Ivan S. Harris Photography, Battlebot WorldWide
Breaking was one of the original forms of hip-hop dancing that encompases powermoves (headspins, flares, windmills, airtracks), freezes or poses and top-and-down rocking. Zulubutterfly was performing a move that he calls the “fire dance”; he represents the PB, Tribe Unique, ATU, XClan and Good Life dance crews. “I was interpreting the sound and transforming it into movements,” he said.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Guitar bands spotted in the wild
Here’s a fun-fact: contrary to popular opinion, guitar-based bands aren’t on the endangered species list. They may not generate the national coverage they once did, but if you venture out to bars in our city which are equipped with a stage and a sound-system, odds are you will run across some of these acts in their natural habitat.
On one such expedition, I journeyed through thick urban brush into South Park’s Whistle Stop Bar to observe the guitar-heavy antics of two national acts on Merge records — Mike Krol and Swearin’. I was pleasantly surprised when the chipper openers caught my attention via catchy songs and crunchy chords. They referred to themselves as the Havnauts, and they rocked the house as if they were direct descendants of Kim and Kelley Deal.
The Havnauts’ undeniable talent has landed them two nominations for this year’s San Diego Music Awards.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Even though they are only a couple of years and a single EP into their existence, the Havnauts’ undeniable talent has landed them two nominations for this year’s San Diego Music Awards. (Note: their Go For It! EP won Best Local Recording)
I recently tracked down the Havnauts drummer Jenny Merullo in the tangled forest of the worldwide web. She told me that the band is working on a “variety of visual content as well as a bunch of new songs and merch” this year.
On two separate occasions, I have ventured to the dangerous no-man’s land that lies between North and South Park. It’s an undefined border territory that locals have feuded over for decades and is the location of the annual SoNo Festival. The event is notable for its chili cooking competition and showcase of live local music. Ypsitucky has become a staple at this event. A decade ago they would have been labeled alt-country, but these days they can be classified as an Americana act.
Ypsitucky is a damn fine American act.
Photograph by Chico Baker
Ian Trumbull, Ypsitucky’s singer/guitarist, told me that the band had a stellar 2018, even though he did notice that there were fewer Americana showcases than there have been in the past. “I suppose that’s the way trends work,” he concluded. The group played at their usual spots (Casbah/Soda Bar/Bar Pink) but were able to up their game by playing longer sets at Panama 66 and Blind Lady Ale House. According to Trumbull, stretching out the sets to two hours “definitely helps you grow as a band and as entertainers.”
Ypsitucky participated in the Brewbies breast cancer benefit at Oceanside’s Bagby Beer Company earlier last month. Trumbull raved about the afternoon event.
“There’s something different about playing those kind of places; it feels like it can be a bit more celebratory and upbeat than a dark club can sometimes be. I know that a lot of folks appreciate an earlier set time nowadays too... it’s a struggle to get people out when you’re not on until midnight or so,” he said.
As for the rest of 2019, the band is shooting to record a new full-length album. They just “need to snatch one or two more songs out of the ether,” according to Trumbull.
Authentic Sellout has shared bills with the Misfits and Dead Kennedys.
I may be a thrill-seeker, but a journey to the Mad Max inspired Wasteland Weekend is one outing I might have elected to skip even during my more adventurous youth. You can catch hints of the deranged desert festival via Authentic Sellout’s video for "Radiate."
Authentic Sellout "Radiate"
The clip was shot primarily at the 2017 festival, and at San Diego’s very own Fiesta Island. “Radiate” appears on the band’s 2018 eponymous debut, which is a bit of a head-scratcher, since the band was formed in 2007. This is a combination of “good things come to those who wait” and the band’s basically stopping and starting up again.
- Sunday, April 14, 2019, 8 p.m.
2501 Kettner Boulevard,
Authentic Sellout’s blend of punk and rock (but not necessarily all punk rock) landed them a San Diego Music Award win for best indie/alternative act last year as well. They have shared bills with famous punk groups such as the Misfits, Dead Kennedys, and the Circle Jerks, and have upcoming gigs with Flipper (April 14) and TSOL (May 12).
There will be no new Authentic Sellout album in 2019, but there may be an EP. According to lead singer Sulo King (also known from Iacon Sound ), the band is working on new music right now. “Full-length albums take so long to get done” — eleven years in some cases — “and we’d rather invest time, money and energy into less songs and more music videos.” The band may premiere some of the new material at the aforementioned 2019 gigs. Also, be on the lookout for an animated music video from the band.
