Build-ups and breakdowns
The highs and lows of Chico’s electronic music scene
Enter the room and the steam hits you like a wall—an asphyxiating fog of moisture created by body heat that immediately wraps itself around every inch of your skin. Ditch the jacket, the hat, the purse, and maybe even your shoes, if they’ll inhibit your dance moves. Find a safe place to stash everything you don’t need. No one will mess with it here. They’re all too busy having a good time.
It’s nearing midnight, and to the left the main dance area is jam-packed with sweaty 20-somethings. The wood floor is filled with hundreds of manic bodies that move in harmony with the tantric beat and mesmerizing light streams. Everybody loves everybody else.
The scene that played out at “Counter Culture II” at Chico’s Café Culture on a recent Saturday night may sound like a blast back to the 1990s, but it’s just one example of the way Chico’s electronic dance music (EDM) scene has cycled through periods of highs and lows for the past 20 years.
The “rave” was hosted by Top Shelf Productions, a group of Chico State students who have become notorious the past few years for using Facebook to promote wild parties that feature live music. The guys usually focus on hip-hop, but they have seen a large turnout of students in their late teens and early 20s at their two rave-themed events at Café Culture so far.
“But them calling it a ‘rave’ is like calling any indie-rock show ‘Woodstock,’” said Stephen Holland-Chang, a local DJ who goes by the name Symbio and runs the blog 530techno.org.
The incorporation of electronic sound into popular music and the increasing availability of music-making technology have caused a resurgence of the youth electronic-music-fueled culture of the ’90s, as evidenced by events thrown around town at venues such as Café Culture and Lost on Main in recent months. Local bars including LaSalles and Madison Bear Garden have even started integrating EDM into their late-night DJ sets.
“[EDM] is getting pretty big now in terms of mass appeal. Part of it is that you have hip-hop that’s been going on for so long, and I think it eventually ran out of steam,” Holland-Chang said. “You have Kanye [West] integrating electrohouse, and you have Lady Gaga integrating synth-pop. Rihanna’s integrating dubstep. You have a lot of people looking for influence. The mainstream is looking underground to add more spice.”
But many of the young listeners know little about the EDM scene’s long history in Chico and how drugs—long linked to the dance scene— led to its downfall almost a decade ago.
“When the younger crowd latches on, they latch on pretty hard and stick with it for a while. But most of them just don’t have the experience of hearing all those other styles that used to be popular in the mid-’90s, the early 2000s, the mid-’80s,” said Hjalmar Hake, a Swedish-born local DJ who goes by the name Oilpanic. “But if they’re doing it differently, then in many ways it’s new. It’s new to them.”
EDM is a worldwide cultural phenomenon that is usually found in large cities, but is revived every few years in Chico due to the constant change in influences new students bring to the area.
The cycle is especially interesting to those who have been involved in the scene since the beginning and are now in their 40s. The handful of people who still live in the area today and maintain a passion for the music have witnessed the scene’s peaks, as well as its periods of sluggishness, when events were few and far between.
“There have been so many great people over the years, people that don’t live here anymore, great venues we had, little moments in this town. That’s sort of how I break up the Chico scene. It’s these little moments in time,” said Sean-Michael Yoder, a longtime local DJ (abstract_terrorist) and owner of Vinyljunkie PR. “But that’s what Chico is all about—the inconsistency.”
EDM originated around Chicago, Detroit and New York City in the mid-’80s and caught the ear of some of Chico’s young people by the end of the decade. The music was unlike anything they’d ever heard before, and incorporated the sampled sounds of then-popular bands such as Metallica.
At that time, Anna Talbott was approaching her 20s and was mostly into Chico’s punk-rock scene. She and her friends would hang out at clubs that played live music, including famed local bar Juanita’s (now Old Town Rootbeer Co.).
“I remember on Sunday nights there were a couple of people with a boom box in a room upstairs, and they’d be dancing up there [to EDM],” she said, chuckling, during a recent phone interview from her Cohasset home. “That seemed weak and sort of odd. It was probably ’89 or ’90. It was so corny. And I’m sure they were doing other electronic-music events, but I wasn’t into it yet.”
Talbott, who is now married to Yoder, kept the scene in her peripheral vision for the next couple of years and started to like the house and techno music she was hearing. But her friends weren’t into it, so she satisfied her cravings by attending EDM events in the Bay Area with her brother and other family members who lived near San Francisco.
“You could dance all night. You didn’t need to know anybody, and the music never stopped,” Talbott said. “You could just dance and dance and dance and dance and … dance.”
Yoder and his friends survived the isolation of living in Chico by buying records at local stores and ordering hard-to-find tracks from mail-order catalogs. They also sometimes traveled to larger cities such as Sacramento and San Francisco, where they could be exposed to broader influences.
