Chico Rock City
A semi-illustrated look at 30 years of local music
This story begins in the year 1977. To offer some quick perspective: Jimmy Carter was elected president; Star Wars opened in theaters; Spain held its first democratic elections after 41 years under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship; and Never Mind the Bullocks Here’s the Sex Pistols was released.
A lot has changed since then, particularly in the music world: An early-'70s funk-inspired musical form called disco had made its way from gay clubs in New York to the 8-track players of square white dudes before vanishing; punk, heavy metal and hip-hop swam up from the gutters into the mainstream; MTV changed music forever (for better or for worse); and the Internet changed the way people listen to music (for better or for worse).
But this is about the music scene in Chico—the yellowed newspaper clippings, the piles of old photos and crumpled fliers, the dizzying number of reminiscences and anecdotes of bands and venues that have come and gone, left their marks, shifted the musical climate and become legendary around these parts.
So, in honor of the CN&R’s 30th anniversary, let’s take a journey shall we? Of course, covering three decades of music in such a small space is almost impossible. A name or three might get left out … but trust me when I say this is a labor of love.
Hippie frocks meet indie rock (1977-1987)
It’s only fitting that we begin with the band that just last year celebrated 30 years together. Pulling members from bands like Jackstraw and the Butte Creek Family Band, making its home in old clubs like Jolly Fox and Canal Street, Spark ‘n’ Cinder (or The East West Transcendental Spark ‘n’ Cinder Band, as it was once called) has been the consistent musical entity through indie rock detours and punk rock explosions in Chico since 1976.
The band, which stirs a musical stew of blues, reggae, jazz and funk, has kept a revolving door of exemplary musicians, as well as mainstays—Kim Gimbal, Stevie Cook, Jimmy Fay, the late John LaPado, to name only a few—who also started their own projects. You had your Road Raisin, Dogs Without Brains, the Night Knights and Prairie Biscuit—the latter one Chico State student-turned-prof recalls seeing in the Free Speech Area “ripping into that mid-'70s southern-boogie stuff and Marshall Tucker songs like ‘Can’t You See?'.”
It was also in the late-'70s that a young, crazy-haired record producer and folk musician named Peter Berkow moved to Chico. He would go on to play with his own musical projects as well as team up with local radio stations like KFM and KALF to produce compilation albums featuring Spark ‘n’ Cinder, The Funnels (who played into the ‘90s and won Best Band in the CN&R Best Of issue six years straight by staging “ballot parties") and ageless country legend Moriss Taylor (who at the time was already 20 years into his career).
There were also a couple of guys doing their own thing: Matt Hogan brought his arsenal of licks to his ‘50s rockabilly band Incredible Diamonds, while the late, great Danny West led his country outfit the Lonesome Cowboys through three decades with a wide grin on his face until he died in September 2004.
While Spark ‘n’ Cinder was spawning its derivative offspring in the early 1980s, a young band was being born in the basement of Chico State’s Meriam Library—one that would change not only the face of music in Chico, but become known as one of the forefathers of underground, independent rock alongside bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements.
In fact, the only reason 28th Day didn’t find the stardom of its jangle-pop contemporaries is because the band broke up almost immediately after releasing its stellar, self-titled debut in 1985.
28th Day drummer Mike Cloward was responsible for starting up indie label Devil in the Woods. Vocalist/guitarist Cole Marquis went on to start another seminal Chico supergroup, the Downsiders (who put out two albums on Mammoth Records; more on them in a minute). Bassist/vocalist Barbara Manning found success as a solo artist and with bands like S.F. Seals and the Go-Luckys on independent labels like Matador (Pavement; Belle and Sebastian; The Ponys) and Sub Pop Records (Mudhoney; Nirvana; The Shins).
In the short time it was together, 28th Day reigned, playing literally everywhere—at house parties and at venues like the Ping Pong Palace (now Gold’s Gym), Canal Street and Melody Hall. It could be, as it’s been argued, that this was the most influential band to come out of Chico.
It was 28th Day that inspired “non-musician” Larry Crane to pick up the bass and form seminal Chico band Vomit Launch—the beautiful, poppy, punky four-piece that also featured the pristine vocals of Trish Rowland (Howard), the ramshackle riffs of guitarist Lindsay Thrasher and the rat-a-tat attack of drummer John McKinley, who played in countless Chico bands like Dose and Brutilicus Maximus (and was later replaced by a drum machine, followed shortly by Steve Bragg). The band often played with 28th Day and single-handedly carried the indie-pop torch in Chico and beyond for almost a decade, until Vomit Launch finally called it quits in the summer of 1992.
