“We’re not expecting to get famous,” Chris Jones says with a shrug, outside a coffee shop in the Mission. He is the lead singer/guitarist of alternative/folk/indie-rock band Scary Little Friends. “In the Bay Area, all you can really hope for is to be part of a thriving music scene.” The humbleness belies some barely concealed ambition, because what other word would you use to describe a man who set up a studio in his home in order to record the group’s first album?
No, maybe Chris, bassist Jon Payne, and drummer Charlie Knote aren’t expecting fame; but if they do find it, they probably won’t be surprised. The songs on their debut LP, From the Beginning, belong on mainstream radio stations and the Billboard charts. From the haunting, country-tinged melody of “Devil’s Heart” to the sweeping chorus of potential arena-rocker “City at Night,” Scary Little Friends is a band that has it all: strong songwriting, impressive musical chops, and a dynamic live presence. So even if they’re not exactly looking for fame, they embody all the ingredients to help fame find them. However, it was clear from my conversation with the trio that they harbor more noble intentions when it comes to playing music than superficial dreams of super-stardom.
BAM: How did Scary Little Friends start?
Chris Jones: It started in January 2013. Prior to that, I had been recording a bunch of solo stuff which eventually became From the Beginning, stuff that I really just recorded for myself and never intended to release. I guess I was just burnt out from all the previous bands I was in that never went anywhere. I showed the music to Jon, and he really, really liked it, enough to motivate me to professionally release it. All of a sudden, I needed a band to record all the songs and play them live. So Jon joined in on bass, and Charlie took over the drummer spot.
Jon Payne: Me and Chris have been playing music together for 17 years, so we’re pretty much brothers at this point. It was just the natural decision to join this project, especially after I heard his recording of From the Beginning. I originally played drums for the group and even recorded drums on one of the songs, but Chris couldn’t find a bass player, so I volunteered for the role. I always wanted to play bass in a band, anyway.
Charlie Knote: I met Chris through a friend years ago and have been playing on and off together over that time. I’m essentially a frustrated guitar player and thought Chris was pretty good, a lot better than some other bands I’ve been in or got kicked out of for speaking my mind. Even though we have our disagreements, I think we work well together. The friction makes for good art.
BAM: Chris, what made you decide to build your own home studio to record the first LP?
Jones: Mostly to save money [laughs]. I’m one of those people who will record a vocal track 10 days in a row, and that’s not the most financially-wise work ethic to have. I also like the freedom a home studio affords, the fact that I can really tinker with a song without a time pressure looming over my head. I can be a perfectionist, but I’m slowly learning not to be, learning to let go and listen with my heart. and stop thinking so much.
After writing, mixing and mastering the first album on my own, I’m ready to give up control and be less stubborn in the creative process. Being a control freak is really just a way of hiding your own insecurities, believing you have total control when in reality you have none, overcompensating for the fact that, at the very best, we’re just steering in a vaguely correct direction.
BAM: Has the songwriting process changed from the first record to your upcoming EP?
Jones: Unlike the first record, where I wrote almost everything, each band member wrote their own parts on the new EP. We feel like a real band now. We’ve been basing the new material on our current live sound, which is a bit more raw and rockin’ as opposed to the folky, Americana vibe we explored on From the Beginning.
Payne: Chris and I have been playing together for so long that we have developed a sort of unspoken language, and we trust each other’s instincts. The new record is definitely more collaborative. We’re just naturally steering into a direction of harder indie rock. We all come from similar musical backgrounds and tastes, and we don’t want to be anything that already exists. I know that sounds almost impossible, but why make music when it’s easy? We want to display our own unique voice.
Knote: We’re definitely pursuing a different style on the new EP. It’s more guitar-centered, less focused on the bluesy/country style of earlier. I guess after playing so many shows full of the old stuff, your brain just gets tired and starts looking for new musical inspiration. We’re a young band, we’re gigging as much as possible, and we’re trying to squeeze in songwriting sessions during our hectic schedules. That’s probably playing a role in the straightforward, edgier structure of the new songs.
We expect a lot out of each other, we push each other, we sometimes have vicious arguments about what Chris’s best song is- it’s not created in a vacuum. They know that when I suggest something, it’s because I’m trying to help out, to strengthen the creative process.
Jones: Yeah, we’re still defining ourselves. We’ve only been together for less than two years, and we’re just trying to do what feels right.
BAM: You mentioned that your new EP, titled Silent Revolution, has a more unified concept to it. Can you describe what the term “Silent Revolution” means and what themes you are tackling on it?
Jones: Silent Revolution is the name I’ve given to the way society is becoming addicted to technology and relying less and less on human contact. The technological revolution is so subtle that we’re almost incapable of acknowledging it, and we need reminders to stay true to what life is really about, like family and relationships. I’m not inspired by music these days so much as outside influences, particularly Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and how that novel effectively captured the feeling of modern-day America. The Internet really is noise, as everybody now has a voice, but a voice reflected by their own selves, their own opinions. When my dad was a journalist in the ‘80s, he was one of a select group of people who knew what was going on. Now everyone knows everything, and everyone has the resources to easily access an infinite amount of information- it’s so disconcerting.
I still believe, though, that one voice can rise above all the others, that great things still rise to the top and break through the clutter.
Payne: Technology definitely opens up a lot of opportunity for bands looking to be heard, and if people like something, it can spread really quickly. At the same time, there’s a lot of not so great stuff out there that only adds to the clutter. I don’t know for sure whether it’s a wholly good or bad thing. It’s more of a gray area you have to learn how to navigate.
Knote: I’m a little touchy about it. I’m not overly tech-based – maybe I would be, if I could afford that stuff – but I know that if you’re a musician looking to make a living off your art, technology hasn’t really helped so far, at least not enough to be proven a legitimately good thing. But if you’re doing it for fun and just trying to get your music heard, the Internet is a useful tool to spread the word.
BAM: Do you prefer playing live to recording at home? You’re a songwriting-focused band, but you all have the chops to become a phenomenal live jam band, as well.
Jones: I love playing live. It’s where you have to face reality and put yourself on the line as a musician. It’s a battlefield where so many things can go wrong, and I guess that’s part of the excitement factor. As far as which one I prefer, it really depends. I love them both, and having fun is the key to both of them.
Payne: We could definitely go the jam band route if we wanted to. We all grew up listening to the Grateful Dead and Phish and all those other great live bands. But we believe that the song should come first; that should be the focus, whether it’s the home studio or the live setting.
If we do this thing right, we’ll be playing music forever. Like Chris said, having fun is the key to music.
Jones: Yeah, I’d rather sit in a room and not get paid, playing the music I want, rather than being in a band with a bunch of guys I don’t like just because I think they have a better chance of “making it.” Even if this band isn’t successful, we wouldn’t stop playing for a minute. It’s just too much fun.
You can catch Scary Little Friends live in the Bay Area on Dec. 6 at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco.