While plenty of bands admit to borrowing heavily from the greats that came before them, it’s a rare few that do so as exceptionally well as San Francisco’s The Stone Foxes. The youngsters (all four bandmembers are between the ages of 21 and 24) may not have been alive during the heyday of Haight-Ashbury, but a spin through their self-released debut would lead most listeners to think otherwise. Right from its snarling start, “Beneath Mt. Sinai,” the album packs in harmonica riffs, yelping harmonization, bluesy breakdowns, and garage-y rawness that harkens back to The Band yet manages to sound as contemporary as The Black Keys.
The result is a 13-track gem that reeks of potential and makes promise of some serious longevity for the young band. It also begs the question just how a bunch of twenty-something students from San Francisco State managed to pen such a masterful homage without sounding like a throwaway throwback group.
“It was first kind of a family thing,” says guitarist Aaron Mort of his musical upbringing. “I grew up with parents who were much more into ’70s folk, more people like Leo Kottke, The Eagles, James Taylor, people like that. : From there it just kind of grew into a fascination with the oldies station back in junior high school, and that got me into the ’50s doo-wop and Buddy Holly stuff and eventually led me to learning more about the blues, then Led Zeppelin :”
As a band, The Stone Foxes first got their start in the sleepy foothills of California’s Central Valley, where Mort, guitarist Spencer Koehler, and drummer Shannon Koehler (they’re brothers) grew up. “We met in college at San Francisco State, and through Spence I met Shannon,” Mort recalls. “Then Spence and I met [bassist] Avi [Vinocur] through some mutual friends in the dorms. He came down to visit one day and we met and kinda forced him to be in the band.”
As dorm-dwelling freshmen, the then-threesome (Shannon was still attending high school at the time) set up a practice space in their school-owned quarters and started jamming. Not long after, the youngest Koehler moved to the city and the rest, as they say, is history. Since then, the guys have moved out on their own, converted their garage into a bona fide home studio, recorded an album, and booked their fair share of high-profile gigs in and around S.F. In fact, it’s the Foxes’ live show that’s garnered the band some serious attention from the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, and even Elwood Blues himself, Dan Aykroyd.
“We take the live show really serious,” Mort explains. “We write our songs and tailor them after audience responses. On one level, we just want to make everybody feel good and get into the groove of what rock ‘n’ roll is, but we take it personally, and we invite the criticism-the good and the bad. For us, playing the music live is where we learn. There’s a connection with the audience there that we hope we can give to them, and that hopefully we can get back as well.”
And get back they have, both from their fans and from a solid handful of understandably wary critics. Still unsigned though they may be, The Stone Foxes have plenty of help on their side, including Mort’s onetime music producer grandfather.
“[He] had one of the first home studios in the Bay Area back in the ’60s,” explains Mort, who was en route back from his granddad’s space when we spoke. “Growing up, it was always a push and pull [between us], I think. He never taught me how to play guitar or taught me about recording, he gave me some of the tools to do it and gave me a little bit of help along the way, but kind of allowed me to develop into my own personality with music and recording.”
The relationship is a prime example of what Mort and his cohorts are all about-melding old-school know-how and good ole’ rock ‘n’ roll grit with something decidedly fresh and modern. And lucky for the Foxes, it fits in seamlessly with the return-to-the-roots movement currently sweeping the indie rock scene.
“I think we’ve definitely caught on to a few new things as far as artists and whatnot,” explains Mort. “We all love the blues and the ’60s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll, like Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles. Collectively, we’re all in love with Bob Dylan and The Band, but individually we’re all in various states of getting into other musicians’ careers-Wilco, Jack White and all of his projects, Ben Kweller, guys like that. We’ve definitely kind of grown in our influences; it’s more bands that are playing now as opposed to bands from so long ago.”
Fitting, as fellow referential rockers like The Raconteurs, Fleet Foxes, and the aforementioned Black Keys have already proved that what’s old is new again-and The Stone Foxes seem more than capable of carrying on the craze, one harmonica solo at a time.
The Stone Foxes play an all-ages show at SOhO (1221 State St.) this Sunday, July 5, at 8 p.m. with The Tender Box and The Mutineers. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for info.