Goth rock in San Diego and other underground rumblings

One of the few towns where Fugazi couldn’t get a gig

"You’re lucky if you get part of the door at SOMA."
  • "You’re lucky if you get part of the door at SOMA."
  • Image by Dave Allen

One hot afternoon last summer, Susan Peters's rock band Fiction, whom DJ Chase of SDSU’s student-run radio station KCR refers to as “San Diego’s Premier Gothic Rock Band,” played a gig at theGrove shopping mall intended by its promoters. Hit Single Recording, the mail itself, and radio station 91X, to help local bands be heard by San Diego teenagers.

Flatten Manhattan at Bodies

Flatten Manhattan at Bodies

Fiction, who call themselves a "dark band.” which means they're influenced by gloomy English gothic-rock groups like Joy Division and the Cure, went on the palm-tree-decorated stage at six o'clock, when the sun was still high in the sky and the air a bit too balmy for Peters's long-sleeved black dress and black tights. She had to wear sunglasses so she could see the digital LED lights of her keyboards, and she remembers staring straight across the near-deserted mall patio at the Miller’s Outpost sign and feeling, as members of Fiction are wont to do at the gigs they get in San Diego area, a mite discouraged.

Megalopolis

Megalopolis

“Playing a Southern California shopping mall to ten shoppers on an August evening is just not what Fiction stands for,” she explains. “We aren’t a band who should ever have to play in broad daylight.

San Diego has one of the least active local band situations in the country. For years, the combined efforts of the fire marshals, the Alcoholic Beverage Council, and American Nazi Tom Metzger have made San Diego one of the few towns in America where forerunning populist heroes Fugazi couldn’t get a gig.

Miniature at Soma

Miniature at Soma

(Although last spring after years ot negotiations, they were able to put together an all-ages show at La Paloma in Encinitas). As any cutoff-clad, skateboard-toting, gutsy teenager will tell you, the situation, quite frankly, is untenable.

Despite the mild success of the Beat Farmers (an act whose entire schtick is dependent on playing 21-and-over nightclubs where patrons can get as drunk as the band, a setup that works out well for bar owners — no wonder the Beat Farmers get booked a lot), the Paladins, Mojo Nixon, and Borracho y Loco, for the most part, San Diego's local alternative music scene has no cohesion, no fan base, no legitimacy, no media attention, no support... and no all-ages nightclubs to service the vast body of youth — the military, the universities — that would love to have such a scene to call their own.

There actually is an underground music scene in San Diego. It’s just a pitifully small one for such a large metropolitan area. Such as it is, it begins along a tiny stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in Encinitas that mimics, in a desultory way, Haight Street or the hipper end of Melrose or Second Avenue near the Bowery. On it there are several used-clothing stores; a shop where you can get leather studs. Doc Martens, and lace tights; and two independent record stores, Off the Record and Lou's. Go into one of them on a Saturday afternoon and you’d be surprised how packed they are with big-haired kids intent on Finding the new Bad Religion or Jack Officers tape, kids looking for the import version of Fields of the Nephilim’s new one, kids flipping through racks of Def Jam 12-inch singles or searching, out of historical interest, for a copy of “The Message.”

That’s where the underground begins; where it ends is at Iguanas, an under-age hard-rock palace just across the border, which occasionally fills to the brim with a thousand fans of heavy underground touring favorites like Bad Religion and Soul Asylum. Being a major metropolitan area, San Diego also gets rock concerts at large venues by popular bands; and the city has one of the best alternative commercial music stations — 91X — in the country.

Clearly, interest in new music thrives in San Diego, but its live manifestation is treated at best as dangerous, at worst boring, by most of the powers that be.

That’s the exact combination of circumstances that could make San Diego the perfect breeding ground for the next Fugazi. “A community can’t really be a success without flourishing arts,” explains 91X deejay Marco Collins. “It’s important to make a community whole. And what people here don’t understand is that rock music is art, and the development of it is as important as any other art — just like theater or the symphony. But they’re not going to be able to neglect the music scene here much longer. It’s just a fact of life. You look around San Diego, and there's so many new buildings going up, it’s growing so rapidly. And when people come to a place, they come with kids. Noisy, obnoxious kids. Ones,'' he adds, "with guitars."

