Can indie labels, a co-op recording studio, house concerts and new venues put the Santa Cruz underground on top?
“Real music seems to be making a comeback,” a friend said in my ear during a recent concert in town. It was an intimate, simmers-in-your-brain-for-days type of show: One guy with one acoustic guitar singing, strumming and stomping around a makeshift stage in a packed, makeshift venue. It was the kind of raw, honest songwriting and delivery that forces you to feel the performer feeling right before your eyes, while your sense of personal space dissipates.
The crowd moves in closer and you find you just don’t mind; you’re swallowed into a pulsating mass and you like it. In response to my partner-in-crime’s observation, I smiled internally and externally, nodded my head in agreement and to the beat of the music, and began to think about what elements around us are enabling that statement to be true. Could something be stirring in Santa Cruz?
While the economy has gone bust, many who were already considered “poor starving artists” seem a little less conflicted and a lot more clear and optimistic about their “path.” After all, those who don’t have much to begin with have little to lose when the financial scene goes haywire. Think back: How many local musicians did you hear lamenting their losses during the stock market crash? Exactly. Fewer overall job opportunities means turning to your art has actually become a practical choice versus one that makes you seem like just another flighty dreamer.
With the mainstream music industry, in-store CD sales, and major labels having taken hard hits, giving some room in the driver’s seat and leaving a more leveled playing field for grassroots action via MySpace and live shows, a do-it-yourself (DIY) resurgence is taking place, and it’s happening right here at home. Just look around and you’ll see the concert posters of emerging artists at emerging, unlikely venues—as well as bigger acts not known to normally stop through for a cozy set at a more inconspicuous locale.
The following tales spotlight a new local record label, a co-op donation-based recording studio, house concerts and venues off the beaten path you may not have heard about. Many are nonprofit anomalies challenging the typical industry approach, and all are toiling to help bring Santa Cruz’s underground music scene out into the open, onstage, in your ear and on the map.
Each is a work in progress. Each is, most importantly, progressive and working.
LET’S BAND TOGETHER
Entheon Records and Dead Cow Studio offer low cost and more co-op
Seattle. Portland. Austin. San Francisco. It’s become commonplace for musicians to flee their hometowns in search of a nurturing environment in one of these bustling independent music scenes. At different points in his own life, J.J. McCabe left Santa Cruz and landed in all of them. Today, the 31-year-old resides back in town determined to add Santa Cruz to that list of city names likened to a pioneering music mecca. It’s not an easy task and it sure as hell doesn’t pay well (if at all), but it’s one he and his cohorts in local Americana family Mylo Jenkins, Dustin St. Wright and Jesse Autumn, have decided to tackle. The result? McCabe, St. Wright and Autumn now helm Entheon Records and the Dead Cow Studio.
With “entheon” meaning “a place to discover the spirit within,” the record label is getting bands to pitch in and do the work for themselves and each other. If you’re hearing the Three Musketeers’ “All for one, and one for all!” battle cry, you’ve got the picture. No moneybags executive fueling the endeavor, just bands helping bands. When it comes to putting out an album and promoting, there’s a wealth of manpower rather than dollars—and it’s exactly that formula across the board that’s getting gears shifting, wheels turning and amps burning around town.
“It’s all about sweat equity,” explains McCabe, the fiddle maestro who also serves as frontman for country rockers A Dark and Stormy Night. “We don’t have any money in the bank but we have the currency of people. We have a lot of bodies willing to put in the time.”
Calling on musicians in the community to join forces, cross-pollinate musically, lend a hand to do the basics—like fold, glue and screen-print cardboard into DIY album covers, book and produce shows together, and just plain old promote, Entheon is the for-profit extension of the nonprofit Dead Cow recording studio located at the Tannery Arts Center. It’s keeping a keen eye on methods of new media and social networking to release and promote music that makes money for the artist and not just for the label. Ultimately, the point is to not only help bands release material but also give them a reason to stay put when they do land some success, rather than make the typical migration over the hill that ultimately leaves a disheartening void in the local network. “There’s no reason why Santa Cruz can’t be on the national music scene,” McCabe says. “I think the infrastructure has not been here in the past but I feel like that is changing.”
