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High hopes in lo-fi: SF’s nascent ‘fog pop’ scene finds home at Paisley Shirt Records

On most evenings, 2740 16th Street is just a warehouse located in a part of the Mission District where workers still use hammers, nails, wrenches and crowbars to earn a living.

But if you stand outside this drab, concrete edifice on the right evening, you’ll hear more than the murmur of traffic and echoes of industry. This is Hit Gallery, an art studio whose front stoop sometimes doubles as a performance venue, and which has become the once-monthly mecca for an enterprising cohort of like minded bands and their followers.

The studio is operated by Peter Hurley, a musician who plays in local band April Magazine and releases music via the San Francisco-based Paisley Shirt Records. The local label has recently made a name for itself championing a woozy, lo-fi sonic style that is sometimes referred to as “fog pop,” and which is shaping up to be the lingua franca of the most cohesive and connected music scene San Francisco has seen in years.

Unlike the blown-out, hyper-fuzz of late-aughts San Francisco garage rockers—such as the Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin—this new crop of local indie musicians are coalescing around slower, jangly-er tunes. Some seem to go out of their way to center the gentle analog hiss of the vintage bedroom recording rigs upon which the songs were tracked.

Founded in 2013 by musician Kevin Linn, Paisley Shirt Records traffics almost completely in cassette tapes, reinforcing the homespun, approachable nature of the bands on its roster. Linn says he launched the label as a low-stakes endeavor to support the music he and his friends, Alex Machock and Nate Rogers, were making at the time.

“I figured it made sense to get a label together just to put out our music,” Linn says. “We really thought it was going to be just a label for our records.” 

But before long their operation had garnered a devoted following on Reddit and Soundcloud. Soon enough, submissions started trickling in. Paisley Shirt is now home to a number of noteworthy San Francisco acts, including Cindy, Tony Jay, Flowertown and Linn’s various vehicles, like the Sad-Eyed Beatniks, Milky Baskets and Hood Mask.

While the bands differ in sound, ranging from dreampop (Cindy) to shoegaze (Oakland’s Blue Ocean) to post-punk (Sad-Eyed Beatniks) to ghostly folk rock (April Magazine), their shared lo-fi production values imbue the label with a distinct aesthetic. Each release feels like a found footage document. A haunting and grainy Polaroid, singed at the edges. A strangely melodic, murky mystery.

Linn says he prefers focusing the label’s efforts on cassette tapes because they’re cheaper, faster to record and easier to duplicate—especially when compared to vinyl records, which, like so many other niche products, have been hit hard by pandemic-related supply chain issues.

They say tape is warmer—and Paisley Shirt Records is all about it. The local label traffics primarily in cassette tapes. | Chris Victorio

“It’s all very DIY,” says Linn, who operates the business out of his apartment in the Sunset District. “You can just get some tapes, duplicate them and share them to the world.”

A few years after starting the label, Linn caught the eye of Hurley, a longtime San Francisco musician who first moved to the city in 2003. Hurley says he was immediately intrigued by the lo-fi aura of the Paisley Shirt Records bands.

“I always had an affinity for the demo tapes of bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Stone Roses and Velvet Underground, and I could see that quality in the Paisley Shirt Records stuff,” Hurley says. “I found out that Kevin lived in San Francisco, and he came to a fundraiser at the gallery one night. We talked for a little while about our shared music tastes. I’ve always loved a specific kind of music, but it never seemed like that many other people really liked it.”

While Linn constructed the launch pad for San Francisco’s emergent scene by zeroing in on a unifying vibe, he lacked Bill Graham’s classic one-two punch of marketing vision tied to a physical home base. Hurley’s Hit Gallery changed that.

Hurley opened his space in 2018 to highlight visual artists and started hosting local music showcases in 2019. (The Hit Gallery recently reopened its doors after going on hiatus because of the pandemic.) The bands typically play on the sidewalk, under a canopy of trees; the shows are free, and Hurley isn’t making any money off them.

“The gallery seemed like such a rare opportunity to have a central space where you can do whatever you want,” Hurley says. “And it was a great place to showcase the music I love. There are so many things I don’t like. But when I do like something, I don’t want to let it get away.”

Karina Gill, who plays on Paisley Shirt Records bands Cindy and Flowertown, credits Hurley and Linn for helping create a vivid sense of community and belonging within the San Francisco music ecosystem.

“Meeting Peter when Cindy and April Magazine first shared a bill, and then going to shows and playing shows at Hit, made me feel like there was a place for the music Cindy was making in a way I hadn’t felt before, and honestly did not expect to find,” Gill says. “And, if Kevin hadn’t liked [Cindy’s album] Free Advice enough to put out a tape, very few people outside of our small circle would have heard it.”

But Gill goes on to say that Hit Gallery and Paisley Shirt are more than just a clubhouse and a platform.

“Both Peter and Kevin have often introduced me to things that are captivating and commanding; stuff that has a kind of completeness to it,” she says. “I think this is what keeps it sincere—a kind of devotion to being moved by things. It makes sense in the way that a mood does. You know it when you have it.”

With the help of Hurley’s venue and Linn’s careful stewardship, the small circle of Paisley Shirt Records bands has continued to blossom. Linn dropped 19 releases in 2021—making it the busiest year ever for the label. That includes albums from Cindy, April Magazine, Tony Jay and the Oakland trio Hits.

It should be noted that Paisley Shirt Records is not the only local label currently dealing in San Francisco’s sound du jour. Slumberland Records, the legendary Bay Area imprint, has issued three equally stunning albums this year from San Francisco jangle pop bands Chime School, the Umbrellas, and the Reds, Pinks and Purples. Those three acts frequently share bills with the Paisley Shirts Records bands, often at Mission District venues like the Knockout or the Makeout Room (along with Hit Gallery.)

While many of these artists have been around for years—Hurley says it’s basically just 20 musicians who didn’t decamp to Los Angeles with John Dwyer, John Vanderslice, et. al.—2021’s prolific output has once again raised the tired question of the state of the local scene.

There is certainly evidence that the rumored death of San Francisco’s indie rock community has been greatly exaggerated. However, Hurley—who has witnessed countless ups and downs during his time in San Francisco—is tired of even trying to read the tea leaves. He’s just happy to be making music and playing it in front of an engaged audience.

“At this point, I have had so many friends move and I have felt so heartbroken, that I kind of gave up feeling hopeful,” he says. “I try not to think too far ahead. I just try to think about whether or not I’m making art I’m proud of, and I try to appreciate all that’s good that’s around me. And I see a lot of good right now.”