But great rock bands can t grow up in an environment where there is no place to see them, and San Diego has a dearth of good-sized nightclubs that are willing to book original music. (Clubs and restaurants that are willing to book cover bands, on the other hand, abound.) There are some sensible reasons for this: it’s difficult enough to get people to go out to see bands they’ve already heard of; making a profit without the sale of liquor is almost impossible, and a lot of new music fans are under 21. But other cities have clubs that do manage to do it. San Diego's few original music clubs — Megalopolis, the Casbah, Bodies, the Spirit, and a few other dance clubs that show bands every now and again — suffer from size (they ’re teensy), location, and a forcible local prejudice against going out at all.

Some local scene-makers claim this is due to the inherent conservatism of San Diegans, conservatism that stems in part from contentment with the easygoing outdoors lifestyle of the region. This attitude is in direct contrast to the kind of ritual discontentment that nightclubs are supposed to cater to. “{Clubs here) have to compete with something far more entertaining,” says promoter Harlan Schiffman. “The beach.”

Julie Gardner’s under-age nightspot 2581 was shut down last year — even though it didn’t serve liquor — by the stringent fire marshal requirements (cops came by regularly to round up kids who hung around outside) and an ultimate lack of cost efficiency. Tim Mays’s club, the Pink Panther, closed over New Year’s for similar reasons. And currently the Bacchanal, easily San Diego’s premiere nightspot for seeing local and new music bands, had its capacity rating cut in December from 700 to 375, effectively crippling the venue's ability to present decent acts. And that’s a club with the size, prestige, and the backing to fight. (The Bacchanal says it will reopen next month with an expanded capacity.) When a bar that seats less than 100, like the Casbah or the Pink Panther, gets slapped with a fine or a restraining order, it hasn’t got a hope.

San Diego should take a tip from the city of Austin, Texas, which has spent the past decade making a concerted effort to create a local music scene. Each year, the Austin Chamber of Commerce sends a delegation to the New Music Seminar in New York, which sets up booths advertising Austin-area bands, clubs, and services. A few years ago, the city initiated some tax breaks to nightclubs opening in a designated nightclub zone, and they've also supplied monies from the hotel-tax fund to various bands to help develop artists. Probably their most successful ploy was when the city attracted an MTV show called The Cutting Edge to their environs for a special. This resulted in several Austin bands, including Timbuk 3, being signed to major labels.

Why are Austin city fathers (and mothers) so hot on helping their kids disseminate what is often liquor-soaked devil’s music? For the simple reason that in 1985, in the midst of a horrendous economic downturn that saw huge developments standing empty, the city council commissioned a study, which proved that alter the university and the government, local music was the single biggest money-making venture in town, grossing over five million dollars (much of it under the table, in things like waitresses' tips) for local citizens. Since then, it’s also become both a tourist attraction and a point of civic pride.

Austin has tradition on its side: since the 1880s, it’s been a town that prides itself on nightclubs, and the people there simply love to go out and see live music. They say that guitar-slinging is something that runs in almost every Texan’s blood, but San Diego has some things in common with Austin. Both cities have a large university population; if anything, San Diego’s percentage of youth is higher because of the military. Both cities have lovely weather, which makes standing around outside nightclubs in the middle of the night an attractive proposition. And both cities have bands galore.

Marco Collins knows. He’s the host of Loudspeaker, a two-hour show on Monday nights on 91X, which features the music (and other antics) of local rock bands.

Three years ago, as an intern at 91X, Collins, a former KCR deejay, conceived of airing ten-minute segments about local San Diego bands on the Listen to This! program. The spots were so popular that the station gave him his own two-hour show (albeit at midnight on Monday nights). And to his surprise, when the station broadcast an appeal for local demo tapes, he was flooded with a response: thousands poured in from bands nobody had ever heard of, not only from San Diego and El Cajon but from Encinitas (where there’s a bias toward "dark” bands); from hardcore central Chula Vista; from San Ysidro, where there’s a huge Hispanic rap enclave; and from Escondido, where the local rappers are black.

“It was amazing,” Collins recalls. “I’ve lived here forever, and I never knew about it. Not one of these bands had ever played live; they’d just hammered away at their stuff in the basement or spent all their money making demos in studios.”

And, Collins adds, a lot of these tapes were really good stuff. Currently, the influx has slowed down to a trickle: Collins gets 6 to 25 cassettes a week. A born enthusiast, it is his job to listen to them all and decide what to air each week: Pitchfork and Dark Globe and Daddy Longleggs and Sweat Engine, Night Soil Man, Baba Yaga, Olive Lawn, Rocket from the Crypt, Vicious Beat Posse, Legion of Doom, Forced Down, the Holy Love Snakes, Flatten Manhattan, and countless others.

