Rooming with breakout local band Hotel St. George
During the opening lines of “All Those Dancing Stars,” one of many stellar tracks on City Boy Lemon, the debut LP from San Diego-based Hotel St. George, one could not be blamed for wondering openly at lead singer Matt Binder’s origins.
His grandiose inflection hints at Bowie or Davies and a dramatic, frantic delivery recalls the tamer moments of Spencer Krug, but the effect is all his own. The surprise catch comes when actually speaking with him — he’s not the foreigner his vocals make him out to be. On the topic of accents, it comes down to this for the band: Binder’s got the fake singing one (he’s from Colorado originally) and drummer Simon Leader’s is legit as the resident Englishman of the four-piece.
However, for this interview, it’s mine—mumbly and Southern Californian—that causes the first confusion, while asking about the band’s origins.
“How did you all form to create — ”
“Fornicate?” Simon attempts to clarify.
Granted, a lousy-worded sentence on my part, but the procreative metaphor works well, and will come up many times in the conversation to follow.
Hotel St. George was born when Binder (formerly of Vinyl Radio) and bass player Erik Visnyak (formerly of A Week’s Worth) met at the T. rex exhibit in Balboa Park’s Natural History Museum just weeks after their respective bands had called it quits. Visnyak, who works at the Mingei Museum, had similarly (and serendipitously) struck up a conversation with drummer Leader (who also works in the park) during an audition for a friend’s band.
“Erik ended up e-mailing me, asking if I remembered him. And, of course, it was only like a week ago, of course I remembered him.” Guitarist Brian Riley, a recent transplant from the East Coast, would eventually join the project at the persistent urging of his girlfriend.
“Really, she said to him, ‘Get your ass in gear.’” Leader offers. “So that’s how all of us fornicated, basically.”
Now entering its terrible (or terrific) twos, Hotel St. George’s musical output has been wholly representative of the four individual, creative forces behind it. After two EPs, Yippee!!! and Hundreds and Thousands, the band has prepared its first full-length, the excellent City Boy Lemon, which had its formal debut at the Casbah last Thursday to a packed and enthusiastic audience.
But before the recent SDMA-nominees graced the stage at Kettner and Laurel, I sat down with Matt Binder, Simon Leader and Brian Riley at the street side patio of the Bluefoot Bar and Lounge in North Park to wax nostalgic on the formation of the band, argue the problems of proliferation (they’ve already got more material ready for a pressing), and exactly where your money goes when you drop ten bucks for that gorgeous piece of vinyl goodness.
Simon Leader: There’s a wicked green car just going by. We don’t get them in England, do you know what I mean?
Brian Riley: What’s that?
Simon: The green car!
Matt Binder: You’re going to have to try an American accent, Simon, or else she’s not going to understand a word you’re saying…
Brian: That’s all right, we couldn’t understand his accent for a little while. We’d misunderstand what he would say, that’s how we’d come up with all the album titles.
Matt: In person, I can talk to you, but on the phone … no idea. It’s because I can read your lips.
Simon: I thought I spoke quite clearly and concisely …
So, starting from the beginning: How did you all find yourselves in San Diego?
Matt: I moved here from Colorado. I graduated college and was on a road trip and I stopped at a friend’s house in Ocean Beach, and never left. That was it; no rhyme or reason.
Simon: I got picked up by an American tourist in England and she said, “I can take you to America.” I thought, “All right. Let’s go.”
Brian: I was living in New York, and I didn’t have anything musically going. I mentioned to some people that I was going to leave New York and they said, “Sure, right, when?” I said, “I dunno, I guess I’ll leave now.” And they said, “But it’s Christmas!” So on December 26th, at 3 in the morning, I left. I drove out here, and it’s been a year.
After the band formed, how did you all approach songwriting? Is it collaborative or does a single person write the lyrics, or music?
Simon: I have no clue. I just wake up and go with the flow.
Matt: On the first EP we did, Yippee!!!, Brian and Erik wrote all the music, and I wrote the vocals. On Hundreds and Thousands, I wrote most of the songs and the band added their flavor. For City Boy Lemon, Brian, Erik and I all brought in different songs. That’s why there are totally different sounds on the record.
