Eugene’s potent music scene
By Rick Levin
A recent Friday night, between sets, WOW Hall — the spacious main room was teeming with antsy kids, the swell of anticipation was palpable. The air virtually crackled.
When Medium Troy — a rising Eugene-based band that plays a self-identified brand of “Bohemian dub” — took to the stage, a surge of hollering ensued that was drowned out only by the group’s opening number.
Strata upon strata of people — dreadlocked frumps, gypsy teens, tattooed dudes in tight T-shirts — pressed against the front barrier, while off to the side of the stage and back near the soundboard, dancers, alone or in pairs, spun their wavy-gravy swoon, eyes fluttering shut. The whole audience undulated and hummed with a tidal shiver as the band — led by lanky, charismatic front man JoJo — ran through an energetic cycle of songs.
This, then, is a music scene — just one scene, mind you, among a seemingly endless array of places and times when music happens. But the term “music scene” is just an artificial categorization; like the idea of a nation, it implies multitudes under one banner, but it’s slippery and shifting and highly subjective. It only really exists in the mind, or on paper.
That doesn’t stop anyone from talking about it, particularly now that Eugene’s downtown, and Lane County’s economy, could use the kind of boost that a more vibrant music scene could provide.
So let us now praise some famous cities: Athens, Chapel Hill, Nashville, Austin, Minneapolis, Detroit, Seattle. Whatever else these places might have in common, there is a strong melodic thread running through this list.
Need a hint? Think REM, Polvo, Willie Nelson, Hüsker Dü, the White Stripes, Nirvana.
An artistic movement requires an exact alchemy of talent, timing and luck, and to a certain extent, it just happens.
Can it happen here? Is it already happening? Rolling Stone back in 2002 ranked Eugene eighth among the nation’s top college-music cities. Eugene is already enriched by a significant cultural past — part Merry Prankster postscript and part Deadhead desiderata — and Eugene stands at a mid-point to West Coast relevance: sorta halfway between Seattle and San Francisco, and within spitting distance of Portland.
Eugene is nothing if not eccentric and artistically inclined. For many musicians in many genres, stage time in Eugene and high-quality production studios have provided a launch pad for music careers. The venues are many, from house parties and the Saturday Market stage to the Hult Center and UO’s Beall Hall. And adding to the richness of the culture are world-class musicians like Mason Williams, who has returned to Eugene to compose, perform, record, and support the local talent.
This story attempts to define and investigate Eugene’s nebulous music scene — an impossible task, inherently full of omissions. The approach is wide-angled and inquisitive, and slutty toward certain genres. And for every person heard from — hip hop artist, jazz singer, blues musician, classical performer or rock band — another 20 possible sources blossomed with different perspectives.
This a random sampling, rigorously pursued if not exactly scientific. What’s not covered could fill a book. The discussion should begin here, not end.
“This place has a really good chance of blowing up,” says David Thornton, lead vocalist for “post-punk art rock” band May Harpoon. A Southerner by birth, Thornton moved to Eugene two years ago after spending time as a musician in both New York and Nashville. Thornton has experienced notorious hot spots and believes Eugene could — given the right collision of conditions — become a town known for its thriving music scene.
He says size doesn’t matter. Nashville it was “a very small area that was being saturated with music,” he says.
Thornton believes people in Eugene are hungry for something to happen. “It’s the large amount of people in this town who actually want a scene. To me, what makes a good scene is being able to walk down the same strip downtown and each club has something different to offer.”
Sam Bond’s booking agent, Peter Wilde, says the vitality of the scene “goes up and down” over time, though he adds that “for a town this size, it supports a great music scene. Of course, the college helps.”
Calyn Kelly, who books bands at WOW Hall, says there’s no reason more bands from Eugene couldn’t rise to national prominence, thereby putting the local scene on the national map. “It’s possible to be a significant band from this area,” says Kelly, who was only 12 when he began volunteering at the all-ages community center. Overall, he says, Eugene is a good destination for live music, and a scene where bands can garner a solid following — assuming, Kelly adds, they are willing to do the hard, time-consuming work of building a fan base.
