Once upon a time, indie rock didn't have much love for synth pop, and vice versa. Lines were more clearly drawn between styles of music in the 1980s and '90s than they are today. These days, San Francisco-based trio Geographer exemplify the contemporary blurring of stylistic divisions, melding guitar-based rock and synth pop, with a little cello thrown in for good measure.
Geographer is fortunate to be "making music after all the music wars are over," says Mike Deni, who plays both guitar and synthesizer in the band.
"Now is a particularly unique time," Deni says. "People who like Fleet Foxes also like MGMT. You could have them on the same bill and people would not only accept it, they'd be overjoyed. I don't think fans or musicians want that monochromatic thing anymore."
On tour to promote their second album, Myth, Geographer will play Monday, Jan. 28, at Club Congress. Opening acts are Chicago's On An On and the duo Bogan Via, from Phoenix.
Deni also sings and writes Geographer's songs. He was born and raised in New Jersey, and after living briefly in Boston and Vermont, he moved to San Francisco in 2005 with the express goal of starting a band.
"The first musician I met was Kacey Johansing, and we started playing music together," he says.
Johansing had gone to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she had met cellist Nathan Blaz and drummer Brian Ostreicher, whom she introduced to Deni.
"What we had been doing together at the time was way more folk-oriented. I wanted it to get more rock and bring in a drummer. And as soon as I heard Nathan play cello, I knew I had to be in a band with him, to write songs around that sound."
Actually, drummer Ostreicher didn't pass the first audition, Deni says.
"Brian didn't make the tryout, and he just wasn't that interested at first. But a couple of months later, we asked him to come back. This time we played together and he nailed it. For my tastes, he's the perfect drummer for our music."
With the Geographer lineup finally complete, Deni, Blaz and Ostreicher recorded the band's 2008 debut, Innocent Ghosts. Johansing sang with Deni on many of that album's songs. Although she and the guys in Geographer remain friends, she eventually left to pursue a solo career.
"Kacey makes her own music. She got more and more into writing songs, and the music she makes is very different from our music," Deni says.
"I think when you're young, you spread yourself really thin, and you're trying out new things, seeing what works for you. When you get a little older you become more serious and focused, and you have to concentrate on what you want to do most."
The members of Geographer concentrated, too. They made the EP Animal Shapes in 2010, moving toward a slightly richer electronica sound.
"With Innocent Ghosts, those were just the songs I was messing around with. A couple were written back when I was in New Jersey, and then we started the band, and I said, 'Here's my band, so let's play the songs I have.'
"After playing with Nate and Brian, and hearing the combination of cello with guitar or synthesizer, I started writing to that instrumentation. We were doing things in a much more purposeful manner, and we discovered that we thought of ourselves as rock band, and began to explore what that felt like."
Animal Shapes is an example of that change in perspective, Deni says, while Geographer's latest album shows the band evolving.
"With Myth we have been a band together for a while now, and it is our first attempt at making a really good, long, sustained album that depicts where we are, and one we hope you'll listen to all the way through, maybe more than once, and pay attention to. We want to make music that means as much to our listeners as the music our heroes made has meant to us."
On Myth, Geographer's integration of indie guitar rock and synth pop feels more seamless than it has in the past.
Deni may have grown up listening to Depeche Mode and New Order in the 1980s, but he and his bandmates have developed more diverse tastes over the years. This is reflected in the end-of-the-year list, titled Soundtrack of the Year—2012, that he and Ostreicher compiled last month on the Geographer website.
Among the Geographer favorites you'll find on the list are artists you might expect, such as Com Truise, Tame Impala, Little Dragon and Frank Ocean. More unpredictable choices include Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Scott Walker, Fleetwood Mac, Roy Orbison, the Rolling Stones and the Jackson 5. Deni also says Radiohead is a big inspiration.
"If you look at that list of music, it tells you a lot about our band. That's the music that inspires us, whether it came out last year or not."
Deni says Geographer began by aping its influences, and began to grow as a result.
"If you really love something, you'll start out making an imitation of it. And if you do that long enough, you can start making something creative all your own. And we hope to ultimately make something that creates an emotional reaction and puts you in a different world."
That doesn't stop Geographer from playing and recording songs by their heroes. For an early B-side, they covered "Age of Consent" by New Order.
Last fall, before starting work on their new album, Deni and his collaborators recorded tunes by four of their favorite artists, and they are posting each homage as a free download on their website (www.geographermusic.com). The first cut to be released is a beautiful cover of Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting," with a full string arrangement by Blaz.
Subsequent covers, scheduled to be released in the next couple of months, remain a secret, Deni says. "We want them each to be a surprise."