The mood is as solemn as a Sunday morning church service as local musician Chris Jones stands on the remains of what was once his bandmate’s home. He gently strums his acoustic guitar, as his shoulder-length blonde hair, which frames his perfectly messy beard, dangles along the shoulders of his loose-fitting sports jacket and casual button-up shirt.
Jones sings “Garden of Pain,” a song he wrote in 2019 for his band Wolf Jett; a heartfelt folk tune that thinks it’s a gospel song. His bandmates back him with gentle, un-invasive grooves, and the Oakland-based Americana trio T Sisters thicken his vocals with a dash of soulful harmonies. This song, “Garden of Pain,” is so stirring, you almost forget that everyone is performing on a mound of ugly rubble.
This site on Hill Avenue in Boulder Creek was previously the home of Wolf Jett’s drummer Jon Payne, where he lived for three and a half years with his wife, Liz. They called it “The House on the Hill.” Musicians from all over the area came by to escape their noisy city lives and write music or play shows. On Aug. 20, during the CZU Lightning Complex fire, Payne’s house burned to the ground.
Two months later, Payne—nearly hidden behind upright bassist Jeff Kissell—is backing Jones as he sings his heart out. Behind the kit, Payne’s filled with a swell of emotions as he contemplates the poignant lyrics of the song written almost as a prophecy, right down the to the usage of the word “Pain,” which is hard not to hear this time around as a homograph for his own name: “I want to kill this garden of pain/I want to tear it all down and start over again/Build up a dream from the dead remains/And pave the ground with the pouring rain.”
“It’s almost like he [Jones] wrote that song about the fire before it happened,” Payne says. “It hit me in a totally different way. Now it’s a very powerful song for us.”
The performance was recorded by friend-of-the-band Justin Kohlberg in a single take using film donated from Kodak. They released it on YouTube as a way to process the magnitude of what happened. Despite the overwhelming visuals of destruction surrounding the band in the video, there’s something beautiful about Wolf Jett singing this gospel-Americana tune of rebirth in this desolate space, reclaiming their pain and loss, and using it as a catalyst to create art.
“It was cathartic,” Payne says of the filming. “It allowed me to put a final stamp on the music that was made there [at the house].”
The Payne family is one of hundreds who lost their home during the CZU Lightning Complex fire, the most destructive fire ever in this area. As so many people in the Santa Cruz arts community call these mountain towns home, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising how many local musicians were victims of the fire. With the pandemic putting a halt to live music, the destruction in the mountains has made a bad situation for many in the local music scene infinitely worse.
Hell in the Hills
For Payne, everything escalated quickly. On Aug. 18, he had just come home from work, and Jones was in the basement recording studio working on a tune. The two of them were planning on recording it, but before that could happen, a helicopter flew over the property and told all the residents in the area to leave the premises immediately.
The studio had only been finished a week earlier. Jones—who had been staying at Payne’s house since the start of the pandemic—had worked on it with Payne. With a solid 2020 touring schedule canceled, they redirected their energy toward fulfilling the lifelong dream of building a recording studio. It made the disappointment of not being able to tour manageable.
“I remember sitting there a couple nights before the fire. We just looked over at each other and we were like, ‘We did it,’” Payne says. “We gave each other high-fives. It was a childhood dream to have a recording studio in the woods. We were so stoked.”
That day, Payne and his wife evacuated to a friend’s house in Felton. Payne remained hopeful and would check his security camera feed periodically—that is, until 2:45am, when it went dead. The last image he saw was of his deck, with the hill glowing in the distance. The next day, feeling nervous about the fire, Payne drove back to his house three times to gather up belongings, relieved each time he saw his house still standing. On each of his three trips, a different friend accompanied him. In the panic of the moment, it was challenging to figure out what items were critical.
“You open a closet, and you look. Nothing seems important. What’s really important is just trying to stay alive,” Payne says. “You’re trying to think about what’s sentimental, but it’s also like such a mind rush going on. It was hard to pinpoint anything.”
After the third trip, they learned that Felton was now being evacuated, which meant that Payne and his wife had to find a new place to stay. This time, they booked a hotel in the Bay Area. As they left the Santa Cruz Mountains, they drove past Felton swimming hole Garden of Eden and took in the surreal sight of people enjoying their summer as though toxic air didn’t fill the sky, and thousands of county residents weren’t fleeing for their lives.
The next day, The House on the Hill burned down. Payne didn’t know this until Aug. 21, when a neighbor who’d snuck on site gave him the word. Payne wanted to see it with his own two eyes, so he spoke with a firefighter friend who agreed to take him to his property the next day. It was a horrifying sight, but also necessary for him to be able to process it, he says.
“There’s still a little denial happening at that point, like, ‘Maybe he’s wrong.’ There’s hope inside you until you know something for sure,” Payne says. “That’s one of the stages of grief, whether it be a loved one who’s passed or whatever. I knew it was real, but I still had to see it.”