“I talk to bands all the time,” Kelly says. “They come to me and they want to be able to do something, they want to be successful. What I always tell people is you gotta play shows around town, find a network of people.”
Networking is what promoter Cindy Ingram of Cindy Ingram Booking & Promotions is all about. For more than a decade, Ingram has been involved in the local music scene, helping bands find an audience and providing “a hippie version of a life coach, but it’s a gig coach.”
Ingram — who works with local bands The Dead Americans and Jupiter Hollow, to name but two — says she can sense the tremors of something about to happen, musically speaking. “There are so many people who are excited and willing to continue their efforts in building a scene,” she says. “I have been feeling some momentum just under the surface for a couple of years now.”
Not everyone is so sanguine about the current state of the Eugene scene. Guitarist Aldo Fernandez, Thornton’s bandmate in May Harpoon, says he feels the scene peaked sometime around 2002 — the year of Rolling Stone’s No. 8 ranking — just before he moved here from California.
“There was a heyday before we came,” Fernandez says, with a multitude of bands and lots of opportunity for playing live gigs. These days — partly due to the economy, he says — there aren’t as many options for aspiring bands.
“There are factions,” he says of the town’s music community. “It’s not like this completely supportive scene. If you’re not in this clique, you get no support.”
This sentiment is echoed by Greg Sutherland, an employee at House of Records since 1986. Sutherland says today’s scene appears to be splintered compared to the “golden age” in the mid to late ’80s, when bands like E 13, the Flatlanders and Snakepit were plying their joyous, drunken garage rock around town.
“For some reason, there’s not as much community among bands as there used to be,” he says, adding that back in the day “people would just go out, hang out, support their friends. Everybody knew that nobody was any good but it didn’t matter, and there’s a beauty in that.”
Not that everyone sucked, artistically speaking. “There were some very good bands, too,” he says, adding that in the pre-’90s scene, there were a lot of groups, such as Rawhead Rex, who were influenced by early indie-rock luminaries on the now-defunct SST label, such as the Minutemen from San Pedro, Hüsker Dü and the Meat Puppets out of Arizona.
These days, according to Sutherland, that sense of community and shared history and influence is missing. “I just don’t get the sense that there’s a scene at all — a group of bands that are sharing an aesthetic that puts forth some sort of artistic vision,” he says. “It’s ironic, since there’s all the Facebooking and MySpace.”
Among current Eugene acts, Sutherland does cite a handful of interesting bands, especially Yeltsin, who he calls “a very good band.” Still, it’s not the same as it once was, he says.
Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter
Sutherland and others point out that one reason for the apparent diffusion and drift in the scene is that the whole music industry has changed so drastically in recent years that all the old paradigms — making full-length records for established labels, getting on the radio, building word-of-mouth — have broken down.
“The way that music is distributed and passed around has a lot to do with the scene itself,” Sutherland says. “Ever since the Beatles, kids have thought, ‘Wow, I could get a band together and maybe I could become famous.’ Now it’s kind of hard to do that. You’ve got this huge chorus of voices out there on MySpace. Music has become even more of a commodity than it ever has been.”
Promoter Cindy Ingram also sees a tectonic shift in the music industry. “It used to be that selling CDs was what it’s all about,” she says, adding that now it’s the bands who are adapting who are getting a leg up. “The bands that are utilizing the technology are really excelling.”
Ingram points to the “Eugene Chosen” competition (www.eugenechosen.com) — where local bands vied online for a slot at an upcoming WOW Hall gig — as one means of taking advantage of new media. “Some bands are really savvy,” she says of the ways musicians are networking in forums and chat rooms to garner votes. (Ingram is a partner in this project.)
