It's been 11 years since they graced a San Francisco stage, but The Aislers Set, the Bay Area's former champions of sweet-and-jangly pop of the British-sort, are finally coming back home.
It's sad to think that it took something as momentous as the 25th Anniversary of Slumberland Records to bring them back, but when The Aislers Set take the stage at the Chapel Sunday night, it will hopefully be a homecoming full of love for a group that ended, in the minds of their fans, WAY too soon.
On first listen, their reverb-heavy, melody-laden pop rock could easily be dismissed as just another "Twee" band, in the same vein as Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura. But The Aislers Set have an American-born edge to them that led them into heavier, faster territories, which endeared them to tastemakers both here in the states (they toured with Yo La Tengo and Sleater Kinney) and across the pond as well -- legendary DJ John Peel even confessed his love for them and even featured them in a Peel Session.
"If you're in one of your difficult moods, you could probably argue that there's lots of bands making that sort of noise -- particularly in the United States of America," said Peel during The Aislers Set's 2001 Peel Session. "You'd say, 'Well, why are Aislers Set better than the others?' And I'd have to say, 'I don't really know, they just sort-of are.'"
The answer to Peel's question lies on the shoulders of the group's main songwriter, AV (formerly Amy) Linton. A multi-instrumentalist with a voice that manages to sound beautiful but not saccharine, Linton has developed a songwriting style that sounds completely organic and authentic, despite being heavily conditioned by her influences.
Growing up as a typical white, middle class suburban teen in Albuquerque, NM, it all started for Linton when her parents fulfilled her wish for a drum set and bought her an old Rogers kit they found in the classified ads.
"I knew that Buddy Rich played a Rogers kit, and I was so stoked even though it was a piece of crap that was made of plastic," says Linton. "But they bought it for me!"
Linton then began playing in all types of bands -- punk, hardcore, ska -- many of them with high school buddy and local punk luminary Dave Hernandez (who would go on to play in Scared of Chaka and The Shins.) Though she says she wrote one song during those days, it wasn't until she started the band Henry's Dress with her friends Matt Hartman and Hayyim Sanchez that she picked up a guitar and started writing songs.
Heavily influenced by the noise rock bands of the '90s, Linton says her first songs were her versions of Halo of Flies and Unsane tracks. And though Hartman was the designated singer in the beginning of the band, when the band went into the studio to record, it became clear that Linton needed to sing her songs.
"I would play guitar and Amy would play drums. If Amy wrote a song, I would sing it," Hartman said in an interview for the zine Cool Beans back in 1996. "But when we tried to record them in a real studio, it became very apparent that I wasn't capable of singing songs in the key that Amy had written them in. And I thought, 'Gee whiz, why not just let Amy sing them?' And that's worked out pretty good I think."
Henry's Dress was only together for a few months before they relocated to San Francisco so they could be together while Linton attended the Art Institute of San Francisco. After playing for three years and releasing several records (including the LP Bust 'Em Green) they disbanded.
Though she was band-less, Linton never stopped making music. Acting almost on impulse, she sold her car so she could buy an 8-track reel-to-reel and get back to writing songs, but this time more in the vein of Galaxie 500.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've always been playing in bands; I was a serial band member. It's what I've known and I've been doing it forever," says Linton. "Up until The Aislers Set broke up it was my actual life."
Linton recorded, compulsively, about 14 tracks on her newly purchased machine that were swamped with reverb and full of melodies. After showing them to Slumberland head Michael Schulman, he informed her that he was excited enough to put out the songs, despite the fact Linton didn't have a band. (The songs would become the majority of The Aislers Set's first album, Terrible Things Happen.)
"I had the whole thing recorded and that's how the band happened. I met Wyatt (Cusick, guitar) and I went over to his place with a tape of all the songs and he was into it," Linton says. "We made plans to play and he brought his girlfriend, who was Alicia (Vanden Heuvel, bass) at the time and who I had never met before. So the three of us played, and then the next time we played they brought Yoshi (Nakamoto, drums), who I'd also never met before. And all of a sudden we were a band; a very unintentional band."
That was 1998, and the first album sparked enough of a following that they ended up touring Japan in support of it.
Flash forward five years, after the band has released two more albums -- The Last Match (Slumberland) and How I Learned to Write Backwards (Suicide Squeeze) -- gone on several tours, received high praise from the New York Times, NME, San Francisco Chronicle, and even Greil Marcus. And yet the band was miserable, according to Linton, who said that the stress of performing on an almost daily basis during extensive tours was starting to wear her down (she says she now deals with stage fright), among other things.
"People in the band weren't treating each other very well -- myself included -- and I think there was some self-sabotage going on in there, somewhere, instead of dealing with our problems," says Linton.
"We had a lot of really amazing opportunities playing for all these great bands and I think we just kind of blew it," she says. "We had this week of shows with Belle and Sebastian, and somehow we managed to be late, arriving 15-20 minutes before we were supposed to play in front of thousands of people."
The experience left Linton burnt out on music altogether. A chance to live in New York for cheap inspired her to pack up and head to NYC, where she ended up living for almost a decade and barely played. And though she moved to California a few years ago in order to get back to playing music, Linton says it's been slow.
The week-long reunion tour along the West Coast to promote the re-releases of the band's three albums has been fun, but Linton says fans shouldn't expect the band to permanently reunite, as two of the group's main players -- Nakamoto and Cusick -- live in Germany and Sweden, respectively. But for Linton, the experience has been refreshing, especially since they haven't been opening for much bigger bands whose fans seemed to want to skip The Aislers Set's set.
"The night before last I had a very basic realization, that [the crowd] was actually there to hear our songs, which is amazing! It's been a long time," says Linton.
The Aislers Set play with The Mantles and Cold Beat at The Chapel on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, at 8pm. Tickets are sold out online but some will be made available at the door for $20. For more information, visit thechapelsf.com.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED