However, if any early 1990s San Diego band falls under the label “emo,” it’s Three Mile Pilot. Lead singer Pall Jenkins, like many of his late-’80s contemporaries, began in a sort of hardcore band — a cross between Bad Brains and Slayer — called Dark Sarcasm, a pretty hard band whose audiences often violently slammed each other at shows. In 1989, Jenkins formed his second band, Plum Daisy, with Lane Miller — later of Corrugated and the and/ors — and former Neighborhood Watch/future Pinback members Armistead “Zach” Smith, and Tom Zinser, who, incidentally, is the nephew of Bob Bereley. Plum Daisy was a major departure from hardcore; it was more melodic and a little funky. After three years, Lane Miller left the band, and in 1992 the remaining members formed Three Mile Pilot. Three Mile’s first album, Ná Vuccá Dó Lupá, featured only a bass, drums, and vocals, giving the band a deep, serious, and slow sound, a texture apart from other bands. Jenkins comments, “We threw people for a bit of a loop — there was a lot of grunge music back then.” During the ’90s, the band released five albums, as well as an EP, the most recent album coming out in 1999. With the late addition of Tobias Nathaniel on organ and piano, the band’s later albums are spacious and resonate a deeper tone. Jenkins’s poetic lyrics often follow symbolic themes relating to water, horses, devils, ghosts, and things lost or forgotten. Jenkins says of his writing, “I always wanted to paint pictures in people’s minds, and the music was just melodic enough to go along with that.”
In 1991, Nirvana broke commercially with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “alternative” music was born. But in the 1980s, not only in San Diego but nationally, a huge indie underground scene in the vein of punk rock had already been established. Seminal bands Black Flag, fIREHOSE, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, and the Butthole Surfers had been playing to packed concert halls across the country for years. Such bands had enormous followings, and many had played in San Diego’s rented halls and theaters before any of it was termed “alternative.” “Alternative to what?” Matt Reese of Funeral March and the U.K. Wongs snaps. For musicians and showgoers thick in the scene, the sentiment truly was this, because this music had always been their primary source, alternative to nothing. Simply, this music was their lifestyle. But in commercial terms, it was alternative. It seemed as if MTV and the big record labels were shocked to learn that such a scene existed. They quickly swooped in to sign bands out of the hot Seattle music scene, bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. To make things worse, in 1992 Cameron Crowe made the movie Singles about twentysomethings living in Seattle. Then came the term “Generation X” and the movie Reality Bites in 1994. Pretty soon, there was an alternative section in every Sam Goody in every mall across America, and kids were wearing flannels and goatees just like their favorite movies stars and new rock idols.
Just before all this broke, the San Diego music scene had begun to settle a bit, and with the Casbah’s opening in 1989, the new venue marked a turn away from the violence of the 1980s hall shows. Tim Mays remarked that the Casbah was a “whole different set of people. Different bands and people were more into it for the music and music’s sake. There weren’t a bunch of people, you know, coming to the show to be punk rockers, plus the old Casbah held 75 people, so the people who came there were interested to see the bands. All of the people in the bands were all friends. It was pretty tight-knit; it was a real music-community type thing — ’90, ’91, ’92, you would see all the same people out, and it didn’t matter who was playing — when good bands would come to town, the same people would come out to see them.” The scene was supportive of new local music, and the question of commercial success didn’t exist. Three Mile Pilot, Rocket From the Crypt, and Drive Like Jehu never even considered trying to sign with a major record label, and for a few years, San Diego remained an unknown hotbed for good, diverse local music.
Toward the end of 1993, the Los Angeles Times published an article touting San Diego as “the next capital of alternative rock” and “the Next Big Thing.” Headhunters for record labels began cruising San Diego’s nightlife for the next Nirvana and snapped up local bands, many of whom probably weren’t ready for commercial recording. Most of the bands were fairly young and inexperienced and had done limited touring. Also, a lot of bands signed deals they may not have understood, expensive deals that could end up costing them money. By 1994, Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu had signed a package deal with Interscope; Three Mile Pilot had signed with Geffen; Lucy’s Fur Coat had signed with Relativity Records; and Inch had signed with a subsidiary of Atlantic. Record labels were at first eager to promote the bands, dropping as much as $2500 at a CD-release party, but when the records failed to sell like those of other top “alternative” bands, the labels lost interest and did little to promote their new talent. Some people call this the major-label blues. It’s a vicious cycle in which labels demand a lot but do little to help out the musicians.
Matt Reese of Funeral March and the U.K. Wongs remarks about the buzz, “I didn’t care one way or the other. I was just glad to see my friends’ bands in magazines, but at the same time I didn’t understand it too much. It was like, well, why? Because so many of us are friends with so many people in Seattle — why do we have to be compared to another city? It was like San Diego might be the next big Seattle — well, what about everything that happened before in San Diego? No one seemed to give a crap about that.” This is when the feel of the San Diego music scene really began to change. Mitch Wilson of No Knife, which formed in 1994, comments, “Everybody started getting this weird head thing. Everybody started thinking they were cool. It turned into a really big ‘who you know,’ cliquey sort of thing.” The close-knit, hometown feel of the scene became strained, and the influx of new bands who were out to get signed added more pressure and competition.