Monte Vallier's booking agent thought he was nuts. It was summer of last year and Vallier's band, Swell, was preparing for an extensive tour of the U.K. and the European Continent -- traditionally fertile markets for a band that, like American Music Club and Thin White Rope before it, enjoys significant album sales and crowds everywhere but the United States. However, despite pleas from several parties to allow then-buzz band Hefner to support Swell on the U.K. portion of the tour, Vallier insisted that the slot be occupied by an unknown group from San Francisco with a peculiar name: Half Film. "I got Hefner CDs from the label, I got Hefner CDs from their manager, I got Hefner CDs from the band," explains Vallier, chuckling on the phone from his home in San Francisco. "I had to write them all back and say, 'Look, sorry, but I don't like Hefner. I want to tour with Half Film.' And everyone was like, 'Who?'" Vallier eventually got his way, and Half Film -- singer/guitarist Conor Devlin, bassist Eimer Hedderman, and drummer Jason Lakis -- accompanied Swell on 6 U.K. dates in October of last year. When it was over, says Vallier, "everyone was taking their words back."
Half Film is striking in its simplicity. Its sound -- characterized by Devlin's mechanical, arpeggiated guitar, Hedderman's keen melodic sense, and Lakis' understated, often brushed drumming -- has been called hypnotic by more than one observer. Atop it all is Devlin's Irish-accented baritone (both he and Hedderman hail from Dublin), and expressionist lyrics. The band's newly released sophomore album, The Road to the Crater, is remarkable more for creating space -- and the sense of it -- than for filling it up. It's Half Film's ability to conjure what Vallier calls "a mood" that has endeared the band to fans throughout the U.S. and Europe. "We don't get that much mail and e-mail from people in San Francisco," says Devlin, 30, sipping a pint with his bandmates one recent Sunday afternoon in a Lower Haight Street bar. "It's from everywhere else but the Bay Area. It's really bizarre."
Half Film resides in San Francisco, but its profile in town is so low that it's practically underground. While some local acts spend their time attempting to pack clubs on 11th Street, Devlin and his cohorts prefer to rehearse, play the odd show, make records, and tour. "We don't want to just concentrate on San Francisco," explains Devlin. "You're doomed if you do that. We wanted to start playing other cities." When it's suggested that many local outfits strive to be San Francisco bands as opposed to American bands, Hedderman, 28, smiles and says, "We go on further: We prefer to be a European band." Indeed, a few weeks after returning home from their U.K. dates with Swell, the band flew back to Europe to commence a tour of its own, playing nearly 30 dates throughout the Continent.
Devlin and Hedderman are intensely private, and reluctant to discuss their past ("I bury it a lot," Devlin says, cryptically). Therefore, what little is known is more mystery than history. The two were acquaintances in Dublin before meeting up again in England's Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where they briefly collaborated. Hedderman later moved to San Francisco and Devlin followed. In 1996 the duo met Lakis at a mutual friend's barbecue. Though he played a fair amount of drums in high school hard rock bands before moving on to quieter pastures, Lakis, 28, says he initially had designs on being Half Film's second guitarist. "I tried to get their drummer at the time to convince them, but he was too chicken," he laughs. "When the drummer left I said I'd help them out and it just sort of evolved from there." Devlin was pleased with Lakis' ability on the traps. "[His] sound was really loose," says the guitarist. "I thought, 'This is nice.' I wasn't really into a straight drummer." By the summer of 1996 the band was rehearsing regularly, forming the sound that would initially surface on a demo recorded to book local shows.
One of the first people to receive that demo was Swell's Vallier. However, it wasn't the first time he'd heard from Conor Devlin. "He sent a fan letter kind of thing, like, 'Hey, I'm moving to San Francisco from Ireland and I'm a fan of your band,'" says the bassist and co-songwriter. "It wasn't gushy. It was more like, 'I respect what you're doing and maybe we can get together.' I called him and we ended up meeting and hanging out." Since then, Half Film and Vallier have forged a friendship based on respect and a mutual appreciation for a shared aesthetic.
Vallier cites Half Film's hypnotic sound and simplicity as what attracts him to the band. But above all, he says, it's the tension that they create. "There are those long arpeggios, and you just wait and you wait and you wait for something to happen," he says, with genuine amazement. "And they fool you. There is no big release. It just builds and builds and there are little tiny releases." Vallier recently produced a single for the band to be released on Central California's Astronavigation label. It will be the first in a series of five singles that the band hopes to issue over the next two years. Vallier will also record the second installment in the series, which is set to include a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman." Says Devlin of Vallier, "He's been the best person to us. He's done us enormous favors."
