A fresh batch of local bands to watch for in 2014
There is nothing like new music to get the juices flowing. And each year, when the CN&R combs through Chico’s current roster of musicians, we are always pleasantly surprised at the fact that there is consistently a variety of fresh sounds to enjoy right here in our own backyard.
This year’s crop of bands to watch consists of artists who aren’t all necessarily new, but have over the past year or so come into their own and solidified their particular aesthetic niche. If you want to experience the full eclectic range of what Chico has to offer, these six bands (as well as the five bonus acts highlighted in the sidebar) are a great place to start.
New weird America
The story of Chico duo Bunnymilk starts outside, on the sidewalk in front of the Origami Recording Lounge. It was a summer evening in 2012, and Kelly Brown and Lisa Marie both showed up to see a concert at the studio/club, and both happened to bring acoustic instruments along. “Instead of going into the show, we drank and sat on the curb [playing music],” said Marie recently over afternoon beers at Duffy’s Tavern with her and Brown. “And we’ve been together ever since.”
That was only the second time the two had met each other, yet that first session of getting buzzed and singing CocoRosie songs to the night air as bands banged away inside the club set the tone for what would become a very distinct musical partnership.
Utilizing banjo (Brown) and guitar (Marie), and very natural and beautiful vocal harmonies, the duo have created a dark and often creeping brand of folk music that harken back to the “Old weird America” of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The voices are pretty, but the songs are often messy snapshots of timeless themes, of sinning daughters (“Lullaby”), heartbreak (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “Dire Stand”), or in the case of “Plant Toxins,” what sounds like a stoned-out fever dream (“This is an overdose of plant toxins.”)
“Drunken songbird angels” is the succinct, somewhat tongue-in-cheek description they’ve adopted to describe themselves online, and it probably does a better job of painting an accurate picture than simply saying “dark folk music.” Besides, whatever “folky” sound they might have is gradually being pushed back in favor of adding more electric guitar and effects pedals to the mix. “We kind of want to do something louder,” said Marie, adding that they are exploring more riff-based, lo-fi, “art-student basement band” sounds.
Bunnymilk has only a few, fairly rough recordings under their belt so far, available for download on the duo’s Bandcamp page. But even though they say their plan is to do some “better” recordings in the new year (they’ve already done some tracking at Origami Recording Lounge), the tape hiss and the natural reverb of some of the current kitchen recordings do bring a complementary grit to their old-time sound.
As for other future plans, besides recording and turning up the volume, they want to go on the road. Last week, Bunnymilk played out of town for the first time—joining new local crew Donald Beaman and the Spirit Molecules for gigs in Davis, Sacramento and San Francisco—and they’d like to tour even more. In fact, now that Brown just bought a car, both women now own hatchbacks—ideal vehicles for a two-person band hitting the road and exploring new venues, even though they might not even make it inside the clubs. “[We can] tailgate our own shows,” said Brown, “just throw our hatchbacks up.”
Bunnymilk will perform Feb. 22, 9 p.m., at Maltese Bar & Tap Room. www.bunnymilk.bandcamp.com
All who wander are not lost
When Donald Beaman sings of “realizing the gift inherent in being adrift” in the song “Tule,” he’s speaking from experience.
Beaman’s life and adventures, musical and otherwise, have always been driven by a touch of wanderlust. Having grown up in various locales throughout the Bay Area and the Sacramento Valley, he was originally drawn to Chico in the mid-aughts to obtain a degree in American Studies from Chico State.
After making a mark with various Chico and Davis bands, Beaman left for an extended stint on the East Coast, where he experienced some success as a member of The Double, a band that signed to indie-darling factory Matador Records, toured with the likes of Blonde Redhead and Interpol, and recorded a session with late, great BBC DJ and tastemaker John Peel. When that ended, he was again set adrift, spending time in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and the valley towns of his childhood before being drawn back to Chico last fall.
“I’ve been playing music by myself for a while, playing solo shows, and this seemed like a good spot to come back to and start playing music with other people,” said Beaman, whose day job of buying and selling antiques (mid-century Dutch-modern relics are his specialty) helps finance his wandering ways.
Topping the list of local musicians Beaman sought to reconnect with were bassist Jason Willmon and guitarist Ken Lovgren, who also brought drummer Michael Nalin into the fold. Dubbed the Spirit Molecules, Beaman’s new backup band is starting to flesh out the 30 to 40 songs he wrote between leaving New York and returning to Chico.
Beaman said the aforementioned “Tule” and two other songs available on his Bandcamp page are good indicators of what the Molecules are building on—slow and haunting songs driven by Beaman’s crystalline voice that are akin, both in delivery and poetic lyricism, to Leonard Cohen.
