In 2008, two students at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh packed up their life, bid farewell to a lifestyle of cheese, beer, bratwurst -- and a favorite local band called Cheeseheads With Attitude -- and drove west to San Francisco. The two guitarists, Koley O'Brien and Joe Spargur, eventually joined with drummer Troy Lawton, bass guitarist Zak LaVigne, and keyboarder David Hunt to form the band A B & the Sea. Two years later, the band is opening shows for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and The Morning Benders, and being compared by critics to the Beatles and the Beach Boys. To get here, the members performed for tourists on street corners, drove between Portland and L.A. until their tires burned out, and lived out of their friends' basement for months at a time.
We caught up with band member Koley O'Brien to find out what A B & the Sea has been up to since we last checked in with the band in February. He told us about truck drivers hitting on their drummer, the joy of playing for crowds who have no clue who they are, his grudge against clothing store H&M, and the hottest musicians in the Bay Area. A B & The Sea perform with a smattering of other local bands at the All Shook Down Festival in North Beach on July 25.
We've been awesome. We're doing the EP download online so the kids can download five tracks for free. It's helped us get the word out. We just did a mini-tour with The Submarines, and another tour with The Rumble series. We've been busy recording and writing songs, getting out and playing, and staying busy. We're trying to be one step ahead of the game.
How does the free EP download work?
It's a completely original thing that the company Topspin does for us. Our friend Ty White put together the game-like idea: you download the first song, share the link, and when we've collected 500 email addresses, we put the second song out for free. You unlock the system.
How many other songs have you recorded?
Our first CD had 12 songs, a few of which are on the EP. It didn't get out. We were still fresh, so we were scared to release a record and have it flop. It's been two years and we've outgrew those songs. We plan to release a couple of these songs on a B-side CD at the end of summer or early fall. They're very much a part of us, but we're moving forward.
How does the first CD sound?
It's similar, but it's more lo-fi. We had a different bass player, and our drummer Troy had just joined. We didn't have three-part vocals, and harmonies are our niche. We were a little indie, and still 60's influenced, but [those elements] didn't come out as much.
What has been the hardest thing about moving here and trying to make it as a band?
It was real tough at first. When we got here, we were going to live in Oakland because it's cheaper. The weekend we drove down from Wisconsin, we met some college kids and ended up becoming close with them. They told us not to go to Oakland, and instead crash on a floor in their redone basement [in S.F.] until we found a place to live. A couple of days turned into weeks, and then months. Every day, all day long, we played at the trolley car turnaround at Market and Powell, and made about $180-$400 each day. That's how we paid for our first record, and for our living. We got our first show because this guy saw us playing and he asked us to open for Marcy Playground, the '90's jam band. Eventually Chris [Chu] from The Morning Benders became our producer.
You were nominated as one of the three hottest musicians in the Bay Area by the Owl Mag. How do you feel about that?
I thought it was hilarious.
Who do you think is the hottest musician in the Bay Area?
Between Chris and Tim of The Morning Benders, those are two of the sweetest baby faces that I've seen. I'd have to say those guys are pretty good looking dudes. They're probably the best looking band in the Bay Area.
So you just came back from playing in LA. How was that?
We drove back through the night to get back to work this morning at Levi's. The drummer and I work there.
Which Levi's style is your favorite?
511 Super Skinny are my favorite. I'm a big OshKosh B'gosh and Levi's guy.
As a jeans specialist, which brand do you forewarn against?
I don't recommend H&M jeans. They're super cheap, and that's awesome, but I got a pair there and within a month, everything had ripped apart at the knees, legs, and crotch. It made me feel like a fatass. H&M makes people feel like fatasses. I'm not into that.
Any interesting stories from the road?
Yesterday, we were driving to LA when we got a flat tire 20 minutes away from the city. The tow truck driver had room for only one person, and there are five of us. So he told us to pile into our van, then he pulls [the van] onto his truck with the leverage pully system. We were a few feet off the ground, connected by a chain, and he was driving like a maniac. There was a cop behind us and we knew it was illegal. Everybody was looking and pointing at us. It was the scariest but coolest rollercoaster ride ever. Also, before the tow truck picked us up, our drummer Troy took his shirt off on the side of the highway because it was 103 degrees. A bunch of male truck drivers were driving by honking their horns.
Is it because he's foxy?
He's the foxiest man I know. If I had to take back my earlier response, I would say Troy is the hottest man in San Francisco.
You're from Wisconsin. Do you ever wear cheeseheads when you play?
No, but I went to a couple of Green Bay Packers tribute shows by the band Cheeseheads With Attitude. Joe, the other member from Wisconsin, and I grew up listening to that shit.
When are you the happiest playing on stage?
It's so awesome opening up for a sold-out show where no one has ever heard you. You're very vulnerable. We opened for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and it was incredible, but there were roughly thirty people there to see us out of the thousand people in the audience. It was unbelievable having to win over that many people. It's also cool playing for a smaller crowd, where all the kids are there to see you. We played at Café du Nord a few days ago and got our first encore. It was magical.
Which late-night program would you most like to have a guest appearance on?
My name is Koley O'Brien. I was always a huge Conan O'Brien fan. People have crazy goals, like wanting to win a Grammy and sell so many records, but I always said, "I don't care how many records we sell, I just wanna play on Conan!"
How would you describe "beachy music," as you call your vibe on your MySpace?
When people ask what kind of music we play, I just say pop. We write hooks, and songs with structure, and lyrics that people can relate to. It's really hard with all these genres now; the categories come and go, like chillwave.
When can fans expect to hear new music from y'all?
We're putting out an EP along with the B-side album in late August or early September, featuring new songs that we really love.
Have there been remixes made of your songs?
People have talked about it, but no one has. Wallpaper and Sleigh Bells were thinking about it, but nothing happened. There are a couple tunes of ours that I could hear being four-on-the-floor dance beats.
Anything you would like to add?
Come out to see us at the All Shook Down Festival!
Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown