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…’”
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.
One of the first things we have to get over as a community of artists is our disbelief. Our problem is deeply akin to the fear Brothers referred to, in that we are held back by our disbelief that the band next door might have something to say that could change our lives. We’re afraid to ask one another for help because we aren’t convinced that what we’re hoping to build can really go anywhere. Or we don’t believe that the people we want to ask can do anything to help us.
This has to stop. We are standing on the precipice of a drastic paradigm shift in the way music is recorded, presented, and monetized. For once, the corporations and multinational conglomerates that have controlled the music industry for the last 50 years have no idea what to do. The future is ours to define.
But the key is going to be the help. We have to crowd around one another for warmth, or freeze to death in our isolation. It helps to crowd around a light source. As Diego Hodge interjected at one point during my interview with Brothers, “I feel the same way about our generation being kind of fucked, but then I come to places like Pink Haus, and meet people like this, who bring back my hope in humanity.”
One such light in the Santa Fe scene is Ground Zero Radio, the fruit of the collaboration between the local public radio station, KSFR, and local youth art center, Warehouse 21. Last summer, it was taken over by two young people very involved in the local music scene, Gabriel Rima and James Lutz. Since they took over the show, they have refocused its intent largely on shedding light on local and sometimes regional musicians, poets and artists through interviews and live studio sets.
Rima explains, “I think the main thing is that there are a lot of people who are struggling for a sense of validation. If you’re going to pour yourself into something, there’s something about someone asking you questions about your art that allows you to develop a deeper connection. It allows you to really take a look at the fact that, ‘Wow, I actually am doing something that someone else finds noteworthy, even though in my life it might just be what I do.’ I think we all feed off of that, and that’s one thing I aspired to [do] with Ground Zero is to hold up a mirror to the community. I’m just a naturally curious person. And so, my approach is just to find things that I think are interesting and explore that.”
So where does that leave us? What will it take to bring our small and fragmented musical communities together into united forces whose message can reach beyond the grasp of any of their individual elements?
Rima suggests, “You look at musical movements throughout history and there were atmospheres and cultures that followed music. Two words: Grateful Dead. Or Woodstock. The whole M.O. of those events was that the music was complementary to the culture that [was being created]. I think that the two were one thing; each created the other. People wouldn’t have been taking the drugs if it wasn’t for the music and people wouldn’t have been making the music if it wasn’t for the drugs. It’s about creating enough of a following in a physical geographical location, so that putting music there will just naturally generate a crowd that will already be a part of that scene. So it’s not just, ‘What is the future of music?’, but, ‘What is the future of culture, and what is the place of music in that culture?’”
Rima’s advice for how this might be done? “Spend time alone. Spend time with people — creative people — doing creative things. Spend time outside. And if you make something amazing, it’s like a planet; things will gravitate towards it. It starts with making something amazing. And don’t even worry [about how or where or why]… It’s so easy to get bogged down in details. The details are important. But they will figure themselves out.”
We’re In a Band
The old lady next door has never really liked me. I’ve known her since I was 14, and while she’s now senile enough that she doesn’t always remember disliking me, she’s still pretty consistently scared of me. Maybe that fear is well founded.
On this particular Friday morning, about a month after the Tone in Georgia concert, there’s what appears to be half a diesel school bus on monster truck tires parked in my driveway, dwarfing my rickety little mid-’90s Honda. Behind it are gathered three tall, tattooed, shirtless men with varying lengths of unkempt hair and beards. She’d be glaring at them through parted blinds regardless, but on this occasion, a sparse dusting of confusion taints her superficial xenophobic terror.
It’s hard to look intimidating when you’re doing yoga.
The three members of Albuquerque’s party staple, YOU, need the stretch. They just slept on my couch and floor and are about to spend a week or so in their massive yellow music tank. Their drummer and I look on, leaning on my car and passing back and forth what my neighbor can only assume is a cigarette. She notices me noticing her and darts away from the window as I chuckle and examine the Instrumental Battlecruiser next to me.
“You know, what you guys really need here,” I start, waving in the general direction of their huge spare tire, “Is a little bumper sticker that says, ‘We’re in a band’.”
Grinning and rising and stretching and breathing out, bass player Alec Wilkes repeats, “‘We’re in a band…’ Yeah, it’s amazing how many sketchy situations that phrase has completely defused.” He waves his hand in the air, using the force on nobody in particular, “Oh, yeah… It’s ok… We’re in a band.”