Some bands lasted about as long as a 28th Day song. No matter. The map had been drawn for the jam band and indie rock movements in Chico that would last well into the next decade.
‘I wanna be a superwinner, too’ (1987-1997)
When talking to people who cut their teeth in the Chico music scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s about which band stood out at the time, they practically say in chorus that it was the Downsiders. The voice that reverberates the loudest might be that of Conrad Harris-Nystrom, who moved to Chico in 1987 and was already playing in his first Chico band, The Vertels.
“I knew what I loved about music, and Chico had that for me,” said Harris-Nystrom, now the bassist in sonic experimentalists West By Swan.
In ‘87, Chico State made No. 1 on Playboy’s dubious list of top party schools, people were rioting in the streets during Pioneer Days, and the Downsiders were pummeling audiences, which ran the full gamut of hippies, frat dudes, punk rockers and stoners.
The Downsiders took the power-pop of 28th Day and Vomit Launch, cranked it up a notch—using Sonic Youth-influenced open tunings to great effect—and made everything darker. Red Fender Mustang-wielding Jason Cassidy (who played in bands like Pep Rally, Kick ’em and later fronted indie-pop band Cowboy with his wife, Connie) recalled one Downsiders show in the now-defunct Wall Street where the crowd nearly went through the wooden floor in a syncopated pogo session after the build-up during the song “Pony Made of Ice.”
It was an exhilarating time for music in Chico. Longstanding venues like LaSalles and Stormy’s Off Broadway (now the Banshee) were hosting shows. The Burro Room, where Monks is now, became the hub for big-name traveling bands: Steelpole Bathtub, Thinking Fellers, The Afghan Whigs, The Flaming Lips, to name a few. Oh … and there was that Nirvana show at the Blue Max.
As the ‘90s unfurled, new local bands were popping up and important people like Syb Blythe were opening new venues like Juanita’s (in the old Hey Juan’s—the restaurant side of the Burro Room), which eventually shoe-horned the music calendar of the Burro Room after it closed its doors in 1991. There also was the Lava Lounge (now the Crazy Horse Saloon), where locals Digger Pine and out-of-towners Mudhoney and Monoshock rocked.
Young creative forces were combining to form bands like the epically loud and shirtless Trench (always a threat to blow the roof off Juanita’s) and a beautiful smorgasbord of diverse bands like Pitchfork Tuning, Buzzwurm, Pine Cone, The iMPS, Cousin It, 5 Cattle Butt, Fat Chick From Wilson Phillips, Charm Fueled, Uncle Rosco and Harvester (which signed a major-label deal with DGC in 1995).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the roots rock/jam band influence of Spark ‘n’ Cinder was still going strong (as were the band and its members) in groups like the mighty Electric Circus, Jordhuga, Northurn Lyghts, Sunset Red, Jensing, and a little band you may have heard of called The Mother Hips.
The Hips are an entire story unto themselves. Formed in the dorms of Chico State, the band, like the Downsiders, also had the distinction of appealing to a wide audience, playing backyard frat parties and filling venues like Juanita’s and LaSalles. The Mo Hips had elements of hippie jams, but they also had a knack for tight songwriting and vocal harmonies that whiffed of The Beatles and early Bee Gees.
The band had its brush with success, inking a deal with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings (Slayer, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty). It’s been a long haul for the Hips, who just put out another critically lauded record, Kiss the Crystal Flake, this year. The band’s influence reached a number of bands to come, including Ten Pound Brown (now Transfer, out of San Diego) and Buffalo Creek, both of which packed LaSalles regularly.
At that point, Chico seemed to have it all. Jam bands. Indie rock bands. Party bands like Brutilicus Maximus (which just celebrated 20 years). Metal bands like Fallon. Hip-hop groups like the Becky Sagers. Intelligent punk rock innovators The P.A.W.N.S. And there was always a show on any given night, thanks to people like DNA (The Johnnies, Juanita’s, Downtown Music Revolution), and Ed Guillespe and Mark Meuter (Blue Room).
Chico’s independent rock scene was especially strong—musically as well as with the addition of The Blue Room Theatre as an important venue. It all came together in an explosive and exhaustive three-day music festival called The Superwinners Summer Rock Academy in August 1995.