Since February of 2008, when seven-piece Mylo Jenkins first began recording, the label has fully packaged, distributed and promoted two albums: that resulting debut full-length, Revel and Light, and the Sounds of the Mighty San Lorenzo local compilation. Forthcoming CDs set for release this summer include albums from Johanna Lefever, A Dark and Stormy Night and Tether Horse. Though only a handful of bands will officially put out releases this year, between 50-60 bands have worked with the label in some capacity. Having registered as a publishing house with BMI, Entheon is fast becoming too legit to quit.
While the current output has remained indie rock and indie folk music with an emphasis on a singer-songwriter core, McCabe relates the label to North Carolina’s 20-year-old Merge Records (home to Neutral Milk Hotel, Superchunk and the Buzzcocks) in that it’s open to other genres as long as every band that eventually comes into the fold can satiate the same listener.
So exactly who does he envision the Entheon audience to be? “Independent, not listening to mainstream Clear Channel radio, and hopefully goes out to a lot of original music rather than just seeing cover bands at the Crow’s Nest.”
One can’t help but think of Dischord Records, which broke new ground in 1980 when a group of teens established a fresh way of recording and releasing music for their era and for those who were underrepresented. McCabe says it’s only a matter of time until a similar DIY epiphany takes hold and takes over—propelling the underdog onto the main stage.
“Maybe there are kids in Boise or somewhere weird that are going to crack it like Dischord did,” he begins, “or maybe we’re going to crack it.”
For the Record
Before getting picked up by a label, saving enough money to lay down a demo is the bane of most musicians’ existence. You’ve got the fine-tuned instruments, the stellar, crowd-pleasing songs ready to top the charts, and even the means to head out on tour—which can translate as four sweaty bodies lugging twice as much gear and sharing one gas bill for one minivan decorated in rust and duct tape. Getting the moolah to head into the studio and record is a whole other ordeal. Even with bedroom computer recording seemingly on every corner, not every musician is a tech-geek. And paying $100 an hour to produce an album you can sell at shows, give to a label or hand out to your community just isn’t very feasible for most.
Imagine what it would be like if you could record a song, let alone an album, on a donation basis … The thought will likely bring a tear to many a muso’s eye.
Designed as a nonprofit co-op two years ago, Dead Cow Studio is a modest two-room space cluttered with donated instruments and recording equipment open to the community as a rental for a meager price. We’re talking m-e-a-g-e-r. Bands that join the co-op at a cost of $20 each month can book the space as a practice pad once a week, four hours each session. At a sliding scale of $15 per hour, any musician in the larger community, whether or not a member of the co-op, can record with one of at least four on-site engineers (McCabe, St. Wright, Autumn or Joe Henke) adept at operating a Mac using Logic and a 16-channel digital mixer. Studio monitors, condenser mics and a full set of instrument mics (from a drum kit setup down to harmonica mics) are also part of the deal. All profits go back into studio maintenance or assisting in a co-op member’s music project. And then there’s that infamous cow bus.
Purchased as a communal vehicle to get bands in the co-op on the road, touring to play live shows and promoting their music, the short bus is hard to miss (it’s painted like a cow) and is just another thing getting Dead Cow Studio moving—literally and metaphorically.
Though it all sits at the Tannery Arts Center on River Street and is nestled in the same red house as the Dead Cow Art Gallery, the studio—now booked every day and night of the week—is an autonomous entity run by musicians for musicians. And despite appearances, most of the people who use it don’t live at the Center. Aside from Entheon Records bands who have recorded, other acts who’ve put down tracks include Slop Opera, Bellasomna, And Hod, Birds Fled From Me, Santa Cruz Community School, local dancers and more. Even musicians from other parts of the Bay Area and out of state are getting clued in about the studio and are stopping by to record at a low cost. On top of equipment selection, the co-op formula and feel allows each patron who walks through to potentially utilize a wide breadth of musicians they might not have previously encountered—adding to the innovative appeal of the Dead Cow mode of operation.
