It's easy to forget that Sierra Frost, the leader of the Downer Party, is only 19. That is, until she asks who Gram Parsons is, begins assigning best friend status to multiple people, and explains that the title of the song "Being a Teenager (Is Free Palestine)" doesn't really mean anything before offering, "We're teenagers in San Francisco who think that other teenagers are stupid for getting behind causes that they don't know anything about." She also has a story about being turned away at 21-and-over nightclub Ruby Skye during this year's SF Weekly Music Awards, where her band was nominated in the Indie Rock/Pop category.
There are a few reasons the noticeably self-aware Frost can seem older than she really is, including the fact that she is already well on her way to becoming a grizzled music vet. After dropping out of Oakland's College Preparatory School (eventually taking the California High School Proficiency Exam), she and fellow 15-year-old Lily Faden started Two Seconds, a blues-rock duo that almost instantly became a fully functional band. They put out a couple of discs and played high-profile events like BFD and Noise Pop before joining established indie-rock outfit Elephone, whose members were more than twice their age.
"I loved playing with those guys," says Frost on a chilly Friday evening at the Bean Bag Cafe on Divisadero. We're just around the corner from her apartment, where she teaches even younger kids guitar and piano. She's rolling Drum cigarettes and sipping a beer like it ain't no thing. "I learned so much in Elephone about what to do and what not to do in a band, and how to conduct yourself like a professional musician. But as I got older, it became more apparent that I should live my life like I'm young."
After Frost left Elephone in October 2008, she and bassist Sam Bartos formed the Downer Party. Only a few months after getting started, the trio, rounded out by drummer George Rosenthal — who plays guitar in another youthful band, Lou Lou and the Guitarfish — knocked out its debut disc, Ego-Driven Lust Creatures. The EP is a fun trip in daddy's T-Bird filled with punky power-pop and ecstatic vocals delivered with the energy of a quintuple-exclamation-pointed yearbook message. In the disc's best song, the aforementioned "Being a Teenager," Frost fantasizes about a clothing-optional international dance party. But just as quickly as things came together, Frost and Bartos found themselves itching to move away from the Jameson's-fueled party scene that had initially inspired them. They wanted to develop a more complex sound, and even considered relocating to New York. Mix in numerous drummer problems and urges to break up, and you've got an exciting young band in transition.
"You're kind of getting us at a weird time," admits Frost, who says that the trip East was nixed when they couldn't find jobs. "The whole theme of our band from the beginning has been like, 'We're kids.' This is awkward. This is where all of our drive comes from, and moving in a different direction in terms of sound goes really well with that whole idea. When you're 19, you're a different person every six months."
Later that night, Frost and her bandmates — Bartos, guitarist August Churchill, and drummer Chris Crawford, who's on loan from French Miami — are rehearsing their live set. The songs are predominantly new and feature more brain than brawn, drawing influence from Pavement, Pixies, and Built to Spill. Frost is comfortably playing the grown-up role she handles so well, but during a smoke-break discussion about where to place "Cities" — the title track from an EP due early next year — it's hard not to think about the young/old dichotomy. Though the acoustic number is sonically the Downer Party's most mature song, the lyrics examine the quintessential teenage predicament of missing a best friend at college.
Apparently it takes an old soul to make sure that youth isn't always wasted on the young.