The luxury high-rise of rock-and-roll has fallen on hard times in the last 25 years. Once fancy condos are now overrun by squatters who, in doing as they please, revitalize the neighborhood.
Bands like Strawberry Girls emerge from the tumult and change the status quo. In fact, the Salinas, Calif.-based trio aren't girls or "strawberries" (in street parlance, addicts willing to do anything for a taste) at all. Strawberry Girls is an instrumental rock trio with a groovy, math-y, catchy sound and a penchant for unusual covers, sometimes with guest vocalists. A case study is the band's creepy, expressionistic take on Carly Rae Jepsen's coquettish hit, "Call Me Maybe," which features spooky echoes and distended guitar tones well suited to the M. Night Shyamalan movie Split.
"We like to take the song and make our own version of it. A lot of people seem to just do like a rock version or whatever, but I really listen to the song and try to figure out, how can we kind of change this a little bit," said guitarist Zach Garren. "'Call Me Maybe' is like just a pop song. I wanted to do something different with it, so instead of a major key song, we made it sort of minor, dark and kind of jazzy."
Strawberry Girls took a similar tack with their third full-length album, Italian Ghosts (Tragic Hero Records, 2017), a reprise of the first effort by the band, the Italian Ghosts EP (self-released, 2011), recorded as a duo with drummer Ben Rosett before bassist Ian Jennings joined the band.
"Our last album, American Graffiti [Tragic Hero, 2015], ended with the intro to the first album Italian Ghost, so we were thinking about doing something that tied together with whatever the next thing we did was and just decided to re-record Italian Ghost to kind of tie everything together," Garren said. "It's been a while, so we had to go back and relearn stuff, see how we wanted to reinterpret it and change it a little bit."
Freed of a singer, the structure of a song can change dramatically. Without a verse-chorus-bridge, songs can wander, but musicians often make them busy and technical—small, knotty compositions or airy, ethereal drifts. Garren is unusual because while he incorporates progressive and mathematical extravagance, his music is melodic and groovy.
"Black Night, Golden Circus" is a good example. It balances swirling prog rock churn with a hard funk bounce tapped into some hooky riffage, but the course of the song isn't as simple as loud-soft-loud or up-down-up. It moves in and out with a firm grip on melody.
"I try to write stuff that's almost vocal melody like to take over that sort of thing a vocalist brings," Garren said. "We definitely do have some parts that are sort of repeat/chorus, but usually just a main big riff we'll bring back as a motif. We definitely try to explore more territory since we don't have a vocalist to keep it interesting by having a lot of different part and movements... We have some math-y parts but I wouldn't consider us a math rock band, 'cause I draw a little more from weird progressive rock and funk."
Strawberry Girls is not a strictly instrumental band. Half the tracks on Italian Ghosts feature guest vocalists, including Nic Newsham (Gatsby's American Dream) and Kathleen Delano on the soulful, exultant "Thank God," and "Step Into the Light" featuring Delano and Joey Lancaster (One Last Breath), who also sang on "Gospel," one of three tracks with vocals on American Graffiti.
Since One Last Breath is currently touring with Strawberry Girls, Lancaster has been performing "Gospel" each night, although Strawberry Girls don't typically perform with vocalists while on tour.
"We don't have any specific rules," Garren said. "We just kind of do whatever we want, and if we have a friend we like who we want to collaborate with, then we'll collaborate with them, try to hit up friends and see what happens. [Songs are] usually written without a vocalist in mind. We just kind of write stuff. Stuff that's a little more open—we'll give it to a vocalist and see if they want to try something on it, but it's usually the stuff that's a little more simple."
Garren isn't kidding about no rules: He does vocals on the "Call Me Maybe" cover and a cover of "Swimming Pools" by Kendrick Lamar. Still, he insists the band remains instrumental at the core.
"Because we don't have a vocalist, we try to write stuff that hopefully stands on its own," he said. "If we got a singer I want him to be really, really good and really bring something to the band...I would rather be different, weird and stand out as an instrumental band than to have a singer just to have a singer."