San Francisco Treat

In addition to the famous sights, San Francisco is also a city of sounds. There's the jingle- clatter of the famous cable cars straining up the steep Victorian-house-encrusted hills; the raucous din of the sea lions bellowing and barking on their little platforms near Fisherman's Wharf; and the multilingual babble of dozens of languages from the people in the streets.

And then there's the more organized sounds: the music. There's the wail of local boy Carlos Santana's guitar blasting out of the taquerias; the pre-Colombian blues billowing out of the Mission District's storefront Central American Pentecostal churches, and the rock coming out of any one of several hundred bars. And some of the most notable of that stuff is being made by Greg Ashley, a young man who left one city by the bay -- League City, to be exact -- for the more famous one in California.

Well, technically he lives in Oakland, not San Francisco, but it's in San Francisco where we meet up for a rambling, multivenue, taco- and beer-fueled interview one cool June night. And on first meeting the former leader of the Houston band the Mirrors, it's immediately apparent that the Galveston County kid has gone native. As I surfaced on the escalator at the 16th and Mission subway stop -- to the strains of a lone, guitar-wielding mariachi-singing busker, there was Ashley in a threadbare blue blazer and scuffed white leather pimp shoes that probably kicked their last ho's ass in about 1978. He was clutching a dog-eared paperback copy of Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States and was in the act of registering to vote at a table set up there for that purpose.

Even if his voice has yet to be heard at the ballot box, music circles have already heard from him, via the two EPs he cut here with the Mirrors, the one CD he cut in Texas and released in California under his own name (Medicine Fuck Dream) and now with his album as the leader of his trio the Gris Gris. Whatever the name of the vehicle it arrives in, Ashley's specialty is ominous mid-'60s-style psychedelic garage rock, full of muffled drums, shimmery cymbal wash, anguished, lo-fi vocals that shift gears from a whisper to a scream, pulsing bass and some completely insane guitar solos. If it sounds like the 1960s, it's certainly not the primary colors, Laugh-In, hippy-dippy 1960s; Ashley's music instead puts you in mind of a reverse negative of that decade, a dark shadow image of the Age of Aquarius.

Though only 24, Ashley comes by these 1960s mannerisms more naturally than almost anyone else in his generation. As the cliché goes, he's an old soul. The late-born son of a NASA cost analyst who dug classical music, the Beach Boys and the Kingston Trio, Ashley had the same sort of squaresville childhood in the League City of the '80s and '90s that most of those who pioneered the psych-rock song form had back in the Eisenhower era. (And as many of us can attest, it's still the Eisenhower era down in the L.C.) Around the time he got to high school, he discovered Nirvana and Sonic Youth, before moving on to the early Estrus garage-rock stuff, which he quickly soured on. "After awhile, that stuff started sounding like copies of copies of copies," he says. He followed the influences all the way back to the original garage rockers and beyond, and he now cites Lightnin' Hopkins, Hank Williams and Dr. John (from one of whose songs his new band takes its name) as primary influences.

As for his hometown, he feels it is as much a fourth-generation Xerox as the '80s garage rock he now dismisses. "Every time I go back to League City, there's another Wal-Mart, more fuckin' chain restaurants, less of what made the place tolerable or okay," he says. By now, we've adjourned to a Senegalese restaurant in the Mission District. Ashley's quaffing Harp, and I've got some tasty purple African libation called a "flamboyant" in front of me. Angelique Kidjo wafts over the sounds of black guys laughing and speaking French at the bar. It is indeed a long way from the Kemah Boardwalk. "Now it could be a suburb of L.A.," he says of his former home, "just as much as it could be Houston."

That's what's great about Ashley: He's less wise old soul sometimes than crabby old man, railing against all change. For example, he's also less than impressed with Minute Maid Park. "A corporate bullshit rip-off of Wrigley Field and a bunch of other old fields with a stupid fucking bullshit train in the outfield." He's not wild about Cali-style Mexican food either. "Out here they have this shit called fresh-Mex," he says, shuddering. "It's horrible. No flavor, no sauce. It's like, nothing, you know?"  

A bitter guy -- crotchety even? You could say so. Though he's modest and affable in person, after a few drinks he shows his wounded romantic side, and that's what you hear on the records. There, even when Ashley is trying to be happy, as on The Gris Gris's dazzling little tropicalia number "Me queda um bejou" and the Let It Bleed-style bluesy, country honk of "Winter Weather," an overweening, Leonard Cohen-ish sadness drapes shroudlike over the songs. They conjure the time when the last red-hot embers of youth are slowly turning to ash, when you realize most of your dreams are just romantic folderol, that life is indeed a bitch and that then you certainly die.

