By Celine Teo Blockey
February 24, 2016
San Francisco favorites Heartwatch may be a band going places but they will not be leaving their city by the Bay anytime soon unlike the dozens of talented Bay Area acts that have. Barely a year ago at Noise Pop 2015, they stood out as one of the city's bright new things after an opening slot for Cathedrals. By August they had won a coveted slot at Outside Lands' Panhandle Stage.
This week they return to Noise Pop for their own headlining show tomorrow, Feb 24 at The Independent. It will also be a record release party for their upcoming mini-album, Faultlines which will be out on Feb 26. The quintet will then hit the road to go on tour before settling back for a slot at Bottle Rock in May.
It is quite the ascent for the band fronted by Claire George on vocals; Eric Silverman on keys and guitar; Rowan Peter on guitar and vocals; bassist, Nate Skelton; and drummer, Kern Sigala. It is particularly impressive, considering they managed to emerge unscathed from the minor drama of having to change their original band name - The Tropics, after lawyers of an English electronic act with the same moniker who were also performing the same venue a month apart from them, got in touch with legal threats. This Heartwatch the band fka The Tropics handled with great aplomb by providing a sticker set for their fans to paste over their earlier EP and ease into the new name change.
Fans have since been moved to support the band in the sweetest ways - like turning out full-force at their shows, handing out sunflowers and even organizing transport to their Outside Lands gig.
This outpouring of love and perhaps the fact that George only moved from LA about four years ago underlies her desire to want to stay here. Holding a full-time job in accounting back then, George felt compelled to indulge in creative pursuits. In a Jam In The Band interview she revealed never having sung professionally prior to being in Heartwatch, explaining: "Being in San Francisco itself, it felt like the city was so nurturing of people wanting to express themselves."
And she has the most unique of vocals which to express herself. In "Bored At Best" the third track ofFaultlines it is cut-glass clear. In "Gone Too Long" there are still traces of that Cranberries' inimitable tremor most apparent in "Fireproof" and "Sleepless" off their debut EP. Her voice does sometimes belie her lack of training and road-worn experience but when she hits her vocal sweet spot in the right pace of a song, she is golden. Aided by a top-notch bunch of musicians blessed with an indie popsensibility and ability to write the most catchy hooks - in their sprightly frontwoman, Heartwatch have a lightning rod of enthusiasm and the kind of insouciance that fans are naturally attracted to.
Ahead of their Noise Pop show, we speak to George about how important Noise Pop is as an independent festival; and though a tempting prospect why she will not leave San Francisco; plus we ask the dreaded 'what it feels like to be a girl in a band?' which she answers with such natural ease and graciousness.
Examiner: Hey Claire, last time I spoke to you was at Outside Lands – you landed a support gig with MS MR soon after. What was that whole experience like?
Claire George: It’s all just been awesome. We were so excited to play Outside Lands. Oh my god – it was so unexpected as well. Music seems to exist so much on the internet these days that I feel like we only see fans at our shows. Otherwise, you’re grasping with who is really listening or what do our fans like? And then we get a call to do Outside Lands and it was a real validation that if you put your music and yourselves out there in a really honest way, things can happen. It was a special moment for us.
Examiner: And what was the real story behind those sunflowers-totting fans – I heard at the time that the sunflowers were given away at the Eco-village which made sense but now I hear that diehard fans had organized it with a bus and all?
CG: The real story – there was a bus and it was organized by our fans. We were playing the early slot, the first band to go on that day. You know it can be hard to get there at that time – to make sure they didn’t miss our set, our fans organized a bus to pick everyone up, and while on the bus gave out the sunflowers. I knew some people who were going to catch the bus but had no idea about the sunflowers. It was just pure sunshine and added to our weekend. It also got me thinking, we just announced our appearance at Bottle Rock in May and I thought that would be an opportunity to get a bus out there too. Make the Heartwatch-bus a tradition. It would be perfect for Bottle Rock with all that wine, and it’s not in the city and to organize our fans in a very old school way like a fan club. We feel so supported by them.
Examiner: So now you’re at Noise Pop - have you been to any of the Noise Pop pre-show events yet? What are some of the shows you guys are hoping to catch?
CG: Carly Rae Jepson, I think she’s amazing. I’m excited for that. I want to see Metric too … basically all these women who are performing, I feel like I can learn a lot from their shows. Last year we opened for Cathedral and this year we are headlining our own show at The Independent – it’s amazing but I’m also a bit nervous. Also want to see Daywave, they’re friends of ours. And Mitski, I think she’s a great songwriter – there’s a nice mix of local and out-of-town acts that makes Noise Pop such an interesting festival. Plus every year they seem to stretch it out a little more – like they have a comprehensive film program this year. And two weeks ago, I attended a Noise Pop photo exhibition of concert photography. It’s an all-encompassing festival during that time of the year where there is really nothing else going on before the festival season begins.
Examiner: What does a festival like Noise Pop mean to you and what’s it like headlining at Noise Pop?
CG: We applied to Noise Pop last year and got a spot opening for The Cathedral. As an SF artist you want to be sure you play Noise Pop. We also had our sights set on Phono Del Sol which and we got to play at as well. We love playing festivals but we also love The Independent as a venue. When we were working on the record we were shooting for our record release to be held at The Independent and during Noise Pop. It’s the perfect festival and venue for us as it has a communal feel. We will have an after-party across the street at San Franpsycho and a pre-show party with a burger pop-up.
Examiner: How did you guys get together as a band?
CG: I met Eric about 4 and a half years ago when we were both working on a different project. He knew Nate from college and then got Kern our drummer. It just became about bringing people together to make this band which has been around with this line-up for about two and a half years.
