The Reno sound

Is there a twang or style of music that listeners can put their finger on and say, ‘That band is from Northern Nevada'?

Photo Illustration by David Jayne and David Robert

When asked if there is any such thing as “the Reno sound,” Scotty Roller, whose band, the Saddle Tramps, has repeatedly topped local “Best Of” lists, doesn’t hesitate.

“Definitely not,” he responds.

That’s a pretty blunt assessment. But it’s not an uncommon one.

“I don’t think you see so much of a local, defined scene anymore,” says Kristian Raimo, singer for the band Greyscale. “It’s not how it used to be, where you’d go to Long Island [and] you’d see a ska scene, or you’d come out here, and there’s a punk scene or whatnot. The whole country has pretty much become eclectic. There’s no real defined genre anywhere anymore.”

“Because of today’s homogenized culture, you don’t have regional music to the same level as in the past,” agrees Neil Greene, singer and guitarist for 5 Thirty 5.

So when asked, “What is the Reno sound?” many people give the same answer: “Well, it’s the same sound as everywhere else.”

“Back in the day, it was ‘the punk scene.’ Now it’s … whatever. It’s the nü metal scene, hardcore scene, all-ages punk scene, bar scene,” says Zac Damon, singer and guitarist in Big in Japan and Zoinks.

“There are punk bands here, there’s hard-rock bands, metal bands,” says Craig Belis, owner of Battle Born Records.

But he adds, “If you want to pick a genre that’s predominant, I’d say metal.”

True. If we’re just counting bands, there are probably more metal bands in town than any other genre, but no one in a metal band interviewed would claim that Reno metal is in any way different from metal in other places. It’s probably just the case that heavy bands are popular everywhere right now, so there are a lot of them here.

“There’s been an influx of bands from time to time that try to copy a certain sound and do their own little version of something that’s popular … but I certainly wouldn’t call that a sound that’s attached to this area. It’s a pretty common phenomenon,” says Damon.

But is there anything characteristically “Reno” about any of Damon’s bands?

“Well … um … no.”

What Roller sees as Reno’s lack of a musical identity is partially due to local clubs being unable or unwilling to nurture local artists. The Saddle Tramps, he says, are able to carry on as a band by frequently playing out-of-town shows.

“There’s a lot of discouragement,” he says, citing the lack of and frequent turnover of clubs that try to provide live music.

“There’s no area [in Reno] that caters to or promotes live music like the Sunset Strip in L.A. or Pioneer Square in Seattle or 6th Street in Austin.”

So what clubs aren’t providing for the musicians, the musicians are trying to provide for themselves.

“So many bands from here do everything themselves. They book shows themselves, book their own tours, bring bands here,” says Ty Williams, guitarist in Disconnect and Pink Black.

Brandon Deriso, singer for the band Obscured, established The Scene, a coalition of bands with the goal of unifying local musicians. So far 36 bands have joined. The member bands are expected to help promote shows for other bands in the coalition.

“What is cool about Reno is a lot of bands support a lot of the other bands. That’s more ‘Reno’ than a lot of other places. … At every show you go to you see people from other bands,” says Scene member Belis.

Singer/songwriter Kate Cotter echoes this sentiment.

“In general, the community … pulls together and supports each other even if we have different styles,” she says. “I guess I’m really inspired by the show of support here and the enthusiasm.”

Reno: It’s the sound of people helping people.

Baby’s in Reno with the vitamin D,

got a couple of couches, sleep on the love seat

Hellbound Glory in their element, 2004

Photo By David Robert

From “Loser”

By Beck

The standard for a regional sound most frequently cited is Seattle in the early ‘90s. Not that there aren’t other examples: Kansas City jazz, New Orleans blues, Southern California surf, San Francisco flower power, New York City’s ur-punk. Still, Seattle became synonymous with grunge when a half dozen of the city’s local bands with loose stylistic connections became wildly popular.

More than one interviewee for this article contrasted Reno with the purportedly unified Seattle sound. But it’s ridiculous to assert Seattle didn’t have a diverse music scene. So the question isn’t whether everyone in Reno is playing the same kind of music. Obviously, they are not. The question is, is there any music in Reno that wouldn’t have been made anywhere else or even just feels like the place where it came from?

It’s a question of geography, so let’s talk about geography.