Many years ago, I ventured to a long extinct San Diego gathering place known as the Beauty Bar (the geographic location has since transformed into an establishment called the Til-Two Club). While there, I witnessed a local band who referred to themselves as the Swedish Models. I scribbled in my notebook that the name of the band seemed odd, as this collection of scraggly rockers appeared to be neither models or Swedish. I enjoyed their songs though and looked forward to hearing some recorded output. This never came to be. According to my records, the Swedish Models only existed from 2007-2009 and never officially released any music.
Swedish Models are neither models or Swedish.
Photograph by Paul Bernhardt McNally
They came close, though. An album was a few vocal tracks short of completion before the band quietly drifted into non-existence. Personal issues, careers, moves and, as drummer Andrew McNally put it, “Figuring-out how you’re going to become a self-sustaining human being” all got in the way.
The Swedish Models, "Eye for an Eye"
Filmed at OB Farmers Market.
But now, an actual decade later, the Swedish Models are back. The core trio of McNally, Dustin Paul, and Andrew Bernhardt have been recording new songs at Earthling Studios and hope to have an actual album out this summer. Earthling owner Mike Kamoo (a skilled engineer and archaeologist) also happened to dig up the band’s old recordings during a recent excavation. The “lost tracks” as McNally refers to them.
“It’s cool to hear with fresh ears,” he said, “but right now our focus is on finishing this LP…Then we’ll dive into that. We’re looking at pulling a few of those songs to play live.”
— Dryw Keltz
We want the funk
“I’m on a mission,” Tim Felten says over lunch in a La Mesa coffee shop, “to get a Hammond B3 organ placed in at least one club in town.” The Hammond organ was first marketed in 1935 as a low-cost alternative to church pipe organs. Over time, its throaty tremolo became popular with jazz and blues musicians, and later, rock and funk bands. Felten says other towns with stronger funk scenes have made Hammonds permanent fixtures.
Tim Felten played keyboards with Jake Najor and the Moment of Truth at the Music Box earlier this month
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“So far, no takers.”
Felten, 39, plays keyboards. He’s a member of the Sure Fire Soul Ensemble. He helps organize San Diego’s only soul/funk music jam, held twice each month in Balboa Park at Panama 66. “A lot of break dancers come to our jams,” Felten says. “So maybe we’re that scene too.” His take on the present state of the art of funk?
“I feel like Winstons is kind of the home base for that music,” he says. “Ten years ago, it was Bar Pink, or the Whistle Stop. There were bands back then like the Fire Eaters, or the Styletones.” Felten says live funk music has since migrated to other venues. Sign of the times: “Bar Pink went more deejay. So did the Whistle Stop. But Panama 66,” he smiles faintly, “is definitely the clubhouse for live jazz, and for our funk thing.” Otherwise, Felten thinks San Diego funk is on the comeback trail, having thinned out from maybe 20 years ago when there were more clubs and funk bands. He recalls bands long gone like the Bomb Squad, and Pockets, “even the Price of Dope.”
Price of Dope was funk?
“I guess they called it acid jazz back then.”
More Felten funk history: “There was a time during the 60s and the 70s when funk was political. “I’m Black and I’m Proud” – a political kind of attitude fed the music. No, I don’t think funk is dead. People to this day are still influenced by George Clinton (Parliament Funkadelic) or James Brown.”
So who here in town is rocking the funk, aside from Sure Fire?
“Jake Najor’s Moment of Truth band, (Najor, a local drummer, is brother to Zack Najor, the founding drummer in Karl Densen’s Tiny Universe,) and singer Rebecca Jade and her band the Cold Fact.” I remind Felten that Cold Fact actually won a San Diego Music Award in 2015 for Best Blues. “Sure Fire did too. It goes that way for funk or soul or even jazz bands,” he says. “I guess SDMA has to find some place to fit us in.”
It turns out that hometown funk is a beast with at least two heads, maybe more. “I know of more than a half-dozen bands that bill themselves as funk bands,” Victor Franklin says by phone. “Funk’s Most Wanted, Full Strength, Brothers Igniting a Groove (BIG), Wild Side, Nu Vintage, even Bump City Blues. They’re kind of a Tower of Power tribute.” Franklin plays bass in a local band called the Groove Squad.
Groove Squad live at 2016 Gator by the Bay
“We don’t really bill ourselves exclusively as a funk band. The Groove Squad is a mix of R&B, soul, and funk.” Are funk and soul interchangeable terms for the same thing? Within limits, yes. “But funk,” Franklin explains, “is not so much about the lyrics or the singer as it is about the rhythm that is going on. It falls between medium and up-tempo. Not a slow dance, but not fast dance either. It’s all about a bass line and a back beat.” I can hear the smile in his voice. “Very rhythmic.”
But the two hometown funk heads apparently don’t walk down the same side of the street. “A couple of those people and bands you’ve named?” Franklin says. “I’ve never heard of them before.” I tell him that, of the names I’ve been talking to, they likewise haven’t mentioned any of the bands that he’s friendly with. Is it a racial divide? After all, funk music was created during the 1960s by Black American entertainers, and the current funk revival scene (or Nu Funk,) is relatively white. But Franklin doesn’t want to go there.
