“I do not like this place.”
“You’ve never been there!”
“I do not like this place.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
It’s one of those classic comic novelty songs that capture the imagination and threaten to define a band before its time. Like the Catheads’ “Golden Gate Park” or Camper Van Beethoven’s “Take The Skinheads Bowling,” “Ohio” by the Oakland, CA trio Little My (the name was taken from the popular heroine of a Finnish children’s book series) combines a simple, infectious tune with joke lyrics that stand up to repeated listening. Imagine how the Pixies might sound if Frank Black and Kim Deal were equal songwriting partners. Picture them engaged in a lively debate (over a rocking two-chord garage pulse) on the merits of small-town Ohio: “Why do you wear such funny-looking overalls?” “Because they’re comfortable!” A silly song you play over and over till you can’t stand it.
But though “Ohio” is the tune that has started to put them on the map, the members of Little My (Tynan Northrop: bass and vocals; Matt Stahl: guitar and vocals; Adam McCauley: drums) are intent on making it clear that there’s more to them than one song or musical style.
Their two self-released EPs, Grain and Asthma, prove them right, displaying an outlandish collision of delirious sounds, contrasting vocal styles, and deft. twisted instrumental bits. Their mix of lunatic energy, clashing personalities, and loopy humor has made them one of the Bay Area’s most enjoyable live bands.
Formed in the fertile atmosphere of West Oakland’s Seventh Street live/work spaces (a cheap art-and-music mecca located in a seedy neighborhood), the band began as a five-piece with Tynan and the fondly remembered Nat as dual lead vocalists. Matt picks up the tale: “We kicked out the bassist and drummer and started playing with Adam. We played without a bass for a few months.”
Adam: “And Tynan picked up a guitar and started playing bass notes. We’re like, ‘Keep on doing it, dammit!’ Then Matt bought her a bass.”
Tynan: “They gave me a week to learn bass lines to ten songs.”
Thus arose the fascinating amateur/muso mix that gives Little My’s sound its strange edge, with the quirky prowess of Matt and Adam offset by Tynan’s imaginatively rudimentary bass parts. Meanwhile, the vocals were a nonstop argument, Tynan playing the primly bemused straightwoman to Nat’s improvised ranting. (After Nat’s departure, Matt took his place in the dialogue.)
Matt: “Nat did a thing where he would sit in a shopping cart and sing at rehearsals.”
Adam: “Nat would always be screaming.”
Tynan: “And give us happy migraines.”
Adam: “Tynan would be singing and so there would be this fight between the two.”
Tynan: “Like the whole structure of ‘Ohio.’ Nat wrote all the words. Basically, it’s Matt on the record singing Nat’s part. We used to take the piss out of Nat for being from Ohio.”
Matt: “But it was beyond magnificent when we used to do it with Nat. He is the most soulful performer. The guy would pour his heart out at every show.”
Adam: “It’d be different every time.”
The popularity of “Ohio” has left the band with mixed feelings. Bring it up and they suppress a groan, while trying not to seem ungrateful for the attention.
Adam: “It was a song that came out of the sheer joy of playing together for the first time… But it’s not necessarily the way we’re working now. It’s made me come to appreciate the way bands grow.”
Nat ended up leaving the band to concentrate on painting, and Little My ceased to exist until Tynan got the idea to re-form the band and record a six-song EP to fulfill her requirement for senior class project at California College of Arts & Crafts. When Nat declined to take part, the present-day lineup clicked into place.
They rearranged old material for what would become Grain. An old friend of Matt’s had a studio in Marin, and another friend, Mark Zanandrea (Catheads, It Thing) was recruited as producer. (According to Tynan, “We liked to hear his voice through the headphones.”) The basic tracks took two days, with two more days’ vocal recordings and mixdowns at Greg Freeman’s Lowdown Studio. Matt and his roommate silk-screened the record sleeves based on Tynan’s design of a crate of bok choy (it ties into the theme of opening track “Football, Turnips And Sex”, her song about sexual harassment by produce workers on Oakland’s loading docks).
Besides being an impressively complete DIY production, Grain is an exciting, eclectic piece of work that showcases the band’s anything-goes approach. Along with “Ohio” and “Football,” the EP offers the sputtering Nat-via-Matt rant “Cattle” (as in “Everybody’s turning into…”), the Celtic-flavored “A Green Run” (lilting harmonies and the opening lines “I was told when I was seven that I would live until I was eight”), and the astonishing “End Of The Road,” a hypnotic meditation on death balancing Tynan’s seductive siren call with an anguished, howling brudge by Matt (again interpreting an old Nat part).
With the release of a quality recording and a flurry of good press, Little My quickly established themselves as an in-demand live act and a flagship for the all-but-unknown Oakland scene.
Matt: “We experience an intense nationalism about Oakland.”
Tynan: “I’m amazed at how clueless people are about Oakland. It’s a really cool place, and I think it has a bad rap.”
Adam: “All the press ever give is murder rates! Fires, earthquakes, and murders.”
Matt: “Oakland is huge. There are twenty different towns within Oakland. There’s a place south of Jack London Square that’s a Citroen repair shop and an espresso bar. Where the hell else are you going to find that?”
Tynan: “Or Linoleum Dick’s. The store.”
Recently, the band booked more time at Lowdown and emerged with Asthma, a seven-song cassette. This time around, the sound is more raw and aggressive, with a greater emphasis on Matt’s vocals. The effect–a different side to this versatile group–is often reminiscent of the careening, ear-tickling capsule-tunes of early Minutemen.
Highlights include the all-out silliness of Tynan’s “Airplane Food,” the catchy punk stutter of Matt’s “Chieftain” (an early number “all about my brother and my perception of his experiences at an Ivy League college”), and the very weird “Pig’s Head,” in which Tynan and Matt trade off verses describing some hubris-overloaded character holding the title object aloft “with triumph and sorrow.” Say what?
Tynan: “I sing the words I write, and he sings the words he writes. Usually they’re completely unrelated to each other.”
Adam: “They’re related in some way, but not intentionally.”
Matt: “Kind of like cut-up writing. She’ll write some words to a song, and we’ll play it, and I’ll think it’s saying one thing, and I’ll write my words around what I think it’s saying. Later I’ll find out it was something completely different.”
Adam: “Case in point, ‘Pig’s Head.’ What were you singing about, Tynan, a friend of yours in Iceland?”
Tynan: “It doesn’t matter what I’m singing about. If you knew you’d realize they have nothing to do with each other.”
Matt: “We have a new song where…I don’t know what Tynan’s singing about, but I’m singing from the point of view of a tortured house cat. And I don’t know why!”
Adam: “We’re not what you’d call a ‘message band’.”
Tynan (indignantly): “Speak for yourself!”
Asthma climaxes with the catchy, twisted “Surf Detective,” featuring a near-incomprehensible Matt lyric over a Mission Impossible-like riff in 11/8 time. “The first verse,” Matt explains, “is my idea of what it would be like to be homeless, acid-damaged , and confused on the boardwalk in San Diego. The second verse is about my roommate getting beaten up outside my house. If you take the words out, it sounds like a surfing-detective TV show theme.”
Future plans include more out-of-town shows (there’s talk of a Northwest tour with fellow Oakland band Fibulator) and a re-release of both Grain and Asthma, plus additional material, on one CD. Sadly, this latter project has been shelved for the time being due to lack of fund. (Asthma cassettes are still available, though.) Some day soon, this band may hit your town. Be prepared to be assaulted with charm.