But because of the lack of all-ages venues in San Diego, the burden of exposing these thousands of bands has fallen entirely on Collins’s shoulders. It is doubly hard to get people to go out and see any of these bands in a city as spread out as San Diego. As Peters points out, in a place where no one walks around, flyers aren’t a great help. So without 91X’s promotional help, bands are pretty stuck for an audience. This puts 91X and Collins in a peculiarly strong — not to say monopolistic — position in the San Diego area. Without their sole support, both bands and nightclubs are doomed to failure; the latter are encouraged to advertise heavily on the station, as well as court Collins's favor by asking him to host deejay events. Collins tries to be fair toward everyone, and he's a relentless booster of San Diego music — even when, as is the case of the recently signed MCA act the Origin, he agrees that they suck. Collins doesn’t deny he has a bias toward “loud, noisy stuff and heavily distorted guitar,” but he also loves rap and admits to playing tracks on his show that he himself performed on pseudonymously. (“Sometimes," he says giggling, “my show is totally unlistenable”)

This, necessarily, leaves some people out. According to Peters, some San Diego bands — like Fiction — “take great pride in being ignored by 91X.” But not everybody is so sanguine. “I think things are too dependent on Marco,” says Nico Scherman, the 19-year-old lead singer for the dark band Datura. "We want to be played by him, but we just don’t fit in, and it's not fair. People in San Diego just aren't willing to be challenged in what they listen to, like they are in England or New York City.” “But Nico," says Datura’s drummer Pat Mulvihill. “If we lived in Leeds or London, we’d just be like every other band. At least here we stand out!”

Scherman — whose pale visage, long black hair, and two golden earrings don’t exactly give the impression he’s just come from the beach — and company are standing in the kitchen of the hilltop Del Mar home of Fiction’s guitarist Jeff Caldwell. It’s three in the morning, Jane's Addiction is blasting away in the background, and this is a typical San Diego music “scene” situation: friends gathering in someone’s home to listen to (or play) music, rather than driving the 20 miles downtown to see whatever local band is playing at Bodies. In part because of the spread-out nature of the city, San Diego’s band scene is fragmented into a million parts that will never coalesce. The band members themselves all admit that they never got out to see local music, and yet they expect people to come in off the street to see them. (“Well, when you put it like that,” says Caldwell, “it does sound stupid")

“But it’s not just that people refuse to be challenged here ” says Fiction’s drummer Rob Coppo, replying to Scherman’s earlier assertion. “It’s that there’s no legitimacy at all to anything we do here. The clubs here don’t pay anything — you’re lucky if you get part of the door at SOMA or the Casbah. And the papers don’t write about you, and even if Marco does play your song once a month at midnight, how many people are listening?”

“Well, that’s OK,” says Caldwell. “We end up doing it purely for love — purely for the ‘having done it’ thing. I mean, I love to play music, and we have fun — even when we walk in some terrible restaurant or theme park or bar and it’s like, ‘Oh my God. we have to play here tonight?’ It’s an experience"

“But people always come up to us and tell us they really liked us,” objects Peters. “Like that time we played Jose Murphy’s in Pacific Beach and these people in pink and white shorts told me afterwards that they really liked us. It’s not like if there was just more of a goth audience out there we’d be big; we don’t know who our real fans are. What’s more depressing is that there’s no sense of community between bands here. Once we tried to book our own show with five other bands at La Paloma in Encinitas. But after a ton of meetings it all bogged down — we had all these arguments about who was going to headline and who was going to pay what share of the expenses. Now, if the bands here felt a sense of community, that would at least be a start toward the audience feeling a sense of community — toward wanting to belong to something.”

“I agree,” says Coppo. "You can blame Marco for not playing us and the Reader for not writing about us and people out there for not coming to the shows. But if we were really great, people will come even if they hadn’t heard about us on the radio. In the end, I think it’s up to us and nobody else to build a music scene here.”

Coppo may have a point. After all, the negatives around San Diego's scene also applied to the city of Seattle less than four years ago. before the independent label Sub/Pop started up business there. Although Seattle was not a thriving club scene — it apparently suffered from much of the same prejudices as San Diego, plus a lot of rain — Sub/Pop's founder Bruce Pavitt ferreted out any number of local bands, gave them money to record, and in the process created what is now the acknowledged leader in underground music scenes in America. “The Seattle Sound” (a blistering combination of loud metal and psychedelic wah-wah) is the most influential on the alternative airwaves. And Sub/Pop is currently negotiating large distribution bucks from CBS Records.

