Evan Greenwald is a great storyteller.
Not only in song, but in person. His band, Handshake, had just played an acoustic set at a benefit concert for LGBT rights at the Vanguard Properties headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. Right in the middle of the set by a young singer-songwriter who had gone up immediately after Handshake, Greenwald randomly begins telling me about the dude who discovered Cat Stevens, whom he apparently knows. “He lives in L.A.,” he begins. “He has this dog called Little Guy who never stops barking. I’ve been at his place for seven hours and the dog just keeps barking and barking at me...” He continues with a very vivid description of the man’s house and some of his other experiences being there.
“Want a sandwich?” his bandmate, Devin Clary, says, gesturing to a plate of several small sandwiches and rolls he had obtained from the nearby snack bar. I decline, noticing everything has cheese on it. (I have always heavily disliked cheese, mainly due to its smell and texture.) “This one doesn’t have any cheese,” Greenwald says, popping some sort of turkey wrap into his mouth. I detect a layer of Swiss, but I simply say I’m not hungry.
Handshake was formed by Greenwald and Clary in the summer of 2009, in the small town of Novato (about 45 minutes north of San Francisco). Clary, whose post-hardcore outfit Ash’s Fall had just broken up, had been working on a song which Greenwald calls “Creeper” (“even though nobody else in the group likes that name,” he adds). He enlisted his old Ash’s Fall bandmate Tyler English to help out, and after collaborating on the song for a while, they decided to form a group. Greenwald recruited his middle school friend A.J. Campbell for the new band, which would eventually become Handshake. (The name was chosen because of a number of handshake-related references in songs the band members enjoyed, including Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs” and Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” Also, Clary apparently believes handshakes are more intimate than hugs.)
The group started out in typically modest fashion, mainly playing Radiohead covers and occasionally noodling around with new ideas. The band became more serious in their pursuits after they began writing “Broken, Broken,” now their best-known song. “Evan had a riff, and we all liked it, so we put together the song,” English says. The band members began prodigiously suggesting their new band page to friends on Facebook, and both friends and strangers picked up on their music. They were soon playing major gigs at Bay Area venues like Slim’s, and within a year they had racked up nearly 1,500 fans on Facebook solely through word of mouth and local gigging. (English suggests “Broken” is the main reason for their local success.)
Handshake’s style is usually described as art rock with strong folk/country influences, such as the heavy use of instruments such as mandolins and banjos. Their list of influences, as expected, is very diverse. “Grizzly Bear and Radiohead are the most obvious, just in terms of their willingness to go beyond the limits of what’s considered ‘normal,’” Greenwald says. Other influences include Elliott Smith, the National, Dirty Projectors, jazz music (especially in Clary’s case) and funk music (“because Tyler smells kinda funky,” Greenwald adds, to which English retorts, “Everything about me is funky.”)
None of the members of Handshake have any designated instruments. At least three out of every four members are equally proficient at either vocals, guitar, banjo, bass, or percussion. At their Project I Am show, Campbell played banjo and percussion; Greenwald sang and played guitar and mandolin; English played guitar; and Clary sang, played guitar, and did percussion on a single ride cymbal. All write songs, which can be a mixed blessing for the band. “The main thing we struggle with as a band is that we have three singers and four songwriters,” Clary says. (All members sing except English.) “Unifying all the different songs we write, plus with four different interpretations of those songs, and trying to get our music to sound like one uniform idea is the main thing we struggle with.” Greenwald mentions bands such as Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene who have been known to have as many as nineteen members in their various lineups--”It’s bad enough with four, imagine being in a band with eighteen other people. I mean, they get results, but it’s got to be hell.”
After I’ve finished the basic interview with the band members, we head back inside just in time to see an all-female synth-punk band consisting of a bassist, a drummer, and a truly frightening keyboardist/vocalist with pink eyelash extensions resembling the antennae of some sort of moth. The members of Handshake move in and out of the seating area frequently. Just as the performing band’s set ends, Handshake’s ride arrives to pick them up.
They all head outside and load all their equipment in the cargo space of a small and comically unimpressive car. We talk a bit more before saying our goodbyes. There is a moment during our conversation where I am standing on the curb with Campbell and the other three members are in the street below, loading up the last of their equipment. I suddenly realize that this entire time, I have been conversing with these great musicians just as if they were fellow regular human beings, which, despite their talent and success, they are. I have not been nervous in their presence at all. I have been chatting away with these people that, in a less connected community, I may have regarded as a world away and thus impossible to communicate or socialize with.
The band members load the last of their equipment into the back of the vehicle and wave goodbye as I head off in the other direction, my head filled with new information and my stomach soon to be filled with tacos.