Social Studies took a long, convoluted path from their genesis to the rhythmic revelations that make Developer, their second full-length release, such an imaginative excursion. The S.F. band's early history is crowded with shifting interconnections and contradictions that defy attempts at charting an easy-to-follow timeline. Drummer Michael Jirkovsky and guitarist Tom Smith met in high school, and have been playing together in various projects since they were 14. Keyboard player Natalia Rogovin grew up in California and met Jirkovsky in the misty mountains of Santa Cruz, but they didn't start playing as Social Studies until they moved to San Francisco in 2009. Bassist Jesse Hudson and second guitarist Ben McClintoc were friends of the band that slowly got drawn into the fold.
Their hard-to-define sound melds classic elements of rock from the '60s through the '90s, with classical music, poetic lyrics, and an intellectual approach to the groove that creates sonic landscapes suggesting soundtracks to miniature films full of fragmented light and melancholy shadows. They'll play a record release show at The Independent this Friday, Nov. 9. Rogovin and Jirkovsky recently brought SF Weekly up to speed on the band's goings-on at a shadowy hangout in North Beach.
Why did you choose Developer as the album title?
Jirkovsky: When you develop a photo, there's a moment when the image begins to appear on the blank page and slowly comes into focus. That was the process with this album. Our last album was recorded over a long period of time. This was more concise, more compact, and we had an idea of what we wanted to see when we were done.
Rogovin: The album is about the ability of art and music to get you though tough times, about finding happiness even in sadness, about developing into a fuller, older, wiser person. In developing a picture, there's that moment when something comes out of nothing. That's what happened to us as a band. We developed a sound that encapsulates what we want to do musically and creatively. It's more intimate and, in some ways, darker than our last album (Wind Up Wooden Heart). On that one, we were rebellious teenagers sticking out our middle finger. This is more personal in sound and content; it's moodier and more textured.
What new experiences did you encounter making this record?
Rogovin: We all wrote the songs together as a band. I'd write the basics, a melody or a chord progression, then bring it to the band and we'd all compose it together.
Jirkovsky: Everyone has input, not only to his or her own instrumental part, but to what other people are doing.
Rogovin: It was a meticulous process. We didn't throw a song together and say, "It's done." We had an idea of what we wanted to achieve and a conception of the record as a whole before we started writing it.
What did producer Eli Crews (Why?, tUnE-yArDs, Deerhoof) bring to the process?
Jirkovsky: Eli likes live music, so we recorded together, live in the studio.
Rogovin: After the basic tracks were done, we overdubbed vocals, keys, and guitar. He'd have us record a song a few times, then pick the take that had the best groove and feel, even if there were mistakes.
Jirkovsky: You can feel the music is breathing. Eli has experience with powerful female vocalists from working with tUnE-yArDs and Deerhoof. He was patient and encouraging and pushed Natalia and it paid off. She really delivered.
Rogovin: We had a gap between the recorded sound and the sound of our live shows and he helped us close the gap.
Jirkovsky: Before we started, we talked in depth, so he had an understanding of what we wanted, down to placing the mics for the snare drum sound we wanted. He applied that same care to every sonic level of the record.
Natalia, you have a unique way of phrasing when you sing; breaking up words into syllables, running several words together, adding melismas to the middle syllable of a word.
Rogovin: It's not conscious. I get really OCD about syllables. I have all these rules about rhythm, but I'm never pulled to a single rhythm or meter. I'm not formally trained as a singer. I thought of myself as a keyboard player and musician until I was in this band. It was a big breakthrough for me when I got comfortable with my range. I used to try to sing higher and more girly, but now I embrace the power of my lower range.
Social Studies is an unlikely band name. Why did you pick it?
Rogovin: We're secretly history nerds, and it comes out in our songs, or used to. The songs have gone from being global -- including references to lots of historical people, places, and things -- to more personal, focusing more on individual relationships. I feel a constant nostalgia for past decades that I wasn't part of.
Jirkovsky: When we started, we used a lot of historical allusions, so you can read those words in different ways -- as the actual class you take in humanities and world history, or as the study of human social relationships. Over time, the band has shifted from former to the latter. We all take a bit of a literary and academic approach to our music.
There's a mysterious feel to Developer that's intensified by bursts of space music and arrangements that ebb and flow between noise and intimate chiming guitar chords. And you play quite a few waltzes.
Rogovin: I love waltzes. I think that's my classical background coming out. I grew up playing classical piano. I sometimes think our music is classical dressed up as pop. I tend to write in 6/8 and 3/4, even though they're not the best tempos for dance music, but when I'm writing, I don't think about what key or form or tempo I'm going to use.
Jirkovsky: We like to see people waltzing at our shows.
What's a live show like for the band?
Rogovin: There's a sizzle in the air when you play live. The music is more hypnotic and mesmerizing, even for us, while we're playing it.
Jirkovsky: Music is about playing live. We bring the same energy to a show if it's five people or 500. We play live as much as possible. It's the big payoff of making music, especially when you're not making any money.