“You can use the local music community to your advantage when recording, and know that if you want an instrument in your recording you can get someone to volunteer their time to play on your album,” St. Wright says. “Then, hopefully you’ll be able to pay them so that everyone can make money playing music, according to whatever your financial comfort level is. It’s been totally mind blowing to everyone involved because it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s that easy: I can say what I want and somebody will do it or know someone who plays that instrument!’”
Whereas back in the day, DIY seemed to equate with a middle finger to the Man, the co-op works in conjunction with the city and gets support for the arts through bureaucratic channels, creating a supportive environment all around where St. Wright says “organic social growth nurtures common goals.” All in all, it makes for one Dead Cow that’s helping to keep the local music scene, and the potential for Santa Cruz to be a national music hub, alive.
Autumn chimes in to sum up the cooperative’s fostering practice space, affordable recording and sense of family support that’s currently lighting so many people’s fires: “I feel like if you build it they will come,” she says with a laugh acknowledging the cheesy movie reference. She then adds in all seriousness, “If you make a space available creative things will happen. That’s the whole nature of this studio. That’s what people need.”
For more information on Entheon Records or Dead Cow Studio, go to entheonrecords.com or contact 359-6608 and [email protected]
SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT
Working eight hours for free every Sunday unequivocally sounds like a punishment. (A vision of a bright orange vest-as-uniform to work on the side of the freeway comes to mind.) For J.J. McCabe, who runs a pro bono operation producing weekly showcases so that Entheon bands and other local acts can plug in to be seen as well as heard, it’s a passion. Since April, he’s developed a Sunday night free concert series at The Red in downtown Santa Cruz to provide local bands with an audience, and audiences with bands they might not be familiar with. “We want to get Santa Cruz going, where there’s a lot of great venues and music every night,” McCabe says, referencing his crew of volunteers, which includes sound engineer Taito Reid, poster designer Davey Reynolds of Parachute Creative, artist facilitators and more. “We want a situation like Austin where you can come home from work on a Wednesday and walk out the door knowing that there’s going to be music at any of four or five places.” Kicking off at 9 p.m. and running until midnight, the showcase that’s been incubated at The Red and currently spans garage rock and upbeat folk bands to consistently lure a crowd, will eventually expand to include other locations and sounds. While the shows at The Red are booked into the summer, with its own PA system, clockwork routine and team having worked out the kinks, the series has been developed to function as a mobile venue. McCabe says to expect this production company arm of Entheon and Dead Cow Studio to pop up in more spots and incorporate more bands outside of the present circle of acts. “We’re trying to match the sound to the aesthetic of each venue, build a new way to see music, and eventually bridge the gaps between the micro-scenes in Santa Cruz.”
For more information, and for bands interested in performing, contact [email protected]
BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
The revival of the Santa Cruz house show
by Brian Echon
The sun goes down and most nights in this town people are plopped on their couches watching the new episode of The Office. Or, if it’s the weekend, college kids might be gathering around a beer-pong table while an iPod DJs their party. But, if you look in the right places, there’s a lot more going on in people’s homes these days.
Around 8 p.m. on a Friday night, you might find yourself walking down a busy street when you notice that creeping between the passing garble of car stereos and the noise of engines revving by, you’ll hear something distinctly different—music. And many times, if you follow that sound, you won’t find yourself standing in front of a bar or rock club. Instead, you’ve landed on the front porch of some Victorian house where kids are talking outside on couches. After the signal of a guitar riff explodes through an amp, the crowd is reeled in through the front door and bodies squeeze tightly against each other between the four walls of a living room. What happens in the next 20 minutes is this: a shared sensory experience, noise pulled through lips and emitted through fingertips to create a sound that makes us feel and a feeling that makes us move.
We’re all standing there, moving to the same beat with our mouths open singing the same song, together.
