Take A Trip To Visalia With The Stone Foxes
Fresh off the release of their newest EP Visalia, the Stone Foxes are roaring with energy and ambition.
Space robots, front porch sing-alongs, tiki bar hangouts–what do these things have in common? The Stone Foxes, of course–because these rockers just want to have fun.
But let’s scratch the 80s reference, because the Stone Foxes sound nothing like the song it implies. Instead of bubbles, picture bricks. At once heavy and punchy, the Stone Foxes’ music has that indescribable special something quality that makes it both unique and familiar, and always memorable. Maybe it’s the sextet’s strong rhythm foundation; maybe it’s their gritty city base; maybe it’s just the joy they get from making music. “Music is fun,” lead singer and drummer Shannon Koehler said simply the day of the band’s new EP Visalia release in mid-September. We’re inclined to take his word on that, especially after listening to the risk-taking, gin-passing and “heart on my sleeve” lifestyle described in the EP opener “If I Die.”
Watch the band’s creative music videos, check out pictures from their recent speakeasy tiki bar photoshoot on Facebook, or hell–go see them live. The band–featuring Koehler and his brother Spence, Elliott Peltzman, Vince Dewald, Ben Andrews and Brian Bakalian–have fun with what they do, and it’s that fun that makes their music so energizing. While some bands aren’t able to translate that energy from the stage into studio projects, the Stone Foxes do. Though they’ve demonstrated this on four full-length (and all self-released) albums since founding in 2008, this energy is perhaps best felt on Visalia. Recorded over the course of two long weekends at a friend’s house in Visalia, Calif., not far from the band’s San Francisco base, this five-track EP was made in the style of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., “except we weren’t in France,” Koehler laughed. “But that’s how it felt. We were all in our tents, there was a huge chicken coop behind the house, and there was another main house. It was just this whole family of people, and that infused a lot of the camaraderie within us and made us stronger as a unit to write better together.”
The farmland backdrop of Visalia’s creation is far from what the Stone Foxes have experienced before. But it was the evening visits from friends of their host (who just happened to be Cody Tarbell of Slow Season) that gave the experience an extra spark. ”We camped by the side of this cornfield, and every night we’d start recording and playing, just working on these songs. Then, all of a sudden, Cody’s friends would come over. We were like, ‘Whoa, this is an experience to be in this place.’” The constant stream of visitors and sharing of ideas inspired the Stone Foxes to test their first song before their happenstance audience, who were more than happy to chime in on the backing vocals. While four of the EP’s tracks were recorded in the studio and all were remixed by producer Jay Pellicci, “If I Die” comes directly from Cody’s porch.
“It was a cool feeling that we were writing about a lot of really personal things, getting to the root of who we are,” Koehler said. “You can hear a lot of that in ‘If I Die,’ that’s very personal for me. And ‘Shake Like Buddy Holly’ [is personal] for Vince, getting to the root of where that rock ’n roll comes from.”
The Stone Foxes are solidly rooted in rock and blues. The bio on their website grandiosely claims, “They bear the torch of their predecessors with the knowledge that rock ’n roll can move a new generation,” though Koehler sees their mission less as a responsibility to the genre and more as an independent ambition. “Every person has their own path as a musician,” he said. “But I do feel like we have an opportunity that not a lot of people have: to be up in front of people and to be able to say something. Whether that’s about love, who we are, who our generation is or what’s going on in the world, I think it’s important to offer what we have to say.”
Figuring out what they want to say as a group has taken some time. The Stone Foxes have spent years innovating their writing process to make sure their messages are clear and agreed-upon. “With a lot of guys, it can get kind of complicated, because there’s lots of voices,” Koehler said. Over the years, they’ve refined that process to ensure that each band member’s ideas are heard and everyone contributes. After one or two members initiates a song idea, the rest of the group weighs in. “The whole group puts their stamp on it. We feel strongly about that, that everybody is very involved.”
While “If I Die” and “Shake Like Buddy Holly” have closer personal ties to the band, “Hypno,” “Fight” and “Arrogant” take inspiration from the battleground of modern America, with strong political undertones popping up in “Hypno” in particular. “It’s pretty hard to escape what’s going on out there, “Koehler said. “It’s the idea that you kind of become hypnotized by your TV, being lulled into this feeling, like, ‘Yeah, well, it’s whatever.’ But it’s not okay. The truth matters.”
Just as each song transformed during the writing process in Visalia, so too did they transform once the band returned to the studio. “Hypno,” a track driven by guttural fills and punishing guitar work, didn’t translate well once the click tracks were brought into the mix and took some extra tweaking to get just right. “I love [Brian’s] drums on that,” Koehler said. “He does some really cool fills.”
The Stone Foxes’ creative rhythm section is part of that “special something” that makes them unique. With two drummers in the band, it’s not surprising that this is one of their more creative and dominant elements. Having one of those drummers also on lead vocals doesn’t hurt: holding a presence at both the back and front ends of the stage keeps both areas in Koehler’s mind, paving a path for the rhythm section to remain prominent at moments when it might be buried in other bands. “As a drummer, I find myself writing lyrics very much in tune with what I’m drumming,” he explained. “If I’m writing a song and I’m drumming, I lock lyrics with different hits.” Yet, as a vocalist, he understands the importance of latching onto a groove that the audience can fall into. “There are certain spots where we hit hard, but it’s really about that rhythm. ‘Buddy Holly’ is a great example of that–really groove-driven.”
The music makes enjoyable listening, but it’s also fun to watch performed. At a recent midday performance at the San Diego, Calif. festival KAABOO, the Stone Foxes were clearly excited to roll out their new songs, which they’d released just one day earlier. Onstage, they look like a band of professional rockers, but they act like a group of friends, exchanging grins as they swap riffs and delving deep into the grooves they present to their listeners. It’s easy to see where the inspiration for “If I Die” came from: all that’s missing is Cody and his buddies. The Stone Foxes didn’t seem relieved to be finished with the EP, or anxious about hitting the road for the start of their fall U.S. “Gigantour”–they were just excited to be onstage, sharing their material with a new captive audience.
“Gigantour” is large in size, but it’ll also be large in heart. Three years ago, the Stone Foxes launched the Goodnight Moon Project, an effort inspired by the homeless population within the band’s hometown that galvanizes fans to donate food to local shelters. At every one of the band’s live performances, concert attendees are encouraged to bring cans of food, for which they can receive tokens of appreciation from the band (like a signed setlist or a free record). “We’re just trying to cultivate a really giving atmosphere,” Koehler said. “That’s what’s so cool about music: it opens people up to that possibility. We’re not talking about one of our songs solving a huge world problem, but I do think if we can plant the seed in somebody to be a little more peaceful, to be a little more community-driven, to just be a little more loving, I think that’s worth it.”
Visalia may not be credited with solving a global conflict, but it’s giving back to listeners in more personal ways. At the very least, it shows that the Stone Foxes retain huge fires in their bellies and are eager to continue making music for their own enjoyment and that of others. Their next full-length album hasn’t yet been announced, but we’re not worried: the band’s collective state of mind is made pretty clear in the lyrics of “If I Die.” “And if you asked me now, ‘Kid, how’d you do?’ I’d say, ‘I’d do it all again.’”
Interview by Meghan Roos.