YOU (source: artist Facebook page)
As anyone in a band will tell you, it’s a dubious badge of honor; a distinction that elicits immediate assumptions in anyone you talk to. The fact that you’re in a band will often become your defining descriptor for people who don’t know you very well. Often, the people who know you only through your music will allow their relationship with those songs to completely overshadow and define any other form of relationship you could otherwise have had, had you met under different circumstances.
There are also, of course, the many rumors, myths and wives tales of the nefarious deeds and exploits rock and roll musicians engage in when the amplifiers stop blaring and the feedback fades away.
Only most of those are true. And while the most famous thing about Led Zeppelin will probably forever be what they may or may not have done to a drugged-out groupie (and a rapidly asphyxiating fish), the fact of the matter is that the actual, firsthand experience of being in a band is far weirder and infinitely more personal.
I was once a music student.
More specifically, I was once a college student, enrolled in a contemporary music program, who had a great amount of interest in things like tone, microphone placement, music theory, acoustics, and instrumentation, but couldn’t be bothered to practice playing his instrument due to his equal interest in college’s many distractions. In the years that followed my inevitable exodus from the academic pursuit of art, I played with a number of musicians who were entirely self-taught — some more effectively than others — and often marveled at the ways some of them had just somehow figured out many of the things I had learned from lectures and books. These concepts, ideas, and theories that I had been aware of for years were only then becoming available to me as practical tools, as I had only then begun connecting them in practical ways to my playing. In some ways, I was finally being born as an “adult” musician. Had that happened a few years earlier, I may have been able to take better advantage of the unique type of pupation music school offers — particularly the program built and until recently run by Steve Paxton at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
I talked to Matt Ruder, a student in this reincarnation of the Contemporary Music Program I left at the College of Santa Fe, shortly before its implosion. He plays guitar in two of the more notable acts to come out of the school since its reopening: the gypsy jazz quintet called the Laser Cats, and his progressive jazz fusion project Scarlet Cortex (formerly Ruder and the Shockwaves), who just released their debut EP. He feels, as I did, that the CMP’s small, intimate, densely concentrated pool of talent fosters a camaraderie that isn’t so common at more well known, rigidly structured schools.
Scarlet Cortex (source: artist Bandcamp page)
“We know each other [and each other’s styles], and everybody has really, really different musical backgrounds. So you can actually spend time and hang out with a person who grew up only playing bluegrass, or jazz, or metal.”
Being surrounded by so many exemplary musicians who are at the same time close friends provides a unique sort of motivation, “Maybe it’s just because I’m from Texas, but I have a really competitive spirit, so if I see our friends doing really good, it’s kind of like, ‘Better step up our game’. But that friendly competition is nice, and [the instruments are] different enough that I don’t feel like shit when Sam (Armstrong Zickerfoose, banjo player in Laser Cats) takes an amazing solo. We’ve grown a lot from playing together so much; we know each other’s tendencies and feed off one another. We’ll trade solos or do a thing for like a bar or two that only we in the band can notice, and then we’ll all laugh.”
It’s the isolated, focused practice — “woodshedding”, in our slang — that makes musicians a bit crazy. The music is very much a language. The conversations begin to develop and build on one another into a rapport — a sort of telepathy, even — that can’t really be compared to any other connection available on the spectrum of human interactions. Ruder recounts a road trip to Arizona, “Everyone was asleep but me and Sam, and we saw this shooting star, and we looked at each other and we both just said, ‘STAAAAAR BROTHERS…’ and started laughing.”
Music school is a big group woodshed, where, much like a group shower, you’re all forced to mingle and socialize during what would otherwise be a private experience, infecting each other with all manner of stylistic and conceptual ideas until you each find your own voice in the din. Ruder says, “It’s monastic, almost. There’s so little to do [in Santa Fe] besides just go up in the mountains and practice.”
Sex, Drugs, and Facebook
More often than not, the voice you end up finding as your own turns out to be a sort of collage of the voices around you. What you find out — years after the drama in your little college bubble culture has dissipated and you’ve spent years working on different projects with different bands and different levels of commitment — is that the biggest fans your band has are the bands around it. Nobody takes your music as seriously as you do and nobody ever will. The only people who come close are the ones that are influenced by your music, and, before anyone else, that’s always the bands your friends are in.
It’s a month after the scene in my driveway, and the boys in YOU are back from their biggest tour to date. “We were just hitting our stride,” drummer Eric Lisausky recounts, laughing, “Like, we were all shitting at the same time… and we were driving home.”
I’m sitting in the living room of the Albuquerque house he shares with guitarist Austin Morrell, and the three of us are talking about the future of music, Yes blaring on the turntable in the background, lest we forget our roots.
