, that draw similar crowds so we can expand our listening audience. That's been the biggest challenge and concern playing locally. Playing with bands that have a decent draw and appeal to the same audience as us is worth its weight in gold compared to playing a show with four totally different bands who all bring their own crowds.

SF Station: Who do you put in that grouping with you?

S: In March we played a show at Café du Nord with Citizens Here and Abroad. That was a really good night for us because those guys are a little more established on the scene and are on a label, so they draw more than we do and their audience was very receptive to us. So it was a great opportunity for us. Coming up in June we're going to be playing a CD-release party for Call and Response. We want to start doing more stuff like that. It's not a matter of opening or headlining. At this point, it's more appropriate for us to open for bigger bands than it is to headline. In terms of immediate plans, we're trying to hoof it through this new album.

R: And we're playing Mission Creek Music Festival (www.mcmf.org/mcmf8 on May 30 at the Make Out Room. That's where we played our very first show, so we're really looking forward to it.

The Ebb and Flow: www.theebbandflow.com