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French Cassettes

Scott Huerta was fifteen years old, maybe sixteen. He was hanging out with some friends. A song came over the stereo. It could have been any song. What Scott remembers is a classmate in the middle of her conversation—in the middle of her sentence—dropping everything just to say “I love this song.” “It made her, like, gasp,” Scott remembers. “It just took her over.” If the details are fuzzy, Scott’s takeaway is still crystal clear: He had to write a song that could do that. Half a life later, while living beneath a stairwell in San Francisco (cramped, but also $200 a month), Huerta felt himself closing in on that goal. He stayed up until 4 am most nights, tormenting himself over the songs that would become his longtime band French Cassettes’ new album, Rolodex. “I adopted the mentality, which was probably unhealthy, that every song I wrote needed to be my favorite song,” he remembers. “I lost my mind so many times in the middle of the night.” Those demo each recording took weeks, sometimes months, to finish. In the two years of writing and recording them, Scott upgraded his living quarters—first to a pantry and then to a full-blown closet. When he felt confident enough in his new songs to email them to his bandmates (who, perhaps fearing for Huerta’s mental health, repeatedly warned him not to overthink the process), he sent them with a mix of extreme excitement and nervousness. He would tweak and rework the songs with such personal intensity that he wasn’t sure if they would make sense to anyone else. It was a rush, Scott remembers, getting excited text messages back from his bandmates. The new material was so well-received that Huerta had to beg for criticism. “I just loved every single one of them,” guitarist Mackenzie Bunch remembers. For all of the finished product’s joyful energy, re-recording the self-produced tracks was just as painstaking as the demos. The seemingly endless takes were recorded across the Bay Area: in a closet in the Richmond district, a moldy basement in the Lower Haight, a studio under the freeway in Oakland and in a bungalow in Bodega Bay. “I don’t know how it happened, but we got through it,” Bunch remembers. “So many countless nights of back and forths on tiny details. Nights of Mac letting Scott comp his vocal takes together. I’d just leave for an hour, come back and bring him dinner, and he wouldn’t have finished it yet. I remember us sitting in the basement of my old house in the Haight, having our manager come in and be like ‘It needs to be more crunchy.’ And us asking ‘So you want more distortion on it?’ ‘No no no!’” The songs that were eventually stitched together from these sessions are hook-filled and rooted in pop. But they’re also layered and intricate recordings: complex vocal harmonies and counter-harmonies, Rob Mills’ inventive percussion, every shade of clean and fuzzy guitars stacked up like an orchestra. These uncommonly majestic, esoteric pop forms serve as the perfect delivery service for Scott Huerta’s playful and verbose lyrics, which are often presented as semi-autobiographical puzzles. Taken together, the eight tracks and 24 minutes that make up Rolodex are an epic statement of purpose in a decidedly taut package. One that brought a band back together, more mature and more ambitious than ever. One that has been 14 years in the making. ** Growing up in the small valley city of Ripon, California, the Huerta brothers’ musical dreams found robust support on both sides of their family tree. Their grandmother, a Mormon church organist who co-parented the young boys after their mother died, was always the first to hear Scott’s new songs. “She never said, ‘If only your mother could hear this,’” Scott says with a laugh. “You just don’t say that to a ten-year-old kid. But she was always positive. She’d walk by my room while I was playing something and say You’ve got your mother’s fingers!” In the mid-2000s, Scott and his brother Thomas played in a high-school band called The Lite Brites, playing Weezer and Strokes covers. The band regularly practiced into the night at their father’s house on an almond orchard in nearby Escalon. Their father, a second-generation Mexican-American who played guitar and saxophone himself, was eager to share his love of music with his boys. But their new obsession also kept them out of trouble. “He never had to worry about keeping track of us,” Scott remembers. “Music made us come home immediately after school.” Around the same time that Scott discovered the power a song could have over people, his older brother Thomas was becoming a sponge for underground music. He introduced Scott to bands like The Pixies and Pedro the Lion. Scott thinks back on these listening sessions—like the first time he heard Neutral Milk Hotel—fondly. “One night I came home and Thomas was in the family computer room, and he says ‘You gotta check this out,’” he remembers, laughing. “He clicks the mouse, and off of these little crappy computer speakers comes this guy singing ‘I love you Jeee-eesus Chri-i-ist.’” The Huerta brothers hadn’t always felt that they had a lot in common, but music became their shared language. ** After an impromptu jam session with a classmate named Mackenzie Bunch (who loved The Strokes as much as Scott did) in 2006, the core of French Cassettes was born. The group was uncharacteristically ambitious for a high school rock band, and when Scott left for college 80 miles West in San Francisco, the band slowly came with him. They didn’t make the journey alone. “All of our friends from our hometown moved here,” Mackenzie remembers. The band released the Summer Darling EP in 2011, and their debut full-length, Gold Youth, in 2013. They built their initial following playing literally any show they were offered. But excitement for the band’s buoyant and tightly crafted sound grew quickly, and before long they were reliably packing clubs in the ever-changing adopted hometown of San Francisco. They were also playing MusicfestNW at the invitation of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, accepting invitations to SXSW in Austin, and sharing stages with bands like Of Montreal and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. Throughout their successes, San Francisco remained (and remains) French Cassettes’ home base. Making music in one of the most expensive cities in the world hasn’t been easy. Or, as Mackenzie Bunch puts it: “It’s a fucking nightmare, for sure. EBT saved our lives for years, and thank god for rent control.” Keeping the band rooted in San Francisco became more complicated as the band’s members settled down with partners and ramped up their careers. The band’s once-weekly practices became more sporadic even as the band gained in popularity. Then, in 2013, the Huerta brothers’ grandmother died. The loss was both deeply personal and creative: she hadn’t just been their link to a mother the Huerta boys never got to know as adults, she been strong, hilarious and endlessly surprising—and a big French Cassettes fan. “Growing up, she’d always offer me feedback on my songs,” Scott remembers. “And I always wanted to make my songs great so she’d have even more to say about them.” After his grandmother died, Scott quit his job, moved into the $200 room under the stairs, and began writing with renewed intensity. And maybe it’s her surprising spirit that haunts Rolodex’s dense twists and turns. You can hear it in striking lyrical nonsequiturs (“I never get why the say you should live like you’re dying / don’t take me dancing, I think I want to stay home tonight”), in Thomas’ honey-coated basslines, and in the Beach Boys-esque choral harmonies that seem to arrive out of thin air. Mackenzie Bunch’s alternately lush and angular guitar is a tone-setting centerpiece of Rolodex, from the unfurling, harp-like strums on opener “Dixie Lane” to the shimmering dance riffs on “Utah.” For his part, though, Bunch credits the younger Huerta for the band’s most unique qualities. “Scott’s vocal melodies and harmonies, those are my favorite parts of these songs,” he says. “They’re intricate, high-level stuff with a lot of counter-melodies.” This might be most evident on the playful and cascading “Isn’t Anyone?,” a song that showcases Huerta as an impassioned crooner, a trickster poet and a one-man choir. Even on the album’s seemingly straightforward soul-pop closer, “So Good”—which finds everyone grooving in unison over a Rob Mills quasi-breakbeat—there are myriad twists and sonic buried treasures to discover. Whatever the source of French Cassettes’ newfound growth and experimentation, it’s a wonder to behold. This music doesn’t sound like anything else in the known indie rock universe. It’s music that takes a lot of repeated listens to fully unravel—and music that could very well make a person drop everything, gasp, and say “I love this song.”

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