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The Stone Foxes' Soft Side 

Wednesday, Jun 3 2015
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Shannon Koehler, 27, followed his heart to San Francisco.

The vocalist, harmonica player, and occasional drummer of the Stone Foxes was born with a leaking tricuspid valve. The birth defect caused his heart to enlarge, leading to tachycardia, a condition where extra nerves grow in your heart wall and cause your resting pulse rate to jump. It sent Koehler to the emergency room twice, and onto the operating table 11 times since he was 8.

"I was going to do surgeries in S.F. quite a bit as a kid because UCSF had better research," Koehler said. "Going up to S.F. I just fell in love with the city — my parents would take me to Giants games."

On Saturday, June 6, Koehler, who moved to San Francisco at 17 to attend S.F. State with his brother and fellow band member Spence, will play a headlining gig at the Great American Music Hall with his band, harmonica-tinged rockers the Stone Foxes. Known for rousing live performances wherein instruments get swapped, stages serve as diving platforms, and general troublemaking is had, doctors' orders often fall to the wayside.

"Yeah, [the doctors] told me I'm not supposed to stage dive, but I don't care," Koehler said. "I should though." He chuckled. "It's hard to promise your doctor you're going to behave yourself when you play in a rock 'n' roll band."

Koehler's contagious laugh and easygoing nature may be enough to ease some people's minds about his health, but at a recent show he slipped and fell onto a monitor. A bump and bruise-type situation for most, but a more serious situation for Koehler, who takes blood thinners for his heart. His doctor warned that if he had hit his kidney he could have bled internally without knowing it, and that he was lucky. But Koehler is more interested in talking about his love for the Giants than the health problems that brought him to the stadium.

"In L.A. and San Diego, yeah, we get some beef [for wearing Giants gear on stage]," Koehler said. "But I'll tell you what, dude, if I see someone in a Dodgers hat, I call that shit out. And they either need to take it off or they need to go." He was only half-joking.

Koehler's in better shape now. His most recent surgery was five years ago when Koehler, according to doctors at UCSF, was the third person ever to get a new tricuspid valve put in intravenously. He'll need a new pacemaker battery in a year's time, but for now his valve should be good. Still, his uncertain future affects him and his music.

"With my heart stuff, and going on stage, and jumping around when maybe I shouldn't — when you have those heart problems it puts you in the frame of mind like you need to go 100 percent all the time because you never know what might happen or what's coming around the corner for you," he said.

That's an attitude Koelher and crew took into the studio when they cut their new album 12 Spells, which was recorded while new members, including drummer Brian Bakalian, were still joining the band. The album serves as a time capsule, capturing the band's evolution from a straightforward rock 'n' roll act with indie and country vibes to a much darker, moodier sound borrowing from Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtracks.

"Songs that I had nothing to do with until the mixing process became some of my favorites," Bakalian said. "It's a cohesive album, but as far as the Stone Foxes go, this is as close to a mixtape as you're going to get."

Every first Friday of the month the band has been releasing one song off the new album. One of those darker tracks, "Cold Like a Killer" finds Koehler exploring his health issues' effects on his relationships and life.

"My grandma Ruthie is 93 and I was taking more pills than her. So there are times when I just feel like I'm out of step with people physically, like I just can't keep up," Koelher said. "It's dealing with the idea that you're not really as young as you look. I can't identify with the woman I'm in love with because I can't understand her youth even though we are the same age."

And although he can't identify with the people his age, Koelher does identify with a portion of San Francicso's population that is often alienated and ostracized — the homeless. When he first moved from his hometown near Fresno — an area he describes as "just crickets and tadpoles" — the culture shock of getting off BART every day for work and not greeting your neighbors because they don't own homes had a big impact on the young musician.

"I had never seen anything like that before," Koehler said "I think over time I found myself getting really desensitized to it. I was getting out at New Montgomery and Market every day for a while. I kept passing by the same people and never introduced myself. In any other situation you would introduce yourself to your neighbor, but I wasn't. In fact, I was looking the other way, trying not to make eye contact, and when you realize you're doing that you feel sick about yourself."

Koelher and crew were moved to write the song "Goodnight Moon," and they created a video for it in which some of the homeless people they had met on tour sing the song. It was a way to humanize the vulnerable population Koehler had found himself ignoring. The band also collects cans of food at every tour stop, and makes detours to shelters and pantries to drop off the goods. They hope their campaign becomes such a part of their identity that fans will make pit stops at grocery stores before coming to the shows.

"A lot of our songs are social justice oriented. I mean, we got a couple 'oh that terrible person broke up with me and I hate her forever,' but a lot of it is social justice stuff," Koehler said. "And we felt like if we are going to sing about it — we gotta do something about it."

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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Bio:
Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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