Photograph by Allison Watkins
Six Organs of Admittance Mastermind Ben Chasny: Early press accounts envisioned him as some kind of elfin naif hanging out in the mystical Santa Cruz Mountains.
The New Santa Cruz Sound
Is it myth or reality? And why do you have to go to Chicago to find it? Six Organs of Admittance, Comets on Fire and other locally spawned psych bands ponder the imponderable.
By Paul Davis
Thousands of miles from the West Coast, the extreme climes of Chicago offer few traces of the perpetual garden that is Santa Cruz. So it was a moment of true cognitive dissonance to enter Chicago's legendary Reckless Records and discover a prominent display touting the "Santa Cruz psychedelic sound," featuring the far-out guitar histrionics of Comets on Fire and Residual Echoes along with the meditative folk of Ben Chasny's Six Organs of Admittance.
Distributed through some of the largest indie labels in the industry (Comets are on Seattle's legendary Sub Pop, Six Organs on the Chicago-based Drag City), these acts have spawned worldwide fascination with a scene that in Santa Cruz managed to thrive over the past few years in the obscurity of house shows and a small yet tight-knit community. Even for the handful of locals who have been following the rise of these musicians, such international attention comes as something of a surprise.
Ironically, the best known of these bands--Comets on Fire and Six Organs of Admittance--have since moved to the Bay Area, yet their wide-ranging repute began while they still resided in the city limits. Despite opening slots for national marquee acts such as Low, Six Organ's Ben Chasny (see sidebar) retained a low profile in town, anonymously working at Streetlight Records and performing occasional house shows. Similarly, Comets on Fire signed to Alternative Tentacles and received references in the national press back in 2002, while lead singer Ethan Miller was still selling cardboard-dry pizza at the infamous Storti's Pizza in the Metro Center.
Santa Cruz has always had its hometown heroes, the local bands who can sell out the Catalyst, which, with a capacity of 800, would constitute an impressive draw in any town. Yet many of these local celebs have found themselves limited to big fish in a small pond syndrome, as if the Santa Cruz Mountains hold some ancient curse that prevents bands from breaking through their enclosing walls, only allowing the occasional Good Riddance or Camper Van Beethoven to take the 17 to worldwide fame. Talk to enough local musicians and you'll come to believe this curse is true.
So how did some of this town's most obscure bands end up branching out into the world at large? The answer is hard to believe in an age when even the most haphazard career is groomed by a publicist's pen: They did it by nurturing quiet, underground communities that organically stretched across the globe, appealing to everyone from the closet psychedelic heads at Rolling Stone to the art rockers at Arthur magazine to obsessive Japanese collectors looking for the most obscure Six Organs of Admittance CD-R they can get their hands on.
Comets on Fire: The trappings of success are as nothing compared to the joy of winning oversized and vaguely demented stuffed animals at the Boardwalk.
From Playing the Jury Room To Making Room for Jello
Early Comets on Fire shows bore little resemblance to Santa Cruz's traditional population of laid-back, reggae-rock bands, whose music seems tailor-made for the town's mellower (and often smokier) venues.
Ragged and lurching, the band would lay into muscular, churning guitar freakouts that in their most basic form resembled some pure bastardization of classic rock--"stoner rock" requiring something much harder than the green leaf to fully comprehend. With the white-noise squall that emitted from Neil Harmonson's echoplex (a fierce little sound-generating box that dates back to the early '60s), the band may have been too challenging to fill the halls of the Catalyst, but they crackled with an intensity that was impossible to dismiss. After years of slugging it out at house shows, the Jury Room and Caffé Pergolesi, Comets on Fire got their break when Jello Biafra came across their self-titled first record, and promptly rereleased it on his Alternative Tentacles label. (Full Disclosure: As former booker for Pergolesi, I set up a number of the shows for Comets on Fire and Six Organs of Admittance at the cafe.) Positive mentions in national magazines such as Spin and the worship of the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork came quick as the band broke through to the larger world. After a long-running tour with Six Organs of Admittance--shows where it was difficult to tell where the Six Organs set ended and the Comets set began--Sub Pop came calling, eventually releasing the band's 2004 album, Blue Cathedral.
