university california press, oakland

The Umbrellas: Making beautiful music together

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BEAUTIFUL Every track on ‘The Umbrellas’ shimmers with pure pop energy. ‘We started talking about our desire to write beautiful pop songs,’ Nick Oka said. ‘We all like a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of genres.’

The songs on the Umbrellas’ self-titled debut provide a pleasing antidote to the difficult times of the past year. The album sounds like a greatest hits collection, with echoes of classic California pop sprinkled throughout the record. The rhythm section—drummer Keith Frerichs and bass player Nick Oka—provides a solid groove to compliment arrangements that touch on a panoply of styles. There are hints of surf, funk, country, Motown, folk and psychedelia in the mix, providing a backdrop to the band’s positive lyrics and uplifting melodies.

Two singing guitarists front the band, Matt Ferrara and Morgan Stanley, but the quartet’s music is created collectively. “Me, Matt and Keith were in a punk band,” Oka said. “We started talking about our desire to write beautiful pop songs. We all like a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of genres. We didn’t want to stay in a niche; we wanted to explore all kinds of styles.”

Every track on The Umbrellas shimmers with pure pop energy. Luminous chords from Ferrara’s organ and bright acoustic guitar fill open “Lonely,” a mid-tempo love song that’s balanced between hope and regret. Ferrara’s tender vocal wonders if the affair is over, while Stanley sings a countermelody, suggesting his lost love still pines for him. “Autumn” is a slow, funky number comparing the fading of summer’s light to the end of a relationship. Frerichs supplies iridescent 12-string guitar fills to intensify Ferrara’s vocals. Stanley sings a playful lead on “Galine,” a rocker driven along by Frerichs’ galloping backbeat and a melody that echoes the radio hits of the ’60s. It paints the portrait of an ultra-chic woman enjoying her time in the spotlight. Twang-heavy electric guitar-fills dance around Stanley’s vocals on “A.M.,” an aching ballad full of understated sorrow. The album’s tales of desolation are balanced by upbeat melodies, and the harmonies supplied by Stanley and Ferrara.

Most of the songs on The Umbrellas were polished during live performances. When they were ready to record, the quartet loaded up their recording equipment and headed south. “My parents live in San Clemente,” Ferrara said. “We drove down there and set up our gear in the garage. We used a Macbook Pro, with an eight-channel audio interface. We put a snake [a device for recording multiple channels at the same time] in the living room. After we moved the furniture out, that became the live room. We used a closet as an isolation booth for the amplifiers. We lived and ate and recorded music for 15 hours a day, every day.”

“Nick and I wrote lyrics for some of the songs the night before we recorded them,” Stanley said. “I remember drinking wine and writing lyrics and a bridge for ‘Galine’ with Nick at midnight, and recording it the next day. We’re all best friends, so everything’s fairly democratic. We like DIY ethics—maybe because we feel a bit jaded about where the music industry has been headed. We want to keep the songs fun and challenge our expectations of what ‘pop’ is.”

Ferrara said the biggest part of producing, arranging and mixing was the unlimited options afforded by the digital realm. They’d finished recording just before the lockdown, so weren’t able to get together for the final touches. “I spent the first half of the pandemic mixing the record,” he said. “I went crazy with no one there to tell me how it was going.

“Should I add a tambourine to this part? More guitar to this one? I had to have the willpower to say, ‘No!’ I’d send mixes to the band for feedback, but there’s that cynical part of your mind saying, ‘Maybe they’re not hearing what I’m hearing.’ I had to keep reminding myself it was a group process.”

Unable to rehearse or play shows, the band sat on the finished album for almost a year. Now that things are opening up again, Slumberland Records will release The Umbrellas on Aug. 6. Stanley said the lockdown was difficult, but not too different from life before the pandemic. “You have to be resilient and consistent, if you’re in a band,” he said. “It feels like so long ago that we recorded it, but you have to keep the momentum going. The biggest obstacle is time. We live in a city where it’s impossible to survive on a minimum-wage job.

“We don’t make money with the band, but we’re passionate about it. We’re inspired by the San Francisco bands of the past, especially the Paisley Underground. We live in the Richmond District. There are a lot of bands in our neighborhood with a positive pop sound—April Magazine; the Telephone Numbers; the Reds, Pinks and Purples; and other artists are out here. They motivate us to keep making music.”