A cynical re-evaluation of Sacramento’s music scene

Friends! Enemies! Vaguely talented vermin! Are you marching to an event this week to play for five people? Are you ordering your album in a run of 20 copies? Do you look at your Bandcamp stats, see 2 “partial” plays half way down your playlist and wonder who and why? Are you aware that the words fan, friend, and co-worker are not synonyms? Are you finding these questions generally offensive? Fret not, for I am about to delve into a thorough analysis of why you’re broke and nobody cares about your music. Don’t worry, I’m not a hypocrite, I’ll be using a lot of my own failure as a reference point.

I remember in 1998, there was this band called The Council. Some of you who remember them probably just groaned because, well, they weren’t exactly Emperor, but get over it. We’re thinking local. After they released their debut album Waiting for the Pain, these guys ordered a huge run of CD-Rs with 3 of the album’s songs on it, and were outside serious metal shows, terrible nu-metal shows, and any rock radio promotion with fistfuls of these things with flyers to their next gig stuffed in them. They shook your hand, talked to you, and the whole process was very human. If you have done this, this article is not about you. If you’ve left your flyers at The Beat and wondered why that didn’t generate a fan base, well, it is about you. Being a teenager and the appropriate age demographic for bonehead metal at the time, I purchased their debut album from Tower Records and saw them play packed shows at Big Shots in Roseville, full of people that they didn’t know personally.

This brings me to the biggest problem with most local music: your friends. When getting a first gig at a new venue full of promise and rock and roll dreams, it’s a good tactic to encourage all of your friends to come out so it looks like you have a draw already. The idea is that you use this as a crutch while you wait for your music to reach that important demographic: total strangers. I hate to break it to you, but most of your friends don’t even like your music. They come to your show, nod along, pretend to care, then get in their car and either groan about how they’re waiting for you to do something real, or they put on a record that you personally can’t stand and blast it the whole way back to their apartment. The issue here is that, for some reason, these are the people most of us consistently play for. What are we doing wrong? How come every show in some networked scene is 20 attendees, most of which are other musicians from that scene? Is it because we’re all so self-loathing about our creative output that we don’t think people will care? Or is it just that our music is so awful that people simply don’t care? Well, it can be a mix of both.

The first part is especially true: you’re not promoting yourself. Oh, but I hand out flyers and I was on some podcast that noone listens to! Flyers only work if somebody actually knows your name. You, yes- you, when you get a flyer and it’s five bands that don’t ring any bells in your head, you crumple it up in your pocket and then it turns into a blank piece of paper in the wash. Just assume you’re selling yourself to yourself. What would make you care? Would you be as quick to throw away a demo? Well, you might be, depending on if it was any good. This part brings up the second factor. I have a box separate from my cd shelves dedicated to unsolicited crap that isn’t valuable enough to trade. The good demos wind up on the shelf, 98% of what gets pawned off on me winds up in this little cardboard pit of despair. But what sets them apart from paper flyers? Most got played, at least the first song. I shouldn’t have to reiterate the ancient A&R rule of “put your best song first” for demo cds, but you might think that the long ambient intro that was perfectly kosher within the context of your LP can start off something that is likely to become a coaster. No, please, don’t do that. Don’t offer to trade either. That other musician may have paid to have his /her/their CDs manufactured and thought your set sucked, and will think your homemade album did too.

So, how do we promote ourselves? The beginning of this article gave a clear example, but let’s break it down a bit.

Unlicensed venues do not get bands signed. The Hub got the axe recently and I personally say: good riddance. For those who weren’t hip enough to know, it was a waiting room at an auto detailer infiltrated by a legit local art collective and a bunch of holier-than-thou hipster DJs from UC Davis, who somehow think the mediocrity they praise will be accepted by the world just because 30 people listen to their radio show. It smelled like arm pit, had standing room for maybe 20 people, and you couldn’t put the address on your flyers because the place was illegal. Who came to your show? The other bands, a couple smart asses in sunglasses from KDVS, and maybe 5 of your friends. When you played here, you accomplished nothing. You essentially had band practice at a different, perhaps smaller studio, and 7 of the 15 people there slithered outside to smoke because they didn’t care about your set. Maybe the band that opened for you really dug what you did, but they were getting wasted in their van ahead of time. You’ll actually stand a better chance of success playing basement house parties, provided the people in charge of that house include at least one smoking hot hoe-bag with a bunch of desperate hipsters waiting to sniff her panties who faithfully come to every event she spams off on Facebook.

When Graham and I played the Hub last, we decided material was gay, but skirts were totally hetero.