Reno, as you will have noticed if you’ve looked at a map, is situated between California and Nothing-At-All. In California, to the west, there has always been a hip music scene to draw on for inspiration. To the east, there are rural communities and the desolation of the desert—also inspiring to many. And in between, there is Reno, historically known for its gambling, divorce industry, and general immorality and lack of sophistication. Definitely inspiring.

Reno, as we know it, has been shaped in large part by these three factors: its own seedy past (and present), the isolation of its surroundings and its proximity to California. If art should reflect something about where it comes from, and if we’re trying to determine whether there’s any such thing as a “Reno Sound,” we need to take into account these three factors.

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

From “Folsom Prison Blues”

By Johnny Cash

Mitch Gallagher of the rockabilly band the Trainwrecks recently attended a rockabilly festival in Las Vegas. Whenever anyone heard he was from Reno, the reaction was the same: “Johnny Cash!”

“Even foreigners said ‘Johnny Cash!’ Even Europeans and Japanese know Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno,” he says.

If you know one thing about Reno, it’s that Johnny Cash sang about shooting a man here.

If you brainstorm for other songs that mention Reno in the lyrics, another one likely to spring to mind is the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” in which a criminal leaves Reno pursued by the sheriff and Satan himself. Or perhaps you’ve heard Tom Waits’ “Hang on St. Christopher,” a nightmarish depiction of a drive to Reno with—you guessed it—Satan himself. On Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming record, there is a song titled “Reno,” in which a man has anal sex with a prostitute.

If you’ve watched the television show Reno 911 you’ve seen a town of endless trailer parks policed by inept cops. Marilyn Monroe got divorced here in The Misfits. And so on …

Outlaws, hookers, divorce—the list of such depictions of Reno could go on and on. If you live here, you might not take all this very seriously, but the choice left to an artist is whether to ignore the stereotypical version of Reno that still holds so much currency or proudly embrace it.

Possibly the most characteristically “Reno” of all bands is the Atomiks. The Atomiks have often claimed to be from Sun Valley. Apparently being from Reno isn’t sufficiently low-class—not to a Reno audience at least. Together in one form or another for a decade, the Atomiks have fairly consistently managed to pack bars, though this is probably due less to the very fine songwriting of George Pickard and more to the concomitant whiskey baptisms and nudity.

Another band to embrace the sleaziness of Reno, or at least benefit from it, is the Saddle Tramps.

“People have told us [when playing out-of-town shows] all the things lyrically summed-up in our songs—being white-trash, low-class—people think Reno is all those things we sing about,” says Roller.

Greene, who saw the “Reno Sound” most vividly represented by the Atomiks and the long-defunct cow-punk band Gunshot Licker (which featured Saddle Tramps lead guitarist Johnny Fingers), puts it this way:

“One of the major themes of those bands is vice, drinking, gambling and sometimes that desperate reach for redemption. So those bands were definitely a product of this environment.”

On the other hand, Roller, not a product of this environment (he relocated to Reno from Southern California), claims the Saddle Tramps had no intention of representing this stereotypical view of Reno. For them, it’s just a lucky fit.

“Being from Reno has helped our whole package,” because of the perception people from other cities have of Reno. But he adds, “We might as well be from Texas, or … pick a place.”

But Gallagher points out another reason that the Saddle Tramps could be described as a characteristically Reno band.

“One thing about us [the Trainwrecks], the Saddle Tramps, and Hellbound Glory—one common thread is they’re all good-time bands. Reno is a good-time place,” he says.

“Bands that you can have fun and dance and drink to—that’s the Reno sound.”

Greyscale in downtown Reno, 2004

Photo By David Robert

Rockabilly and old-time country and rock ‘n’ roll—or “Americana"—feel right for this area, says Gallagher, since, as he puts it, “Reno is kind of a hick town.”

Americana has deep roots in this area. Besides “Folsom Prison Blues,” you could trace these roots back to the folk-country-psychedelic band the Charlatans, who played their earliest shows at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City before returning to the Bay Area and helping to originate the psychedelic rock movement. It’s worth mentioning that, while in Nevada, the Charlatans fueled their creativity by dressing in silly outfits, taking hallucinogenic drugs and chasing each other around in the desert.

It’s worth mentioning because the landscape of Nevada must have some influence on the kind of music that’s made here, though how that influence plays out is hard to put your finger on.

“Some of my songs are definitely influenced by the desert and this area,” says Cotter. “I have a song that’s inspired by Pyramid Lake. For me, I like living in Nevada because it is so open, and it is so stark, and it’s so beautiful in the mountains. I like to write about the silence and how that affects you.”

