The previous day saw a high in the 80s in San Francisco, but now that the sun has begun to set over a park in fully-gentrified Hayes Valley, the wind picks up as four of the five members of local indie pop group HEARTWATCH gather over Smitten frozen-nitrogen ice cream.
“People love to talk about how bands are leaving, everyone is leaving, San Francisco and getting priced out—and it’s true,” says vocalist Claire George. “A lot of musicians have left. I have a lot of friends who are leaving, still. We’re hanging on, and it’s cool because we feel really supported by the community.”
Becoming priced out of San Francisco is not unique to artists, but they are one of the more affected groups, with many musicians choosing Los Angeles, where the cost of rent is lower, and affordable practice spaces are easier to find. Those who’ve chosen to stick it out in NorCal have done it in part with the support of fans and their peers. Last month, at the Outside Lands music festival, a large group of HEARTWATCH fans chartered a bus and arrived with bunches of sunflowers for the band’s 12 p.m. slot, the first of the day. Many of them had been to every one of HEARTWATCH’s shows over the past couple of years, when they were known, until recently, as The Tropics.
“We’ve felt nothing but ridiculous support from the San Francisco music scene,” says guitarist-keyboardist Eric Silverman. “Everyone has been really into the band. We go see (other local acts’) shows, they come out to see our shows. People really care. People love music here.”
For now, they all have day jobs. George has a part-time engagement as a forensic accountant, working on anticorruption cases. Silverman will only say that he’s in the “ice cream business,” and may or may not have a side job as a magician. Guitarist Rowan Peter has worked at restaurants and also teaches guitar. Bassist Nate Skelton works in finance. Drummer Kern Sigala, the only one not able to make this get-together, manages a sporting goods store.
The band was built out of friendships new and old. Silverman and Skelton attended Santa Clara University together, where they played in various Grateful Dead-loving jam bands. They lost touch after school, before bumping into each a couple of years later at a concert. Silverman invited Skelton to join the early incarnation of the band.
Skelton and Sigala played together in another college band. When The Tropics needed a drummer, he was the first to get the call. Silverman met George when both tried out for another band on Craigslist. They decided they liked the company of each other more than the band for which they were auditioning.
“Then, Ro came in the mix, and that’s when I think things got real,” Silverman says. Adds Skelton, “It was this crazy energy that immediately started happening. Everybody was just so excited to play again. We couldn’t wait to practice.”
That’s when Silverman realized he would cross a lot of firsts off the list with his band mates: Their first experience to tour—at least the Bay Area, their first band to write music with depth and variety, and their first band to look at music as a career option.
Perhaps the most excited of all was George, who not only had never performed in public, but had never been in another band. She admits to being green, but her outgoing personality and natural stage presence was perfectly suited to lead a band.
She’d wanted to be a singer since she was a young girl, but never had any formal training. An inability to read music kept her out of school choirs and performances. Then, a love of high school sports took over—to the surprise of her band mates, she now admits to being a high school national championship-qualifying rower—and that took up her time. But she never stopped singing.
“I’d been singing my whole life in cars to Mariah Carey and Fiona Apple,” she says.
After graduating from USC, she moved to San Francisco and was working in accounting, from which she needed a creative outlet. In the end, that’s what brought her together with Silverman.
“Eric had to pull me out of my shell a little bit,” she says. “In terms of confidence on stage … being able to hit our notes and belt, and sing in front of the boys, I was very shy at first. I would have to have a few glasses of wine before practice.”
The band’s stature in the Bay Area began to grow, both quickly and organically. As The Tropics, they released their first EP, Wind House, in late 2014. The record’s five songs evoke various pop elements, from the ‘70s through today. Attendance at live shows began to grow. They got a prized slot performing at the Outside Lands music festival.
But right before the summer, they had to deal with their biggest challenge to-date—not rising rents, but a legal standoff with English electronic/chillwave musician Tropics, who’d beaten them to the name by two years. Shortly after starting the band and putting up a Facebook page in 2012, they were messaged by a representative for the English Tropics and asked to change their name. They dealt with it by adding a “the” in front of their name, and thought it was the end of the encounter.
“We really didn’t think it mattered, and … part of it too was we really didn’t know where this (band) was going to go,” Silverman says.
Instead of getting nervous, they were flattered that someone overseas now knew who they were. They weren’t afraid of any legal action, Skelton explains: “We were so young that we had no aspirations of being known outside of our friendship group. You don’t really have to worry about it until you start making any money, really. He could try to sue us—we (didn’t) have any money.”
The band believed it was the end of the confrontation, and were completely wrong in their assessment. The English artist’s management reached out again, this time threatening legal action, when the two acts both had shows at the same in San Francisco venue within a month of each other late last spring.
This time, the band had money to lose, and their hands were forced because they had a packed summer schedule that involved two festivals, including Outside Lands, from which they didn’t want to lose any steam.
They decided to rip off the Band-Aid.
“You pick (a band name) without really thinking about it,” Silverman said. “You don’t realize that when that’s attached to you for two or three years, you become attached to it from an identity perspective. If we’re not that, who are we?”
They decided to make the best of the situation presented to them, and working together, chose HEARTWATCH, the name of one of their early, unreleased songs. As added benefits, they’re unlikely to have to deal with gig posters full of palm trees, rainbows and sunsets, and were given a chance to rebrand after already knowing the direction in which their music is heading.
“It takes a band time to figure out what they sound like, you know?” Skelton says. “When you start a band, you try to sound like something but then you really grow into something unique and original.”
The big new name reveal came following a few songs at a sold-out show—the same one where the English Tropics would perform a few weeks later. The frantic decision to do so was made at a 10 p.m. practice the previous night in Silverman’s garage, Peter said.
As the crowd was buzzing about one of San Francisco’s best up-and-coming bands, George stopped to speak. Says Skelton: “It was very nerve-racking. The first sentence out of (her) mouth made it sound like we were breaking up.”
“Claire said, ‘This is the last time you’ll ever see The Tropics,’” Peter adds.
The crowd began murmuring, and then the room grew tense. Then, the screen behind the band flashed their new name and logo.
“I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my entire life,” George recalls.
The speed bump has proved to be minor, and the quintet has recovered, going so far as to make a name change kit for fans, complete with stickers to ease the transition between The Tropics and HEARTWATCH.
In the coming months, the band will undertake their first real tour of West Coast cities, with their sights set on the country next year. A debut album, recorded in the last few months at Portland’s Jackpot! Recording Studio, will follow later this year or early next. They’ve already released one song that should appear on the album, the new wave-driven, shimmering “Faultlines.”
Like many of their newer songs, it was written with all five of them playing together in the same room until the melody presented itself.
“There are other songs (where) someone will bring an idea in and we’ll flesh it out more,” Peter said, “Everyone will add their part and we’ll talk about where we think it’s going and what needs to happen.”
Typically, a guitar riff comes first during songwriting. If they’re not in the same room at inception, they’ll email various parts to each other for opinions and suggestions.
Peter is responsible for many of these emailed missives, while Silverman has hundreds of voice memo inspirations recorded on his phone that would cause massive embarrassment if ever released into the world.
George works on the lyrics either at the same time as the band works on the melodies, or afterward.
“While they’re jamming, I’m basically scat-singing over stuff,” she says. “I can’t really write around other people yet. I usually go home and listen and work with the music and struggle and torture myself in my bedroom at night.”
Musically, the songs are a cohesive unit and should not surprise fans of the EP, Skelton says. Thematically, they will be a mix of pop love songs and songs about the energy the band members share as collaborators and friends—about “us having courage as a band to go for things and hoping other people feel the courage to do those kinds of things,” George says.