Give the suburbs more of a chance. There’s a forcefield around Midtown Sacramento. It is bound by the freeways at 30th and X Streets respectively, and the other lines are drawn around 9th and K. In reality, these people blew their insurance payment on weed and tofu, think public transit is somehow complicated, own bicycles that don’t really get past 9mph, and think that sitting at a coffeeshop flipping their scarf back and forth while pretending their socialist agenda actually matters is more important than traveling the whole 5 miles to your gig at On the Y. Despite Midtown’s unwarranted superiority complex (ironically offset by its inferiority complex against San Francisco), your friends in Carmichael, Arden, Citrus Heights, and Rancho Cordova just worked a hard week, aren’t really walking distance of anything, and wouldn’t mind spending this weekend doing something other than watching Arrested Development reruns on Netflix. You know why all your shows in the suburbs are dead? You do all your promoting in Midtown. Go figure, bands that are actually from the suburbs have a bigger fanbase than you. I knew one talented musician who wrote music on the poppier end, and everytime he played Roseville he brought at least 30 heads, most of which he didn’t know, and they bought merch like crazy because they didn’t waste their allowance and/or paycheck on books they don’t actually read and thrift store bullshit. However, when playing the suburbs, adjust your setlist accordingly:

Try to look like you care. This is my biggest problem. I have what I guess you could call Woody Allen’s disease; I’m a pessimist from the start and I’m in such doubt that my project will work that I often give up before it’s completed. As much as I despise the pseudo-critical blog-posing-as-a-magazine publication Pitchfork, they wrote about our hometown heroes Hella’s album Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard with “Sometimes the best way to succeed in music is by pretending you’re already the biggest band in the world.” There’s an awful truth to that. This truth is exemplified in many local bands that you make fun of who have more fans than you. You know, the bands with the overdone logo graphics on their website, pictures of themselves on their flyers, more merchandise than you have 9 minute songs, and who can book a show at The Fire Escape and actually be invited to come back.

Thinking you’re the next Bob Dylan doesn’t give you a license to suck. You know when you wind up at Luna’s and the opening act knows 4 chords and sings out of key the whole time? Sacramento’s indie culture is sometimes a parody of indie culture. This lingering need to rebel against 80s buttrock, which was already successfully accomplished by the grunge movement 20 years ago, results in a lot of douchebags thinking it’s okay that their guitar is a mystery to them. Music theory, solos and good old fashioned songs about screwing are out, bad fashion sense, out of tune guitars and pawn shop specials are in. You may attribute the lack of technical prowess of Bob Dylan and Neil Young as the justification for your coffeeshop scribblings that nobody cares about, but really, either one of those guys had forgotten more about music than you’ll ever know by the time they were 25. Tune up and practice or face the consequences of your demo being used as a post-breakup mockery by all your future ex-girlfriends.

Quit playing shows with your friends’ bands. Play with bands you hate instead. First of all, you’ve just eliminated a huge chunk of that made-up “fanbase” you lied to the promoter about. You probably share a group of friends you drag to shows. Also, they’re probably as much, if not more niche than you, which means the sighs of anyone wanting to have a good time are going to go up tenfold. Bands you hate, however, you probably hate because in all of your uber-artiste pretense you just can’t tolerate their unashamed sucking up to the audience and predictable melodies that sound like Maroon 5 raping Nickelback. In reality, among the much larger group of listeners they’ll bring, a few more open minded but perhaps unexposed patrons may find your avantgarde mess wonderful. I played at a Christian youth center with a bunch of emo and pop-rock bands, and one audience member was so delightfully confused by the sprawling mess of a “show” we put on, that he hugged me. By playing events outside your circle, you go beyond the same 20 nobodies and maybe find listeners who will tell their friends about you, because “Dude! I’ve never heard anything like this!”

There’s also a few local “festivals” that wind up booking more than 2 dozen acts to create the illusion of an audience, but really, all the out of towners that were invited are now just down gas and lodging money to attend your giant circle jerk.

You can leave at anytime. I remember there was this old bit on the Drew Carrey Show, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase something I probably haven’t seen in 10 years, “He also invented the cubicle. He originally called them cages, but then decided that locking them wasn’t necessary, because they’re imprisoned in their minds.” This is how I’ve come to feel about the bottom half of Sacramento’s music scene. It’s why I’ve retired from ambient/experimental performances and you wont see me on stage until my new rock band is ready. For the droning rubbish, it’s easier to just release it online for free since it cost nothing to make and observe the few Germans that actually care. I have no intention of playing in dusty closets for 5 of you because I finally figured out that those gigs don’t matter. That “We need any gig!” logic isn’t entirely accurate. What? When you tell Old Ironsides that last show you played at that unlicensed venue drew 30 people, do you think they’re going to stop to validate that? Okay, so by only playing at venues that are legal, have standing room and listings in SN&R, you might dramatically decrease how often you play in Sac, but think of it this way, it gives you more time to do all that promoting you haven’t been doing. It also frees you up to play more gigs in Reno, San Francisco, Chico, that occasional long drive to LA or Portland. Quit wasting your time unless you’ve ultimately decided your music is garbage and you need to punish small audiences with it.