Live music is just that—living, breathing music with a face and a heart beat. It wasn’t born in a bar or a music hall, but came about amongst groups of friends who wanted to get together and share what they had created, right there in the intimacy of each other’s homes. And believe it or not, our very own Santa Cruz was once a thriving hotbed for good, independent music during the pre-noise ordinance days just a half-decade ago. As of late, it seems to be back on the rise.
“There was just an electricity in the air,” says Oliver Brown, reminiscing on the underground convergences of ’94 and ’00. “I was expecting Santa Cruz to be the new Seattle. The new Olympia. The new Athens, Georgia.” Brown is a local legend—a musician, a teacher, an organizer, a friendly face at house shows. In 2000 he founded the Big Bang Festival, a week-long community event that took place at various homes and spaces (bringing to town many great musicians that included !!!, The Microphones, Calvin Johnson, Mirah and Deerhoof) and launched S.C.U.M. (Santa Cruz Underground Music) as an online project (now wikiSCUM). “Many great people … musicians supporting musicians, genuine awe of each other, friendly competition,” Brown recalls.
Brown’s 13-year stint unifying the Santa Cruz scene may have ended, but another batch of young people have rolled into town and picked up the slack to rebuild it.
“There is so much good music out there that doesn’t get recognized,” says UC Santa Cruz junior and show organizer Emily Doom. “Show promoters are really important to the entire music scene so these bands can still thrive.” Doom has been responsible for a handful of shows at the Zami co-op this year; most recently Seattle singer-songwriter PWRFL Power and most notably Olympia’s anti-folk poster-girl, Kimya Dawson.
This new wave of movers and shakers working under the DIY ethic are taking back the scene one house at a time; houses known as the Zami and Chavez Co-ops, the Crystal Palace and the Church. From new wave to punk, from hardcore to folk, from pop to experimental noise, house shows create a setting for creative expression from the entire spectrum of local and touring artists that may not appeal to standard venues around the county.
ANIMAL HOUSE Japanther roars into town and through a house set.
And whereas making money becomes a concern for legitimate music venues, as they are established businesses, house shows operate for the most part on the all-ages, donation-based model, allowing the music to be easily accessible to a larger audience.
“Venues and clubs, their sole purpose is to make money off of people and that’s not what the scene is about, man!” explains Doom, whose outdoor afternoon concert held on the Zami courtyard this past April for Kimya Dawson was packed with hundreds of students, adults, and parents with young children who paid what they wished upon entrance to the show. “Music should be free to hear just like how art should be free to see,” says Josefina Rocha, Doom’s friend and predecessor who has been organizing punk and hardcore shows at her home at Zami for over a year now.
LIGHTSWITCH Sheena brings the stars inside.
“A lot of [venues] aren’t all-ages. That cuts out a lot of people, especially in a college town,” Rocha says. Many involved in the music world agree that the youth play an important role in the scene and that there is a need to de-stigmatize the counter culture as a negative influence on kids. Let’s face it: There are more potentially hazardous situations young people can find themselves in than experiencing live music.
Despite the fact that there are no formal laws at a house show, the result is not chaotic violence and theft—music lovers are civil beings with an unspoken agreement at these functions to respect the house, the bands, and to be courteous to fellow show-goers (if the mic stand gets knocked over during a set, you pick it up, and if in a pile of dancing bodies one falls down, you help them to their feet).
“House shows are 90 times more magical,” claims James Rabbit frontman Tyler Martin. “It feels more of a collective experience; it’s the product of everybody there and not just the product of the guy who booked the show and the sound guy.” Martin should know. For years, he’s been welcoming acoustic acts into his home, The Crystal Palace, and it’s become a prime stop for traveling folk artists. He believes that “keeping the house show flame burning is one of the most important things for this town.”
It seems that S.C.U.M. is shaping back up and bearing resemblance to Oliver Brown’s account of the scene back in the day: “Kids were eager to put on house shows, start bands, promote other bands, invite underground bands from other communities—without flippant sarcasm, without jealousy, without back stabbing … True camaraderie. Sounds like I am romanticizing it, but that’s how it was.”