Beaman and the boys are headed to Origami Recording Lounge in the next few weeks to document their fuller sound and already have a few local and out-of-town gigs under their collective belt. As for longer-term plans, Beaman said he’s now living on “task time” rather than measuring the days with a calendar. He plans to stay in Chico as long as it takes to record a good album. While he said an EP may come as soon as summer, he wants to give a full-length the time to develop.
“I need to take advantage of where I’m living and the great people I’m making music with until the job is done,” he said. “It might be a year, it might be longer.”
Donald Beaman and the Spirit Molecules will perform Feb. 22, 9 p.m., at Maltese Bar & Tap Room. www.donaldbeaman.bandcamp.com
‘Raw energy made musical’
We now see a different scarlet fantasy Come climb up, use us as paint The milk is lava from the breast of the Mother Vessel Give me justice!
Drink your fill.
It’s raining justice It’s raining justice Will we save us?
–from Sorin’s “The Milk”
Alex Light, vocalist for local metal outfit Sorin, screams the lyrics to “The Milk,” the second song on the band’s recently released debut EP, New Heights. His screaming urgency is the same for all of the lyrics he delivers.
“It’s an honest expression of real emotion,” said the 25-year-old Light in a recent interview that included three of his four bandmates: Sorin guitarists Ade (pronounced “Ah-day”) Porter and Kevin Bowman, and drummer Curtis Scholar (missing was bassist Skylar Wells). The musicians—who are all graduates of Pleasant Valley High School and longtime musicians—were fresh off of placing second in a metal battle-of-the-bands competition at Backstage Bar & Billiards in Las Vegas on Jan. 17.
Light uses the terms “narrative thread,” “poetic journey” and “performance art” when describing what it is that Sorin involves itself with when writing songs, and planning and putting on a show.
“There’s a solid structure [to our show],” he said. “We build a set that has peaks and valleys. It gives [audience members] a chance to rest.”
“We have about an hour-long discussion about our set list,” Bowman added.
All four band members agreed that “New Heights”—the 16-minute, two-part title song from the new EP that sneaks into the listener’s consciousness gently at first, via guitar, before Light explodes into it with his commanding voice (“Realize there’s nothing to see/ Forming a reason to rise/ Tear down that stone altar/ A frozen throne will suffice/ Truth has brought me back”) —is emblematic of what Sorin is all about.
“‘New Heights’ was an avenue to write a fantasy story,” said Porter, who has written most of Sorin’s songs, but worked in collaboration with the whole band on this particular one.
“It’s the song that I want to aim our music toward,” Scholar said. “‘New Heights’ has so much emotion and so much of ourselves in it.” No surprise that the band’s description of itself on its Facebook page is: “Raw energy made musical.”
“I want to challenge people with a really raw image of humanity and what it’s like to be alive in this day and age,” said Light.
Sorin will perform Feb. 8, 8 p.m., at 1078 Gallery. www.sorinmusic.bandcamp.com
—Christine G.K. LaPado-Breglia
Message to the madness
With his baggy clothes, backward hat angled to the side, blacked-out sunglasses and cool swagger, Chico MC Big Slim unquestionably has the look of a typical gangster rapper. But judging him (or anyone for that matter) on style alone provides a one-dimensional picture. The 31-year-old is earnest, thoughtful and very much aware of the potential effect his music might have on young listeners. While acknowledging that he operates within a genre with a decades-long affinity for money, sex and violence, Big Slim said he strives to make music with a higher-minded message.
Big Slim (whose real name is Nate Joyner) conceded that wasn’t always the case. When he was 19 years old, for instance, “I really wanted to be like Jay-Z on MTV or BET,” he said. “But when you start to live a little more, you realize … it’s cool to be yourself. You don’t need 1,000 chains and a 50-person entourage to make people feel you.
“Everybody wants to be a gangster thug, but I don’t know how many more of my friends have celebrated getting out of jail [instead of] graduating from college,” he continued. “In hip-hop, we celebrate the wrong things.”
To that end, Big Slim’s latest release, the six-track EP Better Way, delves into broad social and political issues. For example, in the song “PSA,” he raps over a bass-heavy arrangement reminiscent of classic Dr. Dre production: “Opinions from the ’hood unheard, irrelevant/ If the doctors all agree that weed is medicine/ Then why not legalize it and free the innocent?/ Because prison is a business, point-blank, period.”
The six tracks that compose Better Way are selections from his New Music Monday series during which he wrote and recorded a song every week for 104 consecutive weeks. It was an exhausting test of creative endurance—he came close to quitting around week 30, and multiple times after that point—but one that forced him to mature as an artist and a person.