“I can’t say that I know that. Full Strength is a mixed-race band,” he says. “Then again,” he says, “I have lived and played music in this town for going on 40 years, and I still meet musicians I didn’t know.”
Ambassadors of Soul, "Chicken"
There’s a local school of funk. From their web page: “The Ambassadors of Soul are a collection of some of the finest high school musicians in San Diego, directed by Slightly Stoopid trombonist Andy Geib. It is an 18-piece big band performing funk, R&B, and pop music, delivering high energy shows all over San Diego. Their first album Just Make it Funky was nominated for a San Diego Music Award.”
Geib performed with the Styletones, a soul-funk outfit that was in residency at Bar Pink for years. Geib invokes the name of Karl Denson, the Encinitas sax player who, via the Greyboy Allstars and his other band, the Tiny Universe, pretty much was San Diego’s funk scene for a time. Geib, whose history with Denson goes back decades, was tapped to blow trombone on the new Tiny Universe album, Gnomes and Badgers.
“I’ve been in the funk scene here for a long time. I’ve seen it come, and I’ve seen it go. I moved out here in 1994 with the Wise Monkey Orchestra.” Geib settled first in Ocean Beach. Now, he and his wife and son live near Lake Murray. His Ambassadors of Soul project grew out of the time when Geib taught in the music department at Oak Valley Middle School in Poway. “It follows in the footprint of the school year, because I go on tour with Stoopid in June,” he explains.
Rehearsals are Sunday afternoons inside of Slightly Stoopid’s Mission Gorge rehearsal facility. Geib charges tuition. “So far, we’ve recorded two CDs. I’d like to expand the Ambassadors of Soul program,” Geib says. “I want to include the middle school kids. We’ll have openings next year.”
— Dave Good
The art of music
Now that musicians have to cover all the music biz bases once provided by management and labels, many with artistic inclinations have taken to designing their own record sleeves, gig posters, clothes, and stage sets. A few locals now offer those same talents to others.
Normandie Wilson went from designing cardboard stage sets for her own videos and photo shoots to doing full-scale art installations at venues such as the Lafayette Hotel
Photograph by Amber Martin
“I started getting more serious about my art because music was getting me down,” says jazz singer-pianist Normandie Wilson. “My art is designed to draw the audience in, so that they can play with me.” She went from designing cardboard stage sets for her own videos and photo shoots to doing full-scale art installations at venues such as the Lafayette Hotel, featuring human-sized hand-painted cardboard terrariums that patrons could walk through, each with its own interactive selfie stations. “In creating a stand-alone painting that can move, it’s no longer just a painting, meant to hang in solitude on a wall,” she says. “It now becomes a painting and a prop. I can photograph it with me, or with you, or by itself. I can create one figure, or many figures, and place them together or apart. Working on cardboard has made art much more fun for me.”
There are many practicalities to favoring a disposable medium over traditional canvas. “In our household, we’re fastidious recyclers, so everything gets sorted out. The flexible cardstock of the beverage containers was perfect. Then other boxes started to make their way into the mix for different levels of strength. I live down the street from a few dumpsters that are always filled with cardboard. I started on my latest kick just after Christmas. The dumpsters were overflowing with the cleanest, newest cardboard boxes. A never-ending supply of free canvas, I’m literally making art on people’s trash.”
To Lilliput and Back Vol 2 by Marcelo Radulovich
Marcelo Radulovich has designed the covers for all 28 releases on his experimental music label Titicacaman Records, developing a signature collage style right out of Terry Gilliam’s worst fever dream. “My label is just a DIY manifestation of the work I do; in other words, every release is a personal project.” Asked his favorite cover design, “To Lilliput & Back Volume 2 always makes me smile and stare. This album, cover, and music is dear to me, I aimed at and released it on the day I turned 50. The cover is dense and mysterious, it shows the great influence Bosch’s paintings have had on me, and it reflects the music in a very intimate way.”
He enjoys doing similar covers for other musicians. “Listening to the music as I work on the visuals is a great process, the music influences what I do. Some that stand out are Trummerflora [Collective] related albums, ZO Voider, and Joscha Oetz’ Permanent Flow album, where I used filters in Photoshop to turn photographs of the players into cubist-like imagery. Accretions Records released five of my solo albums between 1994 and 2002, which I designed, and I also designed many CD packages for other Accretions artists, as well as a few from other labels.” He’s so far created covers for around 50 releases.