The House on the Hill was more than just one family’s home—it was a significant part of the arts community. Payne had been putting on house shows, often booking out-of-town bands looking to fill dates on their tour. There would almost certainly be a small but engaged audience for them, and a decent wad of cash, making it often a better show than whatever bar they booked in Santa Cruz. He also rented a section of the house as an Airbnb. Hikers and birdwatchers sometimes used it, but musicians were frequent guests. San Francisco bluegrass band Brothers Comatose came down in 2019 to help bring two new members up to speed on the band’s material. In May 2019, local musician Bryn Loosley recorded his recently released EP inside the house. This was before there was technically a recording studio there, but it still worked great. Loosley is donating proceeds from the sale of his album to Santa Cruz Community Foundation’s Fire Response Fund.
“You’re surrounded by beauty and silence. There are not all those distractions. I chose to live out here because it’s relaxing,” Payne says. “That was my vision for my whole life. Just waking up and looking at that view. Just super inspiring. I thought this is the house I would grow old in. Me and my wife, we were so thankful every day we woke up here. ‘Wow, we’re so lucky to live here. This property is unbelievable. We have the mountains.’”
Even though Payne lost his house, some of the structures on the site still stand. And strangely enough, his neighbor and close friend Kevin Wade still has his house. It’s made the rebuilding process a little easier since they’re not totally starting from scratch.
“Right away, I was like, ‘Where do you want to live? We can live anywhere now. How about Hawaii? That sounds pretty relaxing.’ As a little time passed, we realized we still have this. And we’re so lucky,” Payne says. “At this point, we’re pretty committed to rebuilding, feeling like that’s like what we want to do.”
Over the weekend, Wolf Jett was added to the roster of the livestream being presented on Dec. 5 by the “Love You Madly: Artists for Santa Cruz Fire Relief” campaign (see sidebar). The campaign has given musicians an outlet to support fire victims, including members of their own scene.
Back in 1972, local musician Andy Fuhrman moved into a tiny cabin in Bonny Doon. Having grown up in Brooklyn, he was after that same sense of solitude and inspiration that attracted Payne to the woods. That first cabin was on the top of a mountain peak with a 360-degree view and no rent, gas, electricity or phone—just his dog and his guitar. He lived there for a year and a half before moving around for the next decade. In 1983, he and his wife Allison purchased a house on the same road as that small cabin. They lived there for nearly 40 years, until it burned down in the CZU fire.
As a musician inspired by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, Fuhrman loved living in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“You’re out in nature, you’re away from people, you’re not thinking about what other people might be thinking about. You can smoke a joint, drink a beer, whatever it is that you do, and that helps you get to where you want to be when you’re planning on sparking creativity,” Fuhrman says. “Some people probably get a lot of inspiration being in the city. I get more creativity when we’re out by ourselves.”
In the more than four decades that Fuhrman lived in Bonny Doon, he’s been evacuated a few times, but the fires had never reached his home. This time, he admits he didn’t take the threat as seriously as he should have, and took very few items with him when he left.
“I thought for sure I was going to come back. That’s the reason why I really didn’t take as much stuff as I would have thought I’d consider taking if I knew I wouldn’t come back. I was probably too complacent,” Fuhrman says.
He lost several guitars, amps, saxophones, a keyboard and all his recording gear. He also lost the room he had set up for recording. It has put a damper on his creative endeavors, and he can’t generate the same amount of income now that he’s unable to record for clients and make CDs of his own music.
Over the past decade, Fuhrman was averaging 100 gigs per year at various honkytonks and other venues, and played private and corporate events. In February 2019, he became a DJ at KSQD 90.7 FM, showcasing old Brooklyn doo wop and classic country. And he always loved highlighting local artists. He’s still doing the show—in fact, he hasn’t missed a single one of his Tuesday 11am-1pm slots
As Fuhrman sorts out all the details, he is currently in rebuild mode. The problem he’s currently dealing with is whether any company will want to insure him again. He’s living in the Seabright area right now, but he hasn’t picked up a guitar since he’s been there. He wants to get back to the mountains.
“I can’t wait to get back up on the property even if that means being in a tent and a cot,” he says. “I just need that quiet.”
Fuhrman says the best way to help him and other artists affected by the fire is to buy their music and merch, and hire them to play safe, outdoor, socially distant concerts.
Rebuilding By Hand
Originally from Japan, Yuji Tojo came to California in 1978, eventually settling in Santa Cruz in 1980. After buying property in Ben Lomond in 1981, living in a cabin that was already on the land, he spent the next 35 years building his own house and recording studio by hand. Just before the fire, he’d finished building the kitchen in his recording studio.
Tojo has been an active member of the local music community for decades. Among other things, for years now he’s consistently played every other Wednesday at the Crow’s Nest in Capitola—that is, until the pandemic shut down live music.
