All the World’s a Stage
An unmarked warehouse currently serves as the epicenter of the underground music scene in Santa Cruz. But to divulge the site’s name and location would be to betray the very fundamentals of underground music: word-of-mouth marketing and (sometimes) sidestepping the law, all in the name of music that operates outside of mainstream culture and challenges the listener to question the creative boundaries set forth by profit-driven labels and venues.
Local DIY music promoter Nick Bane, of Bane Shows—a production collective that has been hosting all-ages, alcohol- and drug-free shows in Santa Cruz since 2007—is one of a handful of underground music advocates responsible for the scene today.
“I grew up in Santa Cruz, and the first day I could drive, I drove to a show in San Francisco,” says Bane. “With Bane Shows, I wanted people to not have to drive out of town to see shows, but to come here.”
Inspired by Jim Dandy’s in Prunedale—a truck rental shop by day, and a hardcore/metal venue by night—Bane put his business administration degree from San Jose State University to use, and began networking. In four years, he’s become well-known in the local music scene, hosting an average three to four shows every week at venues around town, including the aforementioned warehouse, The 418 Project and Kuumbwa Jazz.
“In just the last week, I hosted a psychedelic show, a hardcore show, a grindcore show, and a black metal show,” he says. “I’ve never booked the same show twice.”
Though Bane has never experienced a shortage of artists to book, he believes it’s because most local underground bands don’t necessarily fit the bill at concert halls in town.
“There is a very sufficient lack of venues in Santa Cruz and open mindedness in music,” says Bane. “I understand that places like The Rio, The Catalyst, The Civic, Moe’s Alley and The Crepe Place, have to make money—which is why they get big names to play there. However, there’s a lot of small bands that are more our taste that come through town.”
Speaking on behalf of Generation Y—which he defines as young people who grew up in the shadow of Santa Cruz’s once great ’90s punk era—Bane claims that the music community has taken back the scene the best they could, but now it’s time to forge their own path.
“We owe it to our elders, like Camper Van Beethoven, The Devil Makes Three, and Sleepy Sun, but we want to make it our scene now,” says Bane. “Over the years, the scene has changed for the better. Every new band that comes out is better than the last.”
They may not be able to sell out big venues yet, but several local underground bands have followings that regularly pack the house. “I see the same faces at every show between The Crepe and Kuumbwa,” says Bane. “We do have a scene—and it’s back.”
Keeping Music Underground
On a recent Wednesday night at Kuumbwa Jazz, chairs are removed for an underground showcase of witch house, electronic and shoegaze music. About 50 young people hover in the dark as two local men, called Old Arc, take the stage.
Shards of glass pasted on Stefen Lazer’s chest glisten as he bobs under a purple light, while hooded bandmate Austin Lee leans over a mixing board. With one fluid movement, the duo kicks off a heart-thumping rendition of “Chief of Sun,” one of the band’s heavy synth tracks with electronic and psychedelic samples.
Experimental to its core, Native American sounds and symbols permeate the band’s aesthetic, and Lazer holds up a mannequin head as he moves robotically to the track’s beeps and bloops.
An up-and-comer in the scene, Old Arc has struggled to find places to perform since the police have cracked down on local venues. Regardless, Lee is proud that the underground scene lives on. “It’s thriving, but I feel like it could be better,” he says.
Using Facebook and word-of-mouth to publicize shows, the band embraces grassroots marketing in favor of keeping underground music underground.
“The underground value of it, is that there’s usually laws being broken,” says Lee, referring to venues skirting noise ordinances and permits. “There are shows every week for surf and punk bands at co-ops and houses in order to keep it underground and private. There’s a whole different demographic that goes to underground shows.”
Always in search of an intimate space to perform, the duo has found solace in Bane’s and other promoters’ efforts to look beyond popular venues when booking shows. Referring to the above mentioned warehouse, Lazer admits, “The sanctity of the place would be belittled if it was exposed—it’s not like The Catalyst, where there’s a big cesspool of music, and a lot of artists like that.”
Breaking the Mold
Denney Yoints, frontman of local neo-classical post-punk outfit Midnite Snack, admits that the only reason he moved to Santa Cruz was because of the spirited underground scene. “We just went from show to show and party to party,” he says.
The lead singer-songwriter/guitarist’s faith in the scene has dwindled, however, since finding out that his band’s music isn’t considered “Crepe Place material.” “Given the fact that [The Crepe Place] is so upscale, I think it’s cool,” says Yoints. “But I feel like the music is all the same.”
It wasn’t until Midnite Snack was invited to play a Bane Shows concert, that his confidence was restored. “There were a bunch of people, even some from San Francisco,” Yoints says of the audience. “I was having a flashback of how it used to be here.”
