There have been plenty of great bands before and after, but underground music in Santa Cruz may have had its most fertile period in the mid-to-late ’90s.
Punk music here certainly peaked at that time—and from Good Riddance to Fury 66 to Riff Raff to the Muggs, those are the bands that are best remembered—but the scene was actually remarkably diverse stylistically. There was room for everyone, it seemed, and there was probably more camaraderie across genres than there had ever been. But what people tend to forget is that the influx of great bands also made the scene pretty competitive. New groups quickly learned to bring their A-game at every show, because failure to do so meant running the risk of being blown off the stage by the other bands on the bill.
“I loved that,” says Jake Desrochers of moving his punky, hark-rocking band Lonely Kings from Grass Valley to Santa Cruz in 1995. “There were so many good shows. I went to shows every weekend. The first show Lonely Kings played was with Riff Raff and Ten Foot Pole at the Vet’s Hall. We got thrown on this amazing bill, when before that we’d been living in Grass Valley playing these little shithole bars and parties. The scene was so alive in Santa Cruz, and we didn’t know we were doing anything unique or cool, but we kept plugging away.”
That’s not to say he learned every lesson quite fast enough. When he got a chance to move into a house with members of a couple of his favorite bands in 1996, he discovered Good Riddance drummer Sean Sellers and guitarist Luke Pabich were starting a new project with Fury bassist Tom Kennedy. They were practicing in the garage, where Derek Plourde—best known as the drummer on Lagwagon and the Ataris’ early albums, who died in 2005—had built a studio. Desrochers talked his way into their rehearsals, where he threw together some lyrics that impressed the others. Coercion was born, and they even recorded some songs with Andy Ernst, whose Oakland studio Art of Ears produced AFI and Green Day’s early work, among other landmark NorCal releases.
“I hadn’t even really prepared that much, and was improv-ing some, and kind of sketching down lyrics on napkins and coffee filters and whatever I could find,” he remembers.
But his laissez-faire nature turned out to be his downfall, as his bandmates took their music with the ambitious intensity that had permeated the local scene.
“That’s how I learned just how hard Luke works at Good Riddance and how methodical he is about recording. I didn’t quite have my ass handed to me, but I definitely wished that I had applied myself a little bit more,” he says. “We did the recording, and then we played one party at the Riff Raff House that was there on Soquel, and then that was it. Then they actually kicked me out of the band because I wouldn’t come to practice prepared.”
Desrochers laughs about it now, but he certainly didn’t then.
“I was really hurt by that whole thing, but it really fueled me to work harder on Lonely Kings, because that’s when I put everything into that and that’s when we started making moves,” he says.
It paid off, as Lonely Kings became one of Santa Cruz’s top bands, signing to Fearless Records—then known for At the Drive In and Aquabats records, but about to blow up when Plain White T’s hit it big—for their 1999 What If… and 2001 Crowning Glory albums. Their shows went from drawing 50-100 fans to 500-1,000, and though their sound was a bit of an outlier in the Santa Cruz scene—Desrochers considers them a “grandfather of emo, before the screaming came into it”—they were selling out the Catalyst.
Meanwhile, he patched things up with Pabich, who came on to produce Crowning Glory. “That’s when I really learned about recording,” says Desrochers. “He was having us practice to a metronome five days a week and stuff. So I got a lot of work ethic from him, and still do. Now I don’t walk into the studio without everything laid out.”
Desrochers would eventually move to Sacramento, where he lives now, and has kept Lonely Kings going to this day. He kept in touch with his former Coercion bandmates, but he was still surprised in 2016 when, 20 years after the band had briefly been together, he started getting Facebook messages from them suggesting they restart the band. He was skeptical, but when Kennedy sent him mp3s of the songs—which he hadn’t heard in years—he was convinced. With Jim Miner of Death By Stereo joining on guitar and Ghost Parade’s Anthony Garay now drumming, the band finally released a debut album, Veritas, last month. Darker and more metal-edged than Lonely Kings, Desrochers is enjoying the new outlet Coercion is giving him.
“I used to tell stories in Lonely Kings, Coercion’s just right to the heart of the matter,” he says. “Coercion is just so hard-rocking that I feel like the lyrical content needs to be strong, needs to be up front, and needs to ring true to the music. It’s a little more brutally honest.”
Coercion plays with 88 Fingers Louie and Decent Criminal at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16, at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 16 and over. Tickets are $13 in advance, $15 at the door. catalystclub.com.