Stone Temple Pilots at Bodie’s, 1993. Mark Gariss of the local band Radio Wendy had printed up black T-shirts that read, “STP ain’t from SD.” A group of his friends wore the shirts to the show at Bodie’s.
The roots of the San Diego music scene run deep. Musicians who began gigging around town in the mid- to late 1980s later became the bedrock of the diverse early ’90s scene, which included bands like Rocket From the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Inch, and Three Mile Pilot. The musicians of this generation emerged from a rough punk and hardcore climate to form more melodic, lyrically based bands that caught the attention of major labels when the frenzied buzz of grunge broke in Seattle.
Pearl Jam at Winter's, 1991. Big record labels swooped in to sign bands out of Seattle like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
But the sounds of San Diego’s early ’90s bands were unique and could hardly be termed grunge. Today the local scene is thriving again, unwilling to compromise itself for commercial play and continuing to define itself from the inside out, with new bands starting up, more venues opening, and more people going out to shows.
By the 1980s, punk rock had been established in the United States, with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco producing, respectively, the Ramones, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys. The rejection of institutionalized authority and a policy of self-destruction through violence, drugs, and hard living were the staples of the punk-rock philosophy.
Battalion of Saints, 1985. Guitarist Chris Smith overdosed in a bathtub, Dave Astor committed suicide, another member died of drug-related problems, and a fourth died from AIDS.
As the scene began to change, hardcore was spawned, which was often more violent and aggressive than its predecessor. This harder form of punk has always been big in San Diego, with the local band Battalion of Saints leading the pack in the early 1980s.
Rocket From the Crypt (John Reis, center; Pete Reichert, third from right), 1996. Originally Rocket swore it would play only backyard parties.
Formed originally under the name the Nutrons, in 1978 by George Anthony and guitarist Dave Astor (R.I.P.; father of former Locust/present Cattle Decapitation drum wizard Dave Astor Jr.), the Battalion of Saints were influential not only in San Diego and on America’s West Coast, but internationally as well, collaborating and touring with well-known British punk acts Discharge, Broken Bones, the U.K. Subs, and the Exploited. Battalion of Saints were real punks, playing true hardcore punk music: violent, loud, fast, and political, at a time when hardcore was still fresh and not a commercial product.
Inch (Stimy, front), 1995. Stimy of Sub-Society later formed Inch.
Punk in the early ’80s was an ideology, not just a fashion statement; individuals expressed themselves radically through their attitudes, their clothing, and their music. Battalion’s songs railed against the government, big corporations, televangelism, and police brutality. On a song titled “E/B,” singer George Anthony screams, “The government controls all our lives / When they pump us full of lies / Large corporations are all the same / What do they think — we have no brains?” Nearly every song has a political or social message — commentary rarely, if ever, heard in commercial “punk” bands these days.
Drive Like Jehu. Rick Froberg: "Everyone says — ‘emotional,’ and that’s not necessarily the case. It’s just loud or screaming."
The punk-rock lifestyle was unforgiving for Battalion. Before the band’s breakup in 1985, several of the many early members had died. Guitarist Chris Smith overdosed in a bathtub, Dave Astor committed suicide, another member died of drug-related health problems, and a fourth died from AIDS. Though destruction was the banner of many early punk bands, Battalion set a precedent and laid the foundation of what was to come in San Diego for the rest of the decade, which included other hardcore bands and various incarnations of punk.
No Knife. Mitch Wilson: “Everybody started thinking they were cool. It turned into a really big ‘who you know,’ cliquey sort of thing.”
One incarnation was straight edge, a form of music and a scene that remained politically and socially motivated. Straight edge proposes abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and oftentimes meat. It demands clean living and decries racial and social inequality. Though straight edge is a national scene, beginning largely in Washington, D.C., by bands like Minor Threat, its roots run deep in San Diego, with bands coming mainly out of Chula Vista. Amenity and Unbroken were two of the better-known bands that played at house parties, such as Del Mar’s and Mitch’s in Chula Vista, but who also crossed over to hall shows and backyard parties throughout San Diego.
Devon Goldberg of Creedle dressed as John Reis, Rocket From the Crypt party, Halloween, Spirit Club, 1994
At 180 degrees, another offshoot of San Diego’s hardcore scene was the skinheads and other hostile groups who emerged in the ’80s. At shows, violent groups became a big problem for bands, audiences, and the venues themselves. They came to start fights and act up, without caring about the music or much of anything else.