Teetering between abrasive post-punk and Americana, Midnite Snack—like most underground bands—is nearly impossible to classify. At times their stinging riffs and head-banging tempo seem perfect for the metal-inclined Blue Lagoon; at others, Yoints’ harmony-layered croons would better fit The Abbey Lounge.
Listening to local bands perform live, particularly those which do not fit the “Top 40” definition of music, is the beauty of underground music, according to Yoints.
“Local music has never been about how hip it is; it’s all about expression,” he says. “I love seeing shit bands that have just started out—it’s not pretentious. People who just want to play and meet other people deserve a venue. Santa Cruz needs that so bad. If you can’t do that, what can you do? Go shopping?”
All Quiet on the Western Front
Lexie Corfiatis says she’s baffled by the lack of appreciation for underground music in Santa Cruz. “Everyone plays music here,” says the lead singer-songwriter/guitarist for happy hardcore band, Palmz. “There’s a circle of support, but the general public doesn’t seem that interested. There’s something that’s not pulling it all together.”
Though she believes several venues in town bring in good artists, she says few support underground bands. “Actual places to play that people can count on consistently, is totally rare here,” says Corfiatis. “We could have a lot of good shows, being so close to San Francisco, but the noise ordinance is a big issue—you can’t really have a house show because of neighbors and the police.”
While Corfiatis is thankful that her neighbors allow Palmz to practice at her house during daylight hours, she knows several other musicians in town who aren’t so lucky.
One such artist is Tyler Martin, known onstage as pop-rock outfit James Rabbit.
“Someone once asked me if they should move to Santa Cruz and whether the music scene was good,” says Martin. “I said it could potentially be a good place for music, but you have to be real quiet.”
Since 2005, when the noise ordinance was put into effect, Martin has felt alienated by city law, which forbids people from making noises “which are unreasonably disturbing or physically annoying to people of ordinary sensitiveness or which are so harsh or so prolonged or unnatural or unusual in their use, time or place as to cause physical discomfort to any person.” The law is frequently used to break up large household gatherings. The cost of violating it? Around $500. “It’s bad for local culture and for music,” says Martin.
He cites SubRosa as one of the few local venues that has consistently supported underground music. “For a while, they had 30 bands play at S.C.U.M. Fest, an underground festival, and that was a huge accomplishment,” he says. But for him, the city has yet to produce an ideal space for the scene to grow.
“A true DIY venue, that’s volunteer based, would be amazing,” says Martin. “We need a good outlet for genres like punk that people may not want to pay $8 to see.”
The Living Dead
To one-man band Craig Prentice, also known as Hermit Convention, Santa Cruz’s underground scene is, at the same time, both thriving and dying.
“It seems there are always new venues popping up,” he says. “But there’s a lot of attitude from the city, and the cost for noise permits hinders the scene when venues can’t afford to pay for them.”
Hermit Convention’s lo-fi indie pop-punk doesn’t require more than a bass guitar, looping pedal, and microphone—and therefore Prentice doesn’t have to deal with most noise issues—but, like other underground acts, his sound doesn’t quite fit with the popular folk scene.
At Metavinyl, Prentice has found a home for his music. “I always tell people that if they come to town, [Metavinyl] is the go-to place,” he says. “There’s never a door charge, and they’re really good about being strict about noise not going past 10 p.m., and loitering.”
While some artists assert that underground music is underground by choice, Prentice believes that working outside of mainstream music culture, and focusing on freedom of expression, forces bands under the radar. “It’s not underground because we want it to be private, but because there’s less interest and money in it,” he says.
If You Build it They Will Come
If you had told Ana Marden, executive director of The 418 Project, that 18 years after the Santa Cruz nonprofit was founded, it would serve as a haven for underground musicians looking to perform—she might have laughed.
After all, The 418 Project was created to be a stage for the dance and performing arts communities. “But that’s what The 418 Project is all about—diversity and expression,” she says. “I’m glad they feel comfortable to play here.”
PHOTO: CORILEE SWANSON
Over the years, Marden has worked closely with Nick Bane, Spencer Biddiscombe—a local punk promoter—and abrasive metal promoter Joel Haston, who have all hosted underground shows at the venue. “They all grew up performing here, and now they’re promoting and giving other people a chance to play,” she says. “Some of the people I respect the most are in the alternative, metal and punk communities.”
Marden believes that it is critical for the community to provide safe spaces for the youth to go. “We want people to be able to respect art and music in a safe environment,” she says. “Because there is such a lack of venues in town and the youth are not always respected, partly for their [musical] taste, it fulfills our mission to offer our space.”
