Chapter 15: San Francisco (Bill Swan)
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I had a feeling that sending my initial inquiry to Beulah’s e-mail account with the subject: “an inquiry (from a male fan!)” would not yield desirable results. Considering the amount of null responses I received at the front-end of my trip, I was pleasantly surprised by the band’s cooperation. I anticipated a sit-down with Miles Kurosky in San Diego—but along the way I was dismayed to find that Miles was undergoing two surgeries in consecutive weeks, and would then be out of town for the remainder of the summer. Luckily, Bill Swan stepped in and e-mailed back-and-forth questions and answers about the band and life in San Francisco.
EL: Was your childhood a musical one?
BS: My childhood was a musical one, but my family wasn’t the type that would sit around and play ‘Kumbaya’ together; we all played instruments kind of on our own. My mother is a classically trained pianist who studied with a then-famous pianist, Egon Petri, back in the late ‘50s out here in Oakland. My father played the flute in the marching band; my brother played the trumpet and then, when he quit, he gave it to me. The trumpet I use to this day was originally his. My sister played the French horn, but stopped in high school. We all played something at some point. My brother tried the mandolin in a bluegrass band for a while, and my first instrument was the violin. At age seven, I was the oldest beginner in a class of mostly three-year-olds playing these little things about the size of my fist. It was the ‘Suzuki method’, a way of teaching that forces you to listen to a piece of music and then play it back by ear. I quit the violin when I was ten and shifted to trumpet at school and, later, taught myself how to play guitar and then the drums. I still attribute all that early experience as helpful in the things I would do later, such as recording, arranging, and remembering parts. You don’t sight-read in rock and roll!
EL: Where did your artistic interests lie when you were younger?
BS: As far as early influences are concerned, it was a little hard for me at first. If you were a guy living in Berlin, Wisconsin—which is where I am from—in the ‘80s, you either listened to Hank Williams Jr. or hair metal. Have you ever read Fargo Rock City? Well, imagine if Lester Bangs were born twenty years earlier. This book is what you’d get. Fuckin’ hilarious, and right on the mark!
(Klosterman? Hilarious? Surely Bill was joking! Turns out he wasn’t.)
BS: I was looking for ‘weird’ stuff, even then. I was called weird a lot as a kid and wore it like a badge. But in that context, ‘weird’ was Peter Gabriel-era Genesis or even the Police! Later, when I moved to Chicago to finish out high school, Talking Heads would become my favorite band. For a long time I was into punkier stuff, but not the hard-edged stuff…New Wave, I guess. But I didn’t dress the part. Oh, and also, I’ve goofed around with tape records since I was five, learning the crude ways to ‘multitrack’ by putting two tape recorders next to each other soon after. I’d make up my own radio shows and play DJ for made-up stations like WSHI-TV. For some reason I didn’t make the connection that I was not on TV.
EL: So you lived in Wisconsin and then Illinois before eventually moving to the Bay Area?
BS: Yeah, after Berlin we moved to Villa Park, Illinois, when I was fifteen. I spent a lot of time in detention back in Berlin, but the move to the Chicago area shut me up!
EL: When you got to San Francisco, did you have visions of being a full-time musician?
BS: I wish. No, I’ve been a tech monkey in the wireless industry on and off for about eight years now. I’ve quit or been laid off more times than I care to admit. You cannot live easily as a full-time musician in San Francisco.
EL: But it afforded you the opportunity to meet Miles—do you want to expand on how you first met?
BS: It’s been well-documented that we met at a mailroom job in the TransAmerica pyramid in San Francisco in the early ‘90s, but I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody about the circumstances leading up to his arrival. I had been temping there already for about three months before Miles started. His predecessor was a guy named Tony, who quickly became known as ‘Drunk Tony’. Drunk Tony’s breath stunk like a motherfucker, and you could tell he was taking a nip or two between deliveries. Then, one day, Tony was a no-show, after calling in sick two times the previous week—and got canned. The next day, in walks a subdued and very unenthusiastic Miles Kurosky. I wonder what would have happened if old Tony had just let up a little on the sauce the night before. Would Miles have ended up taking another temp job? That wouldn’t have helped my music career, I don’t think—so raise a glass to Drunk Tony!
