Interview: The Umbrellas

We catch up with the San Francisco janglers to discuss Scottish pop, weird candy and their very first UK tour

San Francisco has a long history of jangle. From the psych scene of the 60s to the Paisley Underground of the 80s, the city has long been at the heart of clear, chiming guitars and rainy day melodies. It feels a natural evolution then that a new movement is springing up that draws on both eras in equal measure. At the heart of that movement lies a band that released one of the most exciting debuts of 2021: The Umbrellas.

Formed in 2018 by Matt Ferrara (guitar, vocals), Morgan Stanley (guitar vocals), Nick Oka (bass) and Keith Frerichs (drums), The Umbrellas take their cues from their psych pop, C86 jangle and 80s Scottish melancholy pop, from Orange Juice to The Pastels. On tracks such as the sprightly ‘She Buys Herself Flowers’ or the deceptively wintery ‘Summer’ they bring all the above together into gorgeously winsome tunes that could believably be 40 years older than they are.

We caught up with Matt, Nick and Keith on Zoom to chat about releasing an inter-lockdown album, weird gas station purchases and their upcoming jaunt across the Atlantic for their first UK tour.

The Umbrellas (L-R): Matt Ferrara, Keith Frerichs, Morgan Stanley, Nick Oka

How did The Umbrellas come about? What’s your superhero origin story?

Matt: Keith, Nick and I were all in a band together called Toyota, which was like a noise rock band. And we wanted to make a different kind of music. I guess we were tired of making that kind of music.
Keith: That band kind of dissolved. No one was really into coming to practice anymore. We were just kind of getting sick of it. Matt and Nick and I always wanted to do jangle pop, like The Umbrellas. They asked me to play drums. And then Morgan was doing karaoke…
Matt: Our friend Morgan had just moved here through a mutual friend. We heard her singing karaoke and asked her to start a band with us.
Nick: Morgan and I met at Amoeba [legendary SF record store] and became roommates. We all shared a love of jangle and C86 music.

Do you remember what song she was singing at karaoke?

Matt: I think it was a David Bowie song.

That sounds like a refreshingly old-fashioned way to put a band together, like you were already friends first.

Nick: Yeah, that’s true. It was really just meeting people. No social media involved.
Keith: We were all in the same universe.

The Umbrellas - Pictures (Official Video)

Do you remember what the first Umbrellas gig was?

Matt: Our first gig was in 2018. It was at a comic book store, right?
Nick: Yeah, just down the road from where we all worked.
Matt: Yeah, and Keith wasn’t playing drums at the time so we had a drum machine. I remember the drum machine fell over while we were playing. It was really just a tape deck. We had to rewind it and start the song over.

Drum machines are quite a deliberate aesthetic in jangle pop. What made you move away from that and get Keith to drum instead?

Matt: After the tape deck, we started putting all our backing tracks on a loop pedal because it was more reliable and you can just press it with your foot and it would start. But then we went on tour with that and it was annoying because the set was the exact same every night and drunk people would find it funny to make really loud noises during the count in. So then it was like, Keith’s an amazing drummer. Why doesn’t Keith just play drums? We don’t need three guitarists.

The Umbrellas - Near You (Official Video)

Let’s talk about your debut album, which came out last year on Slumberland Records. When did you actually record it? Was it during lockdown?

Matt: We recorded before the lockdown, in like November 2019. We self-recorded and then I mixed the whole record during the 2020 lockdown. The production of the record probably took about five or six months, but then getting it on Slumberland and then getting the records made took another year. So that record actually was from 2018. But it didn’t come out until 2021, just because of how backed up everything is.

Was it frustrating having to sit on it for that long?

Matt: It was, but I think it all worked out. Because I know some people whose records came out at the beginning of the pandemic, and no one gave a f*ck. Like, “There’s crazier things going on in the world, I’m not gonna listen to this record.” Our record came out at the perfect time. It was right before the Delta variant, and everyone was like, “Oh, COVID’s over”. So we got to play a show and everyone listened to our record. And then things locked down again, like a couple of months later. We were right in the pocket.

All your songs are credited to all four of you equally. How does the writing process work? Is it a communal kind of thing?

Matt: It’s different every time but there’s definitely a filter that everything goes through. Some songs, I’ll do a lot of the actual backing music for and people will work on the lyrics and melodies. Other times Keith will have a riff and we’ll build a song off that. It’s collaborative in that we all want to make the best song we can.

Keith, you’re currently on your way to work. What’s your job outside of the band?