If this article made you laugh, it maybe didn’t apply to you and you should keep doing whatever you’re doing. If you were offended, you’re probably having a hard time accepting that playing for nobody in a closet with no address on M street doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, but that’s your fault.

Album review: Summer of Glaciers – Concentric (2010)

If you were to only listen to the record without reading too much into it, you would probably assume that Summer of Glaciers is a 5-piece band, milking San Francisco’s post-rock fan boys and being the obvious choice to open for God Is An Astronaut when they spring up on tour. You’d probably think they rehearse like crazy in order to pull off this material live without slipping up. With its massive layers of sound and carefully integrated guitar parts, this would be a safe assumption to make.
But you’d be wrong. Summer of Glaciers is a one-man-band. Ryan Wasterlain, who looks like your company’s IT guy, goes on stage with an understated demeanor, adorned with a Gibson guitar and more complex machinery than most guitar players would ever want to keep track of. Using a drum machine, a mixing console, and a heavy amount of computer software, Ryan performs each guitar part, manipulates it after the fact, and then continues layering, all while maintaining a conventional progressive-rock structure to the music without ever sounding like he’s compensating somehow. The slightest mistake could wreck a reasonable portion of the set, and with a metronome in his ear piece, he maintains patience and perseverance throughout the performance.
This brings us back around to Concentric, his latest record released through SF collective Ascender Descender records. The record features a sharp production and sounds impossible to pull off live through the method I just described. The use of drum machine works out nicely as it doesn’t do much impersonation of real drums, but rather relies on it’s own digital personality. The guitars roll in and out with razor sharp hooks at every turn, sometimes kicking 3 of them up at once, then descending into stuttering noise. It also doesn’t hinder to too many of the “post-rock” stereotypes that linger around these days, by maintaining quick paced tempos, rarely staying in place for too long, and bringing a well directed energy that makes it into get-on-the-freeway-and-do-90 music.
It’s hard to pick stand out tracks from the album, since most of it is daisy chained together to flow as one dynamic prog-rock epic. Although never meandering, you’re hard pressed to find an obvious end to anything on the record. There is one obvious track however in Touching Down, featuring Emil Rapstine on guest vocals. His performance almost sounds like a more Americanized take on Dead Can Dance, and lends desert imagery and a slight psychedelic feel to the juxtaposing futuristic musical foundation in place by Wasterlain. The production efforts on his voice also have more of a lo-fi sound amidst the ultra-clarity of the instruments, giving his voice a bit of a surreal presence. As it sweeps to its chorus toward the center, it is quite epic.
This track is followed by the album’s eerie closer, Ceremonial Ghosts, which carefully moves out of a simple arpeggio into an eerie keyboard percussion piece, then shifts gears all at once to a quiet chugging guitar. It in a way stands as a dark reflection of the album’s first 9 tracks, setting the sun on the journey.

Concentric has been one of my main walkman albums of late. Summer of Glaciers is presently on tour (dates listed below), check them out if you can. Due to Bandcamp’s very liberal sharing policy, you can listen to the player below, and if you so enjoy it, follow it to put money in Mr Wasterlain’s tank by buying a copy.
07.07.2010: pa’s lounge. boston, ma. w/ rob byrd, lazar house.
08.07.2010: rebel sound records. pittsfield, ma. w/ cabinet of natural curiosities.
09.07.2010: green line cafe. philly, pa. #
11.07.2010: loft show. toronto, on. w/ valley of the shadow of death.∍
12.07.2010: pat’s in the flats. cleveland, oh. w/ presque vu, two left ears (france).
13.07.2010: no fun house. kalamazoo, mi.
14.07.2010: turf club. st. paul, mn. w/ gerald prokop, telepathos.
16.07.2010: day show – independent records. denver, co.
16.07.2010: night show – astroland. boulder, co.
17.07.2010: sweatfest. grand junction, co. – thepanthernaut.com/sweatfest/
18.07.2010: necropolis. sacramento, ca. w/ (waning), noisepsalm.
19.07.2010: mama buzz. oakland, ca. w/ james & evander, posted.
20.07.2010: johnny v’s. san jose, ca. w/ lady lazarus.
21.07.2010: tba. san francisco, ca. w/ lady lazarus, sarah june.
22.07.2010: tba. oakland, ca. w/ lady lazarus, sarah june

(waning) – Her Eyes Open

The first track I ever recorded for (waning), Her Eyes Open, is 11 minutes of On Land-era Eno/Laswell-esque drone with hints of modern post-metal rumble. They were still finding their sound and ultimately, it didn’t fit in on Always Ending. They’ve now released it as a single for $1, or free with the purchase of Always Ending. I went back and polished off the mix/master a little bit, and for audiophiles, Bandcamp even offers a 24-bit/96khz version of the track (and I have no idea what, if any, dithering algorithm they used for the 16-bit versions….).

