Tipsy’s ‘Buzzz’: A Vintage Looking Glass Into San Francisco’s Nightlife

15 years after its release, Yousef Srour dives into the historical significance of this experimental, electronic-leaning album and its forward-thinking yet overlooked contributions to San Fransisco's...
By    November 14, 2023

Album Cover via Tipsy/Discogs

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In the early days of my old KCSB radio show, BAY AREA TYPE BEAT, I would dig through Spotify playlists and pages of Bandcamp obscurities, searching for the most interesting music to help give my listeners a crash course on Bay Area hip-hop history. Curating two hours of music each week for three years straight, most of the music I played slips my memory – Mac Dre deep cuts, Ovrkast.’s first EP, Sweet Trip even made a couple of appearances – but Tipsy’s recombinant Buzzz never left the rotation.

Tipsy might have lost their name recognition to J-Kwon’s 2004 club anthem, but I think they were doomed from the start. The group came together in 1995, the same year as the OJ Trial, 2Pac’s Me Against the World, Björk’s Post, and D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar. Outside of the San Francisco bubble, Americans wanted music that was revolutionary, not wordless psychedelia born from records that riffed on other culture’s traditional music.

Before Tipsy, Dave Gardner was a part of SF’s mid-80s industrial DIY scene, playing with experimental rock groups, PGR, IaoCore, Big City Orchestra, working with tapes, refurbished samplers and old turntables to make avant-garde noise and performance art. When Tim Digulla moved from Marin County to San Francisco, he leaned into the space rock-inspired psychedelia that later contributed to Tipsy’s animated, otherworldly ambience. Before banding together with Dave, Tim indulged the existentialism of San Francisco’s punk and industrial scenes, performing alongside Survival Research Laboratories’ robot combat shows, as well as playing guitar for the ‘90s space rock, shoegaze band, The Imajinary Friends.

By the mid-‘90s, Tim met Naut Humon, the co-founder and A&R of Asphodel Records, through Humon’s Sound Traffic Control studio in San Francisco. He’d heard Tim’s experimental music, but he’d fallen in love with Tipsy after hearing a sample of Dave Gardner’s lo-fi tapes. Gardner used electronics and sample loops to instill the escapism of easy listening from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Tipsy was a cut-and-paste recapitulation of what white Americans in the past thought the future would sound like: imagining space expeditions and western imitations of Polynesian, Afro-Caribbean and Hawaiian music (hence the outdated term “exotica”).

Humon, Digulla, and Gardner saw Tipsy’s reimagination of mid-century pop culture as groundbreaking for electronic music, but their fusion of electronics with lounge music was ironically too milquetoast for the ‘90s counterculture. Alphabet Soup was bringing acid jazz to Berkeley and Filipino-American DJs were ushering in the Bay Area’s golden age of turntablism. The real excitement was on the grounds of Balboa High School in San Francisco, where Sound Explosion and the Go-Gos and DJ Q-Bert had showcase battles during their lunch period.

By the time Tipsy finally came together in 1995, Invisbl Skratch Picklz were already attracting attention to the SF hip-hop scene. A year later, Kool Keith debuted Dr. Octagon, produced fully by Dan the Automator, the beat conductor from San Francisco’s Sunset District who would later make up one half of Handsome Boy Modeling School. That same year, in 1996, DJ Shadow debuted Endtroducing… after recording the majority of the project at Dan the Automator’s studio in San Francisco.

Bay Area scratchers and turntablists were making names for themselves within hip-hop, but Tipsy never associated themselves with the genre because of how lounge music veers closer to electronica, with less emphasis on sub-bass and 808s and more emphasis on fleshing out melodies and constructing a narrative from their sample choices.

Tipsy released their first project in 1997, TRIP TEASE, “The Seductive Sounds of Tipsy.” The album sounds like Martin Denney, “the father of exotica,” meets Dan the Automator’s seductive alter ego Nathaniel Merriweather Presents… Lovage: Music To Make Love To Your Old Lady By. Gardner was an obsessive record collector and gave Tipsy the resources to fragment and repurpose bargain bin vinyl – lounge music, exotica, easy listening, library music, sound effects – extracting and conjoining their own interpretation of space age pop.

