We’ve already waxed plenty lyrical about San Francisco rockers Happy Fangs, but shortly after they dropped their debut album, Capricorn, we got a chance to catch up with lead singer Rebecca Bortman and guitarist Michael Cobra over a cup of coffee in SoMa.
The duo (unfortunately absent drummer Jess Gowrie, who hails from Sacramento) talked about their improvisational creative process, the pressures of recording an LP, Canadian bromances, and the inevitable attack of the bird monsters.
ThrdCoast: How did you guys get together to start playing as Happy Fangs?
Rebecca Bortman: We actually shared a practice space. We were in two different very, very different bands – I was in an indie-pop kind of band called My First Earthquake.
Michael Cobra: And I was in an industrial metal band called King Loses Crown. They were pretty different sounds to be sharing a rehearsal space [laughs].
RB: It was very San Francisco, down in a basement in the Tenderloin. So when I quit My First Earthquake, my bandmate sent a pretty hostile email to Mike’s band saying, “Rebecca will no longer be paying rent, because she’s out of the band.” Mike reached out and said he hoped I wasn’t quitting music altogether.
MC: She got back to me and said no, but she was looking to start a group with just one other person, one other writing partner, and go from there. I had been doing demos for some other friends outside of my band as well, so I suggested we do one. It was very low-pressure, and we spent a few months just emailing stuff back and forth without getting together in person. We ended up with some things that sounded pretty cool, so we decided to get together and do something with them. We started writing together, and all of a sudden we had a show. Initially, it was just the two of us and a drum machine – I literally bought the thing the day before our first performance. I had never used or programmed a drum machine at all, so we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants [laughs].
So we did that for about a year, give or take, and then we decided somewhere in that process that we wanted to ramp it up, make it bigger, and we wanted to have a live drummer. Every fucking show we had, we had either a bassist or a drummer come up to us wanting to play with us, and we had always said that we weren’t adding anybody. But eventually we decided we wanted to get rid of all the electronics and make it a full live band, and just go back to the roots of playing music rather than programming it. So we found Jess.
RB: This is just about her one-year anniversary of being in the band.
MC: Yeah, she’s been writing, recording, playing, and shooting music videos with us ever since. We just sort of dropped her right into our world.
TC: It sounds like you guys must have had some kind of creative overlap right off the bat, despite coming from such different backgrounds.
RB: Yeah. We didn’t know until we started writing together what it would sound like. I would’ve assumed that I wouldn’t be very good at writing heavier rock stuff, because I had been so used to kind of twee pop. But then I realized, yeah, I can do this, too! I can yell, I can be less cute. “The Truth” is one of the songs that came out of that first batch of emails before we met, so I think it’s kind of cool to have it on the album. People have asked me why we have two songs from the EP on the album, and I say, well, for one they’re awesome enough that we wanted to re-record them with Jess. And two, it encompasses our whole span, back from the very start.
TC: Can you guys walk me through your writing process?
RB: Step one, drive to Sacramento or San Francisco.
MC: [Laughs] Someone always has to drive somewhere.
RB: Step two, press record.
MC: And step three, we just play. It’s pretty absurdly simple. It’s also something that we really had to get Jess comfortable with, because we just jam. Every one of our songs, either a chorus or a verse or both, can be tracked back to a jam session where we did it totally off the cuff. We definitely tinker with things after the fact, but what we really do is either when listening to the recordings or in the middle of a jam itself, we say, that was awesome, let’s drop everything else and focus on that riff, that lyric, that drumbeat, whatever it is. Then we just go from there. This album was all written and recorded in the span of about five months. Jess had just joined the band, so we were learning how to write together, and there really wasn’t a lot of time to do anything that didn’t feel natural. I think that’s the beauty of the whole thing, that it feels like what we would all do naturally without overthinking it.
TC: What about vocally and lyrically? That seems like something that’s difficult to improvise.