Last summer, Chicago's Buzz Records issued Half Film's debut full-length, East of Monument. Produced in San Francisco by Bottom of the Hill sound engineer Kurt Schlegel at his Lucky Cat studio, it's a remarkably accomplished debut for a group of self-proclaimed amateurs. Over the course of the album's eight songs, the band asserts its subdued, linear aesthetic. Lakis' drumming is particularly outstanding: His expressive use of brushes often takes center stage but never overshadows the whole. Hedderman's bass tone sounds a mile wide, while Devlin mines a slow, deliberate picking style that by now has become his trademark. If there's one flaw with East of Monument, though, it's that Devlin's vocal performance lacks the confidence of his efforts on The Road to the Crater, so much so that the difference between the two is immediately striking. Whereas previously Devlin sought to submerge his words in the mix, on Crater they've finally surfaced, riding along on his melancholy baritone. "The vocals are fuckin' loud, ya know?" says the singer, with some amazement.
To produce The Road to the Crater Half Film called upon yet another person with an inherent understanding of their music, Jim Putnam of the Los Angeles-based Radar Brothers. "We knew that his records sounded good and that we were gonna get something good," explains Devlin. "You just have to jump in." Jump they did, traveling to Los Angeles in August of last year to record in Putnam's garage-cum-studio. By all accounts the sessions went smoothly, with Putnam being particularly impressed with the band's ability to not obsess over its music. "I was surprised at how good they were at just letting stuff go and saying, 'OK, it's done,'" he says over the phone from his L.A. home. An easygoing, funny man, he speaks with genuine awe of Half Film's efficiency in the studio. "When the Radar Brothers make a record it usually takes us about two years. [With Half Film] it was very refreshing. It was almost confusing," he laughs.
As reasons for the smooth sessions, Putnam cites the band's increased confidence, as well as a strong idea of the sound they wanted to communicate. Half Film also actively sought Putnam's involvement, to the point where they considered him a temporary member of the group for the duration of the recording. "My whole thing with producers is that if they're going to produce the record then they're in the band for the whole session," explains Devlin. "I think we're very easy like that because no one's got some big vision for the band that blocks everything else." Putnam echoes Devlin's impression of the recording process as a collaboration between band and producer. "I think we just had the attitude of 'Let's record it and see what comes out,'" he says.
If The Road to the Crater doesn't exactly represent a quantum leap for Half Film, the band doesn't deal in -- or aspire to -- such dramatic changes. Instead, they're engaged in an ongoing, slow ascent to an aesthetic ideal. "I'd like to just have 10 albums and then stop and say, 'That was it and I absolutely made the best of it,'" says Devlin. "I don't think we need someone to 'jazz up' the records to make us sound better." In addition to more forceful singing by Devlin, different instrumentation crops up on several songs, including mournful slide guitar on "Stepless," trumpet on "Birchwood," and piano on "Included Here." The band is also getting louder. "I don't think we can be called a quiet band," says Lakis. "I don't know if it came to playing to crowds that don't shut up, or what, but there's been a progression." Unchanged, however, are the elements that initially defined the band's sound: the mood of which Vallier speaks, the stark musical landscape, and above all, Devlin's image-laden lyrics.
By his own admission, Devlin is more concerned with the way his words combine with each other to form loose, interpretive meanings than with conveying any literal meaning to the listener. "I don't really like things that are straightforward," he explains. "I like things that are a bit hazy and open to interpretation." He cites R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe's early lyrics as exemplifying a certain expressionist aesthetic. "The first couple R.E.M. records are magical," he says. "The place [Stipe] blew it was when he started really singing." Crater's standout track is "The Mother of All Distance." Much of the lyric is indecipherable, yet when Devlin sings, "Your face, a murderous distance," over an ominous drone, the sense of dread is overwhelming. Devlin is as protective of his words as he is of his past. In fact, his bandmates have only ever seen his lyrics written down once. Many are still a mystery to them. Just the same, Hedderman shares an enthusiasm for her bandmate's cryptic, interpretive approach. Far from being an afterthought, song titles are often agonized over for months, their merits being debated. "With song titles it's a major consideration how they look written down," says Hedderman. "It's important that they conjure an image." One day Devlin and Hedderman attempted to meld one of their songs with a Castro Theater program guide description of the Sinatra movie Night on the Town. They gave up, but emerged with another image-rich title: "Half Film."
The members of Half Film -- particularly Devlin and Hedderman -- exhibit an odd mixture of self-satisfaction and self-deprecation. Though in absolute command of their craft, they're quick to realize their limitations. "I'm certainly getting further and further away from what rock guitar 'should' be," says Devlin. "We're all like that. None of us would survive in another band doing what we're doing. We'd be laughed out of any other band. It's just been like, 'Let's see how it goes, there's no big aim or ambition.' I mean, it's just accidents."
Half Film performs Monday, Aug. 23, at 8:30 p.m. at the Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., S.F. Tickets are $5; call 647-2877.