Miller says the psychedelic scene that has sprung up in town wasn't exactly burgeoning back when Comets played sweaty sets at the Jury Room. "Most of the psych-rock, folk-rock scene seemed to spring up with a little more vibrancy after most of the guys from Comets were gone and we were no longer living there--with Whysp, Mammatus, Residual Echoes, etc.," states Miller. "The scene as I knew it was made up of a smallish group of friends and party acquaintances--it seems like things were always scattering there as soon as a scene or movement of people in music was trying to develop. I think partly that was because of how expensive it was to live in town, and after kids graduate or stick around for a few years they often move on."
In one sense, it's an often-told story, both in these pages and on the deck of a certain downtown cafe, of local bands who are unable to find a decent venue in Santa Cruz proper that appreciates their unique vision, or a local scene that can sustain them for a long period of time. The difference is that, this time, the bands have managed to move on to greater things.
But for the bands that have stayed behind in Santa Cruz, finding a larger hometown audience remains a problem. "I'm just not sure this town is interested in these sounds," says Josh Alper of local Renaissance folkies Whysp. "Perhaps it's because we aren't really fitting the bill of what the kids want. The sounds don't seem as appealing in this day and age as the more insane psych-rock that can be really compelling and wonderful to experience. Both Hugh [Holden] and I had our time in a crazy, deconstructo rock band [The Lowdown], and at this point I think we are less interested in just making a freakout to see what you can do with the music. It can be so easy to just make some insanely loud sounds and just go nuts, and in a way the absurdity of the times calls for this. But it also reflects all the noise and insanity and just adds more. And I wanted to go with a different spirit at this point."
Whysp: 'I'm not sure this town is interested in these sounds.'
Despite the difficulties of finding a following in Santa Cruz, local holdouts Mammatus remain tied to their home base of Corralitos, even as they return from a successful nationwide tour, enjoying the attention of psych-heads the world over. "We have no plans of ever leaving Corralitos," says founding member Aaron Emmert. "We have been quite blessed to be able to establish a base out here where we can play as long and as loud as we want. Being out here allows us to be completely immersed in our own world, uninterrupted by the vacant stagnant air of the big city. We are close to our friends the trees, who shape our minds and hearts and encourage us to really go for it, to get further out, to shake to mountains looming ahead. It's the perfect geographical location because we can be completely alone, and yet we can play shows 20 minutes away in Santa Cruz or two hours away in San Francisco."
Holy Mountain Man
The international success of many of these bands is not all luck, though. The Santa Cruz psychedelic sound has had a benefactor from afar in John Whitson, who heads the obscure-yet-influential Bay Area-based Holy Mountain label. Despite its tiny size, Holy Mountain has focused much of its roster on Santa Cruz bands, using its connections to beam homegrown acts such as Six Organs of Admittance, Residual Echoes, Mammatus and free-jazz freaks Zdrastvootie out to the New York hipsterati and those obsessive Japanese collectors. Even with the underground connections the Santa Cruz psych bands have nurtured through show trades and national zines such as the Ptolemaic Terrascope, many of these musicians credit Whitson with their worldwide notoriety.
"In the last couple of years, John's been putting out a lot of Santa Cruz bands, which is awesome," says Six Organs main man Chasny. "It's pretty cool that he's been championing the Santa Cruz scene. A lot of what's going on is [because of] John. Because John is putting this stuff out, it's easier for people to coalesce that into one trajectory for everyone else to think of. I think he should get a lot of credit for that."
