Sacramento's underground music scene is stronger than it's ever been. So why could it fall apart at any moment?
That’s the eternal narrative drilled into every area native’s brain from a young age. If you’re not out drinking, you’re doing nothing. No music for underage kids to dance to, no cool hangout spots to discover, no nothing. Even with that new, world-class arena, the most it gets us is a reputation for breaking Kanye West.
That old story dies, as it’s died a thousand times before, on a cold October night in a Sacramento warehouse, where a small group of art-loving folks—high schoolers to grad schoolers to old-schoolers—gathers for a vaguely advertised evening of music and performance, along with “live weddings” and “human sacrifice.”
As the crowd settles in front of a stage, it’s greeted by a procession of what appear to be occult angels in white linen and expressionless masks, writhing in red underlights. A priest in black robes, his visage obscured by a crude smiley face painted on cardboard, motions through unsettling rituals. Angels gesture hypnotically to members of the audience and pull them forward in pairs and trios, and then they stand them together, flick them with glittered water, bop their foreheads and offer them a paper certifying the wedding ceremony that just took place. A Polaroid camera captures the spontaneous newlyweds’ bliss.
After the throng of weddings concludes, another priest, this one wearing a black suit and a mask of stiff burlap, brings to the stage a new offering: a woman wrapped in wire and covered in fresh Polaroid pictures. He makes her kneel before offering her to an unseen abyss (a hole in the stage’s floor) by whacking her with a selfie stick.
That constant narrative dies with her. At least, it did for every underage kid in that room who realized for the first time that there’s at least one place to be part of a scene that doesn’t require an ID.
There’s a reason why the idea that it sucks to be a kid in Sacramento keeps coming back. It’s practically instilled here at birth. Everybody learns it early when they realize that nearly every great venue on the grid is a bar, effectively locking out the underage folks. And when it comes to the suburbs, it’s even harder to find a sanctioned, regulated and legal spot to make yourself a part of the scene.
Despair not, however. Thanks to the strenuous effort of a dedicated few age-conscious groups and venue owners about town, Sacramento’s next generation of artists is finding its footing in places like Cafe Colonial, the Colony, Sol Collective and more. But can the fragile infrastructure last?Giving youth a complex
On any given night, Cafe Colonial bustles with energy. Patrons huddle around the half-circle bar to order Pabst Blue Ribbon on draft as others try to find an open table in the crowded front room. Tables opposite the bar hold TVs connected to N64s and Playstation 2s ready for anybody itching for a run on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. On the freshly mounted wood paneling on the backing wall hang paintings and photographs made by community artists, arresting and transgressive in the audacious colors and bold images of nudity, death, joy and life.
In the small back room, a hand-built wooden stage chews up about a third of the floor space. Touring black metal bands, high school punks, singer-songwriters with their acoustic guitars and noise musicians with their theremins and racks of effect pedals all get their time to shine here.
Next door, to the right, you have the Colony, a barren room with concrete floors and Sheetrock walls bursting with vividly textured graffiti. It’s much more compact and threadbare, and all the more intimate for it. It gives off the same feeling as a punk house’s basement, except with the added benefit of a much more accessible toilet and the approval of the fire marshal. The lone ceiling fan provides a faint blessing when the crust punks huddle together inside on hot summer days.
As it stands, these adjacent venues, colloquially called “the Colonial Complex” (or, among the smarmier types, “the Colon Complex”), deserve much of the credit for serving as the backbone of all-ages music in Sacramento.
For a bit more than four years running, the venues on Stockton Boulevard in Oak Park have served as the homes of all-ages anything and everything. Without the complex giving young bands a place to get off the ground, you wouldn’t have Death Rogen’s short-lived underage punk insanity of kicked-over drum kits and vicious moshpits along with the small horde of energetic high schoolers that made up their instantly recognizable fanbase. Without the complex, the much-beloved Destroy Boys wouldn’t be getting mentioned in the same paragraph as Green Day in the pages of Rolling Stone.
Matthew Marrujo, the owner-operator of the venues (but not the nearby Colonial Theatre, it should be noted), puts access on a pedestal, in both allowing pretty much anybody to book whatever sort of show and in ensuring that anyone who wants to see anything can be there for it.
“My main goal is to make sure that everyone who comes out has a good time,” Marrujo says. “If they don’t, then I gotta think about why. I just want everyone to have fun. If they’re working, they’re having a good time; the staff, or the performers, and the people that come to see the show, have a good time.”
It’s obvious that Marrujo’s not in it for the money, primarily because there really isn’t any to be made in a venue that doesn’t sell hard alcohol and allows most, if not all, of the proceeds from the door to go to bookers and performers. And even that isn’t much, either, when covers frequently run a paltry $5-$15 per show, often on pay-what-you-can sliding scales.