Between 1981 and 1986, Casbah owner Tim Mays held punk shows at venues across town, in halls or theaters such as the North Park Lion’s Club and Adams Avenue Theatre. The prevalence of skinheads created a troublesome and often violent climate. San Diego had a reputation for beating up bands and stealing their equipment. Though vandals weren’t always skinheads, this group was outspoken and visible. Their antics also reflected the fast and aggressive music that Mays hosted. He threw shows with the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks, and Black Flag. But for Mays, the continual violence became tiresome and the shows harder to put on. Because he had no core staff, a strict policy for dealing with problems was difficult to maintain. “You hired security, hired people to do a show at a hall, but they weren’t really into getting with these skinheads. No one wanted to get beat up; they were really gnarly,” Mays comments. By 1986, Mays had burnt out on the scene. He went in with some friends and opened a traditional bar called the Pink Panther that did not host any bands.
Going to punk shows in San Diego in the late ’80s was fun; the edge of danger added excitement, if not anxiety. While bands wailed, audiences moshed: people threw their bodies against one another; they dove from the stage and swam through the crowd. You had to keep your head down and be careful of what you wore; new shoes and clean clothes were easy targets. Traci Weddle, a regular showgoer in the late ’80s, comments that even girls were not immune to the violence. “I was standing there with my sister and there were a bunch of skinheads in the room going crazy, and it was such a small room and this guy’s fist came out of nowhere and hit me on the side of the head and I got a complete concussion, got knocked out, had to be taken to the hospital…explain that to your mother!” Kids often came home bruised and battered, sometimes with bloodied feet from the stomping crowd.
While fast, loud punk ground away through the ’80s, a steady resistance against the skinhead groups formed toward the end of the decade. Pall Jenkins of Three Mile Pilot and the Black Heart Procession remembers encountering a hostile group in 1988 at the Emerald Ballroom downtown. A Washington, D.C., band called Scream was performing for a packed audience. Jenkins says, “And that was at a time when everyone was sick of getting pushed around by old punks and skinheads alike. Every show had to have violence. The kids were just getting old enough to fight back and we were starting a little bit to outnumber them.” That night at the Emerald Ballroom, however, it was the band who fought back. Scream’s bassist was a black man who throughout the show had been antagonized by audience members in the back. After a time, he jumped off the stage and attacked one of them, and the rest of the band followed. “I remember it was this interesting moment,” Jenkins says. “All of us kids standing were watching this go on, thinking, finally someone’s taking on the bullies — we would have gotten killed because we had to see them at every show.” After the fight, the antagonists were thrown out and the band got back up to play. Particularly poignant was the next song Scream played, which followed the theme of hate and resistance.
Within this hostile climate a new sound began emerging at the end of the ’80s, a sound later termed post-hardcore. John Reis of Rocket From the Crypt formed a band around 1985 called Conservative Itch, which was pretty rocking though still punk-influenced. When Conservative Itch broke up, Reis formed Pitchfork, which played with local bands Sub-Society, Funeral March, PG-13, and Socially Insecure. These bands were all hard and fast in the tradition of earlier hardcore punk, but as Matt Reese of Funeral March recalls, “When Pitchfork hit, everything broke open.” It was the beginning of the musicianship that would form the basis of the early ’90s scene. The songs were more emotional and melodic, just “a little nicer,” Reese remarks. However, there was a backlash from the older, traditional punks. John Reis, using a pseudonym, wrote an article for the Daily Impulse, a local anarchist magazine, talking about what jerks there were in the scene and condemning the violence. The article was a sort of declaration ushering in a new generation of artists.
From about 1986/1987 on, the San Diego music scene diversified, branching off from punk. At a time when pop music ruled the airwaves and MTV broadcast Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins, those into the alternative scene had to seek it out — it wasn’t spoon-fed to them as “alternative” music is these days. Also around this time, a lot of hall shows were put on across town: at the Palisade Gardens roller rink and Wabash Hall in North Park, at the Ché Café at UCSD, at the Jackie Robinson YMCA, and at coffee shops like Chabalaba. The shows were organized by collectives or by the bands themselves and were promoted through flyers and word of mouth. National bands that later became big names — Bad Religion, Dag Nasty, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — passed through San Diego’s halls and theaters. Musicians in bands that would take hold in the early ’90s were busy learning their instruments. Sub-Society, PG-13, and Socially Insecure shared rhythm sections: Didier Suarez (Sub-Society, PG-13; later, the Furious IV), Sean Flynn (Socially Insecure, PG-13; later, Rocket From the Crypt), and Pete Reichert (Sub-Society, Socially Insecure, PG-13; later, Rocket From the Crypt). Also, Stimy of Sub-Society later formed Inch, and then Congress of the Cow; and Mitch Wilson of Socially Insecure, Sub-Society, and Funeral March heads up No Knife now. These musicians who began performing together in the late ’80s still perform in various groups today, continuing to impact and influence the scene.
