Just shy of 17, we used to sneak into the Hopetoun Hotel to hold sweating schooners and watch bands play. Wrists stamped, we’d stand shoulder to shoulder with not-quite-strangers and stare. We were awkward and in awe. We knew we weren’t supposed to be there, but, still, it just felt so right. And while the Hoey, as we called it, is now long gone, we never want to forget how we felt in that tiny room as the sound washed over us. Sometimes, we guess, you are ready before you are supposed to be. Ready to say what you think and do what you know you can; to dream big and to be taken seriously.
Scarlett Stevens – drummer and sometimes vocalist for west coast four-piece San Cisco – knows the feeling. Raised on a steady diet of rock (her dad is the caretaker of local talent who have made it big), she has been in a semblance of a band since she was 13. “It’s hard for young bands, they get pigeonholed,” she says. “People only thought we were successful because we were young, but actually we worked really hard at our instruments. I was really little at the time and was thinking, that’s not fair, I can play as good as some 23-year-old.”
Logistics, too, were not in San Cisco’s favour. Not that long ago, all four of them were underaged – then, all of a sudden, only one of them was. “It was so stressful. Before, we’d play clubs and bars, but then a lot of the clubs were really strict and we weren’t even allowed to share the same dressing room or green room. They’d separate us.” At the time of writing, Stevens, Nick Garner (bass) and Josh Biondillo (guitar, keys and vocals) are all 19, while Jordi Davieson (lead vocals and guitar) is only just 18. “It’s so easy now.”
San Cisco’s stuff is bright and shiny indie pop; their riffs are clean and catchy, their beats quick and nimble. When we posted Awkward – their single that earned them a number seven in Triple J’s Hottest 100 – on our Facebook page, it went off. They grew up – and still live – in Western Australia’s Freemantle, the place where the sun falls into the water instead of climbing over it of a morning. There, music was just another thing they did. Like road trip down south. It was fun and it felt right and it made them feel good.
“There are those monumental moments where you feel you’re being recognised for the music you’re making, instead of ‘Oh, they’re so cute’; when you get people who really dig your music that’s when you’re like cool, people like what we’re doing and we just need to keep doing it.”
As for the “cute” tag, “Errm, we get it a lot,” she laughs. “I can see how people respond to Awkward in that way. I guess it’s a cute pop song. I can’t really sing so I just sound like I’m talking – maybe people think that’s cute?”
Around the same time we were haunting the Hopetoun, we found Wilco’s Heavy Metal Drummer. “She fell in love with the drummer, another and another,” go the lyrics. Stevens, if not cute, is sure is easy to fall for. She says everything is “really cool” and doesn’t shy from phrases like “new direction”. “We used to be a lot more folky and now we’re finding our feet with our sound. I have more vision of where I see the band going. In earlier days, we were listening to older stuff – Bob Dylan and The Beatles, now we’re more into MGMT, The Strokes, Metronomy, The Flaming Lips and The Mid-Westerns.”
She reads Lillian Roxon (“My auntie put me onto her and she’s pretty amazing, she was just so ahead of her time the stuff she was writing about – The Beatles, The Stones – while it was all happening for these big bands, she was commentating”), but hasn’t quite got to Just Kids. “It’s on my list of things to read,” she assures, along with David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames and something – anything – by John Waters. She works hard at what she does and she is good at it.
Still, despite the band’s success, there is a doubt that lingers with Stevens – much like that feeling when you are almost through the door and you just know someone will card you, call you out. “I’ve always played in bands but never felt like I could make it a career. There’s no security in a career in music, so I’ve always built up other stuff in case I don’t make it.” Her back-up plan – for the moment – is an arts management degree, “so hopefully I’ll be able to still do my music stuff from a business sense”. And, she has a go-to, an editor of sorts. “My dad manages the band, but with tough decisions I’m always like, ‘What does Mum think?’ She’s just always said stand up for myself, stick to my grounds, that kind of thing.”
Stevens looks to those who have stuck their ground before her, those who have gone their own way and done OK out of it. She loves Patti Smith, Joan Jett and the Runaways (even though she’s yet to see the movie), and Deborah Harry. “They came up in the New York scene just so early on. They started a lot.”
It’s all about starting something, she laughs. Even when you are talking when you should be singing.