Even when there is a windfall, it goes back into the venues, with repeated upgrades to sound systems and a recent interior redesign refining the DIY aesthetic.An all-ages pioneer
Marrujo got his start booking shows and providing a spot for self-expression as part of the Wherehouse, an underground venue in, well, a warehouse in south Sacramento. When a chance opened up to get into the space that became the Colony, he jumped on it, and taking over and revitalizing the old Cafe Colonial followed soon after.
In its time, the Marrujo-led Colonial Complex secured its place in Sacramento history as one of the most open venues around. Radically inclusive, outsider-loving and strikingly successful events such as LadyFest and NoiseFest call the complex home, and it even recently hosted a fest filled strictly with underage performers, fittingly called UnderRAGE.
“He’s the pioneer of all-ages venues right now,” says Richard Mathews, of First Unit Sacramento, a booking company that started mid-2016 and is only gaining more and more speed with its constant flurry of all-ages show announcements. As of last week, First Unit had 24 shows that stretch deep into 2017 either booked or being booked at the complex.
Matthews’ relationship with Marrujo goes back to those Wherehouse days, and Mathews himself had a run at booking his own warehouse when he and Tommy Catano put together ABlazin Spot in Rancho Cordova last year. The Spot brought hip-hop, rap, hardcore, metal, comedy and more to the suburbs for an all-ages audience after shows started getting booked there around May 2016. The 5,000-square-foot warehouse had it all: a hand-built stage, professional audio equipment, licensed security guards, a ready and willing audience, and shows booked out to November.
“We were pretty organized for just throwing shit together,” Catano says.
The only thing the space lacked was a permit. One day, a call from the landlord saying that police were getting interested put the nix on operations.
“We probably threw close to 20 shows,” Catano says of the final record after the place got shut down. That’s not bad for being only a month and a half in.”
Catano’s got plans to get things kicking again soon, he says—and with permits this time. Until then, if a similar show happens at all, it often goes back to the Colonial Complex (and a few other warehouses and residential homes that won’t be named here). But currently, it’s no secret to bookers that, no matter how great the complex is, it’s still not enough.Nowhere to play
Juan Nuñez knows all about the difficulties of trying to participate in Sacramento's scenes when you're underage. A lover of hardcore and extreme metal, particularly of explosively nasty grindcore, he'd lived in the city for about three years before recently turning 21—a critical development, considering that most of the shows he wanted to see were at bars he couldn't enter.
“When I first moved to Sacramento, I used to see a lot of fliers of events I really, really like,” he says. “But I felt left out.”
Even though he’s got the ID now, Nuñez is determined to spare his peers from the same alienation. He and two of his friends started El Crusty Cristo Bookings to make their own all-ages contributions to the community, especially in the field of grindcore, a subgenre that focuses on speed and aggression so obsessively that just listening to it feels like withstanding a physical attack.
Zack Samford and Michael Whittaker, the other two-thirds of El Crusty Cristo’s unholy trinity, play in bands like the Jim Kelly Kung Fu Orchestra and Kisama. They, unlike Nuñez, are still underage, adding extra urgency to their inclusionary efforts.
The group has been rather successful so far—profitability aside—pulling bands from as far as Italy and Guadalajara, Mexico (Nuñez’s hometown). Despite having booked a total number of shows just shy of double digits, the trio has already organized 420+2 Fest, a 10-band massacre of grind, hardcore and powerviolence at Cafe Colonial and the Colony in April. Even if Sacramento has only one or two grindcore-ish bands right now, the passion of El Crusty Cristo is yet finding ways to feed the clearly hungry masses.
“I know it’s not going to pay out, and I’m fine with that,” Nuñez says. “As long as the shows are happening, that’s all that matters.”
The biggest thing holding the crew back is the fact that the Colonial Complex is just about the only (legally sanctioned) all-ages place that will touch this sort of vicious music.
Starlite Lounge, perhaps the best place in town to book an extreme metal bill, can’t host an all-ages show since it serves hard liquor, and while places like Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub or Ace of Spades can host all-ages shows, multiple restrictions—cost, having to start early to be done before “bar hours,” etc.—make them reasonable options only on rare occasions. And when it comes to genres like grindcore, don’t even start to suggest cafes or other similar nooks that still put on shows, because even if it happens once, it sure as hell won’t happen a second time. (Ask Death Rogen members why they can’t hold their reunion show at Naked Lounge.)
In short, while there are many all-ages places in name, few can actually support the diversity of scenes that keep bubbling up in Sacramento.
“The problem is that we don’t have no access to them or it’s too expensive to book in those venues,” Nuñez says.