Keith: Lately, I’ve been working at a friend’s clothing company, just like pulling orders. Just to get a little extra cash, you know? But for my main job, I work at a venue here called the Chapel. It’s a great venue, but I’m not there as often anymore. So I just kind of make a little extra money. Just a starving musician, I guess.

The Umbrellas - She Buys Herself Flowers

Do you guys all have day jobs as well as the band? And does that make something like a UK tour complicated? Have you used up all your vacation time for the rest of the year?

Matt: Not really. Everyone has a different way to make extra money. I’m a substitute teacher, so I have a pretty flexible schedule. I’ve just been working nonstop between tours to make money for the UK. But I have the privilege of being able to work almost whenever I want. But then I do other things on the side, like I mix people’s records for money too.
Keith: I think anyone who lives in San Francisco needs multiple streams of income, even if you’re not in a band. I think the goal is just to make enough on tour to make it easier to come home to.
Nick: Really just to break even.
Keith: Yeah, break even. Even hopefully make a little bit to supplement all the time you were gone.
Nick: And all the Taco Bell that you ate on tour.
Keith: And all the stupid knick-knacks you bought at gas stations.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve bought on tour?

Nick: We bought a few stretch-arm toys that were filled with sand. I think I broke the last one. There was sand everywhere.
Matt: One of them exploded on the dashboard of the car because it was melting in the hot Texas sun.
Keith: That thing was just taking a lot of abuse, getting smacked around everywhere.
Matt: Some of us are into buying regional novelty snacks and drinks at gas stations. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve never seen this before. We should get this!” and it’s disgusting but you got to try it. I got like these weird candies in Texas. Remember those gross playdoh candies?
Keith: The pickle balls.
Matt: Oh yeah, we got pickled candy. That was really gross.
Keith: Morgan and Matt ate them and their whole mouths turned green for an hour.

You guys are in for a treat over here. So much weird stuff.

Matt: I’m stoked. I love weird stuff. Very excited.

Have you heard of Irn Bru?

Nick: Oh, I’ve always wanted to try it. I think The Orchids reference that on one of their songs. “I’m drinking Iron Bru and thinking of you”.

The Umbrellas - Write It In The Sky

It’s hugely appropriate that you’re starting your tour in Scotland. Your bio on Bandcamp lists a considerable number of Scottish influences: The Pastels, Belle & Sebastian, Orange Juice…

Nick: Oh yeah. I feel like those bands crawled so we could walk. We wouldn’t be the same band if those influences weren’t around.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Those bands are super important to us. That whole scene.

It feels like there’s a new jangle pop scene springing up in San Francisco, with Chime School (who’s touring with you as part of Seablite), The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Tony Molina, The Telephone Numbers… Does it feel like a kind of community?

Nick: Yeah, it definitely feels like there’s somewhat of a movement that’s going on. It’s really nice that there is a whole community of people on the same page and making art and music that kind of make sense together. I feel like our influences are all kind of similar and that then manifests in music that fits nice together.

Glenn Donaldson from The Reds, Pinks & Purples is a neighbour, right?

Matt: Yeah, Glenn’s across the street from me. Peter and Kati from April Magazine live really close to me too.
Keith: Andy from Chime School just moved into my neighbourhood.

I picture it as some kind of jangle obsessive support group, exchanging old Shop Assistants vinyl.

Nick: Andy actually has my Primal Scream bootleg. I need to get that back. It has the early version of ‘Gentle Tuesday’ with the drum machine on it. I love that recording.

Controversial question. Who’s the best band in San Francisco at the moment?

Keith: You’re talking to them.
Nick: There’s a band called Now that I really like. They just played North Beach and the Sidewalk last Saturday. I’ve been really liking them.
Keith: Wanda What.
Nick: Yeah. Wanda What is more kind of contemporary sounding indie, but with a country twang. It’s really amazing.
Keith: And Aluminum.
Matt: Yeah!
Keith: My partner’s in that band. And she’s also in another band called Torey. Matt just mixed their record. It’s really good.
Matt: Yeah, it’s coming out on Slumberland next year. Look out for it.

What are you most excited for with the UK tour?

Nick: Just being over there. I’ve wanted to go to the UK my whole life.
Keith: I might go see Stonehenge. Maybe do a Beatles tour.
Matt: It’s just crazy to think, when we started this band four years ago, that we’re doing this now. It’s mind blowing in a way. And it’s gonna be cool to meet people that influenced our music that are just… people.

The Umbrellas is out now to buy and stream. Get tickets for The Umbrellas tour with Seablite here