“When someone comes to me and says ‘I love your work and I want you to go off on this project, do what you do,’ awesome. But then they say ‘can you include this photo that my wife shot of our cat? It’s really important to me. And can you use a lot of purple?’ Then I feel like my hands are tied and it’s not as much fun.”
3 Inches of Blood album art by George Davis
Songwriter George Davis sings and plays mandolin in Irish-Americana rock band Ass Pocket Whiskey Fellas, as well as working as a videogame concept artist on games like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2. “In 2006, I started doing posters for Joe Troutman at the Jumping Turtle, mostly for metal shows. I love metal music, so I’m familiar with the vibe of nearly all of it, and when it’s new to me, I study up.” He’s also done posters for Ramona Mainstage and local CD sleeves, band logos, and shirt designs.
“I often listen to the music while working on a piece. I once or twice collaborated with performers on what they wanted. I designed a t-shirt for Doro after she liked a poster for a Jumping Turtle show. When it’s a band I’m not into, I have to approach it from a completely different angle.”
“When it’s classic Viking, doom, or death metal, or it involves Dungeons and Dragons, fantasy, or mythology, that’s right up my alley.”
Songwriter George Davis sings and plays mandolin in Irish-Americana rock band Ass Pocket Whiskey Fellas, as well as working as a videogame concept artist on games such as Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption
Puttin' on the Fritz frontman Fritz Jensen’s former party rock band Collage Menage was known for theatrical stage productions that aspired to Pink Floydian grandiosity on a garage band budget. “I set up a custom light system and ran it with my feet while I play the bass. The most elaborate background that I ever did was for a Halloween party. It was made out of several pieces of cardboard layered, and it was a giant Frankenstein head that hung on the wall over the drummer. I designed it with a TV in his eye so we could show our videos. He also breathes smoke out of his mouth. I made cardboard arms that stretched out around the room fifteen feet.”
Pink Floydian grandiosity on a garage band budget.
Jensen went on to do backdrops at venues like Etta’s on University near College. “I worked at a print shop and found a two inch tall picture of the Statue of Liberty and I blew it up until it was 11X17, then I kept blowing it up two more times until it stood about 11 feet tall, propping it at an angle like in Planet of the Apes.” He’s also created sets and playbills for stage productions like Jill Costanzo’s A Hillbilly Shack & a Couple of Nuns (“as well as singing in the show dressed like a hillbilly, and we both created the outfits for the other actors”) and posters and stage backdrops for events such as Santee’s Music with Muriel open mic nights.
“Most of the time when I do backdrops, I paint them on sheets because they’re very flexible. The next favorite material would be cardboard, because it’s lightweight and cheap. Or Levi’s jeans…my idea is to come up with as many concepts as possible, until I find the one that they like. That's the only thing you need to do.”
— Jay Allen Sanford
Handmade stage fashion.
These are the children of hip-hop
“We try to represent all of the elements of hip-hop,” says DJ Artistic, founder and co-host of Battle Bot. “We do the Casbah once a month and it’s usually on a Monday or a Tuesday.”
- Sunday, March 31, 2019, 8 p.m.
2501 Kettner Boulevard,
Casbah, located on Kettner by the airport, is home to the monthly Battle Bot competition which pays out “$1000” to the “dopest” dancers, MCs, beat makers and turntable-scratchers — for the night. DJ Artistic has been promoting grassroots hip-hop events since 1998. He started at the now-defunct Thomas Paine Coffee House in North Park, and has been at the Casbah for the last five years.
“People can come here and dance,” he said, “and they can be rewarded for their passion, art, and skills. And the musicians — some of whom fly in from other parts of the world — can hear themselves on a great sound system.”
DJ Artistic: “We do the scratch battle here at the Casbah as authentic as hip hop has been — with turntables and a mixer.”
DJ Artistic breaks down his interpretation of hip-hop, which is often confused for being solely mainstream rap music, viewed-and-listened to on YouTube or shared on Spotify. “As far as the hip-hop nucleus,” he explained, “there’s breaking, you have the DJ and the MC [rapping], and you have graffiti. And from there, you have production, beatboxing, clothing and fashion, then you have entrepreneurship and activism — these are the children of hip-hop.”
On the mainstream spectrum of hip-hop, Coko Bongo is one of “the only 18-and-up hip-hop clubs in Tijuana with hookah,” says Gio. “For about ten years, this venue has continued the same promotion that it has: the first 200 girls get in for free on Saturdays.”
Hip-hop music, from the 1990s to the recent trap and “mumble” joints, is spun by DJ Mad2Beats and DJ Qolla; the venue houses “massive” dance floors.
“It’s also an open bar with all you can drink for $18 on Saturdays,” said Gio, a graphic designer from Playas de Tijuana.