He's not content to take this crap lying down, though. Elsewhere there's plenty of rage, which jells best on The Gris Gris on "Best Regards"; bassist Oscar Michel rumbles in with a roll of quarter-notes and is joined by drummer Joe Haener, who pounds out a tribal-sounding rhythm on the toms. Ashley's guitar and vocals almost sidle in, and after a sinister, difficult-to-decipher vocal interlude in which he sounds a bit Aleister Crowley-ish, Ashley's guitar quite simply eases off of terra firma in a cloud of billowing feedback like a doomed rocket blasting off the pad. It happens slowly at first, and the band stays with the same minimalist backing save for a snare joining the toms, but by the end of the tune you've been dragged by the hair -- in a good way, mind you -- through places that are both terrifying and thrilling. It's almost painful to listen to, but it's undeniably awe-inspiring. And this extended sucking-in-of-breath of a song is fittingly followed by the warm, sunny breeze of "Medication No. 3," which feels like one long sigh.

Talking to the guy, who looks as mild-mannered as the optician's assistant he is by day, you want to know where the hell stuff like "Best Regards" comes from. Kurt Brennan of Sound Exchange is another who would like to know. Before Ashley moved to California two years ago, Brennan signed the band to his Fleece Records label. "What was amazing about them was that they weren't very familiar with the guys they reminded me of," Brennan says, citing such psych legends as the Electric Prunes, the 13th Floor Elevators and especially Brother J.T. "And then there was the fact that they were from League City, which gave it a bit of an outsider edge, and also the fact that they weren't even of legal drinking age. And I stress 'legal.' "

Sound Exchange -- where he will play one of two gigs this weekend -- is one of the few things Ashley misses about Houston. No tsu oH is another, as is the fact that he feels he works harder on his songwriting here. "It's harder to get stuff done" in Oakland, "because there's more to do," he says. "Before, I would sit in my room, depressed and bored, and write songs." And it seems he's become Californian whether he likes it or not. On the I Love Music message boards, one Netizen informally reviewed Medicine Fuck Dream and called it "great, shambling batshit folk rock…Really, really interesting in that hopelessly Californian way."

"That's funny," says Ashley. "I recorded all those when I was living in the Houston suburbs. I didn't write any of those songs here -- it just got put out after I moved."

Other Californian scribes have been even more insulting. Of the album's "Plain Vanilla," some Canadian wanker named Mike Usinger at the Vancouver-based Web site had this to say: "Featuring dime-store castanets and flutes, the song probably won't lead to any encores in Houston, but it's warped enough for the discerning noise-pop fans of Oakland." He also called Houston "a shitkicker's paradise." Yeah, about all we can stand here is "Achy Breaky Heart," dude.

But in a way, maybe Mikey was right. Of course, he was wrong about the shitkicker part -- if he thinks we're a bunch of hicks, he's never been here. But we do lose far more talented musicians than we gain. Is it that we're too lazy, too indifferent to hang on to musicians like Ashley and his fellow San Francisco transplants Jolie Holland and Rogue Wave's Gram Lebron, not to mention stay the continual exodus to Austin?

Not really, at least according to Ashley, who blames Houston's lack of music business infrastructure. "When I was in Houston I was thinking, 'What's the fucking point?' " he says. "But as soon as I got out here, I found there were a lot of people that were willing to help. Even the indie scene out here is like a smaller replica of the majors. The indie labels will find people that they think will be commercially successful and help them, even if they're not necessarily that good. It's all about having support and money behind you. I did nothing in Houston, and the only reason I'm able to do anything out here is that people are putting money and support behind me."  

That's how it's done, people. That's how to put the scene on the map. Swallow your cred and support your local bands when they're about to break, whether you think they suck or not. That's how San Francisco and other cities like Dallas and Austin have broken far more bands than we have. Here, the old "crabs in a bucket" adage still applies -- as soon as one band starts to make it out, the others all reach up and drag him back down.

And it's why the Gris Gris is a San Francisco band, not a Houston band. But for two nights, anyway, we can show that we are noise-pop fans worthy of the great Mike Usinger by demanding encores whenever Ashley dishes out the "Plain Vanilla."

The Gris Gris performs songs from its album Saturday, September 25, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh Drive. For more information, call 713-521-0521. On Sunday, September 26, Greg Ashley will perform a free solo acoustic gig of his Medicine Fuck Dream and Mirrors material at Sound Exchange, 1846 Richmond. For more information, call 713-666-5555.

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