Nov. 14 2012 08:44 AM

San Diego indie-rockers just want to play some cool tunes

From left: Kevin Gist, Jon Greene, Elliot Moeller, Chris Rosi
Photo by Ryan Bradford

San Diego has long been known for cutting-edge indie-rock. In years past, local bands have experimented with odd time signatures, expansive song structures and austere, Spock-like haircuts. They've written provocative lyrics, or conjured heady atmospheres with electro-acoustic arrangements. It's all felt so unique, so smart, so—dare I say—groundbreaking.

These days, though, lots of local bands just want to chill. Take Plateaus, for example. The indie-rock quartet—composed of singers / guitarists Chris Rosi and Kevin Gist, bassist Elliot Moeller and drummer Jon Greene—doesn't want to challenge peoples' preconceived notions about music. They don't have a strong sense of what they're all about, or where they stand in the context of rock history. They just want to play some cool tunes.

"We don't make music to appeal to other people or what they like," Rosi said. "I make music to try to make a song that I would want to listen to. And if I can achieve that, then I'm happy.

"If other people like it, good," he adds. "If they don't—well, fuck. Sorry."

On Plateaus' new, self-titled debut album—which recently came out via Art Fag Recordings—the band crosses beach-friendly good vibes with a record collector's good taste. In a delightful, noisy 27 minutes, the band touches on a jumble of sounds, like the nostalgic skuzz of The Jesus and Mary Chain, the punchy hooks of The Nerves and the blazing guitar solos of Dinosaur Jr.

If they resemble any style, though, it's that of local (or formerly local) bands like Wavves, Crocodiles and Mrs. Magician. Like them, Plateaus sing about everyday life with an irreverent, stone-y, occasionally sardonic twist: Over the jangly licks and ramshackle beat of "The District," the band pays tribute to the shiny-shirted denizens of the Gaslamp Quarter, whom Gist describes as "Downtown shitheads."

The guys in Plateaus know their music. On a recent, five-week U.S. tour, they passed the time at each stop checking out skate parks and record stores. They amassed a huge pile of vinyl. Gist, for one, was on the lookout for hard-to-find stuff by regional acts like Cheater Slicks, a prolific garage-punk band from Boston.

Another thing you should know about the guys in Plateaus: They love pizza. Gist, Rosi and Moeller all used to work together at Pizzeria Luigi; Gist still works there, and he hopes to eventually open a pizza place of his own. ("He's the king of pizza," Rosi said.) As I chatted recently with Rosi, Gist and Greene at a North Park coffeehouse, we got into a lively discussion about good pizza places in New York and San Diego. When I mentioned a top-notch spot for organic slices, Rosi balked.

"Gimme that grease, dude," he said. "I wanna dip my crust in that shit."

Plateaus started playing together two years ago, and they've previously released five of the 12 tracks off their debut album on a series of three 7-inches. Though their vibe is chill, they work hard on their music: In Greene and Gist's recording studio, they re-worked and re-recorded every track for the album.

"We actually recorded the whole album twice," Greene said. "The first time we recorded it, we were just like, 'This is good, but we could probably do this better.' And so we practiced more and recorded again. I think pretty much every song came out way better."

Of course, this isn't "serious" indie-rock. Even Mrs. Magician's sharply composed surf-punk seems a little uptight compared with Plateaus' tunes. Gist didn't even write down his scorching licks before going into the studio. Onstage, he always plays his parts a little differently.

Listen to the album too many times in a row, and it'll start losing its luster. But it's precisely this effervescence that gives the record a certain charm. Not long after our chat, I took a walk through North Park with the album playing in my ears. I ended up lying on the grass in Morley Field, basking in a sunny-day reverie.

Later, though, I wondered: In a city that's seen so many unique, smart, cutting-edge bands over the years, how can we explain this recent shift towards the utterly chill? 

Maybe itís the craft beer, medical marijuana and great weather. But maybe it's a symptom of something greater, a phenomenon consistent with the rise of "chillwave" and the resurgence of soft-rock. With distant wars, fractious politics and economic struggle weighing heavily on the collective mind, could it be that young, creative Americans have sunk into a kind of existential indifference? 

The guys in Plateaus don't have any solid answers. But they don't seem bothered.

"Maybe people have just stopped taking themselves so serious or something," Rosi said. 

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.