The bar provides bottle service (not included with the all you can drink special) to the celebrants and their entourages that want to party like Jay-Z and cop a bottle of Rémy Martin cognac for 900 pesos ($50); or like 2pac with a “motherfuin’ motto Hennessy bottle” for 1350 pesos ($75); or pop some Dom Pérignon like Drake and Future, for 4500 pesos ($250).
Coko Bongo is one of “the only 18-and-up hip-hop clubs in Tijuana with hookah,” says Gio (right), shown here with Tyga.
Primee, 28, frequents Coko Bongo. He is a San Diego based hip-hop club promoter and owner of the Smash Presents promo-company.
On March 30, he and his partners are bringing Bronx-based rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie to the House of Blues. In the last few years, he’s also helped bring in rap-artists Drake, Waka Flocka Flame, 2 Chainz, YG and Mozzy — to perform at AD Nightclub, On Broadway, the Observatory, and Jolt’n Joes.
- Saturday, March 30, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
House of Blues,
1055 Fifth Avenue,
“In April, we’re helping out with a music conference called TAP2019,” Primee said, “we did it last year.”
TAP2019 has booked Audio Push, TeeFlii, Baeza and other hip-hop artists and DJs to perform at the SOMA venue; the conference will be held at the Westin in the Gaslamp District.
- Saturday, April 6, 2019, 4 p.m.
3350 Sports Arena Boulevard,
“Our agents book indie artists on celebrity shows and tours,” says the music conference’s website. “Whether it’s shows or tours, we are here to get you placed and booked. April 6, 2019, we will be sending one artist on a five-date tour or three dates on the Rolling Loud Festival series.”
“What’s with the local hip-hop artists?” I asked Primee. “Who are you feelin’?”
“Some local talent that I see coming up are Lil Weirdo, YHG PNUT, Ryan Anthony, and Kacelynn Vaughn,” he responded. “They have their own style and they’re not going for another artist’s sound. There’s many others that came up, but those are like four of them that pop up into my head right now.”
In 2017, the Reader featured local rappers Rob Stone and Heartbreaka; both tour the U.S. and have collabed together in studio.
“San Diego has dope artists and dope producers,” Heartbreaka said in a previous Reader interview. “I’m still trying to figure out why we support each other but all the other people don’t ….. [maybe] San Diego is a DJ city.”
“San Diego has some of the best DJs in the world,” DJ Artistic said. “We do the scratch battle here at the Casbah as authentic as hip hop has been — with turntables and a mixer.”
The art of scratching is the moving a vinyl record back and forth on a turntable to produce sounds that are rhythmic or percussive — like an instrument in its own right. The produced sounds are then enhanced and/or blended via a mixer with other sources of sound — which can be another turntable. The DJ’s combined hand-eye coordination — paired with a keen ear to the blended sonic output of the needles touching the records — is what DJ Artistic, his judges and the crowd listen to in order to determine one’s “analog-prowess” on the “one-and-twos.”
“There’s a female from San Diego that’s a... battle scratch DJ,” DJ Artistic noted. “Her name is Kuttin Kandi and she just went to New York to celebrate a 20-year reunion when her crew won the 1998 DMC” — the annual Disco Mix Club world DJ competition.
Breakdancing is what mass media (including myself) has always called the dance that’s being considered for the 2024 Olympics. Breaking was one of the original forms of hip-hop dancing that encompasses powermoves (flares, windmills, airtracks, etc.), freezes or poses, and top-and-down rocking. It was recently brought to my attention by an “OG” breaker that the dance that I’ve been performing since my elementary school days in the early ‘80s is simply called “breaking.”
“Generally, San Diego clubs and bars are still against b-boys [break-boys] dancing,” said “John,” who’s been breaking since the 1990s.
Culture Shock, which is south of Old Town, is one of a few studios that teaches breaking and other forms of hip-hop dance. “Sometimes we have crew battles where there’s 3-on-3, and it could be just breaking,” DJ Artistic said, “or we have an all-styles battle which can include breaking, popping, locking, house dancing, crumping, and freestyle.”
Back across the border on Avenida Revolucion, Club Paradise Tijuana holds “Jueves de B-boys and “Jueves de Freestyle” which translates to Freestyle (rap) Thursdays and B-BOY Thursdays.
“Club Paradise is the one venue that supports us the most,” said Danny Green. “The place is retro and has a stage with the mirror-decor like a disco ball, and they have a good sound system and acoustics…. there’s also the Mustache, Nomada, and You Revolution venues where you’ll find the local hip-hoppers.”
Green, 32, is a music-producer, DJ and rapper based out of Playas de Tijuana. “You’ll see some rappers like Moks, Esraes, TheHugeClvss, E PILLS, TRAPTILLIAN, Eddie G, and RimaRhythm & Style at Club Paradise because it’s competitive — there are freestyle battles on the regular here.”
