A few months ago the S.F. band found a way to circumvent the 20-foot rule during a show at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York. It was a month after Sept. 11, and the audience was watching the opening act with lethargic, glazed-over eyes, stuck in the same depressed funk as the rest of the city. Something needed to be done. Three-quarters of the way through the Stratfords' standard closer, "All That Damage," singer and guitarist Chris Streng skipped the chorus and ad-libbed a few lines from the "Theme From New York, New York." Suddenly, that 20-foot barrier of space vanished, as the crowd rushed the stage.
Breaking such rules is central to a band whose music both draws on and departs from the sound of the "shoegazers," late-'80s and early-'90s British acts that plied a lush brew of distorted guitars, washed-out vocals, and buried melodies, all the while playing as they stared at their feet. That music provides a fertile starting point for the Stratford 4 -- Streng, Hosek, drummer Andrea Caturegli, and bassist Sheetal Singh -- which picks up where shoegazing left off and takes it in unforeseen directions. For, while the Stratfords' feedback-drenched, atmospheric sound recalls their British progenitors, the band's earnest presence and Streng's frequent stage banter counter the image of the self-obsessed shoegazer who mumbles lyrics into his shirt. The Stratfords abandon indifference in favor of interaction, pushing their listeners to feel something, for better or worse. With last month's release of The Revolt Against Tired Noises on New York's Jetset Records, the group seems primed to take its sound nationwide.
"Suddenly, we're exactly where we wanted to be when we started this whole thing," says Hosek, during an interview in Singh's Mission District apartment.
While getting to this point may have been a difficult process -- "We worked our asses off," Hosek says -- meeting each other wasn't as much of a stretch. In the late '90s Hosek and Caturegli moved to the Bay Area from Seattle, a town Hosek remembers as "no longer really thrilled about music," and formed a short-lived band named Triplo with Singh, who'd recently returned from a stint of living "sort of illegally" in London. After Triplo disintegrated, the trio met longtime Bay Area resident Streng through mutual friends in the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (a similarly noisy group that's since gone on to sign with Virgin Records).
In 1999 the Stratfords self-released a four-song EP with the same title as the new album, The Revolt Against Tired Noises. The debut mixed a host of British influences, crossing the atmospheric guitar layers of My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized with the '80s neo-psychedelia of the Church. Avoiding the unintelligible vocal style of early shoegazers like the Jesus & Mary Chain, Streng elevated his voice above the chaos of Hosek's guitar slides and tremolos, with occasional harmonic help from Caturegli. The EP was -- and remains -- a near-perfect tribute to the shoegazer sound, filtered through a couple of decades and 5,000 miles.
Optimistically, the Stratfords attempted to follow the usual path to success, shopping the demo in the hope of getting signed. It didn't work out. "We sent it out to tons of labels," Singh says. "We really pimped ourselves out. A handful wrote back, saying they were interested but wanted to hear more. We had this major collective sigh."
Eventually the band returned to the studio, recording last year's follow-up EP, This Could Be Heaven. Diversifying its sound, the foursome added upbeat pop tempos, abstract balladry, a danceable remix, and the sprawling, wondrous 15-minute epic "All That Damage." ("We lost a year recording that one," Streng says about the amount of time he and Hosek spent twiddling with their guitar pedals in search of the perfect tone.)
On the strength of the two EPs, Jetset Records -- which has released albums by such renowned indie bands as Mogwai, Arab Strap, and the Go-Betweens -- signed the group and released the Revolt full-length, a combination of the best songs from the EPs and two new tracks.
"The album is the process of us finding our feet musically," says Hosek.
"The new stuff sounds different," says Streng. "We're evolving our style."
While last year's EP started the push, the new tracks off Revolt reveal a band eclipsing its early influences and sound. Instead of using drone and distortion as the tunes' foundations, the band applies them as accents; where it used to embrace style, now it favors song structure. On "All the Fading Stars," the lack of lengthy detours into aurora guitarealis lends clarity to the singer's storytelling, while the lovelorn anthem "Displacer" builds a catchy tune from power chords and squalling guitar.
Hosek admits to his overriding obsession with feedback and guitar pedals -- his bandmates label him a "pedalphile" -- but he believes that the Stratford 4 has forgone its past for a place where songwriting is far more important. "If you can't take a song and play it just as well without a roomful of pedals and effects, then you don't have a song," he says.
Oddly enough, the Stratford 4's brand of pop remains an anomaly in San Francisco's music scene. While there are plenty of jangly retro acts, the Stratfords' Anglophile leanings aren't all that common.
"For a while, everyone was into twee music or everyone was into post-rock or everyone was into noise," says Singh. "We've seen all these trends go by and we've played with all those bands. There's never been a scene that relates to us specifically, and I don't think we'll ever be trendy in that way. We're outsiders who aren't unwelcome at the party, but maybe weren't on the A-list."
With a growing fan-base and an album on an elite indie label, it's unlikely the Stratford 4 will remain outside for long. As for figuring out what to call the band's music -- nugaze, perhaps? -- neither the Stratfords nor Jetset seems overly concerned.
"Bands are good because they have good songs and because they have enthusiasm for what they're doing," says Jetset publicist Robert Vickers via phone, "not because they've discovered some new subgenre of music that nobody's played before."
There is one image, however, the musicians are eager to shed: that they are all druggies. Far from embracing the "taking drugs to make music to take drugs to" ethos of seminal psych-pop act Spacemen 3, the Stratfords maintain they lead "notoriously boring and straight" lives.
"There are drug bands, and there are good things that drugs do," says Streng. "There are also problems that drugs bring up that make it onto the tape. We've avoided that."
"I was thinking recently," he adds, "that I would prefer that we were considered a dreamy band rather than a drug band."
That distinction is rendered moot by the Stratfords' preferred volume level: maximum. By wielding its stupefying wall of noise, the Stratford 4 hopes to bring people in -- or, failing that, drive them out. "I'd like that our music totally moves you, and you either really like it or you really hate it," says Hosek. "Anything in between is kind of depressing."
As a vocalist Streng also strives for strong reactions. At the band's last show, at Cafe Du Nord in December, a group of drunk out-of-towners wandered in off the street and started heckling the band. Streng wasn't bothered; in fact, he encouraged them.
"Heckling is OK," he explains, "because it breaks down the barrier between a band and an audience."
In the club's dark cellar, the boozers smashed that barrier.
"You suck!" screamed a drunk. "Play Buddy Holly!"
Streng didn't miss his cue. Plucking the first notes to one of the Stratfords' signature songs, he replied, "Yes indeed, this one's by Buddy Holly."