EL: Did the lie-up change or shift often during the early years? Because, some bands tend to go through transitional periods where members come and go before the ‘group’ becomes solidified…
BS: Actually, not as often as you might think. Beulah was just the two of us on our first record, though Miles’s violin-player friend, Anne, was credited as a member. She never played any gigs with us, so she wasn’t really a member. Then we brought in our friends when we started playing live shows, touring as an opener for the Apples in Stereo. Steve La Follette came in to play bass and keyboards, Steve St. Cin came in on drums, and Pat Noel on keys and guitar. They were still the core when we made our second record. We had friends on strings and other instruments, rather vaguely credited as ‘the players,’ on When Your Heartstrings Break—which really meant guest musicians. We added Beagle Evans for live tours in support of our second record, and he was a member in the making of our third, but then quit after we toured in support of it in late 2001. In late 2000, Steve St. Cin was replaced on drums by Danny Sullivan, who was, incidentally, an old high school friend of mine from my Chicago days. After Beags left, Stevie La Follette soon followed, and we brought in Eli Crews on bass and Patrick Abernethy on keyboards and guitar. So the overall personnel change was rather gradual. I guess you can consider there were two incarnations of Beulah, with Miles, Pat Noel, and myself being the constants.
EL: Are there any bands from the Bay Area, or California in general, that you would consider yourselves close with?
BS: It’s funny. As a horn player, you’d think I’d have a lot of people to call on, but that’s not really the case. Well, maybe Pat’s friend Carlos Forster of the band For Stars is one, and John Vanderslice is another. I’m not the type of person who keeps a wide network of friends, and happenstance is usually what draws me into friendships. I do session work for friends or friends of friends, like Dave Gleason, or bigger bands like Death Cab for Cutie, but Death Cab’s not from around here so they don’t count.
EL: What were your first impressions of the city when you moved here?”
BS: I think T.S. Eliot says it best with the line, ‘Not with a bang, but a whimper.’ I drove cross-country in a 1977 Plymouth Fury, and my friend Jason and I drove into town up Highway-101 from the South in the middle of a two-week rainstorm. You couldn’t see shit. Mostly it felt like you could trip over all the homeless if you didn’t keep your eyes on the ground. I guess I must have come in through the gates of ‘Camp Agnos’.
EL: Do you think living in San Francisco has influenced your artistic endeavors?
BS: That’s hard to say. I wonder how things would have ended up for me if I’d had six months of winter to keep me locked up in the basement? I almost think maybe I’d have been more musically focused, though I wouldn’t have had as many external influences [from] being around so many people who were also from somewhere else. But the cost of living these days makes it very artist-unfriendly, unless you’re a trust-fund kid, as many here are. I can’t relate to that. San Francisco is becoming a playground for the rich. Maybe it has…and maybe that’s the small town boy coming out of me.
EL: The media’s idea of the Bay Area is as a specialized music scene that’s heavy on experimentation. Do you see that as an insider? Does the city have a purveying aesthetic style?
BS: No, definitely not. I find things here to be sort of disjointed, and I think there’s a sense of separation you get due to the barely-navigable hills that separate the different neighborhoods. I’ve always felt that was somehow symbolically representative of a lack of a true ‘scene’ here, but maybe it’s in my own head. When I lived in the city, it was in less-hip neighborhoods like Diamond Heights and, at the time, Bernal Heights.
EL: Would you say the press here pays enough attention to promoting homegrown talent?
BS: No, not much attention is paid. The weeklies have a tendency to snub local artists, unless, in the case of the Bay Guardian, you fit their utopian vision of multiculturalism that doesn’t really exist in the realities of life. We were six white boys, and not very snappily dressed.
EL: What about the public, are they culturally aware enough to recognize the various forms of music being created here? Do you get the ense they take pride in local art?
BS: No, I don’t think so. I think there’s a cultural awareness, but I’m not sure how rooted in reality it is. I think it helps if people don’t pin you as a ‘local’ artist, and Beulah was somewhat deliberate in the beginning in trying to distance ourselves from that. We only played local shows when touring nationally—but we were lucky.
EL: Does the local government limit, in any way, artists from getting their messages out? Are there ever difficulties with bureaucracy, clubs and owners?
BS: Ah, I wouldn’t say there’s a bureaucracy—more like there’s so much else going on here that a so-called ‘music scene’ is less likely to congeal here than, like, say, Seattle. And the club scene is just as capitalistic here as in most other places. You can get a good opening slot and work your way from there. But it always helps to have something exotic, or externally associated, to get people here to pay attention. That’s just capitalism, human nature, and the fact that this city is not an insular college town where you might find more of that close-knit ‘scene’ atmosphere.
EL: How would you say the landscape of San Francisco changed in your tenure there?