“What about the breakers (b-boys)?” I asked.
“Sopitas Con Huevo is the shit here,” responded Green. “There are several dance crews, but in my opinion these vatos are the OGs recognized within the country.
Photograph by Mike Madriaga
“In another area of Club Paradise, where it’s more ventilated, they have a section for live graffiti art. My favorite graffiti artists are SHEKS, DALE, EMEK and HEM.”
Back in San Diego, it’s difficult to find venues or events that house all four elements of hip-hop to be performed live in one setting, because the fumes from the spray paint can bother some in closed areas. But I did find a couple of spots where people can immerse themselves in all four elements of live hip-hop.
Writerz Blok serves as a locale for events that celebrate urban art culture and dance groups, hip-hop MCs-and-DJs, and art demonstrations on the large paintable walls. It is one of the nation’s first public graffiti art parks.
Photograph by Mike Madriaga
Writerz Blok is a legal graffiti art yard that’s located at 5010 Market Street, which is three blocks west of Euclid Avenue and across the street from the trolley tracks. The 10,000-square-foot venue serves as a locale for events that celebrate urban art culture and dance groups, hip-hop MCs-and-DJs, and art demonstrations on the large paintable walls. It is one of the nation’s first public graffiti art parks and available for rent for events.
- Saturday, July 27, 2019, noon
9449 Friars Road,
The Extreme Autofest is celebrating its 20th year of bringing the show to San Diego. In the past, aside from bringing the “sickest” rides into the SDCCU parking lot, the promotion company, known as Imagine Media Group, has brought all four aspects of hip-hop culture to be performed in front of its thousands of spectators.
— Mike Madriaga
Four San Diego Jazz stories
Mark Dresser is a composer/bandleader/bassist whose band, the Mark Dresser Seven, just dropped their second album on the Portuguese record label Clean Feed last week. It’s got the politically charged title Ain’t Nothing But A Cyber Coup & You — and it tops his discography of almost 40 dates as a leader.
Mark Dresser is a composer/bandleader/bassist
Photograph by Kyle Johnson
I wanted to know what was behind the provocative title.
“Trump’s election felt like a political coup of sorts, and there was a rhyme in there and I couldn’t resist it. I’ll just chalk it up to my dark sense of humor.”
Leading any kind of band playing creative music is a challenge, decidedly so in Dresser’s case. “We’ve got members from both coasts, and having a band with seven improvisers is very impractical, but I was fortunate enough to receive two grants from the Shifting Foundation. I’m writing for these people in particular, and I’m always banking on the chemistry and improvisational fire we create together. At this level, the music becomes very collective. We did a workshop last year at Dizzy’s in order to further develop the music.”
In addition to the title track, there’s the humorous “Let Them Eat Paper Towels,” and two poignant tributes to recently departed musicians with San Diego ties: Arthur Blythe and Butch Lacy.
What’s up next?
“I’m off to Europe to do a solo bass tour—then I’ll be at Dizzy’s for the Bass Summit on May 5, and a duo concert with Hafez Modirzadeh at Dizzy’s on May 11.”
John Murray just turned 15 and is a double-bass phenomenon
Photograph by Laurent Kramer
John Murray, who just turned 15, is a young double-bass phenomenon good enough to make veteran Rob Thorsen gush, “He’s definitely got that ‘wow-factor’ that I haven’t really seen before in someone his age.”
Murray, a student at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and a member of Gilbert Castellanos’ Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, recently won “Soloist-of the Festival,” at the Essentially Ellington competition in Las Vegas.
“That was incredible and totally unexpected,” said Murray. “It came as a shock, but it was one of the best nights of my life.”
He also won outstanding soloist at the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Festival last year. “That was amazing, because all of the groups there are world class — I thought I was dreaming!” Murray recalled.
Adding to his list of accomplishments, Murray joined his mentor Castellanos as bassist for the house band at Panama 66 recently. “Those guys are some of the best players on the planet. I learned a lot and it was much more difficult than playing with other students or sitting in for a tune or two at the jam session. I had to struggle to keep up, and I learned that I’m not that good. I need to keep practicing.”
Where does he see himself in five years?
“I hope to go to college in New York, because that’s kind of like the hub of jazz, and I want to be a part of that. I want to make connections and start having a career at the center of the music.”
John Murray makes his first appearance at the Bass Summit (curated by Rob Thorsen) on May 5 at Dizzy’s.
Anthony Davis incorporates the fusion of opera with jazz
Photograph by Reggie Marshall
Anthony Davis was once touted as a “young lion” back in the late 1970s alongside peers such as David Murray and Chico Freeman. He expanded his horizons by incorporating the fusion of opera with jazz.
“I wanted to bring the ideas from improvisation and the African-American experience into the world of opera. My idea was to make opera something that more resembles our culture.”
