Inside the anonymous, gray exterior of an Oakland recording studio, frontwoman Greer McGettrick is fastidiously mixing the sophomore album by The Mallard, the band she started in 2011. Hunched over the massive mixing console, she listens intently, then adjusts, then listens some more. Eventually she breaks to discuss The Mallard in a studio isolation booth, where she slouches and sighs, clearly relishing the respite. "When you're too old to rock 'n' roll, you're going to wish you had played every show like it was your last," she says. The cliché arrives with a rare smirk, but it also explains the work ethic propelling The Mallard from a Central California kid's dream to a consummate rock 'n' roll band.
The Mallard's debut album, Yes on Blood, appeared more than 10 months ago to little acclaim. An unnerving and oblique take on modern garage tempered with dark atonality and restlessness, the album didn't inspire the kind of concentrated Internet hype that helps many new bands launch their careers. It was released by John Dwyer, frontman of S.F. rock deans Thee Oh Sees, on his own small label, Castle Face. Few outside the local scene noticed. For a group with less determination, Yes on Blood's initial reception might have been difficult to overcome. Yet The Mallard worked tirelessly throughout 2012 to raise the album's profile, winning acclaim from both local and national critics by the end of the year.
McGettrick is baffled by the sizable impact Yes on Blood went on to have. "I thought it was going to get buried," she says, "especially compared to bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty [Segall] making four albums a year."
In a June interview for SF Weekly's music blog, All Shook Down, McGettrick explained the serendipitous meeting that led her to release the album on Castle Face. She moved from Fresno into a Mission District room that was formerly rented by Dwyer. When he returned one day to collect mail, she sheepishly offered him The Mallard's cassette demo. McGettrick says he responded with demands. "He says, 'Record an album in a month,' then we listen to it and he goes, 'Okay, get it mixed and mastered and we'll put it out in a month.' That guy works incredibly fast."
Beginning around the time of Yes on Blood's release, The Mallard began performing constantly. The group was then a trio, featuring a friend of McGettrick's from Fresno named Dylan Tidyman-Jones as stand-up drummer and Dylan Edrich playing bass. (They were known as "boy Dylan" and "girl Dylan," respectively.) McGettrick soon expanded the lineup to include Miles Luttrell on a full drum kit and moved Tidyman-Jones to guitar duties.
Leading a more balanced quartet, McGettrick displays a ferocious live confidence, a striking contrast with her early performances. "I would be completely nervous, throwing up before the set and not be able to look up on stage," she says. "Now I can lose myself in the songs and time disappears. When I do that, my band can tell and [they] get lost as well."
McGettrick's emboldened presence partly accounts for The Mallard's arresting live shows. Recently headlining at the San Francisco club Monarch, McGettrick and Tidyman-Jones harmonized in haunting circular chants that spiraled into cataclysmic climaxes of dissonance and instrumental abandon. The band settled into its skittish grooves and created a sense of impending terror. McGettrick situated herself stage right, but was undoubtedly the focal point. She projected vocals through her disheveled black locks into a microphone kept more than a foot from her face. She strummed her guitar violently or not at all. She deftly conjured feedback or flailed recklessly about the stage during instrumental passages, but communicated with the audience between songs. Her understated banter wasn't shy — it lacked the contrived artifice of leaders in many aspiring rock bands. "I'm now more arrogant onstage," McGettrick says. "I'm beginning to accept that when you're on stage it's acceptable to have this different personality."
Hether Fortune, leader of local psych-pop quartet Wax Idols, doesn't have a habit of championing other local bands, but she is a vocal advocate of The Mallard. She attests to The Mallard's development as a live act throughout the year. "She [McGettrick] started moving away from that garage sound and pushing herself into different realms of psychedelia," Fortune says. "Now I think she's a fucking genius."
The Mallard and its debut album reached more listeners than expected, but McGettrick is already plotting her next step. The Mallard's sophomore full-length, due early this year on Castle Face, will be a stylistic departure from Yes on Blood. "I can already feel a garage backlash," McGettrick says. "A lot of garage bands are changing their sound for their next albums." The newer songs in The Mallard's set indicate a move away from garage rock toward the tension and moodiness of post-punk. McGettrick says this is in line with her creative will. "I want to change, and I feel like this next album is representative of what I actually want."