You could call Pavitt’s success a case of having happened on a group of good bands. But Sub/Pop's biggest act, Mudhoney, kicked around for years (with different band members in another incarnation called Green River, featuring main dude Mark Arm) on the New York label Homestead before suddenly coming to the fore of college radio everywhere; in fact, it wasn't until they had the weight of an entire movement behind them that anyone was impressed. The same fact is true of Soundgarden, a band that released its first LP on the SST label before signing to A&M on the cusp of the Seattle thing — and whose LP Louder Than Love was nominated for a heavy metal Grammy last year.

Sub/Pop's success is also proof that a music scene can be created from pure scratch. And San Diego is currently ripe for the itching. Last year, some local music fens began San Diego Music Magazine, a fanzine intended to fill the void left by the more mainstream media. Even more promising, a branch of Cargo Records, a Toronto-based independent label, moved to San Diego in 1990 and has been busily releasing local-band product. In the past six months, four bands have released CDs on Cargo. And Collins says that after his New Year’s show, which featured the top ten local acts for 1990, he received calls from Los Angeles-based major labels asking for the demo tapes of several of the acts.

These developments please Collins no end. He would desperately like to see a San Diego-area band become as big as, say, Mudhoney. He’d like there to be a San Diego Sound (though he adds that one of the great things about San Diego right now is the diversity of its bands), not so much because his job depends upon it. but for the same reason that everyone should want a thriving local music scene. If there's a great new band in town, locals will have the privilege of seeing them play thousands of times before they hit the arenas, like the students at University of Georgia who had the B-52s and R.E.M. play their parties in the early ’80s. Just think of what it was like to be a native of Asbury Park when Bruce Springsteen was honing his chops.

But these things can't happen in San Diego without a measure of community support. Collins is as frustrated by the lack of clubs in the San Diego area as anyone, but he thinks bands need to get beyond that drawback. “I really try to stress to local bands that they should think big,” he says. “Just because they can’t get a date in San Diego where their friends can see them, they get frustrated. But I tell them they can play out of town — pack up a van, book shows up the coast, go to Phoenix for the weekend — it’s been done. Then they see that there is an audience out there that’s not like San Diego. Secondly, I tell bands to get a demo tape done, do a good job on it, and try and get a record contract. Send it out to A&R [artist and repertoire] people.”

Fiction, for one, has taken his advice: they’ve just released a seven-track CD called One Million Hundred Tries on their own Annex label, which cost them over $4000 to record and press, and plenty of other local bands they know have done the same thing. But in a way. self-pressing records really raises the question of why people get into bands in the first place: to feel the thrill of the electric, the throb of the amps, and, ultimately, to impress girls. These things don’t happen in the recording studio — or in Phoenix. They happen in local clubs. They happen in places like the Casbah, a 75-person-capacity bar located right off the Sassafras exit on Kettner Boulevard near Laurel Street, between an auto repair shop and a power station. (One of the identifying features of a San Diego nightclub is the almost unheard of lack of pretension of its location. Only the new Bodies, which is on F Street downtown, is located in a neighborhood that in any way could be denoted as cool. The rest are sandwiched between auto dealerships, trailer parks, and taco shops.) Last fall, when former X front man John Doe was busy selling out 800- to 1000-seat venues in Los Angeles and San Francisco, he played to 75 people at the Casbah.

Fiction’s ambitions happen to exceed playing the Casbah, but not every band’s do. Doorman Andrew Wilson says the bar sees the same people night after night, whether the band appearing is local faves Pitchfork or Daddy Longleggs. or, like Fishwife, a four-piece hardcore band who placed in the top ten in 91X’s year-end sweepstakes. Every time someone walks through the door while Fishwife's onstage, lead singer Ryan Foxe, 19, greets them by name.

Fishwife won’t get paid tonight (the Casbah gives working bands drink tabs, though Foxe is too young to use them), but Foxe says he doesn’t mind that. “The scene here is in the larval stage." he explains, standing outside the club a little later in the evening. “It’s cozy, and I like it that way. It's like — there’s only about 150 people in San Diego who care about local music, but this way, I have 150 friends.”

Foxe's band has been together three years and has no trouble getting gigs at parties and UCSD’s Triton Pub. The Casbah is almost the top of their ambitions, however, and he wishes it were all-ages. John Reis, 21, who plays with Rocket from the Crypt, one of Collins’s favorite new bands, agrees. “The word ‘scene’ has bad connotations,” he says, frowning. “We don’t want to have a ‘scene,’ like in L.A.... What we have here is just our friends coming to see us. I think it’s good when things stay small; when ‘scenes’ get big, they suck.”

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