San Cisco: ‘Sometimes You’ve Just Gotta Face The Music’

29 February 2024 | 11:29 am | Bryget Chrisfield

We caught up with one of Freo’s finest bands for a chinwag about embracing collaboration, getting woken up by your own song, and how “juxtaposition” informed their latest album, ‘Under The Light’.

San Cisco

San Cisco (Credit: Olivia Senior)

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It occurred to us while listening to San Cisco’s upcoming fifth album, Under The Light, that there are songs on here you might not be able to immediately identify as theirs if they were to randomly pop up on shuffle. “I like that!” Jordi Davieson (lead vocals, guitar and keys) admits with a laugh. “Yeah, that’s cool… We’ve never done a record like this before and I think that we really extended ourselves for it, and pushed ourselves to try and make the best music we’ve ever put on a record.

“It was quite a journey and it’s a big part of us, and we did it all ourselves with our friends. Scarlett [Stevens, drums and vocals]’s boyfriend James [Ireland, also Pond’s drummer] produced the record and we worked with Pond a lot. My girlfriend took the photos, our friends who live in Freo did the graphics, our management team is Scarlett’s family – it’s a big, beautiful family vibe.

“This record is a lot more reflective and we’re looking at things from a lot more angles as opposed to, like, ‘Here’s a love song. I love you. I love you this much…’ It’s more like, ‘This is the intricate, in the weeds of what relationships are like – with friends, with family, with archetypes that you maybe steer away from – and how you interpret them…’ We’ve grown up a bit and it’s a little bit more all-encompassing; they’re not just cut-and-dried breakup songs or love songs.”

As well as backing vocals throughout, Stevens’ sweet singing features on this record’s title track – a duet – and she also takes lead vocals on Honeycomb. “Scarlett really came up with the concept of using food as a metaphor for love,” Davieson details. “She wrote the vast majority of the lyrics and took it home, and it was kind of like her little baby; she really nurtured that one. And also just our idea about [that song] and the way that the music was coming out, we were like, ‘Scarlett’s gotta sing this’.”

“I think when there’s two singers, it connects to the fans in a big way,” Josh Biondillo (guitar, keys and vocals) observes. “Especially live.”

“We’ve done the duet thing since Awkward,” Davieson reminds.

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“Da-da-da daaaa / Da-da-da / Da-daaaa…” The playful, catchy AF, Platinum-selling Awkward (2011) gained a lot of exposure after its Vodafone ad sync. “Now KFC has it,” Davieson enthuses. “They play the ad during the footy!” Although it’s a boppy earworm, Awkward is actually about a stalker. “We like making music that makes you feel good, but probably has quite a dark meaning behind it; it’s a nice juxtaposition,” Davieson acknowledges.

When asked whether Under The Light continues to explore dichotomy, Davieson considers, “A lot of the songs are inherently like that; I think it just comes naturally to us,” before deeming Family Trust (which had the working title Crossfire) “the one with the biggest juxtaposition between the music and the lyrical subject”. He adds: “It sounds very poppy and happy and summery, but lyrically it’s quite a sad, dark, confused song.”

This suave, strings-infused album highlight made us feel like we were checking into Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (Arctic Monkeys’ loungey sixth album). “Yeah, we were very much leaning on that as an influence at the time,” Biondillo allows.

Of the home studio session that produced Family Trust, Davieson recalls, “We went out the night before and I was feeling quite dusty that day. They were like, ‘Okay, Jordi, we need you to give us a melody and some words for this verse.’ And I was lying down on the couch, feeling really shit and I just sang the whole verse and wrote it in one go. And I was like, ‘Okay, well, that’s that!’” he trails off laughing. “And that was one of the many moments from recording the record where it was kinda magical; it just comes out of you like that.”

Family Trust is also an uncharacteristic character study. “I was like, ‘Okay, what can I do to get something new out of me? I’m gonna take on a character, and the verses are that character,” Davieson confirms. “It took a while to figure out what the song was about, for me. I spoke to Nick Allbrook [frontman of Pond] about this song quite a bit, how I had this message that I wanted to convey but I didn’t know how to do it or what the right way to do it was. But, yeah, I really like that song.”

Allbrook was enlisted to “come and write with” San Cisco, and his invaluable input also helped crystallise Summer Days. This dreamy, wistful album track about “mourning what the future could have been” features some heart-stabbing lyrics: “Never thought I'd get so lonely / In the middle of a disco…”

“Nick wrote that line – he wrote a lot of the lyrics on that song – and it was like the missing piece to the puzzle,” Davieson discloses. “He’s a special person, Nick. We had that Summer Days song bouncing around – we could never quite write the right lyrics for it, it was always just sort of mumbled, like, ‘summer days’ was mumbled in there somewhere and a few other lines… We’d created this song that we really loved, but couldn’t quite get it to connect at the end and then getting someone like Nick in, who’s such a beautiful person in himself and ended up being a great creative sounding board for me personally.”

The lavish string arrangements – which elevate Family Trust, Horoscope and Find Yourself Here Again (Davieson: “I feel like the strings really made that song special”) – come courtesy of Jesse Kotansky. “We sent the songs away, over to America, to have strings played on them,” Biondillo enlightens. “The guy that produced the album, James, said, ‘This guy did some strings on the last Pond album. I think it would be really fitting to have strings on these couple of songs’.”

