Heavy Heights
By Mike Calore - 11:51 am on March 3, 2011

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The explosion of San Francisco’s psych scene over the last few years has given us a dozen or so compelling new bands to track on our radar. All of them are offering their own decidedly modern take on the groove-heavy, echo-drenched sounds of yesteryear.

One of the brightest blips on the screen is Skystone, a trio fronted by bassist Paula Frazer and guitarist Brock Galland and backed by drummer Royce Seader. Frazer and Galland, both of whom share vocal duties, are well-known to those who follow the movements within the Bay Area’s indie rock community. Paula has her own well-established solo career and guests with countless bands. Brock has handled guitars for The Dilettantes, among others.

Everyone came together during 2010, having been introduced by a mutual friend, and formed Skystone. Paula continues to record and perform as a solo act, but she got Skystone started because she was itching to play in “more of a rock band kinda thing,” she says.

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My first time seeing Skystone was at a January show at the Eagle Tavern, opening for East Bay Grease and Harderships. I knew Paula was an amazing singer, but I was surprised when Brock — whom I know primarily as just a guitarist — stepped up to the mic to sing lead vocals or harmonies on every song. He’s an excellent match for Paula’s voice, and together they achieve a certain drama.

“Sharing vocals, the dual-vocalist thing, that was Paula’s idea,” says Brock. “She’s such a great singer, and when she suggested that we share most of the vocal duties, it was kind of off-putting. Like, ‘Why? You’re so good.’ But she insisted on it.”

Paula jumps right in to praise her bandmate.

“The harmonies Brock can hit are so wonderful,” she says. “He has a really unique, distinct voice. I’ve seen him play with Kelley Stoltz and some other bands with a more metal edge, and I never knew he could sing. When I finally heard him sing, I was like, ‘Why aren’t you singing all the time?'”

Brock’s way of taking this compliment is to throw it right back at Paula: “Singing with this woman is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”

Over the course of our discussion, Brock continually gushes about Paula’s voice to the point where it sort of becomes a mantra. And with good reason — she’s an amazing singer, well above her peers when it comes to her technical chops, her confidence and her emotional depth.

“I’ve been singing all my life,” she says. “My dad was a minister, so I grew up singing in church. I’ve been singing since I was four years old. First in Georgia, then in Arkansas. I came to San Francisco when I was 18.”

Frazer has been involved in the Bay Area music scene as a solo artist, or as a bassist, guitarist and singer with various bands, since the early 1980s. She’s recorded with a rotating lineup of musicians under the name Tarnation since 1991. She’s also sang and played with Frightwig, the under-appreciated all-female SF punk outfit, among others.

What’s different about the scene these days, I ask her.

“I enjoy the melodic stuff that’s going on now. All the punk and noise stuff is cool, but bands are using harmonies again. Good songwriting is back. Melody’s back. That makes me really happy.”

Skystone’s music follows that lead. The vocals are front and center. The instrumentation is fairly spare — the trio doesn’t play complicated arrangements. Instead, they prefer to keep the guitars, bass and drums delicate and understated most of the time by concentrating on execution and tone rather than pure volume or excitable energy.

Which isn’t to say they’re mellow — things can get pretty loud and huge. But the music is, overall, rather simple. Some songs are entirely bare-bones, like the drone exercise “Silence Song” or the fuzzed-out, single riff dirge of “Back in View.” Others, like “Mystery Ships,” an uptempo number that’s thick with vocal harmonies, have a little more going on. What makes the songs really inviting and accessible is the common retro warmth they all share. There’s a certain shape to the sound that’s a bit of a throwback to the birth of classic Bay Area psychedelia.

I mention this to Royce, the drummer.

“That’s the vibe that we’re going for. It stems from that crucial period of the late 60s and early 70s when people first starting creating what we know today as heavy music, and people first started really digging heavy music. I don’t mean heavy like today’s metal or heavy rock, but it’s more of that cerebral, psychedelic sound.”

I ask about songwriting. Paula and Brock insist that everything is democratic. They both contribute music and words — each singer will take the lead vocal on a song he or she has written — but about half of the dozen or so songs they’ve written together have sprung up from jam sessions.

So, how crucial is improvistaion, then?

“There’s always a passage or two in each of our songs that we leave open,” Royce says. “We like to let a song breathe, and we use that open space to explore. We know where it’s going, and we know where it’s going to land. But we try to give it wiggle room. It ends up being a bit of a white knuckle ride — what’s going to happen?”

For that to really work, you need to trust your fellow musicians. All three have been in bands their whole adult lives. They’re certainly experienced in the politics and struggles of working closely with other strong-willed artists. But the camaraderie and respect within the trio is obvious. Throughout the two hours we spent together, they frequently finished each other’s sentences and urged each other to tell this story or that story. They’ve shared many a laugh together, you can tell.

I ask Royce whether it’s always like this, or if, like in just about every other band, there are moments of tension.

“There’s a very genuine respect for what everyone brings to the table,” he says. “Every now and then, one of us will get a little bossy and tell one of the other members to step up their game. It’s not a bad thing — we all care and we all really give a shit about the music and about each other. But there’s never a crisis. We can all vibe off each other. We have a good time.”

The band has only played a handful of shows since debuting at the Hemlock Tavern last August. The show I saw at the Eagle in January was only their fifth performance, and they’ll play their seventh gig this weekend at The Starry Plough in Berkeley.

“We’re so new, we’re still getting it together,” Paula says.

Skystone has been dabbling in recording, putting some demos to tape. They’ve been tracking their finished songs at Paula’s house using her Tascam 8-track tape deck. The results are on their MySpace page, but that’s it for now. They want to take it slowly, and they don’t have plans to rush into a fancy studio just yet.

Paula says Skystone is still evolving.

“I think all musicians can relate to this,” she says, “You struggle really hard to get a song to come together. You finally get it there, and then there’s this period of time when you’re still a little insecure. Then once you’re at the point where you know it really well, there’s a brief window before you grow sick of it.”

“We’re still in the insecure phase, I think. We’re not totally confident, but we’re getting there.”

See them live at The Starry Plough Pub in Berkeley this Friday, March 4th. Skystone plays first, then Corner Laughers are in the middle slot. The Moore Brothers headline.

Photos: Keith Axline

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