One of the wilder bands to emerge in the late 1980s was Fishwife, headed by Ryan Foxe. Foxe was a great performer who electrified his audiences with crazy stage antics. Matt Reese remembers one particular performance by the band. Fishwife was opening for the Pixies at a large, administration-run venue at UCSD, a campus known for its rigid, conservative policies. That night the usual uptight crowd was in attendance when Foxe came out in a girl’s cheerleader outfit. The show began with the singer running back and forth on the stage singing, shouting, cheering. After a short time he broke into cartwheels, though under his short skirt he wasn’t wearing any underwear. Across the stage, Reese remarks, “Face, nuts, face, nuts — before you knew it he’s playing nude,” which was a fairly regular occurrence at Fishwife shows. After Foxe left the band in 1993, the remaining members — Gar Wood, Matt Ohlin, and Chris Prescott — formed the critically acclaimed Tanner. Prescott now plays drums in No Knife, while Wood pulls double duty as the bassist of the Hot Snakes and the guitarist in the buzz-group Beehive & the Barracudas.
Not a far departure from such antics were the things Crash Worship got up to at their shows. Crash Worship formed in 1987, the same time as Fishwife, but their music can’t be considered punk or post-hardcore. It’s more experimental and organic, featuring various instruments and, most predominantly, lots of drums. Their stage performances were a communal theatrical experience, often incorporating burning effigies, smoke, explosives, milk, and even naked women. Crash Worship was avant-garde, but it meshed well with other bands in the scene.
Once a year, beginning in the late ’80s and running for several years after, was the Anarchy/Hardcore Picnic held in Balboa Park. The collectively organized event involved George from the Daily Impulse and brought together an eclectic assortment of punk rockers and activists, including members of Pitchfork and Crash Worship. As the event was free, it was about sharing ideas, not marketing or selling them. Another annual event that ran through the ’90s was the May Day picnic, held in various San Diego parks and featuring Creedle, Lucy’s Fur Coat, and fluf, a well-known North County band.
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.
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.
A lot more people began going to shows at the Casbah and Bodie’s, people who probably wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t heard the hype on the radio or TV or read it in the press. The buzz was big enough, and the reputation positive enough, that outside bands wanted to be included in it. This is where the controversy over Stone Temple Pilots arises. Local musicians knew what bands had firm roots in San Diego, and Stone Temple Pilots weren’t one of these bands, though their record label proposed that they got their start here, “away from the glitz of the Sunset Strip.” This irritated the local musicians, who didn’t want outsiders jumping their bandwagon, and an unrelenting smear campaign began that reached its climax when STP performed at Bodie’s downtown. The following story, whether true or not, reflects the attitude of the San Diego scene, as the story has become popular mythology. Here’s how the legend goes: Mark Gariss of the local band Radio Wendy had printed up black T-shirts that read, “STP ain’t from SD.” A group of his friends wore the shirts to the show at Bodie’s, causing a bit of a stir. When the band began playing, Aaron Mancini of No Knife and Pete Reichert of Rocket From the Crypt were right up front by the stage. It was crowded, so the two guys were stuck there, which became a problem when Pete Reichert had to use the restroom. As the band continued, Reichert’s problem became more demanding. Watching Stone Temple’s guitarist take one big swig of beer after another, Mancini came up with a brilliant idea. He grabbed the bottle and handed it to Reichert, who carefully, so no one could see him, relieved himself and replaced the bottle. When Stone Temple’s guitarist reached over and took a great big gulp of his refilled beer, he promptly spat it out on his amp and on a few people up front. The joke became that Stone Temple Pilots drank Rocket piss, which I guess is true if you believe the story.
