Such events illustrate the collectivity of the local music scene. San Diego bands maintain a tight relationship with one another, whether playing together, living together, or swapping drummers or guitar licks. Bands were and still are out to support each other, not compete or sell each other out. Many people comment about a San Diego sound taking form in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but because of the diversity of groups, a common sound is difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps there is something to it in that many of these musicians were playing together and developing musically while they were young and before their more mature works took form. Also, a lot of these bands — and I’m speaking of groups like Sub-Society, Socially Insecure, Funeral March, and Pitchfork, who later became Rocket From the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Inch, and No Knife — had grown up sharing equipment and rhythm sections and listening to each others’ record collections. If any one guitar player can be credited with creating a San Diego “sound,” it would be John Reis, as many guitar players who evolved from this scene logged hours in Reis’s bedroom watching the man throw down his unique, wild style of guitar playing.
This collective attitude can also be seen in the record labels that put out local bands. Not only has Cargo Records/Headhunter been a strong local supporter, but so has Vinyl Communications. Bob Bereley created Vinyl Communications in 1986 when he pressed his own band’s first album. He thought it unlikely that his band, Neighborhood Watch, could sell all of the 500 records the label pressed, but the demand was great enough to warrant six more pressings. Over the past decade and a half, the label has released more than 170 records, and though the company is on hiatus, it will most likely be putting more bands and albums out in the future. At his home in Chula Vista, Bereley built a recording studio as well as a stage for bands to play on, and his backyard parties were a staple of the late-’80s music scene. Not only did local bands — including the straight-edge group Amenity — play in his backyard, but also the occasional touring band, the biggest of which was Operation Ivy, whose members later formed Rancid. Bereley describes his studio: “It was like our own little field of dreams. We built it and they came.” Vinyl Communications has always been wary of hype and has never been out to exploit a band or pressure one into recording anything they wouldn’t want to. From 1988 to 1989, Bereley had a Vinyl Communications store in Chula Vista, where patrons could buy independent music and hear local bands perform. “My main focus,” Bereley remarks, “has always been keeping the control within the community that was creating the art.”
In 1989, Tim Mays returned to the local music scene and opened the first Casbah, located on Kettner Boulevard where the Pirate’s Den is now. It was a small club with a legal capacity of 75 people, although that number often stretched above 100 when more popular bands, both local and national, played. Many years before, Mays had opened an all-age venue, the Skeleton Club, but it was short-lived, lasting only four or five months. It was shut down due to dance-licensing problems and its proximity to the police station. When he opened the Casbah, Mays had intended to host bands only a few nights a week, but he soon opened his doors every night. There were a few other venues in the city, including the Spirit Club, located where Brick by Brick is now, as well as SOMA, the Bacchanal, and Iguanas in Tijuana, but bands were more comfortable with a friendly show manager like Mays, a man known for his integrity and local support.
By 1992, a strong core of local bands had formed. John Reis of Pitchfork started Rocket From the Crypt in 1990. Originally Rocket swore it would play only backyard parties, such as those at Bob Bereley’s home studio, but after they released their first album, Paint as a Fragrance, the band’s popularity was enough to bend their credo, and so they began playing larger hall shows and venues like the Casbah. In 1991, John Reis joined up with former Pitchfork bandmate Rick Froberg to form another pivotal San Diego band called Drive Like Jehu. Jehu produced a melodic, pounding rock with angst-laden, rounded vocals that sounded a bit like Pitchfork but with a manic edge. The band toured in the early ’90s, which was great, because Jehu was a band that loved to perform, who knew that if they weren’t having fun, then the audience wasn’t either. Rick Froberg told Fiz magazine in 1994, “All the music is designed for maximum physical gratification. When we started the band, and we were in Pitchfork — this is just my point of view — but we’d just play the song, and it would be a good song or whatever, but in Jehu, I think it’s aimed at a lot more enjoyment — we’re definitely more interested in getting our rocks off.”
In terms of style, Drive Like Jehu was often considered an emotionally themed band. This is worth mentioning given that in the early 1990s, punk-based music had fully branched into several subgenres, including Goth, industrial, and even grunge. In the 1994 interview with Fiz, Froberg comments on the band’s “emotional” tagging. “That’s the one thing that everyone says — ‘emotional,’ and that’s not necessarily the case. It’s just loud or screaming or whatever. It’s just a necessary thing with this band.” It could be said that San Diego’s 1980s punk and hardcore roots were emotional, but only in terms of cultural or social anger and outrage. In the early ’90s, bands began venting feelings that didn’t necessarily have to do with society.
A point worth discussing here is the word “emo,” a catchword that within the past year has gone from being an underground term to a mainstream label. Deriving from the word “emotional,” “emo” is a problematic term that irritates most people in the scene, especially musicians, and bands rarely appropriate it. In the early 1990s, “emo” was often used to describe certain bands out of Washington, D.C.: Rites of Spring, Embrace, Gray Matter, and Dag Nasty. These bands had punk-rock roots, but they tended to sing about deeper personal issues, like loneliness, relationships, and even death. The music is anguished, fragile, and slow. By the mid-’90s, the term had come to represent popular indie bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Strictly Ballroom, and Bedhead — three bands who sound nothing alike but are categorized similarly because of similar themes. Even Jawbreaker is considered by some as punk-emo. In the past few years, the word “emo” has been thrown around so much and tagged onto just about any band that sounds the least bit emotionally driven that the word really has lost a lot of its original meaning. Occasionally on the radio or on MTV you’ll hear DJs discussing emo as a new genre of music. In July, a New York Times music reviewer called the Get Up Kids “one of the most popular emo bands.” The Get Up Kids, as well as Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World, may more appropriately fall into the pop-punk category — but then again, aren’t all categories problematic? And don’t all artists hate labels? Anyway, labels seem more useful to the media than to the musicians themselves.