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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
FOR THOSE ABOUT TO LOCK: Rehearsal night at a Watsonville storage facility

Unlock & Roll

Santa Cruz garage bands adapt to the self-storage era.

By Curtis Cartier

There's a secret place nearby where, on any given night, scores of local musicians assemble, plug in their amps and rock for hours on end. This exclusive members-only club is surrounded by high fences and guarded by video security, and if you don't know the pass code, you're not getting in. Nearly every genre of music is represented at this nightly multistage festival, including rock, metal, hip-hop, reggae, blues and jazz. And with no set schedule or closing time, some of the concerts might last until dawn.

This musical paradise is not the latest underground club in San Francisco or the wildest party house on Empire Grade Road. It's not any new concert series at the Catalyst, Crepe Place or Moe's Alley or a hidden amphitheater under the Tannery Arts Center. No, this little rock metropolis is actually a storage unit complex. The AAA Mini Storage facility on Westgate Drive in Watsonville, to be exact. And for dozens of Santa Cruz County bands, it's their nightly practice pad.

Rock Band Window Shopping
By day Triple A is a lot like any other storage rental building. Rows of one-story garages, most shut tight with hefty Master locks, are arranged in uniform strips of cream-white and gray. A barren place nestled between the roar of Highway 1 and the silence of empty fields, the buildings ignite remembrances of cut knuckles and sore legs for anyone who's spent a day hauling dressers and boxes of books into or out of a similar for-rent garage.

But by dusk, the first bands begin to arrive in bumper-sticker-covered sedans and vans. The crammed vehicles crawl over the black asphalt, their floors riding low from the weight of their carpools. Once at their destinations, they discharge their contents in varying arrays of long hair and tattoos, board shorts and dreadlocks. The musicians stand out against their surroundings until the locks come off and the garage doors roll open, revealing colorful glimpses inside each group's collective personality. In some units, posters of topless babes and neon beer signs watch over ragged couches and empty beer bottles. In others, framed images of Bob Marley and graffiti murals enclose rooms with a faintly skunky smell. And in still others, plain walls keep the attention focused inward on professional recording equipment and sheet music stands. Happy to be home again, the musicians pick up their trusty Les Pauls, Gibsons and Yamahas.

Sammer Abu Alragheb arrives early every time. The skinny Jordanian metalhead takes his role on guitar very seriously, and picking up his trusty Jackson Kelly ax, he obeys the whiteboard message of the day to "just fucking play!" and lays into a gnarly set of warm-up scales. His band, Fiends of the Feast, is extreme metal in the vein of God Forbid and Testament. With bone-shattering blast-beat drums and blood-curdling screams, these guys would have an entire squadron of riot police at their door within minutes if they set up shop in Santa Cruz.

"We love it here," says Alragheb. "Where else can you play this loud and not worry about the cops? Sometimes I wish we didn't have to drive, but oh well."

A few units down from the Fiends, drummer Ken Sparky and his dog Klinger are plugging in microphones and icing down beverages. Waiting for singer Kelly Deslile and the rest of Naked Agenda, Sparky scoots Klinger off the couch and takes what looks like a frequent break from the process of setting up the band's equipment.

"Sometimes there's 20 bands or more down here," he says. "I've been here at Triple A for two years now and never had a problem. I mean, there's nights we'll play till 4 or 5am with no problem. There's no way you could do that back in town."

By the time the sun goes down, the complex concert is in full swing. In nearly every row at least one garage door is open, its fluorescent light spilling yellow silhouettes onto the driveway. From each aisle, the mixing sounds of guitars, saxophones, drums and keyboards blends into a dissonant drone. And with no professional soundproofing between rooms, on occasions where next-door neighbors both show up to rock, one band has to quit or at least send its drummer home. Still, without the distractions of a television, computer or unexpected friends, and the knowledge that good money pays for these units, bands that show up to practice really do practice.

Mark Howe of the blues band Strueth keeps his rehearsals focused. Reading from noted sheets of music, the trio efficiently churns through songs, works on improvements and moves on. They're hoping to turn their occasional Moe's Alley and Crow's Nest shows into regular ones and are making the most of their limited time.

Same with drummer Ian Robinson. The hefty stick swinger is the only member of Aptos death metal set Regurgitated Terror practicing tonight, but with grand plans for world metal domination, he knows there'll be plenty of solo sessions to come.

"This whole scene is wild," he says. "You can focus really well. But you can also take a break and walk around and hang out with the bands. It's actually kind of inspiring."

No Country for Young Bands
As awesome as a storage complex chock-full of rock bands is, most of them would rather avoid shlepping down the 1 in traffic for 40 minutes and shelling out $250 to $500 per month in rent. What drives them to Watsonville several nights a week is different for each band, but two issues that nearly every group at Triple A lists as its biggest reason for setting up in Strawberry Town are: Santa Cruz's high cost of living and the Santa Cruz noise ordinance.