And for as much as the Colonial Complex offers, there’s only so much that can happen there, as attested to by Chris Lemos, booker at Starlite and a longtime contributor to Sacramento’s all-ages scene. His booking company, Atlantean Collective, often finds opportunities to break out of his main venue and put on an all-ages band with touring acts at the complex—but there’s a reason most of the shows stay at Starlite, and it’s not only because he works there.
“It sucks because I love this place, I love the Cafe, the Colony, but a lot of times bands have certain requirements, like greenrooms and big PA systems and miking the whole band and shit like that,” Lemos says. “There aren’t any all-ages places in Sac that do that, besides Ace of Spades. Sound is the big one that bands will not be stoked on, which sucks, because this place rules and kids need to be able to go to shows.”
And even as the Colonial Complex continues to serve as one constant safe harbor for youth interested in fringe subcultures, some of the places that used to cater to underage audiences are drying up.
“Take the Boardwalk, for example,” Lemos says. “They’re going 21-and-up now, right? In Orangevale, in the suburbs, where there’s nothing else to do. There’s gonna be so many kids that are looking for something to do, and there’s not something to fill that void, so they’re going to, like, turn to drugs and that shit, you know? Kids need to have something positive—whether you think going to a black metal show that’s all-ages is a positive thing or not, that’s up to you.”
Thankfully, the folks that used to book the Boardwalk, Eric Rushing and Bret Bair of Ace of Spades fame, are set to open a new all-ages venue somewhere in the suburbs next year, fittingly called Holy Dive Bar. (If you’ve been down too long in the midnight sea, you’ll get the name.)
But, even as new venues rise up to replace old ones, will that be enough to spread all-ages culture?Buried history
As all-ages venues come and go, a look to the past holds answers for the future.
The Sacramento music scene has a long history of keeping the kids down, and it also has a history of those same kids rising up in glorious resistance. William Burg, local writer and historian, could tell tales forever about the trials and tribulations of live music in the city, mostly because he’s lived a good portion of it.
As both a promoter of NorCal NoiseFest—the nation’s longest-running fest dedicated to exhibiting some of the most extreme, ear-warping music—and as a former resident of Casa de Chaos, one of the city’s most prominent punk houses, he’s had firsthand experience with the forces at work. He’s spent much of his time researching and publishing books analyzing and chronicling the fights that shape our music culture today.
The struggles reach back to the 1960s, with Sheriff John Misterly’s infamously overzealous disdain for hippies and drug culture, leading to constant pressure on coffee shops, rock festivals and teen centers. Tensions relaxed a bit once Misterly left in the early ’70s, but even as the city allowed more live music, the hated “dance permits” throttled more than a few cultural scenes, according to Burg’s book, Midtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City.
The permits set archaic rules for live entertainment venues and were only selectively applied by the time classic all-ages venues like Club Minimal in Curtis Park came into existence in the early ’80s. As such, they were often used as flimsy excuses to allow police interference in otherwise legal scenes.
The permit issue came to a head when Club Minimal’s promoter Stewart Katz organized a punk protest march on City Hall on July 29, 1983, resulting in a nearly immediate issuance of a permit to the venue but not much else. Eventually, police snooping dogged Club Minimal out of existence anyway, a prime example of what led to the development of permit-free underground spaces like punk houses and warehouse venues.
In the ’90s, new venues such as the original Capitol Garage kept the fire burning above ground. As for below, spots like the Loft created a place for those on the outside of the outsiders. Scott Soriano, currently the owner-operator of S.S. Records and Sol Re Sol Records, started booking shows there around 1991 and played an integral part in managing the all-ages space.
“We wanted people to have a place to play; if there’s a scarcity of space, which there sometimes is on a bill, we’re going to give it to people who didn’t have a chance to get it elsewhere,” Soriano says.
The Loft, situated above and to the back of Time Tested Books, on 21st Street, never applied for any permits, a conscious choice by the management, as they “knew it was impossible to get any kind of permits,” he says. So they policed themselves and kept the profile low until, perhaps inevitably, cops starting paying more attention, bringing about the space’s self-determined demise around 2001.
After what many local music enthusiasts call a lull over the last nearly two decades, the scene has been on a hot streak in the last three or so years, depending on whom you ask. Many of the all-ages developments have to do with the Colonial Complex, but the work done at venues such as Starlite, Ace of Spades, Press Club, Midtown Barfly, Sol Collective, Blue Lamp, Torch Club, Old Ironsides, Harlows and now even Goldfield Trading Post can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.
So if we’re in such a golden age, how does Sacramento keep it going?
As with most issues in life, the problem with building a sustainable, all-ages scene in Sacramento boils down to one component: money.
“You can’t foster an all-ages scene in a bar,” Lemos says. “But it’s hard to make money on the music scene if you’re not selling alcohol of some type.”
