Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sister Double Happiness (April/May 1994)

(As published in B-Side magazine...)

"When we started this band in '86, we were essentially doing the same thing we do now," explains Ben Cohen, one of two guitarists in the San Francisco-based quintet Sister Double Happiness. "And at first nobody liked us. They didn't understand. But after we played around for awhile, people began to get it.

"And then they really liked us."

Thus begins and ends Cohen's summary of Sister Double Happiness's rocky road to the modest success they currently enjoy. The real tale, however, lies in what happened in between.

Coming together from backgrounds enriched with varying degrees of punk spirit, Cohen, Gary Floyd (lyrics and lead singing), Lynn Perko (drums), Miles Montalbano (bass), and Danny Roman (the other guitarist) wasted little time in parlaying their status as local favorites into a recording contract. By the fall of 1987, they'd released an album on the then-powerful SST Records. Four years later they released Heart and Mind on Warner Brothers. All of this, mind you, accompanied by lots of "critical acclaim."

So what went wrong? Or, perhaps more accurately, what didn't go quite right?

For starters, the Heart and Mind sessions themselves. "Warner Brothers--a few people in particular--definitely had the idea that we should go into the studio and produce something that was perfect and flawless," Cohen recalls, "with all the kinks taken out of it. And our reaction to that was, 'Well, then, you're not going to have anything left.'"

Spend some time with the group's latest longplayer, Uncut (Dutch East), and you'll have a pretty good idea of why Sister Double Happiness would chafe under such supervision. Far from "perfect and flawless," Uncut snarls and pounds with raggedy, electric abandon. And the louder you play it, the better it sounds.

"If you dissect what we do," explains Cohen, "it doesn't make any sense. The guitar's off, and the bass is off, and the kick drum's off. But if you put it all together it really works. The guy from Warner Brothers didn't understand that. He was trying to make it exactly even. And unbeknownst to us at the time, he actually took the master tape to some studio after we thought it was done and had some computer bullshit done to it to straighten it out even more."

In light of such chicanery, the title Uncut--as in "un-tampered with"--takes on greater meaning. The band found a sympathetic producer in Jonathan Burnside (the Melvins, Consolidated), who, in addition to having no aversion to Sister Double Hapiness's "kinks," possessed enough humility to share production chores with the band.

Listening to such Uncut nuggets as "Ashes" and "Do What You Gotta Do" (both of which, incidentally, first showed up on Sister Double Happiness's eponymous early-'93 EP), one can hear what may have put San Franciscans off the band at first. After all, not many bands have as unclassifiable a frontman as Sister Double Happiness does in Floyd. A burly Texan who looks like Allen Ginsberg and sings his tales of anguish with the intensity of a Pavarotti with a thorn in his paw, he would challenge almost anyone's idea of a rock-and-roll frontman. And good for him. (Cohen laughs at the inevitable what's-Floyd-really-like query. "Uh, he's an angel sent to earth and, uh--leave it at that.")

Ironically, although Floyd and the band's barbed blues-metal riffs define most of Uncut, the song that draws the most attention to itself is "Louise," the seven-minute instrumental that closes the disc. A somber piano solo by Perko accompanied and eventually superseded by the sounds of a city street, it serves as an unofficial--and accidental--tip of the hat to the father of random "found" sounds, John Cage.

"We recorded the piano in a studio with a big, beautiful grand piano, one that sounded really nice," Cohen recalls. "Then we put the cassette in this cheesy ghetto blaster and put it by the door of the studio, which is on a busy urban street in San Francisco, and put a mic up to it so that it was playing while the street noise was playing. We were just fooling around, but it sounded fun to us."

And, in turn, Sister Double Happiness has sounded fun to others. Following in the footsteps of many other "Amer-Indie" bands, Sister Double Happiness is now officially "big in Europe." They finished their second successful European tour at the end of summer 1993, and, according to Cohen, it went even better than the first. "We ended up playing a lot of the same places, but we had repeat customers. People discovered us for the first time. Then they came back for more and brought some of their friends. A lot of people knew the words to our songs.

"Our sound is like that of a lot of the bands in the '60s," says Cohen, providing an overview. "One of the first bands I ever liked was Steppenwolf, a guitar band that plays a simple, blues-based kind of music. It's been done many times, but then guys who used to be in punk bands started doing it. And now, of course, it's a big trend, right?

"Not that we started it, but we did it when it was unpopular, and now that it's popular, we're still doing it."

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