Carrying the tunes
CN&R’s local bands to listen for in 2011
It feels like Chico lost a lot more bands in 2010 than it has in recent years. And many of those who left us were some of the most popular in town: Gruk, Candy Apple and The Secret Stolen all called it quits; The Makai went on indefinite hiatus; and Dr. Becky Sagers, PhD’s DJ Goodburger moved away.
But even though it might seem like we’re experiencing a musical downturn, there are actually an impressive number of promising up-and-comers (Soft Crest, The Great Good, Peach); breakthrough groups (CD ENT, Brass Hysteria, Clouds on Strings, Hail the Sun, Amarok); and new projects by established musicians (Shivaree, Ruby Hollow Band, Hot Mess, Steve French) making the new year appear very promising for the local music scene.
Math for your soul
Clouds on Strings
“Most people just hear the melodies, but other musicians get excited about the three-over-four hemiolas.” Clouds on Strings keyboardist Josh Hegg isn’t speaking Greek (well, technically he is), but rather a language known only to other music mathematicians. He’s joking, of course. Sort of. “There is an emphasis on chops, but we try to write good songs.”
And the Chico five-piece does write good songs. Over the past two years they’ve assembled some impressively intricate musical pieces that are cinematic in scope and rock ’n’ roll in execution. Their latest album, The Strangest Thing We’ve Ever Seen, is a far-reaching epic that indulges in the proggy ways of King Crimson and the studio eccentricities of Steely Dan while conjuring the loose, oddball spirit of Frank Zappa. Essentially, these kids put their musicality on display without sucking the soul out of the music. It’s no small feat, and Chico’s tight-knit music community has been quick to embrace this motley crew—hemiolas and all.
Clouds on Strings have a familiar story, coming together in Chico State’s Music Industry and Technology program. Hegg and guitarist/vocalist Michael Bone began writing songs together in the dorms. Soon a metal-loving drummer named Matt Franklin joined the ranks. Kernels of ideas began to take shape. Bassist Randall Jangula and violinist Matt Weiner came aboard and in late 2008 the band released its debut—an unruly album with the unruly title For You, For Me, For the Sake of a Name.
The members’ musical ability is the first thing you’ll notice, but peel back the layers and individual personalities start to emerge. Case in point: “Can’t Live With ’Em” from the band’s latest will make you wish you were a fly on the wall during the recording session.
Making a name for yourself in Chico is one thing, but Clouds on Strings have already made connections up and down the West Coast, playing shows with prog bands, funk bands, metal bands … you get the picture. (Clouds on Strings even caught the attention of the blog All Metal Resource, which put it simply: “Damn fine prog rock!”).
Clouds on Strings just returned from a West Coast jaunt, and Hegg says new songs are already in the works, including a sweeping 15-minute opus. As for the band’s future—which, as is the case with many Chico bands, includes the likelihood of graduation—Hegg says the members aren’t giving it too much thought. “We’ll figure it out when the time comes,” he says. “But right now we’re having a hell of a time.”
Clouds on Strings performs Feb. 23, at Café Coda. www.cloudsonstringschico.bandcamp.com
Takin’ over the mic
Chico rap quiz: “Which local crew has opened the Chico concerts of Snoop Dogg, The Pack, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Tech N9ne and Del the Funky Homosapien?” Answer: CD ENT. (You got it right, right?)
CD ENT, or CD Entertainment, may not have gotten as much press coverage as other local rap acts, but make no mistake, when it comes to playing to the big crowds—at JMax Productions’ Senator and El Rey theater gigs and the hip-hop nights at Lost on Main—the four-MC crew is doing more than most to make a name for itself.
“They make it easy to put them on shows,” said JMax honcho Justin Maximov. “If I tell them they have a 15-minute set, they play 15 minutes—not 22 or 23. They understand what it means to be professional.”
“I hounded JMax for about a year. He finally gave us a shot,” said group founder DMJ—“Dark” Mark Johnson—about his persistent efforts to make it into the local spotlight. “[Justin] loves the hustle we do for the shows.”
Actually, depending on which poster you were looking at, the answer to the question about what group played those big shows would be either DMJ, DMJ and Cris Kenyon, or CD ENT. The progression of names mirrors the progression of the group, which got its start after Yuba City transplant DMJ came to Chico to try and break into the college-town music scene in 2007. After a couple of years of writing and recording as a solo artist (and releasing his first album, It’s Like ClockWork), DMJ started CD Entertainment as a recording/ production/ promotion company with his new rap partner Cris Kenyon.
