Oakland-based Mare Island presents beautiful guitar-dominated sound in rough first EP attempt

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Mare Island Mare Island | New Improved Recording
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The Oakland soft pop band, Mare Island, is only in its most fledgling stages. It’s a group formed slowly —  borne of long friendships and chance encounters, composed of vocalist John Staples, bassist Matthew Izen, drummer Evan Sarna and guitarists Derrick Chao and Sean Leary. As of now, the band’s culminating sound, present on its imminent debut EP, Mare Island, (set to be released June 23) is mostly owed to Chao, who spurred the sonic conception with an unusual absence of intention.

“There wasn’t ever a decision in terms of ‘this is what this band is going to sound like;’ it’s just kind of what came out. I think it was more just like one’s almost default mode,” Chao said. “If you put me in a room and hand me a guitar, this is what will come out.”

And the sonic result is very much that — an uncomplicated, uncontrived, put-in-a-room-with-a-guitar set of tunes.

“This type of music is the type of music that I think … (is) not even necessarily super cool, hipster stuff that Pitchfork or Vice will write up,” Chao said. “But it’s the music that I think I really loved when I was in high school and just stuff that to me was very emblematic of a certain time in my life.”

The extent to which intentionality is music in present is variable, and different people will always feel differently about its role and value; an overwrought sonic brand can become obnoxious, but a complete lack of purpose in the creation of an album can lead to a very repetitive, mushy sound.

Mare Island does tend toward the mushy — all five of the songs feature similar wishy-washy guitar tracks, a low unobtrusive baseline, tingly cymbals and mellow vocals, the amalgamation of which is dreamy and atmospheric, lending a sense of floating or flying or something lullaby-esque. It’s beautiful, but it all sounds about the same — for instance, “Alight” and “Anon” are distinguishable only by a different meter and timing of cymbals — and it’s a product of no preconceived stylistic forethought in the creation of the songs.

This is something Chao fully recognizes. “I think for the next record, we’re going to be a little more intentional,” Chao explained. “If we don’t do anything, the next record’s just going to sound exactly like (this one), and so I think it’s like with every band that has to maybe stop, pause for a second and say maybe for the next one, what if we drew more from this thing — whether they’re consciously aware of it or not.”

This type of stylistic fixation isn’t unusual for a band as new as Mare Island, especially for one that had such a slow-building start.

Chao explained how he wrote all the instrumental music on his own with a few of the bandmates before they reached out to Staples as a potential vocalist.

“We didn’t hear back for a while and then suddenly one day in our inbox like, ‘Hey guys, check these out,’ ” Chao described. “And we heard it and it was just beautiful — (Staples) just recorded in his bedroom — and we’re like, ‘OK, this is the band.’ ”

With the group solidified from the get-go, the band may be better prepared to avoid the comfortable trap of similar chord progressions and instrumentation (the kind present in its forthcoming EP): the side effects of finding a niche sound that creates a nice sense of having a unique musical identity. The more comfortable Mare Island becomes with itself, the more a musical wiggling is possible.

The direction of that exploration follows a general trend: branching away from much of the current popular music scene.

“There’s a way in which heartfelt, genuine music, like a lot of pop music, I think, has steered away from just really kind of vulnerable, honest lyricism,” Chao said. “We just wanted to write music that we felt was authentic to us and without any sheen of dirty hipster pretense.”

In a sphere of production that often lavishes overwhelming TLC on being liked by the masses, this diverging viewpoint and self-assuredness is refreshing.

A part of this confidence is apparent in the band’s pride in being a Bay Area band. Being based in West Oakland isn’t particularly glamorous, but Mare Island doesn’t seem to care — the members are unapologetic about their origins, even going so far as to name their band after a local landmark.

“One day I was driving and I passed (the sign for Mare Island), and I had also been reading this book called ‘The Mare’ by Mary Gaitskill, who’s one of my favorite authors. … The imagery that it evoked of horses on an island there was a lightness to it but like an ethereal quality,” Chao said. “So I guess we’re very Bay Area in our lyrics, in the name, in terms of who we are.”

Olivia Jerram covers music. Contact her at [email protected].