Cassidy (CN&R calendar editor) and Harris-Nystrom, the festival’s ambitious organizers, wrangled 60-plus bands from all over the country—S.F. Seals, Karp, Track Star, Neutral Milk Hotel (who cancelled due to a death in the family, but rescheduled on a subsequent tour to play a Superwinners gig at Juanita’s). They even tried to snag Beck and Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore and Co. were in California for Lollapalooza) to play alongside local bands like Deathstar, Land of the Wee Beasties and Mid-Fi. The festival was notoriously name-dropped on The Mother Hips’ Shootout album on the hidden track, “Superwinner” ("I wanna be a Superwinner, too … “) after the band felt excluded from the event.
It wasn’t long after the Superwinners festival that some bands began calling it a day, in what would become one of several down times in the Chico music scene. There was a mass exodus of local players to bigger cities like Portland.
Of course, when one band breaks up, members start up a new project. Yet there was also a group of kids who were inspired by the bands they had seen, and feeling the excitement of picking up an instrument and starting their own bands.
The outside looking in … making it happen (1997-2007)
Americas drummer Casey Deitz has made it clear in several interviews that there were two bands that made him want to play music: Nirvana … and Chico’s Deathstar.
The baby-faced Deitz, his Americas cohort Travis Wuerthner, and fellow Bidwell Junior High buddies Trevor Sellers and Ben Tietz would stand outside shows where bands like Deathstar, the iMPS and Land of the Wee Beasties (featuring fellow high-schooler Joey Ficken on drums) played. It rippled from there: Deitz, Sellers and Tietz played Nirvana covers at a junior high battle of the bands before starting their first band Bliss, which played gigs with their heroes at Juanita’s. Bliss soon gave way to their new band, Either.
From there, the lineage is wide-spreading and impressive. Deitz went on to play in bands like North Magnetic, Velvet Teen and The Americas. Sellers played in Micromagnesia, Isabell, Cowboy and Number One Gun. Wuerthner also played in Micromagnesia before starting The Americas. And Tietz was a member of Number One Gun before he branched off with his own projects Cabrini Green and Casing the Promisedland.
After Y2K, the Blue Room stopped doing shows, and new venues like the D.I.Y.R.G., Riff Raff and Fulcrum Records provided somewhat short-lived places for bands to play. The punk scene was going strong with bands like Gruk and the veterans P.A.W.N.S. offering up shows and places to crash for out-of-towners, while putting together the impressive Suburban American Tract Home comps with locals like Smeat and NoGoodNix.
Zeke Rogers, Micah Warren, Curtis Zinn and Aubrey Pope were also stirring things up in a tweaked-out post-punk band called Stars Upon Thars, before moving on to new projects. Aubrey Pope became Aubrey Debauchery; Rogers went on to form Makes You Die before joining metal thrashers The Makai; and Zinn played with Debauchery and started his own math-rock band Oubliette Perish.
There were always bands on the fringe—Botchii was exploring new sounds and insulting old audiences, while inspiring a young generation of weirdos who would go on to form bands like Agent Meecrob.
And per usual, new bands were forming out of the ashes of defunct projects. Lil’ Suicide Bunny eventually led to Maurice Spencer’s formation of Bear Hunter, which just released a new record this year. The brothers Greenfield—Dan and Dave—went on to start West By Swan after the break-ups of Uncle Rosco and North Magnetic. (West By Swan also includes Harris-Nystrom and Daniel Taylor, the latter having played with bands like Inverted Nines and Damelo.)
The mid-'00s seemed to spark an explosion of bands—deerpen got its start in 2003, and instrumentalists Birds of Fire and power trio La Dolce Vita all fired it up in 2004. Equally pivotal bands like Squirrel vs. Bear, Machinegreen, La Fin du Monde, The Deer, The Shankers and The Secret Stolen got their starts soon after. Metal reared its ugly head (in a pleasant way) with bands like Brain In a Cage, Red with Envy, The Abominable Iron Sloth, The Makai and Blood of Cain making it cool for people to headbang and throw devil horns again.
So here we are in the year 2007. Who’s going to become the great Chico rock band that has people talking 30 years from now? Someone already mentioned here? Maybe newbies like Dirty Sister? Biggs Roller? Surrogate?
It seems the musical waves that carry the most force occur when the stars align—boundary-pushing bands, consistent venues and strong personalities who make things happen.
Go to shows. Listen up. And keep flipping through these pages … you’ll be sure to find ’em all here.