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Fresh Fruit 

Loquat's juicy electro-pop is ripe for the picking -- if only the band can get its debut album finished

Wednesday, Aug 20 2003
Shouting over one another and a box full of fried chicken, the members of Loquat declare they are presently experiencing some "band drama." That's tough to imagine for a group like this, whose members are already sipping beers at noon on a Saturday and exuding all the perkiness of middle-schoolers at a slumber party. But it's true, there is drama, and they're willing to talk about it. So what's the dark secret concealed beneath the sunny facade?

Oh, they just got a new keyboard player.

Realizing how truly undramatic that sounds, Loquat's drummer, Christopher Lautz, frantically cuts into the conversation, bellowing, "Our lead singer died today!"

But in reality, Loquat's lead singer is alive and well, sitting just to Lautz's right, and they all laugh at the drummer's feeble joke. Indeed, the lighthearted, drama-free band has plenty of reasons to be giddy. After a smattering of local shows, Loquat has charmed audiences enough to become one of the Bay Area's most beloved acts. The band's dreamy, bittersweet pop -- a danceable mix of analog rhythms, electro wizardry, and good old-fashioned stunning vocals -- is perfectly of-the-moment. Then there's guitarist and head chanteuse Kylee Swenson's quirky poetry, highly resonant with twenty- and thirtysomethings whose own lives brim with childhood nostalgia and adult malaise. This combination of poignant lyricism and well-crafted songs has generated an inordinate amount of buzz and even major-label face time off of a mere two EPs.

"Their music is just really polished for the stage they're in," explains Jonathan Lee, who runs the label Dreams by Degrees, which the band worked with on its second EP. "It's so much bigger than the music scene here."

So all that's left now is for the band to break out of that scene. But the fact remains that Loquat has no record label, no tours under its belt, a limited national following, and a grand total of seven recorded songs. While the quintet is working hard to move forward on the song front, some of the same things that make its music so special -- its laid-back attitude and devotion to its low-cost home studio -- are making the process move rather glacially. Still, the band's local devotees, undeniably catchy pop hooks, and lack of timidity toward self-promotion suggest that if it could just get that first album out, Loquat would have it made.

The seeds of Loquat sprouted back in 1996, when Kylee Swenson, now 30, and guitarist Earl Otsuka, 35 (who named the band after the fruit tree they both climbed as kids), began recording blippy, effervescent pop songs -- with a hand from ProTools software -- featuring lots of loops and robotic percussion, overlaid with ethereal vocals. To their surprise, when Swenson and Otsuka tossed the tracks up on, thousands of people started downloading them. So in 2001, after years of casual musicmaking, Otsuka and Swenson decided to recruit a real band, bringing in Lautz ("I had to compete with the ol' drum machine," he remembers) and keyboardist Ben Kasman, plus 26-year-old bassist Anthony Gordon, formerly of the Damsels and also Swenson's boyfriend.

"Anthony didn't want to get in the band because we'd started going out," says Swenson. "But we needed a bass player, so he just came to practice a couple times, and it was like, 'Oh well.'"

The band played its first show in September 2001, then released The Penny Drop EP in May 2002, and it's on the five songs from that release that Loquat has mostly been coasting since. "People are basically listening to our demo," says Gordon.

The record is admittedly impressive -- particularly for a "demo." There's a touch of novice charm there, with lyrics that waffle between overtly literal and piercingly honest. Driven by Lautz's playful punk-tinged drums and Swenson's Edie Brickell-like vocals, the songs have all the promise of pure pop. But there is enough conflict -- like in cutesy song titles that belie somber Swenson-penned stories -- to keep the music pleasantly complex.