The city's noise ordinance defines any "offensive noise" within 100 yards of a residence as illegal. And with the subjective term "offensive" being left mostly to the discretion of a responding law enforcement officer, any band not content to play unplugged is likely in for a ticket. For Matt Overhauser, drummer for local prog rock outfit Mountain Animal Hospital, the trials and tribulations of finding a steady place to practice have been a constant test of dedication for each of the group's four members. After starting out renting a mansion in "the middle of nowhere" near Felton, the group had it made until the homeowners decided to sell the place. Then, moving to Ben Lomond, the guys had an uneasy truce for 2 1/2 years with their neighbors, during which time they recorded Startled by Deer and several other EPs. But that all changed one day when a sheriff's deputy rolled up their driveway.

"He got out and asked to see a loud music permit," says Overhauser. "He said each person in the neighbor's household can sue us up to $5,000, and said if he had to come back he could confiscate our equipment. After that we said, 'Well, I guess we're moving.'"

Today, two months after the incident, Overhauser shares a "shoebox" studio apartment in Beach Flats with vocalist Cameron Harskamp and saves his pennies for the makeshift practice room the band rents in the Slats Blind Cleaning building on Pioneer Street. As one of the few rentable practice spaces in Santa Cruz, the units now feature a miniature version of the Triple A scene, with several bands making use of the rooms, including Loves in Heat label mates Sheena.

Santa Cruz Police spokesman Zach Friend defends the city's noise ordinance as necessary to keep the neighbors' sanity, although he admits practice space is at a premium in town. A longtime guitarist for the award-winning band Blueprint, Friend might be the mouthpiece for the cops, but he's also a seasoned musician who's dealt with the local practice space woes.

"There is a fallacy that the agency is going out of its way to punish bands," he says. "That's simply not true. If people are practicing in an unsoundproofed garage, the music bleeding could prompt a phone call. If we have to show up we'll usually just ask people to comply, but if they've been warned before they might receive a ticket." 

Whether people agree or not with the noise law, simple economics keep the majority of young bands from practicing in Santa Cruz for the simple reason that they can't afford the space. Typically, those people 18 to 25 years old whose trust funds have not yet matured can't afford to keep an extra apartment room unoccupied, much less rent a house with a garage. And with a strict "no band practice" rule at most local storage unit complexes, options are limited even for the most determined musician.

"There's never been enough space. There's no live-in studio warehouses, not like in the East Bay," says Nick Gyorkos, guitarist for the Motown psyche band Harry & the Hit Men. He and the rest of the band regularly drive to Oakland, where friends with a killer studio let the crew rehearse in style. "Finding a place to practice has always been hard. But I'd rather have a place to play than a place to practice."

Tan Lines
The Tannery Arts Center may just change everything. The massive former leather factory is nearing completion of its renovation, and with 35,000 square feet of live/work space dedicated to local artists, dozens of musicians will likely make the cut to live in one of its 100 apartments--which, because they're live/work, could also function as practice spaces. Project director George Newell says "100 percent" of the musicians he speaks with are frustrated with the lack of practice space in Santa Cruz County. With the building's first move-in scheduled for February 2009, Newell says the facility will keep bands from being forced to move to San Jose or elsewhere because they can't afford the local rent for practice and living.

"It's not just space, it's affordable space," he says. "Why the city got involved in the first place is because we were losing our creative talent. You have to find a place to live and a place to work. That's a double whammy for artists who are typically struggling. We have a thriving music scene, and if we don't provide a place to work, they won't be here to play for us on the weekends."

But while the Tannery will provide the space, it will be up to the artists to provide the amenities. Soundproofing and acoustic design will be still have to be bought and installed by any Tannery tenant who doesn't want a neighborhood feud over late-night tuba practice.

In addition to the apartments, Cathryn Vandenbrink, regional director for Artspace, which owns the Tannery, says she already has several rooms in mind that are ideal for music makers. She says each of the building's six floors has at least one "oddball room" that has great acoustics and is begging to be soundproofed and amped up for the next jukebox heroes. She was quick to remind, however, that the Tannery will be an artist community, and musicians will have to play nice with painters, dancers, actors, sculptors and all the other creative minds under the same roof.

"Musicians, just like any other artists, are going to work out how they're being creative and will have to work with everyone who lives there," says Vandenbrink. "We are open to facilitating soundproof spaces if they're willing to step up and get it done. It's one thing to be a musician and love it and it's another to live next to a drummer."

Few artists will argue that the Tannery won't be a creative holy land. But with 400 applicants for 100 rooms, most won't get in. Before he moved to Beach Flats, Overhauser was denied by the Tannery because two members of Mountain Animal Hospital make enough money to put them out of the poverty bracket. Right now, from his hamster-cage-size shared studio, the young drummer takes issue with that assessment.

Meanwhile, back at Triple A, the night is getting late and the bands start packing up. Alragheb high-fives his band mates and blows a kiss to Dimebag Darrell on the wall. The dirty blues from Mark Howe and Strueth starts to die down and the wicked drums from Robinson are slowly tamed. Unplugging the last guitar and throwing away a load of empty bottles and snack bags, the Fiends close the garage doors down. Soon the place will be quiet, a drab concrete mass not worth the effort of glancing at for the speeding drivers blasting past on the highway. Alragheb checks the lock one more time, and climbs into his car.

"Good practice, guys," he says. "See you back here on Saturday."

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