“When I was young, I was a surfer, so I had to be near the ocean. But the ocean got to be too busy for me. I was looking for more solitude,” Tojo says. “When I went to the mountains, I felt that this is the place for me. I felt a really peaceful kind of meditative energy there.”
After Yuji evacuated, he found the smoke made him too ill to go back for many of his things. A few days later, the fire consumed his home, and most of his possessions with it.
“I was in shock for a couple of days, but only a couple of days. Then I started feeling better,” Tojo says. “Once you have a lot of stuff, and then all of a sudden, all the stuff that disappears, then you feel kind of a release in a way. I’ve been trying to get rid of all that stuff. Not the guitars. A lot of junk snuck up there, too. Nature took care of me. That’s how I saw it. I started feeling like really good.”
Tojo is currently living on a friend’s property in Santa Cruz inside a 1959 Chevy school bus that has been built out to include an entire house inside. Much of his music work has been in studio recordings; losing his home and studio made that incredibly challenging, though he’s managed to set up a studio inside the school bus, which seems to be working for now. There’s no question in Tojo’s mind, though, as to whether he’ll rebuild. As soon as he can, he will start to rebuild a new house—by hand, of course.
“I can already see all this green coming out from the ground [on the property]. That’s amazing,” Tojo says. “I know it’s going to be really beautiful again.”
Tojo has had a tough time financially. Fortunately, a friend of his, Fawn Lisa, set up a fundraiser page and has been getting donations. So far, they’ve raised $18,000, which will all go into Tojo rebuilding his house.
“That is the most amazing, big help for me. I was blown away by that. I have so many friends supporting me. It’s just a great feeling in a wonderful community in Santa Cruz. There’s nowhere else. This is like heaven,” Tojo says. “A lot of people are having a hard time right now. You can see the light, and people are really coming together.”
Time is Money
Like Tojo, Payne has been getting a lot of help from the community. Some people have donated money, which can be done via a GoFundMe site, but a lot of people have been donating their time. Not that long ago, a crew of friends came to the site and did a lot of work to remove trash and help with erosion control.
“I have a hard time accepting help. It’s been one of the many lessons I’ve learned through this: that it’s okay to accept help sometimes, and not always be the one to give it,” says Payne. “I’m a therapist, and I’ve been helping kids and families out for a long time. Everyone’s like, ‘Just let people help you right now. People want to help you; it helps them feel good.’”
Payne’s band Wolf Jett weren’t able to do much for weeks after the fire. They started playing again sometime before the “Garden of Pain” video shoot. When the music did come back, it was very healing for Payne.
“I was grieving. It took a little while to get over that hump. I’m not going to say I’m even over it yet. Grief can be a long process. But at the beginning, it’s more intense. Then you start to slowly move on and realize that we’re alive,” Payne says. “There’s a lot of people suffering in the world. This is minor compared to what some people actually go through in life. This is a sad thing. That perspective is becoming clearer. As long as we’ve got our health, and our loved ones around us, we will be okay.”
‘Love You Madly’ Livestream Adds Steve Earle, More
The upcoming livestream by the “Love You Madly: Artists for Santa Cruz Fire Relief” campaign has added co-headliner Steve Earle, along with several other new artists, organizers announced.
The free livestream event on Saturday, Dec. 5, is part of the campaign’s effort to draw attention to the ongoing needs of those affected by this summer’s CZU Lightning Complex fire, and it encourages donations to Community Foundation Santa Cruz County’s Fire Response Fund, which has already provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in assistance to fire victims. Since September, “Love You Madly” has been posting weekly videos from national and local musicians featuring performances and messages of support at santacruzfirerelief.org.
The livestream—which features more than two dozen music performances, along with art pieces, photos and stories of those impacted by the Community Foundation’s fund—is a way to boost the profile of the recovery effort at a time when a number of issues are competing for attention nationwide, says co-organizer Jon Luini.
Besides outlaw-country icon Earle, the new artists just added to the livestream lineup include the California Honeydrops, Y&T, Pete Sears, Con Brio, Wolf Jett, T Sisters, Andrew St. James and Aria DeSalvio. They’ll join previously announced performers Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs, Sammy Hagar, Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwago, Los Lobos, Joe Satriani, Colin Hary, Laurie Lewis, the String Cheese Incident, John Doe of X, Rogue Wave and many more.
Like the weekly video drops, local and regional artists are well-represented on the livestream roster, including not only Wolf Jett, but also James Durbin, Alwa Gordon, Good Riddance, Goodnight Texas and Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher.
There will also be an online auction featuring autographed guitars from Satriani and Hagar, along with a custom-built guitar from Santa Cruz Guitar Company.
The event begins at 7pm on Saturday, Dec. 5, and can be viewed for free on nugs.tv. A limited edition T-shirt is available up until the event. To donate to the fund, or for more information, go to santacruzfirerelief.org.
— Steve Palopoli