Morrell looks back, “My first tour was with [my old band], Gusher. It was definitely an exciting, fun experience, but it was also a bit disappointing. We had been playing in Albuquerque for about a year by that time, and it finally got to the point where we had a lot of people coming out and we had a reputation for playing these crazy shows… And then we’d go to these towns where nobody’s ever heard of us, and we’re playing these spots where there’s nobody there… It was humbling.”
It’s the wall every band faces when they leave their “home turf”. You put in all the time and effort it took to get your friends, neighbors, and relatives to support you, and now you’re faced with the Cliffs of Insanity that are represented by an entire planet worth of strangers with no reason to like you. This is the point at which most garage bands reach the limit of their determination. The necessary self-promotion involved in just booking a multi-state tour is anathema to many a sensitive artist, and combined with the tension of a road trip punctuated by unsuccessful, poorly attended shows, it can be more than enough to make a group question their resolve.
But as Morrell explains, there is a light beyond the horror storm, but you have to be prepared to look outside the lines. “From there on out it was about trying to attack that problem from different perspectives: ‘How do we get people to hear about us?’, ‘How do we get in the right places so the shows are good even if they haven’t heard us?’ It takes different strategies because the end goal through all this is to play a bunch of music for a bunch of happy people.” He laughs, hitting the center of the issue on the head, “Building relationships with people is actually the most important thing. No matter what all your pictures look like and what your music sounds like — Fuck what your music sounds like!”
Referring to the booking of their upcoming tour, a gargantuan jaunt around the United States, Lisausky goes into further detail. “People we kinda knew… we played there and they played here… or maybe they slept over at someone’s house [on tour]. And now the drummer of one [of those bands] is setting our San Francisco show up. I met a dude on Facebook who’s now a close friend, even though we’ve only physically hung out for like… a day.”
They regale me with anecdote after anecdote about people they’ve met only a handful of times, with whom they are now close enough for them to be instrumental in booking this nationwide tour. The old joke, ten years ago when social media was still just “for kids”, was that “I’ve got 600 friends on Myspace, but I don’t actually know any of those people.” A decade later, the reality for an aspiring musician with the right kind of eyes is, “I’ve got 600 FRIENDS… They’re on Facebook, and we’re friends enough that they’ll help me book and promote shows in cities I’ve never been to.”
“Even with booking agents,” Lisausky reasserts, “Trying to get on these opening slots with bigger bands. You end up on the phone with, say, Neutral Milk Hotel’s booking agent… Legitimately… all you’ve gotta do is email people.”
Caveat Emptor: Carpe Diem
There are humor websites where it’s considered trite and outdated to mention how fucked the major label music industry is as the main punch line in a joke. To anyone in touch with the current pulse of music, the only thing left that’s clear is that “the heart of rock and roll”, if it’s still beating, is doing so in about a thousand different places, at a million different tempos. The trend is only continuing towards further decentralization.
At the 2014 installment of Record Store Day, held on 20 April 2014, Jack White set a world record delivering a vinyl LP from the recording to the final printed, packaged product (the inserts and liner notes were all photos from the live show at which it was recorded) in under four hours. He pulled the whole thing off with his record label, Third Man Records, which, while it probably got jump-started with some of those fat Warner Bros royalty checks, is operated entirely by White and his friends.
That’s the point, you see. We may not all have that White Stripes money, but if you’re an aspiring musician, the means to a grassroots groundswell are more and more within your grasp, regardless of your current pay grade.
There is, as always, a catch. During our conversation, Matt Ruder coined a phrase, summing it up, “If you’re not gonna work, it’s not gonna work for you.”
The difference between Jack White and every other Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, hackjob rockstar that spirals into a drug oblivion when the major label stops baby-sitting their investment, is that White never stops looking for the edge as far as what is going to get his art into the biggest number of interested hands at any given moment. Whether you’re a garage band with a 4-song EP or a multi-platinum recording artist with Grammies on the mantle, that will never stop being the name of the game.
The game itself, on the other hand, will not stop changing. While this is bad news for executives of the multinational corporations whose market share in rock ‘n’ roll has all but vanished, it’s great news for music fans, who have more and more chances to give their money straight to the bands. As more and more music fans realize this, a whole new music industry is being born right before our eyes.
The biggest element of this new independent business model is still the tried-and-true live show. “I’ve listened to live recordings as long as I’ve listened to recorded music,” Austin Morrell points out, “It’s way more important to be good live than to have impressive recordings or whatever… Nobody ever listens to your album, y’know? And the people who really get to like you are seeing you live. And you have to focus on that.”
