There's a Freak Out Brewin' at My House: The State of DIY Music in Santa Fe

Miljen Aljinovic
The Santa Fe, New Mexico duo Evarusnik, photo from their official Facebook page.

In the words of Santa Fe musicians, when it comes to making a DIY music culture grow and stay nourished, "If you’re not gonna work, it’s not gonna work for you.”

Summer 2014

I’m standing in a dimly lit garage, watching a stout, bearded fellow blow away an entire room of people by playing MGMT’s “Kids” on bagpipes. Within the first two bars of the song, his rhythm section has every person present on their feet and dancing. I have no idea that in the next half hour I’m going to become a devout supporter of the bagpipes as a lead instrument.

This trio absolutely kills their way through a set of covers ranging from songs I didn’t think could be fixed to others I didn’t think could be improved. Then it hits me: the only thing wrong with this situation -- the only reason this isn’t one of the top five shows I’ve ever seen in my life -- has nothing to do with the DIY presentation or the musicianship. It’s the fact that there are only 15 other people in the room with me, and there’s space for about ten times that many.

Almost nobody I know has ever heard of this band, Sticks and Sacks Bagpipe and Drum Corps, or the larger project the members are involved in, Tone in Georgia, which is set to come on stage later. It’ll be the second time they’ve played an amazing show in this very same room in less than a week. The kids surrounding me are almost exclusively students at the local small art college, and it’s obvious that this same gathering would be happening in someone’s dorm if the tunes weren’t here.

I grew up here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a medium sized town of 70,000 people, best known for its overpriced silver and turquoise jewelry and being the place rich former hippies go to retire. The music scene has never been anything to write home about.

Sticks and Sacks Bagpipe and Drum Corps (source: artist Facebook page)

There’s always been a disconnect between Santa Fe’s overabundance of unbelievably gifted alternative and independent musicians and its possibly greater overabundance of bored, disenchanted young people. Frustrated musicians eventually leave seeking crowds. The local kids are reassured that their town is poison to anyone looking to “make it”, and they give up on looking in their own backyard for compelling music. Some give up on making interesting music themselves, and instead daydream of living in a place like New York or Austin, with a thriving, inspiring scene. In that way, it could be any other small town in America: it’s depressing. At least, that’s how I felt about it. I guess I had never talked to anyone looking from the outside in.

Y’all Ain’t From Around Here

“Everyone is great to us here. This is the perfect example of how to network.” begins Diego Hodge, one of the seven multi-instrumentalists that make up the accurately self-described “hodgepodge of talent” that is Tone in Georgia.

We’re sitting around a living room on the day of their show at the local Santa Fe University of Art and Design. For the last hour, they’ve been making me totally question my preconceived notions of what is wrong with Santa Fe’s music scene -- initially with their stories of how much and how quickly they came to love the local indie DIY scene, but then with their perspective on how much potential our little city in the sky has.

Tone in Georgia (source: artist Bandcamp page)

The band grew out of a creative collaboration between Hodge and two friends, Jake Minter and Billy Giaquinto. Little by littlel they were joined by more local musicians that they had met over the years, including Kory Adams, Sarah Allen, Chase Wells, and Wil Splinter. As Hodge recounts, “When we started out, it was basically five singer/songwriters; we all played solo sets, or with other bands… and we kind of just took a few old [songs], and wrote some new ones, and just mixed it all together.” Adams adds, “We all love the same music, we just all have emphasis on different sides of the whole spectrum.”

Two years later, returning to their hometown of Lancaster, California from their first tour (including their first appearance at SXSW), they couldn’t help but play another show here on their way home, despite having already stopped in Santa Fe on their way East. Did I mention both shows were free?

You see, the music scene in Lancaster is staggeringly similar to Santa Fe’s. Even in a place where the youth outnumber the retired, instead of the other way around, the independent musicians still look to one another for support and means of growth drastically more than they look to their elders or the establishment.

“I’ve known all these people since high school,” remembers Giaquinto, whose old band, the Great Tortilla Heist, was a staple of their booming local ska scene at the time.

“I started a ska band just so I could see [Tortilla Heist] for free,” adds Wells, sending the whole band into a nostalgic roll call of former projects -- all of which, while totally independent entities from one another, played the same house parties and small local shows together. Regarding the transition from being a part of that hugely popular scene to the beginnings of Tone in Georgia, whose sound didn’t quite fit that mold, Giaquinto explains, “The ska scene was so connected that we built this community of ska and punk kids, where everyone showed up and everyone supported each other, and [even as we changed our sound] when we would go to LA to play, we would get in touch with ska and punk bands and there would be this built-in community that would come out and support [us] and it was so easy to get people out to the shows.”

As their days in the ska scene become more of a memory, the band has turned to others in their local music community. With the help of acquaintances and rising indie stars Nacosta, they were able to put out a record and book their first tour. “The Internet’s pointless! Talking to people at shows is what matters. We’re just trying to help each other,” Minter exclaims. The “label” they are now on is only one of many tiny collectives around Southern California with no more than three or four bands trying to build something together, “[Nacosta’s manager] helped us out so much, getting us shows and organizing everything.”

The Pink Haus Project

These little communities are the future of the music industry. The model for how musicians support themselves is in greater flux than it has been for half a century. Moving forward in a world where major record labels are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, these little groups will have to band together and support one another.