BS: I think I’ve touched on it some. I feel like the folks who can afford to live in the city are getting whiter and richer. Then again, I live in Oakland, and have lived in the East Bay for the last nine out of the thirteen years I’ve lived here. So I don’t really know for sure. I can’t say I’m bitter, as I don’t really miss many aspects of living in the city. But every time I go back for a walk through the Mission, I see just a little more evidence of gentrification. When I first arrived, there was a lot of talk about the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco. That hasn’t changed, and the process is just that much further along. I just hope that it doesn’t take a turn towards Vegas or some shit.
EL: What about musically? You’ve probably been there long enough to see many young bands rise through the ranks—do you think it’s easy for a band to be heard, and garner a fan base or acclaim in this city?
BS: I haven’t paid that close attention in recent years, to be quite honest. I don’t get out much. But I think it’s possible to gain a fan base—I just don’t think it’s easily done from the ground up here, unless you’re a two-piece or have some funds to weather it. It helps if your recognition gets kick-started from an external factor of some kind. In our case, we became associated with the Elephant Six Collective when Robert and Hillarie of the Apples in Stereo put out our first record. That had nothing to do with San Francisco, but there were a lot of kids in San Francisco already into bands like the Apples, the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, and some of their fans ended up getting into us. Everything for us sort of built from that, slowly, on a national level. Beulah’s second gig was half a world away in Oberlin, Ohio, on a tour with the Apples, though we’d all paid our dues in earlier bands that went nowhere.” Bill continues, “It’s somewhat perceptive that you stop with ‘garnering a fanbase’ and ‘acclaim.’ We did get a lot of that, which I consider ourselves lucky for. But on balance, after all of these years, we’re all basically still broke. Beulah was an eight-year vacation that I’m still making payments for. It’s been fun, though, and I’d encourage anyone to do it while they’re still young. As Miles likes to say, you’ve got the rest of your life to work a nine-to-five job with one-and-a-half kids.
EL: How important are local venues to advancing the music culture or bringing in important out-of-town acts? Do you have favorite places to play or witness performances?
BS: I should make an exception to any rants I’ve made about the city thus far. There are certainly some bright spots. Ramona Downey at the Bottom of the Hill immediately comes to mind. She’s managed to bring in a lot of national acts that are very diverse, and helps leverage that for local acts. She’s kind of been an exception to the rule, at least, back in the days when I paid more close attention to what’s going on. There may be others now that I’m not aware of…I just remember a lot of folks hanging around, waxing nostalgic about the good old days of the ‘summer of love’. Many of these people are probably responsible for the laughable promotion of ‘next big thing’-artists through the years who barely have a local following, yet would still get signed—and then unceremoniously dropped—by major labels. I suppose that’s true elsewhere. Anyway, Ramona has never been one of those people, and she’s been around for a long time. But even the Bottom of the Hill is hard to get into nowadays; it’s pretty sizable for bands just starting out. On the other hand, when the place gets packed, it’s a bit sardine-like and sweaty. I enjoyed the view from the stage better.
EL: How would you compare or contrast San Fran to other major cities in California, on a cultural level?
BS: I think there’s a level of sophistication here that you don’t get in, say, Bakersfield or Fresno, and you’re not driving around talking about your screenplay like you would if you lived in Los Angeles. But it’s funny—New York gets a bad rap, but I feel like people are friendlier and more open there. Here people can get sort of snobby and tight-lipped.
EL: In what way(s) does the city’s unique culture influence the city’s art?
BS: Oh, I’m not qualified to answer this. Best ask Miles this question, as it’s a specialty of his. You will not find a better tour guide to the city than him.
EL: Are there any local places of interest that may have impacted you personally or musically during your time in SF?
BS: I remember hanging out a lot at the Casanova with Miles in the early days of Beulah, where we brought in other band members and would have band meetings and the like. Our old practice space—once called the Art Explosion—was a place I’d called my musical home from pre-Beulah days in 1994 to 2000, when the owner decided to join the dot-com bandwagon and kicked everyone out. It was right before the bust, and I think it took a while before anything ended up there [Corner of 17th and Potrero/Hampshire]. We recorded our first two records there. There was a bar, once called Mick’s Lounge, on the corner of Van Ness and Union, where I met my wife and also Steve St. Cin, who would one day become Beulah’s first drummer, on the same night. I forget what it’s called now. My sense of association of places is more of a personal and sentimental nature, less as musical or artistic. But that’s the way I am.
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