Often, the tension rests in the lyrics, as on "Swingset Chain," in which childlike imagery of monkey bars mixes with nostalgia about "my first fifth of gin." Sometimes, it's in the male backing vocals that slide up behind Swenson's, like on the drifting melodrama of "Time Bomb," or in heaving synths colliding with an agile, melodic bass line on "To the Floor." "Half-Assed Mechanic" borders on frivolously playful but cleverly combines carnival-esque keyboard sounds with some healthy self-loathing, as Swenson sings on the chorus: "Why is there a missing piece in everyone I know?/ I never have the right part to make them work out right/ So they go on with their temperamental lives off track/ Such a half-assed mechanic I can't even fix myself."

Perhaps as important, the amount of polish that Otsuka and Swenson extract through home recording is remarkable. Swenson's editing job at recording-industry trade pub Mix magazine provides a helpful combination of discounted equipment and free advice, so she and Otsuka are mostly self-taught. "I'll interview artists and pick their brains for ideas. Plus, Earl loves to read manuals," Swenson says, nodding toward the soft-spoken Otsuka.

Swenson approaches recording much like a writer attempting to emulate a literary idol. "Any song that you really like, you should think about what it is that grabs you," she says. "You should get to the bottom of what makes you want to listen to it 10 times in a row."

Unlocking that compelling key could mean identifying a guitar part or a sound-engineering touch. For the latter, Loquat uses a scientific approach. "I can take a sample of a song and put it into a plug-in that analyzes the whole audio spectrum and gives you a visual interpretation of everything in that song," says Otsuka. "So we can literally take our song, look at it, and compare it against a song [we really love]."

The band's second EP, titled Fall, came out on Dreams by Degrees last September, as part of a four-part series in which a different band recorded music inspired by each season. Loquat offered four songs, including two versions of "Swingset Chain" (the original and a rather unfortunate remix), as well as "Friend Without Thumbs," a charming, organ-spiced ditty about Swenson's cat that recalls a less mournful version of the Sundays. The EP also contains one of the band's most haunting and mature tracks thus far, "Internal Crash." The stark ballad illustrates Loquat's ability to shun perky pop in favor of deep acoustic strums, anorexic piano, and resigned vocals: "I already fought a war/ I didn't think I'd be fighting more/ But here I am back again/ Something more to defend."

"I heard those early demos on, recorded by Earl and Kylee," says Dreams by Degrees' Jonathan Lee. "And it was just on the strength of those that I asked if they would be interested [in doing the Fall EP]. It will be interesting to see how these new tracks come together."

But how, not to mention when, those new tracks will come together is something of a mystery. While the turnout at local shows seems to indicate that Loquat is fully grown and ready for the mainstream, the band itself adopts a far more lax attitude toward success. Day jobs, of course, force the group to record only on evenings and weekends, and though Otsuka and Swenson have transformed themselves into amateur-recording wizards, making an album takes a whole lot longer if you're not only playing all of the music but also engineering it.

On top of that, Swenson finds it hard to cram in songwriting time. "I'm trying to get writing, so I'm trying to do one song a week just to stay in the habit, and hopefully one out of five will spark interest," she says. Then there is the matter of integrating the new keyboardist, a 23-year-old synth virtuoso named Ryan Manley.

So far, Loquat has written just five new songs, penned primarily by Swenson and Otsuka, and, with bassist Gordon serving double duty as manager, is currently shopping around for a label willing and able to release its first album nationally, when or if the recording is ever completed. In the past, the band has met with A&R reps from both Sony and Maverick, although nothing has come out of the contacts aside from a much-deserved dose of confidence for the musicians.

In the meantime, Loquat has inked a deal with Minty Fresh records out of Chicago that allows the label to license the quintet's songs to commercials and films. The strategy isn't a bad one for a talented but unknown indie band whose music has just the sweet-edged kind of punch that could leave a discerning television viewer wondering, "Who is that?" So while fans may have to wait a seeming eternity for that elusive first album, a hunger for Loquat just might be quenched shortly by a really kick-ass car ad. And if some tiny touch -- say, a swirling synth smushed against a sad piano or a particularly poignant thought delivered in Swenson's little-girl voice -- happens to strike a chord with someone, that car ad will end up serving as a great commercial for Loquat, too.

About The Author

Nancy Einhart


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