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Golden Gate Garage

Reliving the seamy underbelly of the 1970s with the young Richmond Sluts

Shea Roberts doesn't mind it at all when passersby in his San Francisco neighborhood comment on his British Invasion styles. "Cool…Beatles!" they say, noting his Carnaby Street gear and over-the-collar coif. Roberts smiles appreciatively, even if his rooster-shag look is way more Faces-era Ron Wood than Fab Four.

"If I look like the Beatles, then I guess not many kids have heard of the Rolling Stones," says Roberts, guitarist and lead singer for the Richmond Sluts, a garage-rock band that walks a fine musical and, some might say, ethical line. As one 15-year-old hip-hopper -- slightly confused about his decades -- sniffed at their group photo, "Don't they know the '60s are over?" Is the band's music as recycled as its fashion sense, with nary an original note emanating from those vintage amps? Or are the Richmond Sluts more like their famous San Francisco peer, Brian Jonestown Massacre, a psychedelic band that started off several years back with a derivative sound that has since evolved into something distinct?

Roberts is somewhat protective when discussing his band, but the validity question doesn't faze him. "It's easy for anybody to just look at us on the album photo and say we're this or like that," says Roberts. "But we've done whatever we felt like, so our look doesn't necessarily define the band. And with the changes since our record came out [in 2001], we've got the evolution in our sound that is just like my vision for what it could be."

Take (left to right) one Small Face, one Black Crowe, one Ramone and Richard Hell and -- voilà! -- the Richmond Sluts.
Take (left to right) one Small Face, one Black Crowe, one Ramone and Richard Hell and -- voilà! -- the Richmond Sluts.

After hearing the Sluts' self-titled debut, you get the idea that if the band thing doesn't work out, Roberts would be an obsessive record store clerk/trivia freak like Jack Black's character in High Fidelity. There are countless dark-side-of-the-'70s sonic shock waves here, from early Stooges to Johnny Thunders, the Ramones, the Stones and Shadows of Knight, along with multiple layers of punk from both sides of the Atlantic and a perhaps unhealthy chunk of New York Dolls. And then there's "Service for the Sick," featuring snotty, monotone vocals across a dominant three-chord ride -- the trademark of Montreal's cult garage-rock band the Haunted. New keyboard player Justin Lynn, who favors Hammond B3s and Wurlitzer pianos, has the most dominant role in the arrangements, and there are moments on the record where the band transcends its three-chord niche and creates its own wall of sound. The punk-meets-Brill Building layers call to mind a certain bit of infamous punk lore. Quips Sluts co-founder Chris Beltran, "Yeah, we'll get Phil Spector to hold us at gunpoint like the Ramones."

The band was anything but textured in the early days. Roberts met bassist Beltran, fresh in Frisco from his native Southern California, at a party in 1997. They named the band after a combination of the borough near Golden Gate Park where they lived and the rumor that their old drummer got his first kit in exchange for an (unspecified) sexual favor. At the time, Roberts himself was a drummer who played in a couple of nondescript bands (including one appropriately titled the Forgotten), but he was itching to get up front to sing and play guitar.

Three-chord fuck-you punk was then the band's sound by default. After all, Roberts couldn't really play guitar. He worked in his burgeoning knack for bar chords and Keef-style riff fragments slowly, just as he imagined someone like Johnny Thunders might have done. "I mean, a band like the Sex Pistols couldn't play guitar when they got together, they'd just do these shows and go crazy," Roberts says. That's what the Sluts do too, up to a point. "Yeah, we have a good time at shows," he says. "When we play live is where we shine."

Any chance of the band flaming out à la the Pistols? "None of the band members are currently drug addicts. As for the past or future, I can't comment," says Roberts with a laugh. "We're young, dumb and full of cum."

And so is the rock scene in San Francisco. What really has Roberts jacked is the resurgence of decent bands and cool bars now that the dot-com bust has put paid to an era of skyrocketing rents. Gone are the IPO-heads and their Lexuses; the guitar-packing slackers are back with a vengeance. Roberts's goal is to continue helping some of those young bands -- New Strange, Hotwire Titans and the Flakes -- with production work and L.A. exposure.

And Beltran says that the Sluts' newest lineup, including new drummer KC and second guitarist Jimmy Sweet, represents the first time that all the players are on the same page. "Our other drummers just didn't have that old music in them. They didn't understand what the fuck we were doing," he says. "But now our sound is pushing forward. We practically sound like a new band every time we play."

Not bad for a group that looks like an old band every time you see them.

 
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