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Foiled Again: Local rockers Lowdown appear Oct. 8 as part of the Big Bang Festival.

Big Bang Theory

The low-fi sounds of the underground seek the light in 11-day Big Bang Festival

By David Espinoza

'THIS IS AN experiment," Santa Cruz ukulele maestro Oliver Brown concludes. The small-framed, spectacle-wearing musician has finished describing an event that may mark the resurgence of a movement that can be called both avant-garde and pop. He's talking about the first annual Big Bang, an exhaustive underground music festival that lends a new interpretation to the call for "rock & roll all night and party every day."

The whole idea seems like a tiny blip on a giant, imaginary radar screen for 21st-century music. Blip. A clue to a far-off planet of sound where yard-sale toy keyboards are treasured buys and guitar strings will bend or be broken.

Inspired by the theory that the first event of the universe was a sound, Brown dubbed the festival the "Big Bang" as a way to showcase independent music in its purest form. Organized by a coalition of locally based, like-minded artists, the Big Bang features an eclectic array of low-fi acts, all the way from Los Angeles to the capital of anti-rock-star rock: Olympia, Wash.

Take the gorgeous 4AD-era, Brit-pop melodies of local quartet Sin in Space or the experimental fuzz of the Microphones--the Big Bang will be a feast for those who prefer their pop music unpolished and genuine.

Like a postmodern Mexican la posada, the showcase will take place over the course of 11 consecutive nights (Sept. 28-Oct. 8), with each concert featuring one local band and at least two out-of-towners.

There are no headlining acts, though one thing's for sure: with names like Deerhoof, Cowboy, the Bananas, Perfume, the Sucks and Dear Nora, concert-goers will no doubt be getting a dose of something new, if strange.

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Big Bang Beat: Rare indie bands head to Santa Cruz for an underground music festival.

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'WE WANTED TO make this town feel like there was something happening all week long," Brown tells me. "Santa Cruz is not very big, so we purposely dotted the shows all over town."

According to the producer, a couple of bands each night for little more than a week is less overwhelming than other festivals, like the six-day Yo Yo A Go Go in Olympia, which can go for hours on end. Even so, while the Big Bang's segmented format eschews the hackneyed approach of total sensory overload, the "gazillion bands in the span of 48 hours" festival route, it also requires much patience, if not a working knowledge of downtown Santa Cruz, to navigate one's way to the 10 different venues.

Call it guerrilla tactics. The venues will range from Pizza Co-ops up at UCSC to downtown restaurants--and still other concerts will take place at undisclosed locations in case the local PD are watching.

Minus the workshops and all-expenses-paid hotel accommodations, the Big Bang has all the makings of a West Coast conference for artsy underground musicians.

In other words, while there definitely won't be any promotional key chains or "Big Bang Me, Baby" T-shirts sponsored by Budweiser, there will be $4 souvenir programs that list the acts, dates and times, and bargain $20 bracelets for those interested in enduring all 11 nights of challenging music.

"What [the bands] all have in common is the low-fi direction, the raw, garage band energy," Brown says. Indeed, if raw energy is a common denominator for the approximately 35 names on the Big Bang lineup, it's just about the only one. In this post-enlightened, semi-intellectual universe of Casio-keyboard-playing soloists, drum 'n' bass electrophiles and four-piece rock & rollers, attitude and tone do more to define the genre than anything else.

EXISTING OUTSIDE the parameters of profit-driven mainstream pop has always been characteristic of the low-fi movement. From the days of the Young Marble Giants to the much-heralded Guided by Voices, low-fidelity has been an unspoken method of embracing the impulse to make music regardless of proficiency or recording quality.

It is a concept that usually works best with indie-leaning modern rock, electronic or experimental bands, as opposed to punk or metal groups. In recent years, small labels like K Records have helped revive the sound, as more and more musicians search for that unprocessed naked tone.

"Low-fi is an inevitable square one that everyone has to go through," explains Exploding Crustaceans drummer Chris Gonzalez. "Technical proficiency is unimportant; a lot of people just want to go out and play."

If the low-fi mentality whispers of a bit of scenester exclusivity (and let's be honest, it just comes with the territory), that probably stems from the fact that underground music has been exploited to such an extent that words like "alternative" and "experimental" now induce gagging.

At a time when even punk rock is heavily marketed, there are still a few places the billion-dollar record companies cannot touch. Indeed, the Big Bang seems to be a coy response not just to the overall blandness of commercial pop music, but specifically to rival "underground" genres that require disciples to shop at Hot Topic, to mosh and to pierce their navels.

Such sentiments coincide with a growing anti-corporate, socially conscious sentiment in underground music, a path the Big Bang organizers have naturally followed. Besides bringing in a slew of bands that are completely off the radar screens of commercial music, the festival will include booths by nonprofit groups Food Not Bombs, the Santa Cruz Needle Exchange, and a presentation from the Homeless Garden Project.

True to the Do It Yourself ethic, most of the featured acts will be crashing at their host band's apartment or tent (for those new to Santa Cruz housing), with all proceeds strictly going toward gas money, food, the venues and printing costs. Partly because they don't have the drawing power mass-marketed music can produce, but mainly because it would defeat the whole concept of being independent, the majority of artists on the Big Bang lineup have little use for booking agents, ticket distributors, managers, and other assorted "business" types.

As Brown puts it, "The bands playing are doing it for the love of performing. Money is not the driving factor here."

Sin in Space
Space Cadets: From left, Greg Braithwaitz, Becca Stewart, Cassidy Meijer and Kirstin Rigg of Sin in Space lend their talents to the Big Band Festival.

THE PARADOX OF IT ALL is that quite a few of the bands being showcased at the Big Bang are pop-savvy--but with a moody noir twist. Take guitar-toting singer/songwriter Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlya (a.k.a. Mirah), an earnest, love-song lyricist with an incredible voice. Or consider the surreal yearnings of solo artist Cuspador.

Then again, there's always the malfunctioning robotic noise of the Lowdown, or the atomic, 1950s-era rock & roll of Hate Mail Express to balance things out.

The Big Bang will offer a comprehensive picture of a community that has its own rock stars (always under the guise of shy anti-rock-stardom). One of the most highly anticipated performances (Oct. 2) at the Big Bang will be by Calvin Johnson, owner of K Records, and a participant in projects such as the Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic. Another name to watch for will be San Francisco's Aislers Set, fronted by femme fatale Amy Linton.

For all its ambitions, Brown stresses that the Big Bang is mainly a showcase. "We want to let the low-fi world know there's something exciting happening here," Brown says. "This is just the beginning."

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From the September 20-27, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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