San Francisco Chronicle gives Midtown Social some LOVE!

  • SoMa's retro-soul Midtown Social takes its beats per minute seriously. Standing: Aaron Joseph (left), Lydia Eyssallenne,  Brian Jones, Teddy Raven, Whitney Moses, R.J. Julia and Kisura Hendrix. Seated: Sarah Rice and Adam Rubinger. Photo:  Lauren Matley
 Midtown Social has a few ballads in its repertoire of original songs, yet the nine-member San Francisco retro-soul band seldom performs them at club engagements. Set lists usually consist of up-tempo tunes anchored by Sarah Rice‘s funky bass lines and drum grooves played by R.J. Julia that draw on the type of four-on-the-floor kick-drum beats that were pioneered by Philadelphia studio musician Earl Young and became the backbone of disco, as well as on highly syncopated New Orleans second-line patterns inspired by Meters drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste.

Songs segue seamlessly from one to another, with not a second’s break in between. The band takes beats per minute, or BPMs, into consideration when planning sets, much as dance-club DJs have since the days of disco.

“As soon as you walk in the door, we want you by the throat,” says singer Kisura (pronounced “key-sir-a”) Hendrix, 32, during one of the band’s twice-weekly rehearsals at a South of Market studio. “We want you to dance. We don’t want you to sit down. As long as we’re onstage, we’re going to keep playing and you’re going to be dancing.”

“This generation of people has been captivated by the whole DJ scene and the tech scene and all that,” offers co-lead vocalist and keyboardist Aaron Joseph, 30. “We’re used to going to a club and dancing for hours and hours without any sort of break. We want to create an environment in which people have a good time and don’t sit and linger. You just don’t see any other bands tapping into that necessity now.”

“We definitely have all the BPMs charted out,” adds Julia, 31, “but we’re not like, ‘This one is 118,’ or, ‘This one is 107.’ No.”

He says the primary criteria for programming sets is: “Does it feel good?”

The band calls its style “California soul” and draws on old-school soul influences in a manner somewhat akin to such retro-soul artists as Raphael SaadiqCody ChesnuTT,Mayer HawthorneRyan ShawAllen StoneJoss Stone and Amy Winehouse.

Midtown Social was formed three years ago in “midtown,” a nebulously defined South of Market area that includes the rehearsal studio on Howard between Ninth and 10th streets and an old industrial warehouse at the corner of Sixth and Natoma in which Julia resides. A cartoonish drawing of the three-story building, with the band playing for a party on the roof, graces the cover of Midtown Social’s new five-song vinyl EP, “Down on Sixth,” the release of which will be marked by an appearance Friday at the Great American Music Hall on a bill with the Oakland band Planet Booty.

“There’s some interesting heads around that area,” Julia says. ‘It’s really wild to be in the middle of this city seeing everything that’s going on and what’s happening with all the different juxtapositions. It’s a little bit seedy, a little bit fancy.”

“It’s right in the middle,” Joseph says of the area. “It separates uptown and downtown. It brings everything together, and what Midtown Social is supposed to be about is bringing people together.”

Since its inception, the band has developed a loyal following through gigs at such San Francisco clubs as the Boom Boom Room, Bottom of the Hill, Cafe du Nord, the Elbo Room, the Rickshaw Stop and Slim’s. The recording of “Down on Sixth” late last year atFantasy Studios in Berkeley was funded by friends and fans through a Kickstarter campaign and with earnings from the band members’ day jobs.

Hendrix, who casts a striking image onstage with her 6-inch heels and 2-inch Afro wig adding more than an extra half foot to her 5-foot-8 frame, manages the customer service department at a beverage company. Joseph is a landscape architect. Julia and percussionist Adam Rubinger work as waiters in different restaurants. Guitarist Rory Matthews, the band’s youngest member at age 23, teaches bass and guitar during the week and delivers pizzas on weekends.

Tenor saxophonist Teddy Raven and violinistLydia Eyssallenne are both freelance musicians who also play in other bands. The unusual combination of sax and violin contributes greatly to Midtown Social’s rather unique sound.

Warmer texture

“We’re trying to pair them up, so the sequence that you might hear from a horn section is actually just these two,” Joseph says. “It’s just a fuller, richer, warmer texture.”

Joseph and Hendrix write all the band’s songs together and bring them to rehearsals where they and the other musicians collectively develop arrangements. The two also live together in San Francisco, but they are not a couple.

“Maybe in another life we were, because that’s how we fight,” she says.

“We fight like siblings,” he interjects.

“He has a boyfriend, and I have a boyfriend,” she explains.

“My boyfriend’s professor came to one of our shows,” Joseph says. “One of the great parts about coming to a Midtown show is you get this crazy diversity, not just in age or race but across the board of sexualities. It’s a little bit of everything. That, for me, is one of the best parts of being a part of this group, because we kind of embody that within the band as well.”

Recording on vinyl

Midtown Social decided to issue its debut recording on vinyl rather than as a CD because, Julia explains, “Nothing sounds better.” He adds that people who purchase the disc from the band’s website or at local record stores will also be able to download the music digitally without additional charge.

“It just makes so much sense from a creative and artistic standpoint,” Joseph says of going vinyl. “I mean, who really buys CDs anymore?”

“If we’re going to be putting out an actual physical product, it makes so much more sense to put out something that I see more as an art form – the vinyl, the way it’s cut.” Julia says. “The whole process is so gorgeous, just to see this piece of art at the end of the day that we were all part of creating.”