Although the Bay Area has no shortage of musical talent, many say that there are fewer pathways to success than in previous decades.
“One of the most exciting things about being here in the '90s was that you could discover a local band that you loved and watch as, over the course of a couple years, they went from opening on a small bill to landing headlining gigs at the biggest venues in San Francisco and becoming a national act,” says Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival founder and director Kevin Arnold. “That doesn’t seem as doable as it used to.”
Indeed, though local rock acts like Kris Esfandiari (of King Woman and Miserable) and Jay Som have risen to national prominence in recent years, conditions in the Bay Area aren’t exactly optimal for artists. Rent keeps going up while wages stagnate. Several formerly independent venues have consolidated under corporate giants, while other bastions of local music have been forced to shut down entirely. Yet despite this confluence of pressures, there are still people writing, recording and performing independently produced rock’n’roll in the Bay Area, and there seems to be a renaissance underway.
When I covered Noise Pop last February, I was blown away by how packed the venues were for the opening acts. Weekday shows at the historic venues like the Fillmore and smaller locales like Bottom of the Hill brimmed with energetic crowds. Even more recently, I’ve seen venues like Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco and 924 Gilman in Berkeley pack out for local shows, and was especially surprised when I watched the DIY venue Oakland.Secret fill up on a Tuesday night for a show slated with local acts Grumpster, Sarchasm and Dirty Boiz as well as the Portland art rock outfit On Drugs.
Today’s Bay Area’s rock’n’roll underground is all the more exciting because barriers that constrained previous generations are beginning to fall. Bands have done away with genre purism, synthesizing sounds that reflects the decentralized way we listen to music in the digital age. And in contrast to the white dude-centric indie rock scenes of the '90s and '00s, there is also a growing diversity in both crowd demographics and the bands themselves.
Below is a selection of three bands on the forefront of this resurgence. It is by no means a comprehensive list, but each act selected is emblematic of the larger shifts at play.
Over the past two years, Grumpster has been cutting their teeth and rising in notoriety. The East Bay band has gone from playing small punk shows at 924 Gilman to performing at storied rock clubs such as Slim’s and The Fillmore. They are known for delivering high-intensity performances, with lead singer Falyn Walsh often stopping mid-song to rev the crowd into frenzied moshing.
“Everyone is there to have a good time,” she says. “I love bringing a room’s energy up to its highest point for people.”
Walsh’s vocals are unencumbered and fresh as water. Her singing is effortless, relying on a melodic quality inherent to her regular speaking voice. It bobs along over guitarist Lalo Gonzalez’s distorted riffs and drummer Noel Agtane’s cymbal splashes. The songs they make are simple and infectious, with strains of Green Day and the Ramones and fragments of surf-rock and psychedelia.
“Kairos,” the leading single off their 2018 split EP with the band Slumped, opens with a marcher’s drumline, the kick pulsing beneath a roll of snare. After a build-up, a guitar opens into a fuzzy wall of sound and the drums build to an explosive crash. It’s pop-punk in the sludgy key of grunge. Walsh begins singing with an anodyne lilt, “I can’t quite put my finger on this feeling in my brain / I’m dying to know now do you maybe feel the same?”
“Kairos” is an anthem for a crush, a snapshot of the anxiety you get before knowing whether someone likes you back or not. It’s familiar territory for this genre, but what’s fascinating is the lack of gender assigned to the song’s object of desire. This androgynous “you” is depicted in the accompanying music-video as a pinata with blood-shot eyes.
“Everyone has had a crush,” she said, “and that can be terrifying.”
More recently, Walsh says she has been writing songs about mental health that she hopes can strike a chord with people dealing with similar issues. “People are finally talking about their mental health,” she says, “which is so much healthier than pushing it down.” “Tunnel Vision,” a single off of their new debut full-length, Underwhelmed, describes the sensory experience of an anxiety attack. “Breathe in, breathe out, without a sound / Stay away from me / Anxiety.” (Grumpster's Underwhelmed release show is on Nov. 16 at 924 Gilman.)
I get the feeling that the members of Same Girls revel in the experience of being in on a joke that no one else gets. Frontman and guitarist Taifa Nia tells me that he has decided Same Girls is a new wave band, while drummer and co-writer Otto Janes nods with a knowing smirk. It’s not that they’re being flippant, it’s that they really don’t care to classify their sound—so “new wave” it is. While the genre does factor into their influences, so does post-punk, garage rock, funk, disco, grunge, motown and whatever else piques their interests in the process of making music.
“I think most good music is geared towards the counterculture,” says Nia.
Nia and Janes, along with guitarist Tyler Valentino and bassist Michael Devito, have known each other since high school. Now in their early twenties, the chemistry that develops over multiple years of friendship is apparent on their tracks. On record they build insular worlds of different genre's influences, each song distinctive and daring. Live, they are brash and compulsively danceable.
Same Girls’ first album, Young Minded, came out in September of 2018 through Text Me Records, a multi-genre label that has been putting on some of the freshest up and comers in the Bay Area. The record feels like the band is trying on as many different hats as they can. This can be damaging to a debut release’s sense of cohesion, but they sound good in every style they slip into. Nia holds the songs together with a disaffected coolness, showing an impressive range as he adopts the affectation of a British punk singer on the fuzzed out “Hello,” croons nasally on the upbeat “Sailing” and drawls with heavy vocal-fry on the slow and psyched-out “Sculpted.”
A running joke among Bay Area artists is that everyone is just waiting to get successful enough to move to L.A., but Kevin Nichols is happily running against the grain. “I do think there is a bit of a duty in the artist’s hands to keep something alive,” says the artist, who moved here from Southern California a year ago. “I came here because I feel like it’s still a place where people are free to be themselves, and hopefully I can help continue that.”
Nichols calls his music “prunge,” a portmanteau of pop and grunge that aptly describes the catchy melodies that rise from his songs’ discordant foundations. He and his backing band play heavy. His guitar screeches and whines as if it is being skinned alive. There is a distorted muddiness to the composition, until a bright, sinewy riff emerges to establish a clarity you can’t help but nod along to. “It’s rooted in grunge, but it’s just a little more tender,” he says.
As of now, Nichols has released two EPs of a planned trilogy that aim to, in his words, “capture the emotional landscape of particular points in my life.” The second installment, Long Lungs, is an amicable break-up album, without a sense of finger-pointing or vindication. The hurt of separation is apparent, but Nichols seems more interested in how to best process these feelings and the contradictions they bring up within himself. Bittersweet, but not bitter.
Such is the case for a lot of the music Kevin Nichols makes. It would be so easy for him to fall into the “tortured artist” archetype. Shut the world off and make songs about how alienated everyone has made him feel. It would certainly be the grunge thing to do. Instead, he writes songs that consider the fact that other people suffer too.
In 2017 he released a full-length album titled I Don’t Want To Die But I Want To Die, which chronicles his experiences of living with depression in blistering detail. The album was featured on Bandcamp’s global “New and Notable” section when it dropped. The record isn’t a misanthropic manifesto. Nichols wrote it to both better articulate how he was feeling and to feel less alone in doing so. Connection instead of isolation.
Nichols doesn’t appear to be alone in his desires either. As walls of identity and genre continue to buckle under new perspectives, people are coming together in new ways to escape the outside world for a night, to dance and to find a new favorite local band.
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