Still, Sutherland says the celebrated do-it-yourself revolution, hand-in-hand with the Internet, has created an avalanche of not-so-great bands pouring into every available corner of the music landscape. “One of the things about the whole DIY revolution is now anybody can play music or make a record and I’m sorry, but that’s a problem,” he says. “It’s the mediocre stuff that steals your soul the most. What needs to happen is people need to start thinking, ‘Man, I need to learn how to play an instrument really well.’”
A Little Tribe?
There are musicians who find Eugene offers more than enough support to sustain their art and their careers. Jazz chanteuse Halie Loren was already performing professionally when she moved here about a decade ago at the age of 15. Loren — who also spent a year “neck deep” in the Nashville music scene when she was 17 — says that “for the size of Eugene, there’s a lot more music appreciation here.”
“One of my favorite things about the Eugene music scene is there are so many fans,” says Loren, who sold out her Feb. 7 CD release at Joe Federigo’s. “It’s a music community. There’s a lot of support for spontaneous music, people just coming to open mics to hear the music.”
Kelly from WOW Hall says he’s witnessed a handful of bands taking innovative approaches to drumming up a fan base. “There’s a number of local bands that have been able to bring the community together,” he says, noting, for instance, that Eugene thrash metal/hardcore outfit the Athiarchists often holds free barbecues before a gig. “They sell a hundred tickets before the show has started.”
Medium Troy front man JoJo has high regards for the populist front that is Eugene’s music scene. “The local scene has been really good to us,” he says. “Most of the venues, booking agents and promoters screwed us as much as possible, but the people and the bartenders have always been awesome. Eugene was a great launching pad. We went from playing house parties to the Columbia Gorge Amphitheater in less than a year.”
For JoJo, there is one place stands as a beacon among local venues. “The best for our local music scene is the WOW Hall,” he says. “As long as [it] is around, good bands will come out of Eugene.”
South Eugene High School graduate Richard Smith also says Eugene has something special to offer young, aspiring musicians. Currently a professor of music at USC, Smith started playing at Joe Federigo’s at 15, and says that “art flourishes in all sorts of places,” even in towns with a relatively small population base.
For musicians willing to put in the long hours required to perfect a craft, Eugene can provide a “culture of enthusiasm” that includes strong arts education, a diversity of venues and a network of older musicians willing to mentor younger players, Smith says.
If enthusiasm is the yeast that makes any movement rise to relevance, it’s disc jockeys who often pour forth a bracing dose of that excitement. And few Eugene radio personalities are as enthusiastic as DJs Kellsj and mR. bOY, who spin for KWVA. “A good radio station has a lot to do with it,” Kellsj says about fostering a strong environment for local music.
“If you’re going to have a healthy music scene, you have to have your community involved in that,” she adds. “There’s such a great music scene here.” KLCC is another station that gives regular air time to local musicians and bands.
|Ty Curtis Band|
Both Paul Biondi and Bill Shreve, who play a regular gig Wednesday nights at Diablo’s Downtown Lounge, say there’s no reason Eugene couldn’t take off as a hot spot. Biondi, a horn player who has played with Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, calls Eugene “a great stepping stone,” especially for established musicians. “If you’re going to be a professional player, or if you are a professional player, this is a great town to settle in,” he says. “You really have a strong sense of community around here.”
Shreve, who is also EW’s director of sales and marketing, says that with a little “magic,” Eugene could explode. He points to the success of such locally grown bands as Floater and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. “If you had those [bands] in couples or triples, or something that blows the doors off like a Nirvana, it would be incredible,” he says.
Shreve’s son Hank plays harmonica and keyboard with the Ty Curtis Band, a Eugene/Salem group which just recently took second place in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, competing against some 2,000 bands from around the world.
Come As You Are
To be young and in Seattle when Nirvana took over the world was to feel history in the making, a rare enough experience, but even more exciting were those days just before the shit hit the fan. The town, noted for its blue-collar roots and geographic isolation, proved to be reservoir of fierce bands that, in the beginning, didn’t seem to give a rip about creating a scene.
