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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.”

The Endgame

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.

School Daze

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.”

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