Back in 2010, Mad Noise was just a group of musicians known to busk around San Francisco, sometimes performing on the streets in the daylight and other times entertaining the late-night crowds leaving bars around the Mission district. Since then, Mad Noise has gone from the hustle and bustle of the streets to become an opening act for Grammy Award-winning artist Fantastic Negrito in 2017. Reaching this milestone, however, did not come easily — nor free of personal turmoil.
More recently, Mad Noise held a record release party at Starline Social Club for its third EP, For My Mother. The story behind the new EP’s title — as well as the two-year-long process to finally put it out — involves the death of lead singer Khalil Sullivan’s mother and the band’s unity to help Sullivan with his grief and, in turn, honor his mother.
The five-piece’s vast musical influences are palpable on each track as different instruments such as trumpet, cello, and drums take precedent. The EP includes two covers, Björk’s 1997’s song “Jóga” and Kid Cudi’s 2010 hit “Pursuit of Happiness” — two songs on the opposite ends of the musical spectrum, yet Mad Noise makes them its own with its avant-garde fusion of rock, jazz, and punk. “We do what we can with pushing boundaries with our instruments,” Sullivan said.
All of these eclectic musical elements are heavily influenced by each band member’s taste in music. Bassist Chris Weir was in the marching band, for example, a self-described “suburban kid, and also is in jazz band and shit,” a giggly Weir said.
“There’s few people I know who listen to punk and funk — I mean, the quintessential sounds of the working-class movement,” Sullivan said about Weir. “Punk music has this great history in the Bay Area, and funk also plays history in the Bay. Punk and funk, the best of both worlds.”
Sullivan, meanwhile, credits artists like Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley as personal sources of inspiration. Drummer Mogli Maureal brings ’90s neo-soul into the mix. (“His rhythm is so great,” Sullivan said.) Trumpet player Brendan Liu comes from an improvisational jazz background. (“He can do anything,” Sullivan said.) Marica Petrey plays cello and does vocals, with influences spanning classical, Japanese, and Arabic music.
The fact that Mad Noise’s members are all over the place means they can avoid common pitfalls. “If you want to be a pop band … want to emulate some of what’s out there very clearly and have it be recognizable, which puts you in a trap of being derivative,” Sullivan said. “But everyone in the band is like, ‘No, I like this. I want to bring this element to it.'”
While the band’s busking era has passed, the group still occasionally books gigs through unsuspecting bystanders who enjoyed Mad Noise’s street sessions. Those gigs are often weddings, and they serve not only a much-needed financial purpose but also help as rehearsals and chances to learn new covers. “I enjoy the atypical gigs because it keeps us fresh,” Sullivan said.
The band has also jumped on doing gigs through SoFar Sounds, as have many other local artists that utilize these unconventional, often house show gigs to get their name out there. For its last SoFar gig, Sullivan had lost his voice and was unable to sing. Instead of performing, Sullivan and Weir played Mad Noise’s latest EP, and luckily, the audience was receptive to it.
“N-Blues” is the most political track off of the EP — the musicians understand the need to use their platform to bring awareness to the current socio-political climate. The song starts with grand instrumentation of the trumpet and the cello, and it takes you by surprise with the lyrics and its message about race and class: Ain’t hard / ain’t hard to be a n****, n****, n**** / ain’t it hard for when you can’t get your money when it’s due. Sullivan describes it as a requiem — with a warning. “You better not sing along to this song,” Sullivan said. “You can enjoy it, and even then, be careful what you enjoy. This song is not easily digestible.”
“One of the ways that song works is it will scare the white people in the room, which either will make them pay attention or they will run away,” Weir said. “There’s this balance of how do you captivate someone and also keep them there.”
While the band now blissfully talks about the EP, the name of it will raise questions, as none of the songs explicitly speak about anyone’s mother. When Sullivan’s mother died, his bandmates rallied behind him in whatever way they could, helping him cope and ultimately grieve.
When discussing potential EP names, and knowing that they would want to put a dedication within the EP, the words “For My Mother” made the most sense. “This situation was complicated, fucked up, and beautiful all in one,” Sullivan said.
What would his mother have said if she could have listened to the final cut? “She would’ve liked it,” Sullivan said. “She would’ve said, ‘I see you’ve been doing things.'”