RB: Nope, it’s all improvised. Most of it is literally just turning off my thinking brain. It’s funny, because for a lot of our songs we’ll write them, record them, and it’s not until I’m listening back that I’ll realize I was already starting to process the lyrics way before I knew what they were going to be. It’s kind of my own little therapy, in a way [laughs]. I just pour it all out, get all the junk out, and if there are some moments of poetry I build on that and see what it is. The song “Ton of Bricks” – when I wrote that I wasn’t even thinking about how much I wanted… the nail in the coffin was, am I the most important thing? Am I, to one other person in the world, the most crucial thing? If not, I should get the fuck out of here. That song made me realize, no, I don’t want to just be awesome to this person, I want to be the one.
MC: To that point, we also do that live. Every show we do what we call an “insta-song.”
RB: Named by one of our fans.
MC: We write a song live, right there with the crowd. Literally everything, the drums, the guitar, the vocals. We write it all on the spot. We ask for suggestions from the crowd as to what it should be about, and it’s usually about food or sex. So we usually try to get something a little different, or add two things together, and we end up with something like “Harry Potter Doggystyle” [laughs].
RB: The more absurd the better.
MC: Either Jess or I start something, and the others follow. Rebecca comes up with lyrics on the spot. We really do it live and put ourselves on the spot every time. Our whole thing is that it could be amazing or it could be horrible, but either way it’s never going to happen again. It’s the only time anybody ever gets to hear it.
RB: That’s our guarantee. Even if it’s an awesome song, we’ll never play it again.
MC: It’s funny, because when Jess joined the band she was like, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me, I’m not doing that. We said no, it’s fun, it’s really cool! And it’s been kind of a blossoming thing for her to do something so unprepared. We’ve all gotten strong enough at playing together that we can watch each other, play off each other, and do it well. It’s a lot of fun.
RB: I think in some ways it’s almost like when you see someone do a crazy, totally self-indulgent solo, our insta-songs are like that. And we’re scaring ourselves shitless to do it. But, at least for me, no one would know that we can write songs on the spot unless we did that.
MC: The big reason out of the gate was that it makes the live show special. We’ve all been in bands enough and seen enough shows to know that people don’t really make themselves vulnerable anymore. A lot of performances are too calculated and thought-out, so much so that it feels like you could just put on the CD at home and get the same experience. We wanted to be different, be vulnerable, and let people know that we’re willing to fuck up in front of them. And that has led to some really great connections with crowds, because they realize that we’re there with them and we’re all in it together.
TC: Speaking of your live shows, have you toured or do you plan to tour outside of the Bay Area?
MC: Yeah, quite a bit. A big part of building the band has been making sure we get out and play. We’ve played the east coast a ton, I think we’ve played seven shows in New York, and we did a whole east coast tour this summer while we were writing and recording. It helps you keep everything alive and keep it flowing. We played North by Northeast in Toronto, we did Chicago and Detroit, that whole area.
RB: We played a really good show in Pittsburgh.
MC: DC was great, too. We played CMJ twice as well. And then in March we’ll be touring the west coast.
TC: How do the different east- and west-coast scenes respond to your style?
MC: Everywhere has been great.
RB: It’s funny, because I thought New York would be the most… skeptical. But they almost bust out of their shells more easily than the San Francisco crowds.
MC: The New York crowds have been amazing. We played at Pianos on the Lower East Side, Leftfield, The Trash Bar in Brooklyn… and the place across the street from Trash Bar that I don’t remember the name of. And Toronto, they went nuts for the entire show. I’ve never, ever seen a show like that.
RB: It was one of the coolest things, because it was clear that nobody at this bar had any clue who we were. And they were so skeptical when we started out, but by the end, had I felt more comfortable with being groped, I could have dove right in and crowd-surfed.
MC: There were people up on the stage dancing, too. That place went nuts.
RB: And they made my favorite suggestion for an insta-song, actually. There were these guys who must’ve been, like, barely eighteen, these super tall guys standing right in front. They were really into the show, and they had their arms around each other – I think in a drinking buddy sort of way, I think, not San Francisco lover-style – but maybe they were, I’m not that versed in Canadian subcultures. But they’re standing there with their arms around each other and they both yelled, “guys who are best friends!” They had these huge smiles on their faces.
TC: That sounds pretty stereotypically Canadian.
RB+MC: Super Canadian.
MC: I’ve never seen so many people smile. Ear-to-ear grins the whole night. It’s rad, because we’re a rock band, so our goal is to get everyone to have fun. And I feel like everywhere we go, that ends up happening no matter what.