“People in Chico were just itching for something new, and lots of people were buying records,” he said. “I was getting really into DJs, like acid-house records and Detroit-techno records.”
The Chico scene was mostly limited to house parties when he started going to EDM events in the late ’80s, Yoder said.
“Nobody knew what the hell it was, including me at the time. It was so different. It was so far off the radar,” he said.
Yoder and his friends weren’t used to seeing DJs out front and center, surrounded by a big sound system and trippy visuals.
“And all kinds of weird people were throwing the parties,” he continued. “Back then, nobody understood what raves were. Most people thought of them as being sort of drug parties. Which they were, and they were a lot of fun.”
The term “rave” became widespread to describe a type of underground, electronic dance party that included atmospheric elements such as artificial fog and laser light shows, and was usually held in a warehouse or other large venue. Vendors who sold merchandise were also often present.
The scene gained more visibility as the ’90s progressed, when electronic acts like the Chemical Brothers came over from Europe and injected the music with funk, house and disco elements that made it more “groovy” and danceable, Yoder said.
By the mid-’90s, Talbott (she didn’t know Yoder at the time) was going to parties in Chico at now-defunct venues including the Zocalo Room (on Sixth Street), The Brickworks (above the University Bar), and Humboldt Studios (now Café Coda).
The scene peaked at the end of the decade, when parties were thrown in the Ballroom on Broadway above Starbuck’s and at the Arroyo Room on First Street.
“[It was] fun to be partying in the late ’90s, early 2000s here. The music was good, the parties were packed, we saw our friends every weekend at events with ‘our music,’ and always had an after-party,” Talbott said. “We had a real scene, and it was a lot of good times.”
Back at Café Culture, the DJ conducts a performance, controlling the energy and mood on the dance floor, giant headphones glued to his ears and sweat beading down his forehead. The lights switch mode and the beams become spots on the ceiling, changing colors and shapes as the music’s beat intensifies. This is his drug, this feeling of togetherness, connectivity and control.
Upstairs, three girls and a guy sit Indian-style in a corner, immersed in conversation and holding each other’s hands. The girls are wearing glow sticks as headbands and tiny, fluorescent outfits. A stranger walks by and is enthusiastically invited to join the group. He obliges and cuddles up next to one of the girls.
Talbott is candid about the fact that drugs were a big part of the scene from the start. Many partygoers were weekend users who took drugs such as speed, ecstasy and GHB to enhance their experiences. However, by the late ’90s, the scene had deteriorated.
“There were a lot of drugs, and a lot of money to be made by selling drugs, going on at that time with the promoters and everything,” she said. “I can remember them as a partygoer, and they would be scowly faced in the corner and complaining about how they didn’t make any money for the night. I really took that to heart and noticed it.”
Now that Talbott throws parties herself, she looks back on that time as a low period for Chico’s EDM scene.
“There was total fighting between the promoters, everyone was talking shit about each other,” she said. “The partygoers sort of became the evil stepchildren stuck in the middle.”
As the decade neared an end, the drugs and conflicts among DJs and promoters made it tough for veteran partygoers to hold onto the magic they once felt at events. Also, many of the partygoers were younger and younger—some of them barely in their teens.
“Of course, it was very new and healthy in the beginning, like most scenes. It was really fresh and healthy and inspiring,” Holland-Chang said. “And eventually the drugs would be to blame [for the demise of raves], the bad drugs, certain kinds of drugs that later became bad. Sketchy elements started to ruin the parties, and they started getting busted by cops. Basically, public appeal died down.”
The Chico scene stayed quiet and events were scarce in the first few years of the new millennium. Drug busts at raves in large cities also led to rave-specific legislation. In 2002, the state Assembly passed a rave-regulation bill that required promoters to verify their familiarity with illegal drugs before securing a permit. The next year, the federal government passed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003 (formerly the RAVE Act), which stiffened promoters’ liability when it came to drug use by partygoers.
While many of the young students attended Top Shelf’s recent party at Café Culture to listen to the music, there were signs that drug use is still a large part of the experience.
In fact, KCSC, Chico State’s student-run station, opted to pull its sponsorship from the event after a group arrived to set up and found indications that there would be drug use at the event, said General Manager Jillian Cleveland.
Cleveland’s staff pointed out to her that items in the VIP area such as vitamin C, cough drops and Vicks VapoRub are often used to enhance the effects of ecstasy, she said.
Some DJs and promoters who survived the madness of the late-’90s took measures to revive the Chico scene between 2001 and 2005. Students cycled through Chico and threw a few parties, and local DJ Chip Boston (DJ Chipy) tried to revive the “rave” scene of the previous decade by throwing house parties, Talbott said. He also started the annual outdoor campout “Memories” in 2004, a three-day festival packed with DJ lineups. The campout celebrated its seventh anniversary in August.