Caitlin Brothers has been putting on shows in her garage since last fall. Known as “Pink Haus”, the Santa Fe home has been rented to a long succession of college students. While her house has been well known as a party destination in those circles for years, Brothers was the first resident to reach out to her neighbors and make friends. After establishing a relationship and a respectful pact with her community, she began organizing shows where live bands could come and play regularly without fear of noise complaints.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Months before, another college house, known as “The Alamo”, disbanded. The venue had long been highly regarded both locally and regionally for its live music and artistic community outreach. Its absence left, in Brothers’ words, “A definite gap. There was a hole in the town where these weird touring bands didn’t have anywhere to go.”

“It’s a very word-of-mouth community,” she explains, “It has been a really natural transition. I already came into some of the connections that The Alamo had made -- and Treemotel, the band that lived there. Once you deal with one touring band, they’re gonna tell three of their friends who are in bands, and those bands will tell their friends…”

But that can only go as far as one social network’s reach. There is another college in this town, and the two haven’t had a unified, collaborative music scene at any point in the existence of either institution. There is a high school less than a mile from Pink Haus, full of teenagers angsting and raging over the lack of stuff to do in town, but there are no social connections between the two.

Brothers quotes Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, “’Couchsurfing and crowdsurfing are a lot alike, because if you ask people to catch you, they will,’ and that’s how I feel about DIY art, because what keeps people from being able to really participate in it is being scared to ask. And that’s a problem I think we face on a day-to-day basis. We’re afraid to ask for the things we really want and need, because we’ve been taught that rejection is the worst thing that can happen, when really it’s totally normal and something to grow and learn from.”

Seeing people ask for help and get it that sense of community Brothers saw at The Alamo the summer she was living there was what made her such a proactive supporter of Santa Fe’s underground music scene. She has been a member of several local musical acts since moving here two years ago, including her current role as the tiny controlled explosion at the center of the stage in Storming the Beaches with Logos in Hand, a "Sci-Fi Indie Prog Rock Opera" band led by local musician Luke Carr. In the weeks surrounding SXSW, she singlehandedly brought a half dozen bands through town on their way to or from Austin, organizing shows at the university and her house.

On her quest, she has certainly seen through the cracks. “There’s this weird generational thing I’ve found with people our age; it’s a total disassociation. There’s always a drug or a screen to distract them or entertain them or peddle to them. I think everyone has the attitude of wanting to go and actually experience things, but what keeps them from doing it is fear -- that same fear of rejection and not being accepted. We’ve adapted our environment to fit our needs so much that everything has to be so efficient and so easy, and, ‘I don’t have to work for anything,’ and I feel like that’s what’s created that fear, because it’s so much easier to just sit at home and not have a real experience [and think], ‘I’m so fucking scared to feel something. I’m so fucking lonely…’”

Hometown Heroes

While Pink Haus succeeds in being a place where these disconnected youths who can’t engage with one another can at least come together, there are always obstacles. Through rude, inconsiderate, and sometimes downright belligerent audiences or uninvited houseguests with no interest in the music, Brothers and her peers push ever onward to organizing Santa Fe’s fragmented underground music scene. On occasion, some of them have success bringing their music to wider audiences.

Another member of Storming the Beaches and frequent attendant of Pink Haus events is Andrew Tumason, half of the local duo Evarusnik (see splash image), opposite singer Miranda Scott. In the last five years, they have organically grown a local following so strong they were able to raise $17,000 on Kickstarter to record their second album, In a Poker Slash Refrain, at Tiny Telephone recording studios in San Francisco.

“Our first shows were in Taos,” Tumason recounts, “I moved out there to be in the art scene, and catch that movement… and be around that artistic energy and environment. I started playing for artists and gallery openings, and being around those people and the incredible vast landscapes of northern New Mexico had a very formative effect on the feeling in my music.”

After putting in a lot of hard time playing around Santa Fe leading up to their first album release, Evarusnik finally started seeing people they didn’t directly know at their shows. The word was out. It took a combination of many different traditional and more creative promotional tactics to get to that point, and no small amount of legwork. “It was all these little things; posters and fliers… We still have these long lists [of places to take them]. We would take them to all the concierges at the downtown hotels [with whom we now have a connection], and it all gets the name out there.”

But for Tumason, it’s a constant process, “It never ends for me. I haven’t reached that point where I feel completely satisfied with our shows. Our sound is constantly changing, especially with the variety of musicians we’ve played with over the years. At the core it’s Miranda and I, and that’s what’s been the overall thread through the years; our stories and the feeling we create. There’s always an honesty with what we’re playing. This is who we are.”

Another aspect of Evarusnik’s growth in the scene was playing monthly shows at the local jazz venue and restaurant, El Meson. “We got to really focus on playing and performing for a new audience. Most of those shows had a great turnout, and there were people from all ages.”

Tumason concludes, “When people ask about ‘making it’ as a musician in this town, the answer feels ominous. I feel it’s important to nourish whatever you’re doing and work your ass off, and if you want to push your musical career in a certain direction, you’re going to have to find those veins and build your presence. It’s a process that each individual artist approaches differently, but ultimately we’re doing it because we love the work.”

The critical element for a developing local band is connecting with like-minded people and engaging fully in the very slow process of building a scene. The more people one gets involved with, the wider that network gets, and the more attention everyone involved gets for their collective accomplishments. In that way, Santa Fe is a poster child for every other small musical community in the country. The bands involved that care about its music scene really care about it. Because it has to be a labor of love and a deep emotional commitment, the result is that much more special.

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