“The Reno sound is the cry of the high-mountain desert, teased by the spilt beer from a motocross party, and crying out for God’s second Great Flood,” says Pickard.

One might be inclined to agree with that assessment. But what exactly does the “cry of the high-mountain desert” sound like? Does it sound like an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack? Is it sort of country-ish?

“There is a certain ‘twang’ in Reno music—an element that carries the essence of double-wide despair, the bleakness of a 12-hour warehousing shift and the anxious rush of a dealer showing ace,” says Pickard.

The “twang” he mentions takes us right back to Johnny Cash and country music in general.

“There was something in that country tinge to those bands—bands like Gunshot Licker and the Atomiks—the beautiful thing about it was, it seemed sort of symbolic of this area trying to hold on to something that it can’t—the Wild West, rural Nevada thing that the casinos and the developers are killing,” says Greene. “And it wasn’t contrived. I don’t think anyone was thinking that.”

Besides whatever effect comes from the geographic isolation of our city, stuck as it is between rugged mountains and desolate desert, Reno also provides a degree of cultural isolation. An isolation that can serve to liberate musicians to make music that wouldn’t necessarily be accepted other places.

"[Reno] is big enough that national acts can come through every once in a while, so you can get an idea what’s out there, but it’s also small enough that you’re left to come up with your own idea—there’s no real standard to fit. … It’s very acceptable to do your own thing. So there was only one band that sounded like Fall Silent, there was one band that sounded like Zoinks, there was one band that sounded like 7Seconds,” says Mac Schopen, guitarist for Crucial Attack.

We’ve seen Dog Assassin, Bafabegiya, Spotlight Syndicate, Arabella, Iron Lung. I love Pink Black. I sprained my finger pointing at Crucial Attack.

From “Love Songs Loves Us Some Reno”

By Love Songs

Some people have gone so far to say Reno is a suburb of San Francisco or (worse yet) Sacramento. Though this is a gross overstatement as well as an insult, it is true that Reno is very culturally tied to California. Consequently, an important thread in Reno rock music is hardcore punk, which originated primarily in Los Angeles. One of the early bands playing California-style punk was, unexpectedly, from Reno—7Seconds.

“Since 7Seconds, there hasn’t been a band as important or good to come out of this town that I’ve heard. Reno doesn’t really have a claim to fame except 7Seconds, and they’re more of an underground success,” says Damon.

Though two members now live in other cities, 7Seconds remain a huge influence in Reno punk rock. Everyone here is very proud of them.

“That was the band everybody was freaking out about when I was first getting into punk rock,” says Williams, who summed-up the Reno Sound as “a couple days behind everywhere else.”

“I know that Crucial Attack draws a lot of inspiration from 7Seconds—a lot,” says Schopen. “Our inspiration we try to draw is more ethical and more emotional, not so much musical.”

So this thread in Reno music continues, and, within the punk scene, Schopen claims he’s starting to hear a local sound beginning to develop, a phenomenon he’s only noticed in the past few months. Shopen, who claims that Reno used to pride itself on not having a local sound, says, “There are a lot of bands that are starting to sound similar. They’re starting to develop a regional sound. Mainly due to Josh Hageman … I think currently he’s in about four or five bands right now [Disconnect, Bafabegiya, Pink Black]. And aside from that all the people he’s in bands with, he basically tutored these kids on how to write music. So a lot of these bands are adopting his style a little bit.”

And what exactly is this style?

“Spasticky guitar parts, kind of scream, kind of shout, kind of Blood Brothers-esque vocals, and then there’s the sound he gets out of his equipment, which has been emulated,” says Schopen.

But Hageman is not the only local musician Shopen claims has had a noticeable influence on the local punk scene.

“Arabella is definitely inspired by [defunct local hardcore band] Vae Victus,” says Shopen. “I see that band, and I hear Vae Victus riffs … which is pretty cool, because Vae Victus never got the proper credit, and it’s good to see someone was paying attention.”

“It’s mainly because so many bands share members. There are only so many kids around here who are interested … but those are the kids who are motivated to do it. If you start playing musical chairs like that, eventually a sound is going to come out of it,” he says.

It may be some time before we know exactly what that sound is. Until then we can just listen to “Folsom Prison Blues,” which should immediately be made our official municipal song.

Get on that, City Council.