Basic House Show Etiquette
1/ You’re in someone’s home, so be courteous
2/ Respect everything that’s going on at the house
3/ Do not wander into bedrooms
4/ Do not steal or break anything
5/ Do not loiter after the show
6/ If the tenants of the house ask you to leave or do anything else, do it. They are in charge
7/ If there is a donation, throw in some money if you can
8/ Bring your friends
9/ Thank the housemates, bookers and bands
When Hosting A Show
1/ Make sure everyone you live with knows about the show
2/ Let your neighbors know
3/ Let the bands know when they’re on and how long they’ve got to play
4/ Avoid a ticket and end the show early
5/ Collect donations for the touring bands
6/ Put away your valuables
7/ Respect your house, clean up afterwards and ask people to help
8/ If someone is being intolerable, kick them out—you have every right
9/ Have fun!
Adapted from Hiram Coffee’s guide to house shows.
OFF THE BEATENPATH
Venues like the Abbey serve surprise stages
If anyone had ever told me that someday I would head to a church to scope out a rock concert on a Sunday night, I would’ve said it’s time they put down the bong. Today, I’m a believer.
What’s becoming a sweet spot under the radar, quietly situated on Mission Street in Santa Cruz, is a nonprofit coffee, art and music venue owned by Vintage Faith Church. The Abbey, inconspicuous on the outside to those zipping past on Highway 1, harbors within its walls a sweeping amalgam of yellow walls, hanging art under soft lighting, comfy yet stylish velour couches and sofa chairs spanning too many colors to count … and, oh, that stage. Propping up a piano and enough space for a solo singer-songwriter or a full band to kick out the jams electric or spellbind unplugged, the year-old stage hosts music every Saturday and Sunday evening until 10:30 p.m.
In a building constructed in the 1930s that has a long history serving as a community center for social activities, including World War II soldier dances, school events and theater performances, the Abbey opened last July following massive renovations. And to answer the question that inherently crosses most people’s minds: Yes, it welcomes patrons and performers of all walks of life and all religions.
“It’s a community venue that’s separate from the church,” explains Hannah Mello, the Abbey’s marketing manager. “The musicians that play don’t necessarily have the same beliefs. I’m sure there are many atheists that play, so there’s no concern over religious affiliation.”
With all-ages shows and monthly open mic nights currently free and run by a volunteer staff of official sound engineers and a booking agent that’s lured traditional and fusion jazz combos, folkies, shoegazers, indie rockers, spoken word enthusiasts and more, the charming locale has a 200-person capacity and will soon be opening an outside stage for shows under the stars. And, if a cover charge is eventually instituted, Mello says proceeds will go toward compensating the crew and artists, as well as toward fair trade and nonprofit organizations in town and abroad.
“I think people are tired of being marketed to just for the sake of money,” Mello says of the Abbey’s intention to remain a nonprofit. “We recognize the need for art for art’s sake and music for music’s sake. We all want to relate to each other on a human level and not just because we have dollar signs in our eyes.”
All this means more opportunities for local artists, and another stopping point for touring musicians—helping to bolster Santa Cruz’s presence in the eye of the music lover and the music maker. It’s another example of an unconventional place in town, off the high profile, well-trodden route, that’s adding to the rumbling energy beneath the surface. So what did I find on that Sunday night when I first investigated a show in this unlikeliest of places? A packed house.
The Abbey is located at 350 Mission St., Santa Cruz. For more information, go to myspace.com/theabbeysc or abbeylounge.org.
New concert spots around town
Asana Tea House a warm, downtown nook for your folk singer/songwriter
Metamusic Records spinning DJs, indie and experimental rock after hours
Motiv a rising DJ epicenter throughout the week
Parish Publick House serving Santa Cruz’s Westside a folk-punk and rock explosion
Resource Center for Non-Violence your latest indie-rock and electro-pop alternative for a donation
Streetlight Records rock while you shop at free 4 p.m. concerts
The Red closes out the weekend with Sunday local showcases
Verve Lounge dishing out blues riffs in Aptos