The Mallard on the S.F. Garage-Rock Scene, Walking Around Town, and Playing Drums Standing Up
The Mallard performing live.
As frontwoman Greer McGettrick points out, it's easy to pigeonhole The Mallard as a new tenant of San Francisco's flag-bearing garage rock scene -- but the band's uneasy, ramshackle approach is fraught with a brooding tension that defies the genre's trappings. The evidence lies on the Mallard's Castle Face Records album, Yes on Blood, and its stage command as a riveting live trio. With a new album gestating in a reel-to-reel machine and an exhausting live schedule ahead, we were eager to investigate The Mallard's formation, aesthetic principles, and plans. In one of the sadly dwindling, rent-controlled Mission Street homes that are miraculously still affordable for artists, we spoke with Greer McGettrick about San Francisco, being compared to other female musicians, and her serendipitous meeting with Jon Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees and Castleface.
The Mallard perform Saturday, June 16, at Brick & Mortar Music Hall with The Cosmonauts and Burnt Ones.
Greer, what was it that compelled you to leave Fresno for San Francisco?
Fresno is a small town. The art scene is especially small, and it goes up and down pretty often. For a year and half or so, people will be really excited about things, but then they go away. I lived there for five years and saw this rollercoaster of a scene. I finally got to the point where I felt like I played music with everyone and I was getting into a different kind of music. I was in a bunch of bands that were mostly folky indie-pop, and I always wanted to do something more punk or more garage. I always loved San Francisco.
I understand you walk everywhere in the city. How else does San Francisco inspire your songwriting?
I feel like you've got two legs and you can use them as metronomes, which is probably why I don't play any waltzes. Walking to the practice space, I might be almost running by the time I get there to get a riff out. Fresno is, for the most part, pretty apathetic and dead. Moving here and meeting people who are ambitious, kind, and trying to hone their craft has been really inspiring.
The Mallard has gone through several incarnations with a variety of members. How did the current trio come about?
Dylan Tidyman-Jones, our drummer, I met in Fresno probably about five years ago, and we kind of grew as musicians together. He moved to San Francisco independently and I asked him to play drums, even though he didn't know how, because he knew me musically well enough that I thought we would be a good match.
Did you request that Dylan Tidyman-Jones play standing up?
I was recording that way, and then I would show him the parts standing up. Since he wasn't really a drummer, it was easy for him to learn that way. I've been told that his drumming is very counterintuitive to what trained drummers typically do. It's the Tidyman-Jones style.
Having played with a variety of different musicians, do you now have criteria or certain qualities that you seek in collaborators or band members?
I don't really collaborate with people that much. I have the song either completed or pretty much done, and then I'm kind of open for negotiation. It's a little difficult because it never pans out the same as you see it in your head, but sometimes it turns out better. Lyrics always come last, so sometimes the structure of the song will change after we rehearse. My current band members are team players. On this next album, they play more than on Yes on Blood.
Rachael Pony Sparrow Cassells
So you're working on the next album right now? How is it different?
I want it to be a little grittier and rawer.
Yes on Blood was recorded very grittily. Do you intend for the next album to be rawer in the songs or the production?
I'm really happy with the production of Yes on Blood. I still listen to it once in a while, hoping to channel what I was doing in that month that it took to record. There are a lot of happy accidents that only I know about. I've been listening to a lot of Wire and old punk bands that I liked in high school because I like the simpler songs. I know I say this and then the album might come out and everyone will say it sounds like The Breeders or something.
It's interesting that you refer to Wire because ostensibly The Mallard is a garage rock band, but there is a certain darkness and tension that is more indicative of post-punk than garage. Where does the tension and darkness come from?
I don't know! I think that's a really good question. I think one of the reasons I like Wire so much is because when you listen to their songs you can hear where each one started with. As in, "Oh, that song totally started with the bass or guitar line." That sort of transparency, or being able to see the strings, is really enticing because it's so simple, but all of the parts work so well together.
Do you have a title for the next album?
No. One day I was talking with the owner of the cafĂ© I work at, and he said "Yes on blood, album title!" It's like having a baby and all of your friends tell you what to name it.
So I can't give you any suggestions?
You can! It could be the one, go for it.
Call it Dominion of the Blood and Sepulcher. It's from a Wallace Stevens poem.
[Laughs] Dominion of the blood and sepulcher! I don't even know what sepulcher means. Let me write that down.
Will the next album also be released by Castle Face Records?
Yeah. I was talking to a couple labels. It's not finalized, but I told John [Dwyer] that I wanted to do it with them again. We worked really well together. It was easy as long as we worked pretty close to the pace of John Dwyer, which is light-speed. He says "record an album in a month," then we listen to it and he goes, "Okay, get it mixed and mastered and we'll put it out in a month." That guy works incredibly fast.
How did you connect with Dwyer and Castle Face for your first album?
I was a huge fan of Thee Oh Sees before I moved here. They were one of the reasons I came here in the first place. I moved out of a place in the Mission, and John Dwyer actually moved into my old room. I would go back to pick up mail once in a while, and he would give me Thee Oh Sees records and eventually I said "Here's my band's cassette demo." He really liked it, and we started talking, and he eventually said that he would like to see what a full-length out of us would sound like.
I often read The Mallard references along with Sic Alps or Thee Oh Sees as having the "S.F. garage" sound. How do such generalizations make you feel?
If Thee Oh Sees and Sic Alps are fathers of the scene, then I'm honored to be an up-and-coming band. There are some songs that sound a lot like those bands, but it's just really easy to do that when you're writing a review. It doesn't bug me as much as being compared to the Vivian Girls just because there are girls in the band. It sucks being a girl musician sometimes. If I'm playing the drums I inevitably get compared to a girl, and it's probably Meg White. Or if I'm playing bass, I always get compared to Kim Gordon or Kim Deal. It's intended as a compliment, but it is kind of ignorant.
You've said that lyrics always come last and that you don't spend that much time on them. Why are you fond of that technique?
It's not so much that I'm fond of it, but I'm tied to it now. When the song is completely done in the studio, I start to just make sounds and try to be as inarticulate as possible while getting words out. Then some phrase pops into my head and I'll build it around that vague idea. Sometimes I'll finish a song, record it, master it, and it's not until then that I realize what it's about. It can be very subconscious.