“The process with the strings was: he [Ireland] sends over the track and then [Kotansky] just improvises over the whole track,” Davieson continues. “Then he sends it back and James would go through it with us, and we’d chop it up and reconstruct it into what we think works for the song. It’s a pretty cool process; I don’t know if it’s the traditional way of doing it, but it works. We’d listen to the whole track as he’d recorded it, and there were bits that were like, ‘That is not our vibe at all,’ but then there’s little moments where you’re like, ‘That’s a great hook, that’s beautiful!’”

Horoscope concludes with a simple, yet poignant phrase – “When you’re down, come around…” – repeatedly sung and reassuringly received. “That is another song that’s quite positive,” Davieson acknowledges. “I think I tried to write a few more positive songs for this record; something different.”

So now that he’s tried positivity on for size, does Davieson reckon he’ll revert back to creating sad bangers? “I dunno, I haven’t really started writing again,” he tells. “But I can feel it building up inside me so I’ll see what’s gonna come out next. We’ll have to see.”

Lost Without You and HighUnder The Light’s opening songs – bottle lovestruck euphoria. “I think those two tracks are the first time that I’ve written positive songs,” Davieson realises. “But even, like, Lost Without You – sure it’s quite a positive sentiment, but most of the song is talking about all of the struggles and the hard things, and the things you work on through a relationship; it isn’t just easy – it’s hard and it’s messy – but ultimately it is better to have that person in your life. At the end of the day, the juice is worth the squeeze and you’d be lost without them.

“With High, I tried to just make a positive song. But even though that is a beautiful love song, it’s a bit of an anxious attachment style: how engulfed you can become by love and how that in itself can be quite a toxic thing, and quite a disorientating thing. But it is also a beautiful thing – that’s what everyone’s chasing. Yeah,” he breaks into a chuckle before sharing, “The juxtaposition again!”

It was devastating to read San Cisco announcing the cancellation of their forthcoming US tour via social media on 20 January, which – it has to be said – the band handled with honesty and a whole lotta grace.

“I was quite blown away by how understanding and lovely the fans were,” Davieson praises. “It was a bit annoying – we were releasing a song in a day or two when we decided we had to cancel it, so we couldn’t really put out a press release being like, ‘We’re cancelling a tour. And we’ve got a new song!’ But then the promoters in America were cancelling the shows and people were getting informed of that, and we were getting a lot of messages and emails being like, ‘What the hell’s going on? You guys aren’t saying anything…’

“And then eventually when we did, a few days after releasing the song, [the announcement] was met with a lot of understanding and love, and people being like, ‘Don’t worry, we’re still gonna support you, blah blah blah,’ and, yeah! It was really nice. That really felt good. ‘Cause it’s awful! It’s such a shit thing to have to do, but sometimes you’ve just gotta face the music. We don’t get to go to America. I’m still bummed about it.”

San Cisco did perform at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix last year, though, which Biondillo admits he was “very into”: “I’m a grand prix fan and I just loved being a part of the atmosphere. Yeah, I wanna do it again.”

Of Singaporeans, Davieson observes, “They’re very good at following rules; they’re big on rules. Like, we’re not very naughty, but there were a few things where we were like, ‘Can we just quickly go and do this, then we’ll be back here?’ And it was just a flat no. Then we'd sneak off and do it anyway and it was like we’d just stolen a car or something [laughs] – they were freaking out! It’s a very interesting, but lovely culture and it was very cool to be a part of such a huge event. Even though we were only a tiny bit of it, just to be involved in the whole thing – it was massive!

“The music fans and the Formula 1 fans, on a Venn diagram, haven’t really crossed over much yet. There were some amazing acts going on with no one watching them… I watched Kings Of Leon – one of my favourite bands – and I was, like, ten metres away from the front of the stage with no one around me!”

When asked what kind of ambitions they had for San Cisco when they formed back in 2009, Biondillo admits, “There were certainly no 15-year plans at that time. But I think at that point we were young and just kinda taking it as it presented itself, and rolling with the punches. Some shows in the early days were highlights because they came as such a surprise for us, having only been doing it for such a short amount of time. Then going to some random place in America and there being heaps of people coming to watch us play…”

Davieson concurs: “That is crazy, like, when you leave your country that you’ve never left before – that you grew up in – and then there’s heaps of people that are like, ‘I love you and I love your music!’ And, when you’re young, you’re like, ‘I don’t even know you, I’ve never been here before!’ We were never like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna play music for the rest of our lives. We’re gonna be a big rock band.’ It was very organic, we just sort of were like, ‘Oh, okay, people are coming to our show. They just played us on the radio! This is cool,’ and then it just sort of went from there.

“A moment I always remember in the beginning is: I used to get woken up for school by an alarm-clock radio, so triple j would just come on when my alarm went off. And one morning I got woken up by our first song that triple j played, called Golden Revolver, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is so cool!’ And I reckon that’s probably one of my favourite memories of being in a band; like, your song coming on the radio, in a shop – or, you know, in the world – never gets old. It’s like, ‘This is crazy! I made this thing and it’s getting played just randomly in the world!’ I think that’s pretty cool.”

Under The Light is out March 1 via Island City Records.