The West Coast According to Great Apes

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If there is one thing you need to know about San Franciscans, it’s that we can’t stop talking about our beloved city – Great Apes is no exception. Their latest EP, which Asian Man Records has scheduled to release this November, is titled “Playland at the Beach.” The album title references the now-closed ocean-side amusement park that was once located in the Richmond District – Playland. Further, this album reflects San Francisco’s gentrification and architectural transition. The lyrics convey an honest assessment of the city’s progression. Even a Bay Area native might find themselves researching many of the references in Great Apes’s tracks. (The last time I researched a band’s lyrics, I was 15 and had just picked up my first Bad Religion album.) Their sound is undeniably catchy – each track is notably unique.

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Additionally, these songs give a different and meaningful voice to the many facets of San Francisco. The first track, “Rough in the Diamond,” touches on the North Beach district, which is largely known for being a Beatnik favorite – e.g., City Lights bookstore – and “A Writer in the Dark” among others nods to the district.

At first glance, “Go Niners” may seem to be about the famed football team; but at a closer look, it’s a story about the large influx of people who came during the 1849 Gold Rush and helped create present-day San Francisco.

“Milk, It Does a City Good” explores the murder of Harvey Milk, a San Francisco politician and arguably one of the most celebrated and important figures in San Francisco and gay rights history. Milk was shot by Dan White, Milk’s rivaling supervisor. This inspirational knowledge definitely gives the song an added edge.

More recently, there has been a large battle over the hyper gentrification of the city. “Paint Job” takes a stab at its effect that is especially visible in the Mission district – a historical hotbed of Latin culture – and has recently become a very hip place for young, tech employees. Ultimately, this song is insanely passionate and instantly resonates with anyone who has seen neighborhoods whitewashed and stripped of anything meaningful.

“Whitney’s Playland at the Beach,” the album-title track, is pleasant, warm and conveyed from the would-be vantage point of the Dutch Windmills in Golden Gate Park. It touches on the past, of seeing the city built and the inevitable future of “the ocean’s cold hands stretch and reach” that “I’ll fall calm and quiet to the beach.” It serves as an amazing closer to the whole record.

There is a large, thinly veiled political tone to the whole EP that echoes the sentiment of a lot of native San Franciscans. (I’ll say it again; it’s goddamn catchy.) If you don’t feel alienated by the heavy references to the San Francisco’s sights and history, or you’re up for some serious Wikipedia reading, you’ll find this album to be fun and thoughtful.

We caught up with Great Apes’s Brian Moss and bothered him with some questions:

CCP: Hey Brian, what exactly was the inspiration to tackle San Francisco in such a way? And how did you decide what things to cover?

Brian: What’s happening in San Francisco right now, in terms of a rapidly changing city and cultural landscape, deserves attention. Many people I know have been affected, and countless others around the city have been displaced or have had to drastically alter their lifestyles to keep up. Personally, as a middle-school teacher, my rental building is currently for sale; and if I lose my apartment, I’ll likely have to leave the city, and that’s nothing in light of what’s happened to others. There’s been an influx of new money and people, which has made an already-expensive place absurdly unaffordable and completely changed the feel of certain neighborhoods and communities. Essentially, San Francisco is moving towards becoming a homogenized, adult Disneyland for the rich. Sadly, many of the new arrivals (individuals, companies, etc.) don’t seem to think too much about social responsibility or the resulting effects of their presence or actions. Looking at a larger picture, this seems to be an emerging trend in desirable metropolises across the country. It’s indicative of a widening class gap and a variety of social and cultural problems. I’d rather write a record about it than aimlessly soapbox the issue. The ultimate goal is to have the E.P. function to spread awareness and kindle conversation and change by working in culmination with other pieces of a resistance and/or aide, be it a protests, blogs, media coverage, community meetings, graffiti or philanthropy.