Kenyon had been making his own name in Chico when DMJ first hit town, having landed several songs on the air at now-defunct Chico hip-hop station Club 96.7, including his popular slow jam “In the Rearview,” written as a tribute to, and anthem for, his fellow North State high school graduates.
Now, with the addition of Chicago-bred MC Heavy Armz (Sean Covington) and L.A. transplant Big Slim (Nick Joyner), the name CD ENT is applied not only to their business dealings—which include the release of seven solo albums by DMJ, Cris Kenyon and Big Slim, and the soon-to-drop collaborative Unstoppable Mixtape—but now also serves as the four MCs’ stage moniker.
DMJ said that opening for the big artists has increased the band’s notoriety, and they’ve learned from the experience, paying attention to the high-energy crowd-pleasing antics of guys like Tech N9ne, and bringing their own well-rehearsed moves to their shows. And though the four different personalities bring a range of vocal and lyrical approaches, the smooth, ready-to-party production is well suited to pumping up a college-age crowd.
When one-time local faves The Hooliganz left town a few years ago, they’d seen the work CD ENT was putting into both the music and promotion and handed over the reigns, telling DMJ, “You guys take care of the scene.” And the time might just be right for them to do it.
From the dregs of a cask of ale
According to TheFreeDictionary.com, the word “shivaree” “is the most common American regional form of charivari, a French word meaning ‘a noisy mock serenade for newlyweds’ and probably deriving in turn from a late Latin word meaning ‘headache.’”
Chico’s Shivaree is a recently formed folk-punk band that plays a boisterous, at-times-breathless brand of music that a fun-loving, newly betrothed couple might be more than pleased to dance around, holler and jump up and down to before being sent out into the big wide world of married life. The “headache” part might come from consuming too many Pabst Blue Ribbons—Shivaree’s seeming drink of choice—at the reception.
The sextet called Shivaree consists of drummer Sean “Hipmofasa” Cummins (previously of The Shankers and Gruk); Irene Korber (Bloody Knuckles, Madmom) on vocals and assorted percussion; bass player Kevin “K9” Casey (Anger as a Gift, Fistifuks); Puck (Disorderly Event) on mandolin and hollered vocals; Rat on guitar/vocals; and fiddler Ram Francia.
The group, all its members clothed in black and accompanied by several blue, red and silver cans of PBR, did a run-down of its 11-song repertoire (all originals; many politically charged) at a recent practice in the front room of a small house tucked in an alley in the Avenues.
Korber started out “Riding the Shivaree Train”—a sometimes-frantic, punk-meets-Irish-meets-hillbilly instrumental—with an insistent, long toot on a wooden train whistle. “I don’t care, as long as you are here with me,” she sang in “On the Bright Side,” punctuated by Puck and Rat’s gruff refrain, “I got my beer!” “Fire at Will,” a somewhat melancholy, entertaining song in waltz-time, sounded like it was coming from a cockeyed calliope.
Rat, a self-described “history buff,” did the lead vocal in “The Ballad of Isabella,” a passionate story-song that had to do with the fascist brutality of Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain during World War II.
“We have a tendency to do historical fiction,” offered Korber of the song, addressing the fictionalized, “what-if” portions of the song about an entire town being killed by Franco’s thugs.
Shivaree’s political bent is front and center in “Three Meals to Anarchy,” which features the lyrics “Endless working/ Always toiling/ Never complaining/ For a meal.” (Lucky for the listener, Shivaree’s acoustic setup makes the thought-provoking lyrics for the most part understandable.)
Shivaree has nine shows under its belt since its inception in May 2010, with plans to record a CD in February and tour in June. Look for a show with Portland’s Rum Rebellion at Monstros Pizza in late March.
—Christine G.K. LaPado
Waves of reverb breaking
Soft Crest frontman Paul Harper’s latest stint in Chico started with a fateful phone call to an old friend last summer. Set adrift after graduating film school in Los Angeles, Harper spent a few months wandering between Fresno, San Francisco, Chico and Redding before finally landing here to stay.
“I called Elliot [Maldonado, bassist] and said, ‘If I move to Chico, will you play in a band with me?’ And here I am,” Harper recalled. Soon after, other old friends Zach Zeller and Kevin Berg (guitar and drums) joined and Soft Crest started its reign in Chico.