But, as British-born biographer Everett True has argued, Nirvana wasn’t really a Seattle band at all. If anything, they should be claimed by Olympia, the state capital and hippie/punk/anarchist college town — do those adjectives ring a bell, Eugene? — located 60 miles to the south. It was that city’s smaller, but equally vibrant, music scene that sent endless bands northward.
With Portland’s current population boom and concurrent rise as a hot music scene, could it be that Eugene stands in a similar Olympia-to-Seattle relation?
DJs Kellsj and mR. bOY give a resounding yes, pointing out that a lot of Eugene musicians, and entire bands, relocate to Portland as a sort of rite of passage. “It’s a bigger city,” Kellsj says of Portland. “You can’t get the exposure out of Eugene that you can in Portland.”
Still, DJ mR. bOY says that Eugene fans are more supportive and open-minded than their counterparts up the I-5 corridor. “The audience in Eugene is a lot more enthusiastic,” he says, noting the “dancing-versus-observing” quotient — in Portland, you see a lot of folks standing around and watching bands with their arms crossed.
Here, DJ mR. bOY says, concert-goers get into it, dancing and moshing during shows. “That’s what’s cool about Eugene is most people don’t give a shit what they look like.”
Medium Troy’s JoJo also notes the Portland-Eugene connection. “The Portland scene is unjustly considered a musical Mecca,” he says. “In reality, it is really pretty weak compared to Eugene, when you consider that they have 10 times the population and only about three times the scene.”
And here, JoJo strikes a similar notes as DJ mR. bOY. “The good thing about … Eugene is that nobody takes themselves too seriously,” he says. “In Portland you have to have a nonsensical three-word band name and a fixy bike to be considered cool.”
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
So what, given the right conditions, might help vault Eugene into prominence as a music town? What could or should be changed?
Themes emerge. The idea of community — or lack thereof — looms large in conversations about Eugene’s music scene. As Aldo Fernandez from May Harpoon puts it, “excitement is man-made,” which means “for bands it takes a lot of work” to garner and sustain interest among local fans.
Often that work comes at the expense of other, mostly financial, considerations. “If you care about the scene, you don’t care about making money,” Fernandez says, adding that many bands, in lieu of outside representation, are forced to take on additional roles to drum up support, footing the bill for recording or being their own promoters and agents.
Wilde, the booking agent for Sam Bond’s, says that Eugene is lacking in any sort of second-tier music business, which includes a viable community of agents and promoters to take bands under their wings, as well as a recognizable record label identified with the city in the same way, say, SST is identified with L.A. punk or Sub Pop is identified with Seattle grunge.
“There isn’t an industry here,” Wilde points out, “There’s good recording stuff, [but] there’s nobody in the push” — as in, nobody pushing the business end of musical talent.
Ingram also sees a definite a need for someone — either in the band or an outside agent — to focus on the business end of things. Nonetheless, for her the most important aspect of building a stronger scene is creating a sense of community and collaboration among everyone involved, all in order to “create our own reality.”
“It seems everyone is fighting to have a music scene that rivals a bigger city,” Ingram says. “However, to achieve that we need to be fighting together and not against each other. One of the reasons I got into this business was a desire to grow the local music scene.”
JoJo says “the Northwest hyphy hippie movement is cooler than anything going on anywhere else in the world,” and he’s wryly blunt about what it would take to gain the world’s attention: “First our culture has to be labeled so that it can be marketed at Target next to Bob Marley T-shirts. Then all it will take is a silly hit song with a popular online music video that showcases that culture.”
And after that? “Next thing you know they will be manufacturing ‘Bohemian dub’ wear in Malaysia.”
For singer Halie Loren, who calls Eugene a “melting pot” of music styles, what the city needs is simply more of the same. “I’m always hoping for more venues,” she says. “There’s so many talented people in Eugene, [but] there aren’t enough days in the week.” ew
EDITOR’S NOTE: As the author says, a more complete story of Eugene’s music scene would easily fill a book. Tell us what you know about Eugene’s impact on musicians, and the impact of musicians on Eugene. And how can we as a community help build a more economically and culturally viable music scene? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org