SubRosa is primarily an anarchist bookseller and radical art gallery, but the downtown space has become an important outlet for underground music. Though predominantly booking the folk and punk genres, SubRosa’s Music Bottomliner, Nicky Golden, likes giving musicians a place to play.
“In other cities, underground music happens in houses, but around here, a lot of houses I know have gotten tickets—the noise ordinance is a big hindrance,” says Golden.
Though Bane and other promoters, like Big Sur’s music mogul, Britt Govea of (((folkYEAH!))), are doing their best to keep the scene afloat, Golden believes they have a long way to go. “I feel like, in the past, there’s been a stronger scene,” he says.
It’s a Hard Rock Life
For Spencer Biddiscombe, The 418 Project has been a godsend. A promoter of Santa Cruz punk since 1997 and vocalist for hardcore pop-punk band At Risk, Biddiscombe has been knee-deep in the scene long enough to know that the success of underground music comes in waves.
“Five to six years ago, [the scene] was amazing, but people get older and bands die off—losing the Vets Hall hurt a lot, because it was really the only place we could host punk shows,” he says. “We’re in a lull right now, but we’re pulling out of it with more venues opening, more promoters and more bands.”
Today, Biddiscombe relies heavily on The 418 for concerts. Able to cite only three venues in town that are willing to host punk shows, including The Catalyst Atrium, it would seem natural for Biddiscombe to become disillusioned with the scene.
“It’s amazing that there’s so much stigma still attached to punk after all these years,” he says, referring to the belief that rock and violence are linked. “The cops never really get called to the punk shows—they get called to the dance/rave shows.”
Yet, Biddiscombe remains remarkably hopeful.
“I love this town because most people are into all kinds of music, but there are also a lot of people who only like one type,” he says. “The 418 has been amazing—it’s nice to see places opening up for music again.”
Having observed a recent resurgence in the work ethic of local bands and promoters, Biddiscombe feels the scene is headed in a positive direction. “When people get active, the better it gets,” he says. “We’re definitely on an upswing.”
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Regardless of the hurdles facing the scene—venues and promoters are fined whenever event fliers are posted on telephone poles—Bane is optimistic about its future and, if prompted, can rattle off a dozen promising musicians: deathcore outfit Arsonists Get All the Girls, metalheads Ecophagy, drummer Matt McClain, and guitarists Matt Wilson and Hiram Coffee, to name a few. “The scene is very underappreciated and suppressed due to bureaucracy,” he says. “But, with suppression comes creativity.”
For one, Bane believes that music here has become more eclectic, with members rotating bands and lending their talents to various genres. “Someone in an indie band will also play in a surf rock band and a reggae band,” he says.
To him, that common goal of producing transformative sound, is what makes the Santa Cruz scene so special—and it’s why he chose to come back to help in its revival. “I appreciate what’s going on in this town,” he says. “It’s all organic.”
The birthplace of many local underground projects—including psychedelic rockers Indian Giver—is Caffe Pergolesi in Downtown Santa Cruz, according to Bane. While noise complaints halted the coffee shop’s live shows, now, Bane says, locals use the site as a meet-up spot for starting bands.
Bane’s two cents for musicians who are new to the scene? “It’s very valuable that music begins underground and becomes organic, then takes on a life of its own,” he says. “The word ‘sell-out’ doesn’t really fly as much as you think it would—people want others to succeed.”
To prove his point, Bane encourages underground fans to support Fury 66 at its upcoming reunion show at The Catalyst on Saturday, Sept. 10. “The fact that they’re playing The Catalyst is a huge deal because they were a big band in the local underground in the ’90s,” Bane says of the melodic punk outfit. Sharing the stage will be At Risk, starring Biddiscombe, plus punk rockers Good Neighbor Policy—two more bands that Bane calls “big influences in this town [who] never played that main stage even in their heyday.”
Bane’s last piece of advice? Authenticity. “Our generation has a great bullshit meter,” he says. “If we’ve never heard of you on the underground level, and you’re immediately popular—we’re skeptical … we have a good sense of what’s genuine.”
He’ll be the first to admit, however, that as long as there is a lack of local venues willing to host underground bands, not to mention noise ordinances and expensive permits, those “genuine” bands will have to keep rocking under the radar.
And—at least for now—Bane’s all right with that reality. That doesn’t mean that he and his cohort of local bands won’t spread their wings, though. After all, “The more rules there are, the more ways we come up with to get around them,” he laughs. “We have so much creativity in this town. It’s almost like a lost generation with no one to support them.”
For more information about Bane Shows and for a listing of upcoming shows, visit baneshows.blogspot.com. Fury 66, At Risk, and Good Neighbor Policy perform at 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10 at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $12. 423-1338. To hear local underground music, tune in to KZSC.