“It was something I had dreamt about since high school. I wanted to combine the theatrical elements and written music with improvisation. Of, course, when I had this dream, I had never actually heard an opera,” Davis laughed.
His work The Central Park Five debuts at the Long Beach Opera on June 15. It’s a busy time for the UC San Diego professor.
“I just finished the orchestration, and now I’m doing all of the editing, going back and forth between the scores for piano, vocals, and orchestra to make sure they align. I’m also assembling the group of improvising musicians, which is always a challenge.”
Davis, a Yale graduate, came to UCSD some 20 years ago, and isn’t looking to relocate anytime soon.
“They give a lot of freedom and support — a lot of schools aren’t like that. When I was in New York, there was this sense of pressure, it was ‘life and death in the New York Times.’ Out here, I can develop my ideas.”
“They’re doing a concert of my works on April 3, at Conrad Prebys Music Center. It’s got kind of a Black Lives Matter theme to it, with arias from X, Amistad, and Tania and other [operas] I’ve written that address the African-American experience.”
Kamau Kenyatta’s latest project is a collaboration with singer Alicia Olatuja
Kamau Kenyatta's work with vocalist Gregory Porter has earned him four Grammy Award nominations and two outright wins as a producer. Yet all of that acclaim hasn’t changed the way he approaches music and life.
“I think winning the Grammys has changed people’s perception of me more than it’s changed the way I look at things. I still want to work with people and encourage them to be the best they can be. I still work just as hard, maybe even harder.”
Kenyatta’s latest project is a collaboration with singer Alicia Olatuja (Intuition: Songs From The Minds of Women) that took him out of town for a week. “I had to travel to New Jersey, and Manhattan to make that record, in a blizzard, no less!” he recalls. “But I got to work with so many top musicians; it was very exciting.”
I asked him what he tries to teach his students at UCSD.
“To get them to believe in themselves and nurture their creativity, and I try to show them how much work is required to become a top-level musician — by example. I probably have to practice even more now, because sometimes I end up playing with Joshua White — and you gotta be ready when that opportunity presents itself!”
Where can San Diego jazz fans catch him in the immediate future?
“I’m doing a double-bill concert with my quintet alongside Joe Garrison’s band at UCSD on Wednesday, May 15.”
— Robert Bush
Record label revolution
“The first record I ever put out was out of necessity when I was 19,” says Justin Pearson, now 43, about his days in the Locust, the noisy, nihilistic band known for short songs and insect outfits. “At that time, all these other labels were doing shitty jobs mastering, or they would change the artwork and not tell us. Or they would not pay us. I thought I could do at least as good a job as they were doing.”
Records released on Justin Pearson’s Three One G label break the mold visually as well as sonically.
Photograph by Becky DiGiglio
Pearson’s Three One G label is thriving as the whacked-out, freaky record company in an artistically conservative environment. “Everyone on our label is pretty weird, pretty out there.” Like other successful local labels, Three One G was formed by a musician who bases his business model on mutual respect and handshakes. “It’s like a family,” says Pearson about the group of some 60 thrash, noise, math-rock, and otherwise out-there artists from Pittsburgh, Toronto, Holland, and Japan. “I don’t want this to be a place where I tell people, ‘You owe me this.’”
Three One G’s embrace of the weird drew hip-hop’s ultra eccentric Kool Keith into the fold. “San Diego gives birth to insane shit, because this is a tourist city. If you’re in L.A., you fit in the category of ‘weirdo rock band.’ San Diego is set up for Sea World and tourism. It’s just not set up for out-there creative people. San Diego has always been: ‘Fuck you, go figure it out for yourself.’ With Three One G, anything goes as long as it’s authentic.”
Because it’s his label, Pearson can release albums by his own projects, which have included Dead Cross, Retox, Planet B, and Head Wound City. The model of the local musician founding his own label out of frustration was pioneered by John Reis, whose Swami Records has released some 60 albums since 1999, including releases by his own Rocket From the Crypt, Hot Snakes, the Sultans, Drive Like Jehu, and the Night Marchers.
Reis and other local musicians grew frustrated with locally based Cargo Records over issues including distribution and royalty payments. It was San Diego’s premier label during San Diego’s “next Seattle” 90s era, when Cargo released records by local bands blink-182, Heavy Vegetable, Olivelawn, Fishwife, and Deadbolt.
Craig Oliver, who used to play in the local bands Christmas Island and Spirit Photography, launched Volar Records ten years ago. “I was inspired by independent labels like Matador, Kill Rock Stars, and Touch & Go.” Like Pearson, his artist agreements are “one-at-a-time…built on a handshake. You have complete control over what’s on your own record.” He says his releases are usually 500 vinyl discs at a time. “I pay for everything and then once the costs are covered, we split everything 50/50.”