It’s incorrect to say the band was born then, as Harper had been carrying some songs, the name and a handful of recordings around since 2009. His blueprint for Soft Crest’s sound—sweeping, soaring, atmospheric melodies, soundscapes breaking against and blending together as the name suggests—was drafted as a reaction to L.A.’s music scene during his tenure there.
“Most of the music there was so dark and negative, it made me want to do the exact opposite,” Harper said. “I wanted to make music that was uplifting and positive, music meant to make you feel good and not bummed.”
Regardless, evolution occurred, and Soft Crest sprinted rather than crept from the ooze: Harper arrived at the beginning of August and the band embarked on a tour down the California coast days after. Like having sex before the first date, the outcome was mixed.
“It was financially devastating, everyone in the band lost money, not a lot of people came to shows, we didn’t sell a single thing; in Culver City we had to sleep on the stage where we were going to play the next night in a big, cold, concrete building,” Harper said. “But we had a lot of fun, and it was successful because we actually did it. It all comes down to hanging out with friends and playing music, so how can doing that in a different city every night be a bad idea?”
Harper acknowledged Soft Crest has become more a sum of its parts in the four-piece incarnation: “You can do so much more on stage and in the studio,” he says, and all the members collaborate on new material.
The band hasn’t slowed since inception, playing frequently and garnering comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Beach House and Best Coast.
“I run my vocals through a Korg Kaoss pad and my amp head is an old ’70s Sony stereo receiver I rewired,” Harper explained. “It’s my dad’s, and I used to plug his bass into it and play along to music as a kid. When I tried it out now I thought, ‘Whoa, that sounds dirty, I like it.’”
Soft Crest will perform at its CD release party Feb. 27, at Café Coda. www.softcrest.bandcamp.com
Hot pogo folk
Ruby Hollow Band
Chico’s Ruby Hollow Band provides a polished and gleaming facet to Chico’s music scene with a wide range of acoustic styles and more instruments than you can shake a bombo at. The captivating and whimsical gypsy-folk outfit weaves a robust variety of acoustic styles, from the American South to South America.
Through original compositions and familiar cover tunes, the band serves up sweet harmonies as well as sounds on the familiar guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass, as well as the always fun accordion, penny whistle and pan pipes. And there’s more: the dobro and hammered dulcimer are also present here along with the lute-like charrango and exotic bodhran, bombo and kanun drums.
Ruby Hollow’s lineup of longtime Chico multi-instrumentalists, songwriters all, includes Dave Cowan, Jo Chavez, Alice Peake and David Bilinksi, the first three of whom were the principal players in 1980s Chico band Willowgreen. (Chavez is also active performing with Jim Williford in Juicy Bones, and Cowan is a core member of the Celtic group Beltain.)
They aptly refer to Ruby Hollow’s collective style as Hot Pogo Folk Music. “We don’t stick to one genre, and it’s a delicious dilemma,” says Chavez. “We go from country to traditional stuff to South American to contemporary covers, like a kid on a pogo stick hopping around for the fun of it.”
“There’s a complexity to acoustic music that you don’t get in electric,” said Cowan, who recently closed-up shop on his Small Town Sound audio production business, donating much of his equipment to Butte College and KZFR radio. “It’s the unique interaction with strings and wood and the mics. We try to make it a little more interesting—a revue of acoustic styles that pushes the envelope.”
The talented quartet can be seen and heard at occasional gigs around town, and now via the brand-new very-soon-to-be-released full-length project, Sun Still Shines.
Nine months in the making, the debut was recorded locally at Dale Price’s Electric Canyon Studios and produced at Groove House Records in L.A. The album includes some reworked classics, including Gillian Welch’s “Annabelle,” a sing-around-the-campfire folk tune specially sculpted here by banjo and accordion; Richard Thompson’s British masterpiece “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” offered with quick pickin’ and lots of American twang; and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” complete with a mystical flute and guitar intro that makes the old classic new again.
Originals include the mid-tempo “Danny and Sally,” a Chavez composition that tells the tale of a preacher’s wife who falls for “a mean man with blood on his hands,” and the Belinksi-penned “Sun Still Shines” title track, which, in the face of a world full of wars “and another and another bigger Walmart store,” offers this advice: “Pick up the fiddle, drink up the wine, play a little tune, put your arms in mine. Hard times’ comin’ but the sun still shines.”