Brian: I think that really lends to the versatility of the songs; the fact that they’re not all stamped out in one way, there’s a myriad of ways that they seem to be put together.
Matt: And now, after City Boy Lemon, we’ve started writing another album. We’ve got another EP’s-worth. And we decided to all switch instruments to make it different. So Brian, our guitar player, has moved to keys and bass and our bass player, Erik, has moved to guitar, just to give the band a new dynamic.
Simon: But, really, it’s all about the drums. Just ignore them.
So everyone in band knows the other’s instruments. But no one can play drums like Simon.
Simon: Brian can play good drums, actually. I dunno why I’m here.
Brian: I can’t play like him, though; he’s fancy.
Simon: Simplicity’s where it’s at, man.
Brian: That’s the funny thing about Simon’s drums; at first listen, they seem very… willing to accommodate, just going along with it. Then you listen to them again and you hear these intricate little bits that spring up after a few listens.
Simon: Just cut to the chase: They make you want to fornicate. Like an aphrodisiac.
The sounds on City Boy Lemon are quite diverse, how do you reconcile that with one another? How do you keep everything cohesive?
Simon: I think it’s very interesting. Collectively, the four of us have come from different backgrounds.
Brian: You take four different people who, essentially, listen to four different shades of music and add them all together … I’ve had people tell me that we sound like how the British Invasion would sound like if it had carried on 45 years later. But, it’s adapted modernity; loud amps, synthesizers and all that sort of stuff.
Simon: When we get together and play, everyone’s pretty open. We roll with the punches.
Matt: That’s why, right now, we’re really psyched to do the instrument switch because we can tap into totally different things. It’s a natural shift into getting new sounds.
Though the band’s just nearly two years old, you’ve pressed a decent amount of material. After three EPs, what triggered the need for an LP? What was the method behind the madness?
Simon: I think the songs just developed a little bit better to our liking.
Matt: We wanted to record earlier, but we didn’t have any money. We were going to record another EP, when we only had five or six songs, but we had to put it off another month because our buddy who records us, Mike Kamoo, didn’t have the studio time available. So, in the meantime, we wrote four more songs. It just turned out to be a full-length.
Simon: That’s the thing I’ve found quite amazing, really. I’ve been in a few bands over the years and [in Hotel St. George], we’re chewing out songs quicker than we can record them. It’s kind of fun. We’re putting City Boy Lemon out and we already have half a brand new set that hasn’t been recorded yet.
When most bands release a lot of EPs, there’s some overlap of songs between albums. But for you guys, there’s something new on every release.
Brian: It’s kind of cheap to have somebody buy another CD off of you when you’re pawning off another three or four songs on there that they’ve heard in one incarnation or another. It’s more fun to try something new.
Matt: We’ve recorded and released 25 songs in the past year and a half. And now we have four new ones that are ready to go.
Do you have any reservations about being that prolific?
Simon: That it’s quantity rather than quality? Really, it’s getting more and more quality anyway, so …
Matt: I have one buddy that always gives us shit because he says that you’ve got to give your fans enough time to absorb your songs and move on. I figure the way we’re doing it now, we’re playing to such a small group of people that it’s not really about them, the fans. [laughs] Because there’s not enough of them! At this point, we’re doing it for ourselves, we’re not going to be stagnant because there are 100 people that like us. When we go to practice, it’s way more fun to write new shit than to rehash old stuff. If you want to give us some money to go record right now, we’ll go do it.
Simon: Straight to the point: “Give me some money.”
Brian: But, we’re great at just giving stuff away.
Matt: We’ve given away probably 1500 CDs in the past year. We’re terrible…
Simon: But once they’re out, it’s like, “Ah, just take one!”
Matt: Why not? All the people who go to shows, though, are fucking poor, you know?
But not as poor as the bands are.
Matt: I’d rather them just have the music. That being said, you should buy our record.
Simon: It’s financing literally everything we do.
Brian: If you’d like to hear more Hotel St. George, you should give them money. [laughs]
City Boy Lemon is out now on a limited vinyl pressing of 500 copies through This is Tightrope Records. For more information on Hotel St. George including show dates, news, and (more) music, head over to their MySpace.
Lead photo by David McHank.