The Stone Foxes are not a blues band; they wouldn't claim that honor. Nevertheless, the structure, mood and attitude of blues is the basis for much of the San Francisco-based group's music, which also incorporates classic rock, country, soul, folk and psychedelia.
"The blues, I think, we draw from is, like, the stuff that Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf were playing in the '50s and '60s," said guitarist and singer Spence Koehler.
He called from a tour stop in Memphis, Tenn., where the band had just finished a Sunday-afternoon barbecue lunch.
The Stone Foxes' tour comes to Tucson for a gig on Friday night, Sept. 23, at Plush. Tucson groups The Modeens and Saint Maybe will join them on the bill.
Some of The Stone Foxes' material is directly descended from the blues, such as their high-octane covers of classic numbers "Little Red Rooster" and "I'm a King Bee," which recently was featured in a TV commercial for Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey.
Other tunes refer to the history of the blues, such as "I Killed Robert Johnson," a narrative that closely hews to the story that the legendary Delta bluesman was poisoned by a jealous husband.
"The blues we find most interesting is that kind of dark, sultry and mystical stuff, the haunting blues, but it's only part of what we do. ... We all grew up listening to Green Day and The Offspring—that's what was pretty big in middle school, when we all started playing. All of the contemporary stuff was around us, but we became less interested in that than in using the vocabulary of the blues, and of rock from the 1960s and '70s, to make our own statements."
The Stone Foxes formed about six years ago when the members were all students at San Francisco State University. At first, they were pretty casual about it.
"In the beginning, it was my brother and me and Aaron. Our roommate, (singer-songwriter) Avi (Vinocur), was playing bass with us at the time. But he eventually left. We played around San Francisco in bars and stuff. There were a couple of years where we didn't really approach it seriously."
The band's personnel these days continues to include Koehler on guitar and vocals; his brother, Shannon Koehler, on drums and vocals; and Aaron Mort on bass, vocals and occasional guitar. Recently added on keyboards is Elliott Peltzman, who has been touring with The Stone Foxes this year.
The band recorded a debut album in 2008, but didn't intend for it to be an official release, Koehler says. "We went about it in a pretty laid-back fashion. We weren't really planning on releasing it at all, (and) just printed the usual 1,000 and gave them out or sold them to whoever was at our gigs."
About two years ago, the group got serious with the hiring of a manager and a booking agent.
"First, we would do these weekend tours or weeklong tours. But now we've been busy touring almost all the time since the beginning of the summer this year. We've been on the road, with a few exceptions, almost constantly since May, and we'll probably stay out until maybe late October or November."
The "huge change of pace" corresponds roughly with the release in 2010 of The Stone Foxes' much-acclaimed second album, Bears and Bulls, which brought the group more national attention.
Even though the second album sounds more accomplished, it was recorded under the same lo-fi circumstances as the first, Koehler said. "Those first two albums, we recorded them ourselves in our garage."
With mattresses and planks on the walls, the band played most of the songs on those recordings live, with no overdubs, allowing the sound from instruments to bleed through into the mix through the microphones, Koehler explained. "We did take it to professionals to have it mastered and mixed, though."
The Stone Foxes recently recorded and released a new single, "Psycho" b/w "Serious People," which is available digitally at all of the usual outlets and in a seven-inch, orange-vinyl version. "It's cool to have something new to sell at shows on the tour, and we're all vinyl fans. Of course, it's available online, too," Koehler said.
He added that the two new tunes probably will end up on a new album, but the band hasn't started planning it yet. "We do have a collection of new songs that we're working on and getting better at, but we've been on the road a long time, and we're still not sure when it'll come out—hopefully in the new year."
The new single, though, marked a new era of studio production for The Stone Foxes. It was recorded by engineer Scott McDowell at San Francisco's historic Hyde Street Studios.
"That was the first time we ever recorded in a studio, which was a very different setting and experience. It was nice to have better equipment and to have someone else pushing the buttons. It was really nice not having to run over to the computer, hit 'record,' run back, put on your guitar and play the song, then run back to the computer and hit 'stop.' It was just a more professional and polished atmosphere all around, and I hope it shows in the music."
Indeed, both songs on the single are powerhouse tunes, focused and direct, a sharpened version of the rugged, ragged Southern-rock sound that has been around since the early 1970s.
"It's weird: You know, we actually get a lot of people down here in the South telling us they are surprised that we come from California, that we don't sound anything like that sunny surf sound they expect. I take that as a compliment," Koehler said.