Anyway, have a listen. Best with a subwoofer and a glass of wine.

Not the usual tool set…

Atari Music Composer, meet Logic Pro.

I wasn’t happy with the sound files that the emulator itself was making; they sounded mudded down compared to the actual output. So I went the patch cable route. Separated the voices so I can do some stereo panning and mute the leads during bass and drum tracking. SZR alumni Graham Roggli will be contributing the drum tracks to this (as well as other places on the record).

Click to enlarge.

Also, Cozmic Cafe seems to be closed. Placerville just became a sad, boring place.

Atari Music Composer

My solo album needed a few non-loop tracks to break up the monotony, so I’ve been digging around in my toybox. In storage I have an Atari 800XL with Atari Music Composer that spits out 8-bit squarewave goodness, but it’s too much of a hassle to set up right now. I did however get an emulator of it running on my Macintosh which spits out perfect 8bit/22khz aif files, so I don’t get the noise of it coming down a 20 year old phono cable (for better or worse).

I’m slowly chipping away at a composition in this program that will be later overdubbed with drums and several guitar tracks. I want to get it somewhere around the 5 minute mark. To show off what this 31 year old computer program can do, here’s a lovely little Ogg stream of an early draft:

In other news, (waning)’s cd release party went very well. It’s one of the better performances I’ve seen them play, and Nero Order trash my hearing.

Production Diary – Minenwerfer

This post will mainly accomplish 2 things: plugging Minenwerfer’s new record, and plugging how I can polish off your lo-fi laptop mess before you spend an entire day trying to burn 40 copies of your homebrew record.
Minenwerfer is the black metal solo project of local musician Bret Tardiff, known in black metal circles as Bestial Warhammer, and previously played with me in the doom metal act Lycus. The entire project is themed around World War I history, which is a topic that lends well to chainsaw grinding guitars, guttural screaming, and abrasive walls of harsh mid-range fuzz trying to musically capture the sound of machine gun fire. Tardiff plays everything but the guitar solos, local guitar player Oberstleutnant Angeltits who’s real name I honestly don’t know handles that, and they performed a number of shows around the area with Trevor from Lycus on drums. Currently the band is looking to replace him.
Bret told me he had everything but the vocals already recorded in Audacity, which for those of you unfamiliar with it, is an open source wave editing/audio recording application which runs on just about any operating system. It’s extremely popular among the noise crowd, but I hadn’t seen somebody try to record a musical record with it before. It serves the purpose of amateur audio mastering, but not much in the way of multi-track functionality. I offered to record his vocals on my gear and load his tracks into my DAW to clean up a bit.
Everything had been recorded direct with a distortion pedal, the programmed drum tracks were already mixed down stereo, and the guitar solos came from the line out of a Line 6 head which was not only peaking the entire time, but the digital reverb was added to the tracks wet and I couldn’t get it off. This created a layer of noise over all the guitar solos that wouldn’t budge. Basically what I had in my hands was a challenge to my ego; if I could make this sound like a professionally made black metal album, I’d be pretty happy with myself. Naturally, black metal should never be too clean as it ceases to be kvlt at some point, major scene politics at work. To be perfectly honest, I scoff at how squeaky clean a Dimmu Borgir record sounds as much as the next guy, so I’m not even going to argue things here. I got to take my first foray into the infamous “Loudness War” with this record, cranking everything to excess, going limiter crazy, and letting a number of generally painful frequencies stay in (they didn’t seem to want to come out anyway). When tracking vocals, I decided to abuse my tube preamp by cranking the gain and turning the volume down. This compressed the hell out of Bret’s vocals and at points even created some natural overdrive, which gave his screams an in your face presence without the widely hated cheat of flat out using a distortion pedal on vocals.
It’s about as clean as it’s getting. I offered to produce the next album from the ground up. If you have some Audacity sessions laying around that you’d like remixed/mastered, visit my “Professional Audio Services” page for information on contracting me.
Below is “Teufel Mit Uns” from the forthcoming Minenwerfer record Volkslieder. This is so hot off the press that the artist didn’t even receive his master copy yet.

Minenwerfer @ MySpace

Also, in case you didn’t know, you can make a windscreen out of a paper plate, a nylon stocking, and a coat hanger if you space out and forget yours.