"We sent Holy Mountain our first demo, and John responded quite enthusiastically to it," says Mammatus' Emmert. "It's really awesome to be on Holy Mountain because John is just one of the bros, which makes the whole relationship based on a mutual understanding rather than being about numbers and, God forbid, business and stuff. There are small pockets around the country where people are way into Mammatus. I'd say considering the fact that we just started last year, that's more than we could ever ask for. All over the country, there are those geeks at every show. After the show they don't really talk to you, but they buy a shirt and a CD and a record, then they ask if there's anything else they can buy. We never really know if those dudes are into it or if they're just collecting stuff, but we love them because they allow us to buy some burgers."
Despite their acclaim, the support of prestigious labels and geographically wide followings, these bands are still grinding away as they did (or still do) in Santa Cruz, working day jobs while waiting for the next tour. While Comets on Fire may nowadays appear on a slot at the elite art-rock festival All Tomorrow's Parties, Miller now deals with the trade-off of having a day-job not as lax as Storti's Pizza. "I still have a day job," says Miller. "It's not quite as killer as Storti's, but it's the same deal. You're in southern England playing some awesome shit and having people cheer and scream and yell and taking a plane home. And then you're clocked in delivering flowers in a white van a day later. It's a little schizophrenic, but were not a big mainstream group that gets big money deals with a Coca-Cola commercial and hit singles--we're a working-class rock band that people feel passionately about and we feel passionately back."
Photograph by Jim Thompson
Mammatus: 'We're all just normal dudes with jobs who like to rock out.'
One Nation Under a Myth
Though it's easy to unite these bands under the banner of psych-rock or psych-folk from Santa Cruz, they're primarily united by their love of obscure '60s and '70s folk and rock, as refracted through the vision of modern art-rock. Add to that a sense of community that eludes many whose idea of a vibrant music scene amounts to potential networking opportunities.
Just as Six Organs and Comets on Fire share a symbiotic relationship, Whysp draws upon its small, yet tight-knit, local psychedelic community.
The band claims as many as seven members at any given time, and eschews the common hierarchical band dynamic. "Everyone contributes to the writing and especially the arranging," says Alper. "I could say that 'he' or 'she' writes a majority of the songs, but some of what I come up with comes out of some loose thing the band will be playing around with at a practice. This is how community is built, but it takes effort too. Still, it's very nice to be interacting with people who have some understanding and appreciation for where you are coming from."
As with any concentration of like-minded bands from a specific region that reach a larger audience, a strange romanticization takes place. Early press for Six Organs of Admittance seemed to portray Chasny as some kind of elfin naif hiding out in the mystical Santa Cruz Mountains, though at the time he spent much of his days working the buy counter at Streetlight Records. Similarly, press for Comets on Fire and Mammatus has often painted them as representative of a mysterious place full of acid-flashback rejects, who actually haven't been seen much around these parts since the early '70s.
Emmert finds these characterizations amusing. "Once in a while a band comes along that is really good, and kind of weird, so the writers eat it up because it makes them feel subversive and enlightened," says Emmert. "But if the band is derivative of '60s acid dinosaur music and they're from a town that is reportedly full of naked hippies climbing 300-foot redwood trees with holistic medicine retreats at the top, you've got a story there--you just struck gold."
Of course, reality is rarely so colorful. "I think people from out of town hear our music and they've never been to Santa Cruz, so they want to imagine that there is this cosmic commune of dirt people living on a farm together and taking acid and jamming all day, but we're all just normal dudes with jobs who like to rock out," says Emmert. "I mean, doesn't everyone love Black Sabbath and wanna jam like those guys? I think in terms of selling records, it's good to come from Santa Cruz, because the reputation of the town as an artistically minded leftist hotbed of weirdness only increases our own weirdness in the minds of normies. I just hope [British music magazine] Mojo doesn't send an investigative reporter down here to find out it's really just a bunch of rich yuppies!"
Comets on Fire play the CD Release for their new album, 'Avatar,' Saturday, Aug. 8, at Amoeba Records, 1855 Haight St., San Francisco; 415.831.1200. Six Organs of Admittance play Friday, Aug. 4, at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.460.1800 (see sidebar). You can check out Mammatus online at www.myspace.com/mammatus and Whysp at www.whysp.com.
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