In 2005, Holland-Chang helped the scene gain momentum by creating the blog 530techno.org, which provided an ongoing conversation about events in the area. The blog still serves as a hub for North State DJs.
Also in 2005, Talbott and Holland-Chang teamed up to create the production company Future/now. The duo threw parties for the next few years at venues such as Off Limits (now Nick’s Night Club) and Mr. Lucky (now Lost on Main).
“We called our parties ‘Future/now’ because we were tired of waiting for the actual future to hit Chico,” Talbott said, referring to the duo’s efforts to ditch the outdated “raver” stereotypes associated with ’90s electronic dance parties. They still host occasional events today.
By the time EDM regained its foothold, a new audience of listeners had arrived on the scene. Many of them attended the parties being thrown by the scene’s veterans, including Future/now and 530techno.
One production group that arose out of the new generation of listeners was BETA, a group of three men who saw a need for regular events after their favorite party spot, TiON, a warehouse in south Chico, had to shut down in 2009 due to rising overhead. The warehouse served as one of the only all-night party venues in the late 2000s.
Many partygoers who were displaced by TiON’s closing were into music that was louder, heavier and more aggressive than the house and techno music showcased at events thrown by older promoters.
“We just wanted an outlet where we could play music we enjoyed,” said 23-year-old Jordan Layman, a recent Chico State grad and the youngest of the three men. “For us to enjoy the music we love, we needed a proper sound system, heavy bass and security.”
One of the men, Mike Zubricky (his DJ name is Mike Z), had a connection to Lost on Main. The bar’s owners gave the guys a chance despite concerns about alcohol sales at an EDM event because, while the scene has been associated with drug use, it has not normally been fueled by booze.
The first event in August 2009 was a huge success, including alcohol sales for the bar, largely because many partygoers today are less interested in using drugs than previous generations, Zubricky explained.
To date, BETA has hosted almost 30 events at the bar. Lost on Main’s willingness to serve as an electronic-music venue has made it possible for the guys to bring out-of-town DJs to Chico.
“Usually electronic-music events happen off of the general public’s radar, and not downtown,” Zubricky said, referring to his experiences in the Chico scene in the late 2000s. “We brought it front and center with BETA.”
A DJ wipes his forehead with a rag and preps for his next track. He slows the music and the dancers’ bodies react—he is their puppeteer. Their arms fall to their sides and their bodies begin to move horizontally. A young man and woman hold each other close and then pull away to fan their faces. They leave the room to fetch a free bottle of water, but are distracted by the sounds coming from the other room. They dart off, hand in hand.
To this day, Chico’s scene relies on individuals who take it upon themselves to host events where they can hear music they like. The constant progression and changing of EDM’s sound, coupled with the constant cycling of students in and out of Chico, have kept the scene moving, Holland-Chang said.
“It’s been the people over the last five to six years that have helped it survive. We have totally different crowds going in and out of parties all the time. There’s definitely a core group of people who are into the music, but in and around that, the culture changes and the groups of people change,” he said, referring to newer promoters that cater to different audiences, such as BETA and Top Shelf.
Throwing parties is a lot of work for promoters, especially the veterans, who, 20 years later, still feel homeless because they do not have a venue dedicated to EDM, Talbott said.
“It’s hard being 30, 40 years old and feeling like we’re going to be treated like we’re doing some illegal, off-the-cuff thing that no one cares about,” Talbott said. “It’s like, come on, this has been going on since I was just out of high school.”
A proper venue with nice lighting and décor would also provide a permanent place where people of all ages could throw events that feature a wide variety of EDM genres, Talbott said. She said that’s one of the most challenging characteristics of Chico’s EDM scene—balancing the preferences of students and older generations.
“A venue would absolutely survive in Chico, but I think it would have to be run by a collective, or at least the person running it would have to be all over the map—they’d have to let everyone in town do their events so that everyone’s tastes would be covered.”
For now, certain people are keeping the scene diverse. Future/now celebrated its fifth anniversary at Café Culture on Halloween, and BETA threw its usual bimonthly event at Lost on Main last Saturday (Nov. 13). Caut!on Productions threw its third installment of the monthly EDM party BASSICK at Café Culture the night before. This Friday (Nov.19), three DJs will be featured in an electronic showcase at Park Avenue Pub.
The future of the scene in Chico is hard to predict, but EDM isn’t likely to go mainstream locally unless a permanent venue is found and it’s played regularly on the radio, Yoder said.
At the same time, the scene’s lack of visibility is part of what makes Chico’s EDM community so close-knit, he said.
“We’ll continue to go through waves like this. But to be honest, it’s the only thing that has really connected the scene for the past 20 years—the feeling of being in this little underground scene.”