Being in a band is a strange thing that can never be understood unless you’ve done it. It’s like being married, but in lieu of sex is a daily musical communion that can be far more personal in many ways. You’ll never have a soulmate quite like the other person in your rhythm section.
So call over your friends, clear out the garage, dust off that broken drum kit, warm up the decades old tubes in your dad’s Marshall, and piss off your neighbors for a few months. The era of the neighborhood band nobody’s ever heard of is nigh.
Epilogue: Spring 2015
A year has gone by since I first started re-engaging with and writing about the music scene in Santa Fe. It’s a lot like watching a child grow, in that on a day-to-day level nothing seems to change. There will be a great show one night, and no one will mention it again after the next day. A band will play better than they ever have to date, and, if anyone even notices, it will have no bearing on the turnout of their next show. Nothing ever really seems to go anywhere. Then a year goes by, and you look around you, and notice that everything is different, and yet very much the same.
The members of the bands that were popular a year ago might not be in the same bands. Some have gone on to start new project, and the ones that are popular people still draw a crowd. The house venues move around and shift. The residents of Pink Haus have changed, dispersed, and moved on. Other houses started hosting shows, and they will continue to until to do so until they decide to stop.
Many people lose hope or simply move on, and leave town. All of those people find themselves involved in similar circles in new communities, doing the same things and filling the same roles they filled here. This turns out really well for some folks; they move to either a bigger pond or simply a place with more like-minded individuals that feed their soul in whatever way Santa Fe could not. Many of those people come pass through with new projects and play strangely familiar new house venues to most of the same face they remember from when they were local. Elements of the Santa Fe style stay with them and feed the scenes they are now a part of. The entire process of creative and cultural exchange perpetuates itself on into oblivion, taking a piece of my friends and I with it.
That’s what’s interesting about living in a dead end town with a desperately creative DIY scene — a scene that’s kicking and screaming, just to keep from freezing to death. Eventually, the people who really want to support themselves as musicians always leave — and then they come back.
The music always remains, in a way, “ours,” but whatever progress those expats made, and the history the built in this little one-horse retirement community is only ever that: history. Santa Fe will never be more than a prologue in the stories of many wonderful bands who wanted more than to play and drink beer with their friends. It’s simply against its nature. You can’t grow a chicken in an incubator.
It could be a symptom of the region’s trademark lethargy, or it could just be a fact of demographics. Young people are not only scarce here. Among the people deciding the future of our town, they are not welcome. Their money is, but they are not. All the institutional attempts at turning into Santa Fe into a place where night life thrives eventually hit the wall. Nobody is willing to change the status quo enough to facilitate an organic shift toward youth-friendliness. The liquor laws will not change. The zoning laws will not change. The “fun” in this town will always, by legal necessity, remain underground. At the same time, that below-the-radar nature is what makes it so personal, what keeps folks like me here, and what feeds the music we play. But when a band wants to see the sunlight, they must go elsewhere.
Albuquerque is a larger example of the same problem. There is a much healthier music scene down there, but it, too is organized around several small groups of people who are trying to eke out a niche for themselves and their friends. There is no greater public push toward legitimizing the underground scene. The most successful bands are the ones that book shows for touring bands, and then use those connections to book their own shows — elsewhere.
Eventually everyone leaves, but then how is it that there is anyone left? How did this scene not dry up and fade away a year ago? Because new people file in behind the old every day. A year ago, my friend Caitlin and I were trying to organize a group to shed light on and legitimize the local underground music scene. We spent a few months trying to rally support for such an endeavor, and ultimately failed, because aside from us and a few people who wanted to promote their bands, nobody had the time or interest to see the project through. Today, one of our new friends who moved here since then, suggested the same idea, in almost the same words we used a year before. Then she suggested we make a video to help promote the collective, where we get everyone’s cats together and make a video with them. That’s right: she suggested literally herding cats. Truth be told, it would be easier.
That’s the case with any small town music scene. Austin is an anomaly, and the conditions that caused the explosion of musical culture there were decades in the making. Your hometown is never going to become something it’s not already geared toward, at least not in your lifetime – or at least not while you’re paying attention.
Tone in Georgia is coming out for Quadstock in a few weeks. YOU lost a member, but still throws most of their worthwhile parties in Albuquerque. Gabe Rima lives in Oregon, and he’s still one of the most genuine and inspiring human beings I’ve met. Matt Ruder still plays guitar. I still smoke joints in my driveway.
That’s the point. The “scene” is like a living creature of its own. Cells are created, cells die away, and the whole process evolves at a rate slower than the most patient Buddhist monk could stand to watch. Eventually you take a step back, everything seems different, and you feel old. But the music continues, and the song remains the same.