Despite a mixed review no longer available on Pitchfork, TRIP TEASE was released at the height of the lounge music revival, bringing Tipsy the same commercial success as the anonymous stock music artists that preceded them. Their inaugural tracks began popping up everywhere from beer commercials to Tokyo Disneyland’s Tomorrowland to four different appearances in The Sopranos (technically three more appearances than Ben Kingsley).

Tipsy proved to be a success at Asphodel Records, deemed worthy to be amongst the likes of their labelmates: Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Cage and more. With that, the label doubled down for Tipsy’s follow-up. 2001’s Uh-Oh! featured an impressive roster of guest musicians including Vince Welnick of the Grateful Dead and Rick Maymi of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, but no live iteration of the band stuck for long enough to keep anything other than their core fanbase interested. It was an electronic circus traveling through different cities around the world, bustling with drums and sitars and warbling marimbas and cutaways to rockabilly riffs and Looney Tunes cartoons.

As time passed, Tipsy strayed further and further away from pop culture, citing the trappings of “commercial corporate money music for hire (as well as occasional substance abuse)” for the group’s seven year hiatus. With Asphodel Records in its last years, Dave and Tim migrated to Ipecac Records, an indie label based in San Francisco indie label run by Greg Werckman and Mike Patton, where the two would exclusively sign artists to one-album deals, in an effort to maintain artistic integrity. The moderately-sized label featured an eclectic group of alt rockers in Northern California, from the Melvins to a pre-Death Grips Zach Hill, who released his debut solo album on Ipecac only a few months before Tipsy put out their own project.

From 2005 to late 2007, Tipsy regrouped to record their next album. Tim and Dave refer to its sound as DrunkTronica, yet another reference to the inebriated nature of their collaboration. Tipsy mimics what Stereolab did on The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, reanimating easy listening with new color and depth and added instrumentation.

Tipsy is the crate-digging counterpart to Walt Disney’s Pixar across the Bay in Emeryville. The year that Pixar debuted its first film, Tim and Dave formed Tipsy, and if that’s not conspiratorial enough, in 2008, just as the studio began their own expedition into space with Wall-E, Ipecac Records distributed what would become Tipsy’s third and last night out in San Francisco’s psychedelic underbelly: Buzzz.

“A Night on the Town” sounds like a trek to Mission Street on the BART train, navigating around various parks, pedestrians, and streetside vendors. “Chocolate Moon” brings you to Ghiradelli Square, admiring the nearby pacific shore amidst violin swells and the buzz of an electric guitar. “Big Business” walks you through a pitch-black Financial District, eerie and silent besides the occasional keyboard click.

Buzzz marries whimsy with technicolor, slicing lounge records for their ambience, loading their magical world with quirky characters moving with a swing in their step. Tipsy’s funk-derived sound collage pieces reminds us of a pre-2008 San Francisco, before the skyline lost its livelihood to boring grays and monochromatic postmodernism. Since the city lost its color, Tipsy’s nights out have become more sparse, never releasing another album again and only reviving the group every five or so years to collaborate with DJ Q-Bert and Chad Hugo on “Ascender (Agartha)” in 2014 and for a Lords of Acid remix, “Spank My Booty (Paddles and Whipped Cream Mix),” in 2021.

After 15 years of drunken nights ending at the brink of daylight, Buzzz still captures the beauty of a foggy San Francisco night. Perhaps even more so now that the city is emptier than ever, with vacant offices and gentrified condominiums hushing the streets to a soft lull. As “Up ‘Til Dawn” closes the album, Tipsy lights the sky a mild gray, drowsy and fleeting, drifting into sleep with the warmth of low-octave marimba trills and the ascending flutter of a flute. Buzzz is a looking glass into San Francisco’s nightlife, featuring brisk walks on the Presidio, raves at the 1015 Folsom, and an early morning slumber to prepare you for your next night on the town.

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