CAMMIES: Folk/Acoustic, Punk, Rock/Pop
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Being in front of an audience with only an acoustic guitar and your words is a frightening thought. There’s no hiding behind a wall of noise. It’s as naked as it gets. And, if done right, as powerful as it gets, too.
Folk music is where poetry finishes the thoughts of a worn acoustic instrument. It’s the music that made people start to pay closer attention to what was being said by the performers—from Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
“I try to write lyrics that tell stories in an unordinary fashion,” explains first-time CAMMIE nominee Zach Zeller. “I enjoy mixing real experiences with dreams and observations. Lyrics are just as, if not more, important than the music.”
Zeller has assembled his own group of musical super-friends in the Around Town Collective, but he also plays an important role in a greater group of local acoustic musicians. Upon moving to Chico a few years ago, Zeller quickly gravitated toward singer-songwriters and fellow CAMMIE nominees Pat Hull and Erin Lizardo.
Lizardo has been melting hearts for years with her dreamy Cat Power-esque vocals and occasionally esoteric lyrics. She’s an incredibly talented songwriter who avoids conventions of acoustic music. Hull has an otherworldly voice, whether he’s playing solo or with his full country band. You can hear them on his latest record, Forever’s Night, but live is where you want to witness this stomping motley crew.
While all three artists play solo and with bands (Lizardo in Joybook, Zeller in Red Ribbon Brigade, among others), fellow nominees Dick and Jane and MaMuse both stick to the stripped-down intimacy of playing one-on-one.
“Playing with one other person is like that late-night conversation you have on the back porch,” explains Dick and Jane’s Molly McNally. “You find yourself thinking things you never even considered, and talking about things you haven’t touched on in years. I find few things more inspiring.”
Dick and Jane is just that—and there have been many late-night conversations between McNally and fellow ukulele strummer Scott Itamura. The duo recently took their folk-pop to Europe, which means the conversations went on even later and took place in smoky bars.
Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting have been involved in the Chico community for years—now with MaMuse, the music is the vehicle for making change. The duo released an album this year called All the Way—Longaker and Nutting’s seamless harmonies come together over mandolin, upright bass and an arsenal of string instruments. Their shows have practically become legend—a place where gospel meets folk—and audience participation usually assures that they’re never alone on stage.
Who invented punk rock? The Sex Pistols? The Ramones? Gruk? Chico’s been a punk hotbed for more than a decade (remember those Suburban American Tract Home comps?).
And the punk rock being played isn’t your Green Day variety … not that there’s anything wrong with that. These are anarchist anthems played fast, loud and ugly. The bands are so punk, in fact, that they didn’t even respond to my questions.
The punk (and Punx) community is the tightest knit of any in town, supporting one another and putting on endless shows with locals and out-of-towners at the punk rock hub of Monstros Pizza. You’ll see Gruk vokillist Rachel Loveless and drummer Sean Cummins there—putting on shows, performing shows. Gruk is like a cockroach, you see. Guitarists and drummers have come and gone, but the band never dies. Instead, they continue to play unabashed punk rock and go on epic tours.
Zabaleen, like Gruk, has more former members than current. It’s grimy thrash punk that’s slightly more tuneful than Gruk. Zabaleen also boasts one of the most intense frontmen in Jimmy Lo, formerly of Nogoodnix.
Punk bands in Chico need not ever fret about the loss of a guitarist when Cody K (Co-Decay) is around. He’s a band whore in the truest sense, slinging axe for both Zabaleen and The Baghdad Batteries. The Batteries are (gasp!) the poppiest of the punk nominees. But they could still be seen as un-PC with songs like the crowd sing-along anthem “Retard Riot.” So yeah, they’re still punk.
Continuing in this incestuous underbelly of Chico come our next two bands, Black Hole of Calcutta and ¡Mammoth Torta! Both feature current members of CAMMIE-nominated metal band The Makai. Guitarist Ian Makau and drummer Jesse Shreibman hammer things out fast and furious in Black Hole (the band’s song “Rule of Thumb” clocks in at 13 seconds). Scary fast. And scary name (supposedly 123 British troops suffocated to death in a small dungeon known as the black hole of Calcutta). The band is just wrapping up a tour of Europe and will release a couple of 7-inches in the near future.
Shreibman also plays drums for instrumental surf-punk outfit ¡Mammoth Torta! Not as ominous as Black Hole of Calcutta in that it’s surf music (albeit a lot darker) and the fact the name comes from an extinct mammal and a Mexican sandwich.
Tell me, which sounds cooler? “I play in an indie-prog-post-punk band,” or “I play in a rock ’n’ roll band”? Mm hmm. The words rock ’n’ roll still sound dangerous, conjuring up images of miscreants with guitars strapped around their necks, and a singer who twirls a mic stand and sings about magic buses, or sniffing glue, or girlfriends in comas. Ain’t rock ’n’ roll savory?
It’s not all kooky get-ups, snorting ants, using red snappers inappropriately and throwing furniture out of hotel windows (I kinda wish it were)—although image has always been a built-in component of rock.
“As long as it is made of skulls and gold, I’m into it,” jokes Gorgeous Armada guitarist and vocalist Maurice Spencer. “Explosions, too.”
Of course, there have been many degrees and styles of excesses during rock’s life span, many of which are impressively represented in this year’s Rock nominees.
We’ll start at the beginning when this new thing called rock ’n’ roll was directly influenced by rhythm and blues, country and folk. The Shankers embody the pure, ramshackle heart of early rock music—only revved up and not as wholesome. Johnny and Kerra Shanker have tweaked the band over the years—a little more ’70s glam here, a little less rockabilly there; more country, less garage—but it will always be high-energy. And nothing but genuine.
From there we go to the early-’60s, when garage rock was actually kickin’ it in garages. Candy Apple is probably kickin’ it in a snazzy practice space by now—having quickly built a dedicated following of people who like sweaty, bombastic live shows, and remember why “96 Tears” is one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.
Two-time CAMMIE winner Gorgeous Armada is … well, an armada of thespians and musicians hell bent on rewriting the rock opera. Led by charismatic frontman Handsome Gorgeous, GA is a well-calculated party band that has taken over where Brut Max left off. It’s equal parts kitsch and serious rock—think Black Sabbath meets Jesus Christ Superstar, sexed up with some 2 Live Crew.
While image plays a more important role for the aforementioned bands, Mute Witness and Surrogate keep to writing taut, well-produced pop gems.
The fine fellows in first-time nominee Mute Witness jump back into the ’50s and snag these sort of R&B-inspired doo-wop harmonies and drop them right in the middle of sweeping songs filled with layered guitars and synth. Hell, Mute Witness is all over the place—let’s just call it rock ’n’ roll.
Chris Keene formed Surrogate after Chico faves Number One Gun called it a day. He’s all the better for it. Keene keeps growing as a songwriter while his compositions have become simpler. This band of bearded blokes is putting the finishing touches on the follow-up to 2007’s excellent Love Is for the Rich.