The Volar Roster includes local artists like Therapy, Keepers, and Matt Lamkin, and one-man electronic project Soft Riot from the UK. “I do more business selling on my own through bandcamp than using distributors,” says Oliver about how he gets Volar vinyl overseas.
He says his longtime job as a bartender at the Whistle Stop allows him to keep Volar Records rolling along. “Not every release makes a profit. The local hardcore scene is as inspirational as its ever been.” He says he keeps meeting new bands who want on Volar. “Sometimes people come in and tell me I should put out their record. It can get awkward. I don’t put out any records I don’t like.”
Four local rockers launched their own record labels to release vinyl by local and international artists. Pictured at M-Theory Music (which has entire bins dedicated to specific local labels) are, from left, Justin Pearson of Three One G Records, Craig Oliver of Volar Records, Brian Witkin of Pacific Records and Will Castro of La Escalera Records.
Photograph by Becky DiGiglio
Another rocker-turned-record exec, Western Settings guitarist Will Castro launched La Escalera as a labor of love. “I would meet these bands on the road and I thought we could help each other to go to the next level.” Castro and crew have set up tours based on La Escalera artists sharing tour dates.
While Castro does not manage the bands on La Escalera, his inter-band support network has allowed local bands such as Hey Chels, Se Vende, Squarecrow, the Dodges, Caskitt, Nights Like Thieves, and Tijuana’s DFMK to hit the road equipped with their own records for sale.
Most of La Escalera releases are vinyl. Castro says the bottleneck in vinyl production that used to hobble local record companies, has been fixed. “We’re back to an eight- to ten-week turnaround, where five years ago you could wait up to 16 weeks to get your record back.”
- Sunday, April 14, 2019, 6 p.m.
1250 Calle Madero,
Castro’s eighth annual La Escalera fest is set for April 11-14 at venues in Tijuana and San Diego. “La Escalera Fest Ocho is 50 bands, in eight venues in two countries,” Castro explains.
Jakob McWhinney says he has found a level of support from Roger Preston’s Bleeding Gold Records that he doubts he could get anywhere else. The label has supported all his projects, including New Me, the Kooties, Space Heat, and Spooky Cigarette. “He helps innovative new bands in a very trusting way that I just haven’t found in a lot of people.
“Bleeding Gold specializes in cool looking vinyl…tie-dyed, glow-in-the-dark records with wild colors,” says McWhinney. “He comes up with really cool band videos. His album art work is a testament to how much he cares. Bleeding Gold is a one-guy project he runs out of his house. He once described it to me as the most expensive hobby a guy could have. But he believes in the music. He’s travels to find the bands from some weird indie corner of the world.”
Pacific Records’ Brian Witkin and son Jordan with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons
Photograph by Nicole Witkin
Fifteen-year-old Pacific Records uses a more traditional record company model. Housed in offices near SOMA on Sports Arena Boulevard, founder Brian Witkin has increasingly been reaching out to established, big names.
Guitar Legends II, a soundtrack to a special on AXS-TV, includes live songs by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, The Doors’ Robbie Krieger, and The Eagles’ Don Felder. Part of Pacific’s 30-artist roster is O-Town member Jacob Underwood, who produced a single “Hello World” by Colton Underwood (no relation) released last month and recorded at Pacific Beat studios in Pacific Beach.
Pacific, which focuses more on pop and hip-hop artists, has had a long-running relationship with the Pechanga/Sports Arena where he gets to book one of his artists in the arena’s 350-capacity Stella Atrois Lounge. Pacific artists, including Ottopilot, Ryan Hiller, or Finn McCool, got to play the lounge before and after headliners like Taylor Swift, Elton John, or A$AP Rocky playing on the main stage. Pacific has its own in-house studio, but Witkin says his artists often use local studios including Studio West and Signature Sound. He says this year, Pacific will release over 15 full length albums or EPs.
“A big part of what we do is getting song placements on TV shows and motion picture soundtracks.” Witkin says Pacific artists like Super Groupie and Lindsay Perry landed songs on soundtracks on TV’s Empire and Once Upon a Time, respectively.
The regrouped Stray Cats will release their first record in 26 years on Encinitas-based Surfdog Records this year
Photograph by Russ Harrinton
Encinitas-based Surfdog Records, founded in 1992, has released records by Slightly Stoopid, Eric Clapton, Sublime, and Gary Hoey. Due out soon is another major coup for the beachtown diskery: the first album of new material by the Stray Cats in 26 years.
Surfdog had already released music by Brian Setzer, so it seems natural that the regrouped trio (with Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker) would chose the Encinitas imprint for the new album, recorded live in Nashville.
– Ken Leighton