Every booker, band member and venue owner interviewed for this story came to the same conclusion: Without booze, there’s no money. Without money, there’s no scene.
But without the kids, there’s no life.
Drew Walker, longtime local event organizer, is deeply connected with all-ages scenes, having spent time booking shows with Jerry Perry at Luigi’s Fun Garden. Walker played a role in the venues Bows & Arrows and Witch Room. His take? The city needs to step up and support the arts.
“We need to see fewer restrictions on venues in the city limits so the youth culture can express themselves,” Walker says.
Burg agrees and proposes that the city recognize the value of “low-return” investments in culture, through supporting bookstores, venues and other enterprises that brighten life but have a hard time turning a profit. And while big infrastructure projects are nice, they won’t help the less wealthy people of the city, and they won’t inspire regional art.
“There’s kind of this assumption that the arena will take care of it, but local bands won’t play there,” Burg says.
Until the day city policies change, it’s up to private residents such as Marrujo to keep the door open for the youth. It’s fortunate, then, that the Colonial Complex isn’t the only place in town.Inspiring change
A young man stands outside of Sol Collective in December's 50-degree weather, his eyes cast down as he counts out an invisible tempo. His fingers stand at the ready on his trumpet, lightly twitching in confident strokes. It's hard to tell if he's on his own beat or if the music bleeding out from the wall behind guides him as he blasts out short notes.
Inside, performers radiate gratitude as they get the crowd swaying with their homegrown beats. Hobo Johnson can’t keep a smile from his face as he spits bars behind his keyboard; Dre-T praises Sol Collective and its musician collective, Sol Life, for giving him the tools and the support needed to be on the stage before rapping a tribute to his young daughter. Without this space, without this support, these artists and countless others wouldn’t have gotten the chance to express themselves, to see and to be seen.
Between sets, Andru Defeye, the leader of the arts collective Zero Forbidden Goals, blesses the audience for their support—after all, tonight’s one of many fundraisers held to help Sol Collective purchase their building on 21st Street off of Broadway. Then he kicks into high-flying spoken-word poetry, and when he finishes, another voice with new verses fires out from the crowd—full of young and old alike, a visual demonstration of our city’s diversity—and then another voice, and another, snapping off words of determination, of resilience, of liberation that ring from without and from within.
The vibe pulses so viscerally that it’s enough to make Old City Cemetery across the road feel alive.
Salvin Chahal, the collective’s creative director, is one of the poets shocking the audience with his passionate words of resistance and hope. Tonight, he’s keeping things moving, both with his art and with his quick work serving tacos and bottles of water behind a makeshift counter.
The show is just one of many all-ages performances that Sol Collective’s been hosting for more than a decade, and Chahal is an integral part of selecting the performers. He works not only to help book the shows, but also to provide the infrastructure needed to get onstage in the first place: connecting artists with the resources provided by the space, such as the in-house recording studio; making connections between venues, promoters and performers; and linking up artists to join the Sol Life musical collective, which provides a platform for marketing, production, distribution and more.
Chahal’s work is but part of the space’s multifaceted approach to community building that’s been employed since Sol Collective opened in 2005. Art workshops and exhibitions, traditional healing seminars, poetry nights, lessons in activism and history—the collective’s mission is to provide a space for whatever expertise a member of the community is willing to share, and a space for anyone to come and take it in.
That approach means that, despite being an all-ages community center, it isn’t a place where kids are running around with free rein all the time, Chahal says. There’s a purpose to everything hosted, whether that’s restorative, educational or inspirational, and that’s the only way to build sustainable, leaderless movements, by diversifying and allowing young and old to mingle and to pass along cherished knowledge and skills.
That all-ages aspect still remains perhaps more significant for the youth, though. Chahal himself started coming in about five years ago, when he was around 18 years old, with his spoken-word poetry team, and after a year of seeing what Sol Collective offered, it finally clicked, he says. Now 22, he’s published a book of poetry called Verses from Above, helped organize art exhibitions and poetry showcases for artists of color and taken part in getting Sol Life its own showcase at 2015’s South By Southwest.
“The mere existence of this place inspires change,” Chahal says.
On the night of the fundraiser, PRVLGS rips into psychedelic funk jams as the Philharmonik lays down twisting, soul-infused verses. The trumpet player is inside now, leaning on a wall and tossing in infrequent notes as he figures out the melody. Soon enough he’s onstage, leaning back to blow his horn as the crowd leans forward to hear him. By the time the next song rolls around, they’ve got him miked. As the set ends, people start figuring out that he was never part of the band in the first place—but considering how he played, he might as well have been. The space was made for him, and he contributed beautiful art in return.
“All-ages is all ages,” Chahal says. “It’s not just for the youth.”