It’s hard to say if the frenzied buzz ever reached a peak, but it certainly reached a saturation point. There were too many bands for the size of the city, with musicians often playing in two or three bands at the same time, hoping that one of them might be picked up. And as with all things, quantity doesn’t always equal quality. The good musicians and bands are the ones that endure. Tessa Rondell, a longtime employee of Off the Record in Hillcrest, comments, “I think people got a little disillusioned when they realized that they couldn’t play two or three shows and then immediately get picked up, sometimes not even by a local label.” It was as if a certain expectation had come from the outside, and when this expectation wasn’t fulfilled, the more peripheral people in the scene dropped out.
The bands who signed with the major labels ended up the most disillusioned. Geffen still owns one of Three Mile Pilot’s albums, The Chief Assassin to the Sinister, which it put out in limited release. And when Three Mile turned in another album to Geffen, the label rejected it because they didn’t hear a radio hit. The band then released Another Desert Another Sea on Cargo/Headhunter Records. Pall Jenkins comments, “We never really accepted the fact that we were on a major label and potentially moving toward the direction of mainstream. We didn’t look at our music like that. We were hoping we could just do what we do and sell some records. And I think that’s what a lot of bands do. They just want to do their thing and not have somebody contemplate what they’re doing and telling them what to do.” This attitude is similar to that of other bands who signed at the time. Big-name acts Drive Like Jehu, Inch, and Lucy’s Fur Coat ended up separating, partially due to their big-label affiliations.
As the hype died down, the music picked up. From the mid-’90s to the present, with bands like the Locust and Tourette’s Lautrec, punk rock has mutated and grown into different forms of hardcore and math rock. Here again, we have another category, but certain themes are prevalent that back up this term. Erratic and unpredictable, math rock is aggressive while at other times dropping a key to become more melodic and sometimes jazzy. Creedle, Thingy, the Drop Science, Tristeza, and Clikatat Ikatowi are a few of San Diego’s best math rock bands. Though not all of these bands are currently active, their albums are available online or at stores like Off the Record in Hillcrest. And when these guys play live, it’s the kind of music that confounds, amuses, and moves one on a visceral level. Speaking of visceral levels, few bands these days have the ability to get their audiences throwing themselves against each other like the Locust. Their hardcore music grinds like a swarm of insects, piercing hard and demanding a cult following. They were featured on a couple of tracks in the John Waters film Cecil B. Demented, which shows that this music still holds the commercial appeal that so many bands seem to disdain.
Though it began in the early ’80s, hardcore still pulses through the veins of the city’s underground. Groups like the Locust and other San Diego bands of recent years, like Run for Your Fucking Life, the Crimson Curse, and even more rock ’n’ roll-oriented bands like the Tori Cobras, continue to wave the banner. While those bands are the harder-punk side of the current scene, other groups such as the and/ors; Counterfit; Vena Cava; Maquiladora; Ilya; Via Satellite; Rochelle, Rochelle; Champagne Kiss; Like Millions; Buckfast Superbee; fluf; and Gogogo Airheart exemplify the complex and diverse talent of the various artists producing music in our hometown. Many of these bands sound nothing alike — some emotionally themed, others dreamy and spacey or hard rockin’ — but they often share the same bill. And, of course, there are those further mutations of the earlier ’90s bands. Just to name a few, the Hot Snakes featuring John Reis of Rocket From the Crypt, Congress of the Cow with Stimy of Inch, the Black Heart Procession with Pall Jenkins, the 21st Century Lepers with Ryan Foxe of Fishwife, and Beehive & the Barracudas with Gar Wood of Tanner are a few of the many who are staples of the San Diego scene. It would be difficult to outline in detail the incestuous and mutable relationships between all these bands, especially as the crossovers have been going on for a few decades now, but it is important to know that the scene here is tight, supportive, and always welcome to those with a love of music.
And the best part is that the music is accessible, and not only to those over 21. Xanth in North Park, the Epicentre in Mira Mesa, the Scene in Clairemont, and the Ché Café at UCSD are underage clubs that feature many of these bands.
As the city grows, so does the number of people going out to shows, and a new wave of nightlife is washing over the city. One has only to check out the Casbah on a Friday night or drop by Scolari’s Office or Buster Daly’s in North Park or Brett Bodie’s Ken Club in Kensington. All this may sound like I’m just name-dropping, but as you flip through the pages of the Reader’s music section, these bands and venues should shine like diamonds in the black-and-white print, reminding you that there is something a little more real out there, an alternative to corporate labels and MTV pop.