Examiner: That’s pretty recent to have an EP out, and an upcoming mini-album, to be a support band last year and be headlining your own show this year with an upcoming tour.
CG: Yes, I know. It’s all relative. Eric and I have been working together for four years and as a band for three and a half.
Examiner: How would you describe the Heartwatch sound?
CG: We always use to laugh at that question as we just weren’t self-aware of what kind of music we were making. In the early days we had 8min-long rock ballads with 4min guitar solos. We also had a blues-rock jazzy song that never made in on any of our records and when I listen to it now, I wonder ‘what is that?’. About two years ago when the band really started to kick off, journalists were really telling us what we sounded like and we were writing that into our Press Release. I listened to a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s pop over the radio while Eric was more into classic rock. I think overtime we’ve become more of an indie pop band.
Examiner: Have you gotten over the trauma of having to change your band name from The Tropics to Heartwatch, just as you were gaining some traction as ‘The Tropics – up and coming Bay Area band’?
CG: I don’t know if we’ll ever get over it – just kidding. The thing is you know, we were at that stage when you don’t know who you are really as a band and who is really with you in terms of fans so it was hard to have to negotiate that. At the same time it gave us a clean break as we were starting to get more direction with our music. We took it as an opportunity to rebrand ourselves. The truth is it could have happened earlier but if it had happened any later, I don’t know how we would have coped. Even now I still freak out if somebody says they’ve heard of our band so that’s what important that people know who we are now.
Examiner: And now you’ve been busy with your new mini-album, I always wonder the motivation to release a mini-album, is it cost, timing, thematically …?
CG: For us we had this set of songs that really made sense together. With our first EP we were just saying ‘here’s a few songs’. With Faultlines, we’re saying ‘here’s who we are’. It also does cost a lot of money to do a full LP and we made a calculated decision to put money into having more B-sides, songs that aren’t necessarily big pop singles.
Examiner: You have singles but also the opportunity to be creative without worrying about that pop hit?
CG: Yes. I think a lot of indie artists we like have worked that way. And for me as a listener, non-singles always speak to me more. And I think next time round we are all going to be ready for that LP.
Examiner: Faultlines is a very San Francisco song for obvious reasons but the whole album seems to have that theme – is that related to the fact that so many bands are still leaving SF?
CG: Yes “Gone Too Long” is about that. So many people have left and are still leaving. It’s very expensive for musicians and bands to survive here - it’s always being discussed. It’s a never-ending discussion. There’s a real temptation to go. It seems like it’s easier to move somewhere else like LA or where ever, where it’s easier to pay your rent, or to find a rehearsal space … but I try to maintain perspective. There is something special that keeps us here, it’s part of our identity as a band, I love being here and our fans… so we can move somewhere when some things might be easier but I want to keep in perspective what we have already.
Examiner: What was it like having Damien Lewis produce the album – were you all after a specific sound in choosing him, he's produced for Marina & The Diamonds, Katy Perry and an old radio favorite of yours, Mariah Carey?
CG: He helped mix our first record so we knew him from before and we were impressed with his vision and the mixing he did for us. Anytime we bring someone to join our team we have to feel that we can communicate and connect with them. And Damien was able to do that - to also see beyond just the internal politics of us as a band but where we fit in the larger music landscape. We picked Damien for those reasons above who he had worked with before.
Examiner: He splits his time between producing and developing artists – did he have any advice for you guys?
CG: Well, Patrick (Brown from Different Furs) really made as into a band when we recorded our first EP Wind House but Damien was able to see it from the outside. He told us that within our music we already have this specific sound – we had an indie pop sensibility already built into our lyrics, and a certain nostalgia, probably from the kind of music I had been listening to during my childhood. Then when we were in the studio, he was also able to give very clear directions – like for “Gone Too Long” I had maybe 50 choruses (laughs), I mean how many different ways can you sing those three words? He made me feel very comfortable and said ‘just use fewer words to make it work’. That track ended up being my favorite song because it took on so much more meaning for me.
Examiner: Is there anything else you'd like to add about the show or the record?
CG: We will be having a special Heartwatch burger pre-show. It's just across the street from the venue at the Mojo Bicycle Cafe - it's a pop up called Wes Burger, and they're only opened on Wednesdays! Guess what? Our show's on a Wednesday. I was vegetarian for a long time and now I have a burger obsession. Stay tuned on the day we will be announcing the toppings. Then we're going on tour and we're really excited to be doing that. We did a short run with MS MR but this will be our first tour with another band - The Flavr Blue with set dates in advance and they are people that I admire a lot. Hollis (Wong-Wear) is a spoken-word poet and does a lot of the writing, as well as having worked with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. She's awesome!
Examiner: So I have to now ask that question - what's it like being a girl in the band?
CG: God! It's fine. I get treated the same. I have two older brothers so it's like my whole life. I can't be a diva they don't allow me to be. Sometimes they forget I'm a girl - I just want to be in the shower for an hour but they won't let me get away with it. But we're always looking out for each other and we stick together when we're on tour which means it can get quite stinky - just kidding. (laughs) Really, I love that we're all in this band together.
For tickets to see Heartwatch at The Independent, please click here. You will be able to order ticket bundles which can include their mini-album Faultlines with the admission costs. Noise Pop 2016 runs from Feb 19 to 28 with more than 80 acts playing including Kamasi Washington, The Thermals, Parquet Courts and Mountain Goat. For details and tickets to remaining shows, please visit www.noisepop.com
Heartwatch Tour with The Flavr Blue
5 March The Echo Los Angeles, CA
6 March The Casbah San Diego, CA
8 March LowBrau Sacramento, CA
9 March G Street Bar and Grill Grants Pass, Oregon
10 March Holocene Portland, Oregon