In terms of selecting topics and locations, there are a variety of concepts present on the record, spanning hyper capitalism, nostalgia, the inevitability of change, political corruption, loss, acceptance and so forth. All of those focal areas factor in to what’s happening in the city. Given that the songs are narrated by buildings and landmarks presenting differing perspectives, and perspectives that aren’t necessarily my own, the locations were selected to complement the smaller themes or ideas that compile to make up the greater one.

CCP: With the EP being so heavy on San Franciscan themes, are there any worries that the album won’t translate to people not familiar with it?

Brian: Absolutely, but really, I wanted to write a record about San Francisco and what’s happening, and to me, it’s important enough to trump concerns about listeners elsewhere not being able to comprehend or relate to a lot of the references. I doubt someone in Columbus, Ohio is gonna catch on to the bits about Its It ice cream sandwiches, the fire that took out the Sutro Baths, or the murals on the sides of the Women’s Building or Vesuvio. However, like I mentioned in the question above, I think a lot of what’s happening here can be transferred elsewhere, so there are some opportunities for unfamiliar listeners to connect.

CCP: How was working with Asian Man Records?

Brian: Working with Mike is great. I’ve loosely known him for nearly two decades and have been a fan of a lot of what he’s released throughout that time frame. I’m honored to be on the other end with Great Apes. The way he chooses to run his label is honest, punk and modest. Bands get treated well, and things feel comfortable and low key. There aren’t any delusions of grandeur involved – from our point of view or his – and there’s no interfering with the creative process. Plus, for a band like us that’s not necessarily trying to grind the ax full-time, we get some exposure to folks that we might not have otherwise. Sadly, I am still waiting on our half-million-dollar advance and tray of fresh casaba melon.

CCP: It’s also no secret that most of Great Apes was the most loved (or hated) Jawbreaker cover band, depending on how you look at it. I had heard that you guys actually had Adam Pfahler playing drums – is that true? Also, how exactly did the idea of Jahbreaker come to be?

Brian: Rob and I came [up] with the idea while shooting the shit at a party. We both realized we’d thought of the same pun and then started throwing around blasphemous song titles and lyrical plays. We knew people were gonna get pissed, and that was honestly one of the main motivating factors. It’s Jahbreaker, not Jesus, and frankly, I’m all for making fun of Jesus too.

We booked a Halloween house show, played it and put out a 7” I recorded myself in our practice space. Things started snowballing, and we pulled the plug quickly, as really it was just a quick joke that we deemed worthy of bringing to fruition. We didn’t do much and never intended too. Pfhaler never played with us, although he was fairly supportive. I suppose that’s a rumor that goes to show that extent to which things got carried away. Anyhow, we’re thinking over the idea of doing a white collar Oi! band under the moniker Stock Sparrer next. We’ll see…

CCP: Is Great Apes going to be a full-time band for most of you? I’m aware that you’re in Olehole among other bands, and Matt is in Build Us Airplanes and Monster Squad, granted I haven’t seen any of those bands in a while.

Brian: Olehole and Build Us Airplanes are pretty much on ice. I infrequently dabble in solo material under the moniker Hanalei, but that’s pretty rare. Monster Squad occasionally plays festival shows or a local date, but they aren’t very active. For the most part, Great Apes is the band we [put] the bulk of our efforts into. However, by no means is Great Apes a full-time band. We all have steady jobs and aren’t really into the idea of pursuing music as a career. It’s far more enjoyable when it’s done strictly as a labor of love. Matt and I have some pretty extensive experience touring for months on end, year after year. It was great at the time, but I don’t think we’re really looking to go at it like that again. Great Apes does a couple small runs every week. We usually go up and down the coast and do a quick trip in another part of the country, but that’s about the bulk of it. We were offered a European tour last summer that we really wanted to do, but sadly, in our lines of work, we couldn’t afford the tickets on top of rent in San Francisco. Hopefully we’ll be able to reconsider, down the line. All of us are really close friends, so playing and writing music also offers up time to spend together. Simply put, we’re trying to collaboratively express ourselves and have fun.

CCP: When’s your next show? And is there any last thing you’d like mention or say?

Brian: October 30th at Thee Parkside with Void Boys.

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