Marc Capelle has beaten the odds on a few scores: Not only is he native to The City and still here, he’s a bandleader living in the place he loves calling home despite climbing rents and continuous closures of live music venues.
“I went to McAteer before it was School of the Arts,” he said, by way of asserting his local bona fides along with the benefits of a public system that set him on track for his life in music.
Back then, he played trumpet and shined up his soul and funk phrasing in a band called Summer Madness, named after the Kool & The Gang song.
“It was a band of random teenagers, including my sister, “ he said. Today he lives below his Twin Peaks alma mater, in the sun-drenched valley; at night, he fills dance floors from behind the keyboard leading Marc & the Casuals. The transition wasn’t exactly a straight line, but it makes perfect sense in that small town/urban center way that regularly unfolds here.
“It’s a little like a fairytale,” said Capelle of the way he and his wife Sara Murphy found their home 20 years ago, located at the crossroads where tech buses meet the people who ride them.
“A neighbor was selling and really wanted us to have the house,” he said. “But the bank didn’t want to support the loan because they weren’t sure of the value of the block.” What he didn’t know then was how the neighborhood would change — dramatically — and that his home would be a stone’s throw from The Chapel. Not yet converted from its former life as a mortuary, the venue has become one of The City’s last remaining independently-owned rooms for live music; Capelle is among its regulars.
“I’ll get a call like, ‘Terry Reid needs a trumpet player can you come down?’ Things like that happen all the time,” he said. It cheered me to know community is still alive in a neighborhood that’s seen such upheaval and tension in recent years. Capelle, a naturally amiable sort, also feels the weight and pressure of the changes sometimes, but when it gets to be too much, he starts walking, usually uphill.
“I walk to Twin Peaks,” he said. “It helps me to get up above The City or to get in the water. It reminds me why I’m here,” he said, though he is careful and conscious to not be the guy who complains about his lot.
Capelle’s San Francisco life started in the Haight of the 1960s (his mother took him to the Human Be-In in January of 1967). Both his parents were originally from the East Coast and gravitated West for its more free-spirited lifestyle. His grandfather was a minster — and a tumbler. I looked at him quizzically.
“He was on his theological seminary’s tumbling team,” explained Capelle. His mother performed in the Women’s Army Corps marching band and his father was a table tennis player, when it was more vaudeville amusement than Olympic sport: They were from a different era than the parents of kids his age.
“My parents were Bohemians,” said Capelle, and once he and his sisters entered the world, the action was centered around the family piano and the musical friends who were their houseguests.
“My dad played cards with the guys in the Modern Jazz Quartet,” he said.
As a ‘70s kid, Capelle participated in the state-funded program, California Education Training Through The Arts (CETA).
“We got paid to practice at Mission Cultural Center and then they’d make us play at BART Plazas and at the Embarcadero,” he said.
Among his instructors was conductor Jeffrey Kahane who at the time was affiliated with the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
“I was really lucky to have had the teachers I did,” he said of the players from jazz dynasties like pianist Norma Teagarden (who played with Turk Murphy and was the sister of trombonist Jack) and Sharman Duran (daughter of guitarist and bandleader Eddie Duran who worked closely with Vince Guaraldi).
Leaving for New York to pursue his degree in English literature from Columbia University, Capelle’s experience with soul and funk turned out to be the right on time for the ‘80s dance music exploding out of New York’s downtown club and No Wave scenes.
“I gave up the horn and picked up Farfisa,” said Capelle who has since added multiple instruments and production to his long list of credits. But it would still be another 15 years and a series of odd jobs and a return home before he would find his place on the stage. While tearing out carpet of an old Liberty House department store, he met Melvin Booker.
“I started playing with his gospel group, The West Coast Spiritual Corinthians,” said Capelle, and it wasn’t long before the band was holding down a residency at Mission nightspot Bruno’s, revived in the ‘90s.
“It was very retro-evocative, space-age-bachelor- pad,” remembered Capelle, though outside The City, rock’s grunge movement was in full swing.
“There was an audience hungry for anything that was the opposite of what was going on in Washington State,” he said of the jazz and indie rock on offer there.
“There would be Nels Cline, Marcus Shelby, the Radar Brothers,” he said, and Capelle was holding down his own second night a week there with the retro-soul Kinetics when Mark Eitzel dropped by and offered him to join his touring group.
“I went to Europe for the first time in my life,” said Capelle who soon after was fielding calls from chart bound bands seeking the effects he made in the pre-tech era with his old, weird instruments.
“Now you can do it with your phone,” he said, but Capelle was earning his reputation as a person embedded in musical San Franciscana. He’s since led projects like the You Are Here performance program at SFO, and musically directs the ongoing Porchlight Storytelling Series. This week he returns to Sketchfest for the second year running, appearing with his Red Room Orchestra over two nights at The Chapel to perform music from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the Coen Brothers’s The Big Lebowski. The all-star group of musicians drawn from the classical, jazz and experimental music worlds also features Twin Peaks cast member, James Marshall, and Margaret Cho, Capelle’s San Francisco-born friend. The ensemble will take the show to New York’s Symphony Space for two nights in February after which Capelle will return home to resume work as a de facto musical historian and connector.
Walking west, away from his modest Victorian flat, I pause to look up toward Capelle’s beloved fog shrouded hill that shares its name with the other Twin Peaks, and consider his charmed life. We never spoke of the synchronicity, but it’s definitely at work.
“My dad worked at the Muni rail yard at 24th and Potrero. My mom was a librarian. I feel like I belong here,” he said.
Denise Sullivan is an author, culture worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan. She is a guest columnist.
If you go:
SF Sketchfest at The Chapel 777 Valencia Street
Jan 11: Red Room Orchestra Play The Music of Twin Peaks
Jan 12: The Red Room Orchestra Play The Music of The Big Lebowski