As for the current health of Chico’s hip-hop scene, Big Slim said he feels that the inherently competitive nature of rappers has hampered cooperation in hosting shows and attracting bigger touring artists to town.
“Other musicians really support each other—you would never see Garth Brooks and Toby Keith fighting at the bar over a girl or $100, you know?”
Woven in harmony
When Jeremy Gerrard and Nolan Ford—vets of established local bands The Amblers and the Perpetual Drifters/The Secret Stolen, respectively—started talking about starting a new musical project in the spring of 2012, they had a good notion of what they wanted to avoid, and the type of reaction they wanted to invoke.
“I like the songwriter and pop genres, but I dislike how it’s all about [the music] being as cookie-cutter and accessible as it can be,” said Gerrard. “So we wanted to do some songwriter-driven rock that people don’t usually hear, something where people would say, ‘Well, it’s good and I like it, but I’m not sure exactly what to call it.’”
To meet this end, Gerrard and Ford began assembling what would eventually become five-piece band The Rugs (Gerrard, guitar, keyboard, harmonica; Ford, guitar, keys; Andrew Alvarez, bass; Austin King, drums; Katrina Rodriguez, ukulele, percussion). Driven by Gerrard’s lyrics and lead vocals (“I write the length of the songs, the band writes the breadth of them,” he said), the band plays unique, mid-tempo rock ’n’ pop driven by layered harmonies, with three of the other four members assisting on vocal duties.
As for the band’s moniker, Alvarez noted it serves a dual purpose in describing the band’s eclectic elements and as an ode to one of their shared favorite movies: “We’re all [The]Big Lebowski fans, and we also thought there are a lot of different elements here, and it really ties the room together.”
The band has already done a bit of traveling, and—other than one bad experience at a San Francisco café—said they’ve had some great experiences outside of Chico, particularly with a pair of performances at Berkeley stronghold The Starry Plough.
The band is currently in the process of recording its debut album, which the band members hope to have done in time for more touring this summer. Rather than stick to the standard studio route, they’ve enlisted the help of Matt Franklin’s (of Clouds on Strings) mobile recording wizardry to take advantage of a situation many bands dream about.
“My parents are selling their house in Forest Ranch,” Alvarez explained. “It’s mostly empty and we have it all to ourselves. It’s our own quiet little spot, with great acoustics and wide-open spaces. It’s also pretty isolated, so there’s no one around to complain about the noise. We call it The Eagle’s Nest.”
The Rugs will perform Friday, Jan. 31, 9 p.m., at Lost on Main. www.facebook.com/therugsmusic
Gimme that old-soul music
“I just woke up from a nap—that’s my excuse.” Persian Skirts vocalist-guitarist Johnny Meehan isn’t much for words when it comes to his music. It makes sense when you think about it: Meehan has always been more of a doer than a sayer.
And you can’t argue with the results. For years, Meehan and his wife, Kerra Jessen—both of whom are better known under their rock ’n’ roll surname “Shanker”—have played and recorded with their greaser garage-rock band The Shankers. Now the couple have formed the Persian Skirts (the name comes from an inside joke/sexual innuendo between the two) along with drummer extraordinaire Jake Sprecher (of The Yule Logs).
What has always connected the couple’s projects is the visceral emotion that’s born of whiskey-stewed innards and being content with playing music for themselves. What you see is what you get. Meehan and Jessen are old souls, and you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anything in their record collection post-1967.
“We listen to a lot of country. Lots of stuff from the ’50s,” Meehan explained, rattling off names like Jimmie Rodgers and Charlie Feathers. “I don’t like to call [what we do] rockabilly because that can mean so many different things.”
While The Shankers rely more on a country shuffle rhythm, the Persian Skirts are stationed more in straight rock ’n’ roll, bolstered by the hard-hitting Sprecher. Of course, it’s all rooted in the dusty grooves of old rock, soul and country records. As Meehan put it: “I guess with The Shankers and the Skirts we could always do Gories covers.”
The Persian Skirts have recorded only a handful of songs. “Makeup” is a no-nonsense garage rocker that clocks in under two minutes, while “Patter” tips more toward Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. “Throw Me” is slow and delicate (by their standards), with Jessen taking the lead with what comes across as a love story buried beneath the dead sticks and leaves.
Recording almost seems inconsequential next to the Persian Skirts’ live performances. When they creep onto the stage for a night out, it’s always an event. Dance floors fill up. People sweat. And not much has to be said. Meehan thinks more rock bands should have that kind of effect on people.
And, of course, he’d like to continue recording and playing shows, and tells me so in a way only Meehan can. “I like playing music with them. Hopefully we’ll do more things that bands are meant to do.”
I think he means it.