TC: Can you guys tell me about the differences in releasing your EP versus the full-length album? Production-wise, but also creatively. Aside from Jess joining the band, of course.
RB: Well, this is Mike’s first album.
MC: Yeah, my first LP ever, which is a big deal for me. Creatively, it was a little more stressful, because you have to have enough songs. Whereas for an EP you can just say, screw it, we’ve got three songs and we’re going to call it an EP. Ours isn’t a good example, because it had seven, so it wasn’t too much shorter than the album.
RB: But there’s a different mental approach to it. You only get one chance to do your first album, so if you’re going to do it you have to be gung-ho about it and make sure that it’s really our best offering. If people only hear this, what do we want them to hear.
MC: We actually set out to do another EP, and we were going to release it last year. Eventually we started shifting to, well, we like all this stuff and if we want to keep going we’ll have to release an album, and that’s a much bigger project.
RB: It requires a lot of patience. You’re so excited to share it when it’s mastered and finished, but you have to wait and say, okay, give it to the PR folks and let them do their magic first.
MC: There’s more pressure, too. With an EP, I mean, there’s pressure, but in hindsight it’s really more like showing people the development of your band in progress. For an album it’s much more formal, official, like you’re putting a big stamp of approval that says “this is what we do.” Whether it’s the design and style, the writing and sound, the production… there are a lot of layers of pressure. But I think it’s good to have, because it focuses you more than it stresses you out. Being Capricorns, I think we put a lot of that on ourselves anyway.
TC: I take it that’s where the album name came from.
MC: It is, yeah. All three of us are Capricorns. I don’t know that any of us are really into astrology, but it’s interesting to see how we all act and approach things. We’re definitely all go-getters, and we all really stress about the minutiae. Honestly, having been in other bands and other creative relationships, I think it’s one of the first times that everyone in the group understands where each other are coming from.
RB: We were all front-people in other bands before this, and if you’ve ever been in a band you know that it quickly becomes apparent who does all the work. At the end of the day there’s always one person who’s pushing everyone else, and, like, scheduling band practice or getting posters designed. All three of us were that person, so we know how much it sucks to have a lame member.
MC: Bands are exactly like long, high-school group projects [laughs]. All three of us are the taskmasters, and it’s nice because I know I can have an off day and things are still getting done.
TC: On a similar note, where’d you come up with the band name?
RB: Well, you might have noticed that his last name is Cobra. Which is his legal last name.
TC: It’s your actual last name?
MC: Yep. On my birth certificate.
RB: And perhaps you’ve noticed…
MC: She’s Miss Giddy [laughs]. So she’s the Happy and I’m the Fangs.
RB: We did do a lot of hunting to find that name, like making giant lists and stuff. But I think we almost simultaneously came up with it. Once we said it out loud, there was no more need for lists.
MC: We wanted something that had some duality to it, some contrasting elements, that also gave a sense of what we might sound like. Almost like a brand name, you know, does this actually say what the hell you’re going to hear. We want to make heavy music fun and make fun music heavy.
TC: So what does the future hold for you guys?
MC: We’re going to be playing LA, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Olympia, and Seattle in March, and we’re in the process of figuring out our summer plans.
RB: And we’ve got some exciting music videos in the works.
MC: Yeah, we’ve got a video for “Raw Nights” coming out later this week. And we’re finishing up a couple of videos with a really great director, Jim Mitchell. He was the special effects coordinator for a few of the Harry Potter films, Sleepy Hollow, Terminator 2…
RB: We’re just his fun side-project [laughs]. We’re not sure if we should just start telling people we spent all of our retirement funds making these videos. Like we bet our entire futures on a crazy, attack-of-the-bird-monsters music video for “Hiya Kaw Kaw” [laughs]. If you thought it was fun as an audio track…
TC: How’d you meet him?
RB: He’s a fan!
MC: He was actually at a show that my old band played and did a video for us that looks like District 9 with robots. He was really into Happy Fangs, so he told us he really wanted to work with us and direct something. We let him decide what he wanted to do with the videos, and he’s done a really amazing job.
RB: So yeah. In short, we’ve got a lot in the pipeline.
You can check out Happy Fangs’ upcoming tour schedule on their Facebook page.