Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

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Buckle up: An epic itinerary for North Park Music Thing

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This article, printed in the Aug. 11 issue of CityBeat, won’t be any use to you now, of course. But it’s worth keeping for the record books.

If this year’s North Park Music Thing is notable for anything, it’s sheer ambition. Just look at the numbers: 153 bands, musicians and DJs; 15 venues; two nights.

Now in its third year, the festival (organized by the San Diego Music Foundation, whose president is CityBeat publisher Kevin Hellman) is the biggest local music showcase of the year, featuring two days of seminars with music-industry movers and shakers and two nights of music in bars in North Park, South Park and Normal Heights, featuring small acts, local favorites and a handful of touring bands mostly from California.

But who’s worth seeing? I’ve come up with an epic itinerary to get you through the weekend:


8 p.m.: This one’s a toss-up. Brother duo Writer (at U-31) makes unique, roughly hewn indie rock. Neon Cough (at The Office) offer up jangly pop with saccharine melodies. Street of Little Girls (at Whistle Stop) play epic gypsy-rock with biting lyrics and sugary-sweet vocals.

9 p.m.: If you’ve seen Jamuel Saxon (Bar Pink) more than once, you know that Keith Milgaten’s solo project is never the same twice. Whether he’s manning a laptop as guys covered with white sheets drum ominously on floor toms or he’s playing keyboards with a full band, expect a fevered brand of pop gold with hypnotic synths, Auto-Tuned vocals and dance-y beats.

10 p.m.: One of the best jazz singers in the city, if not the best, Miss Erika Davies (Claire de Lune) has a magnificent, mature voice that flutters fragilely, soars confidently and bends smoothly across registers, augmented with her ukulele and Jon Garner’s lithe guitar. It’s enough to make you wonder why she’d bother playing a local-music showcase when she could be touring Europe.

11 p.m.–midnight: Kadan Club has a hip-hop showcase with plenty of quality MCs, among them the dynamic duo Parker and the Numberman (9:20 p.m.) and the freaky Lady Xplicit (10:40 p.m.). But the highlight is Deep Rooted (11:40 p.m.), local hip-hop mainstays who serve up inspired, cutting rhymes. There’s also an MC battle kicking off at midnight.

12:35 a.m.: Known as much for their sharp suits as their spirited take on folk, gospel and Americana, the gentlemen of The Silent Comedy (U-31) seem to come straight from an older, weirder America. Their latest album, Common Faults, won a San Diego Music Awards nomination. But their live show is another story—one CityBeat writer compared it to a Pentecostal tent revival.

Other highlights: Tape Deck Mountain (U-31, 8:45), Jhameel (The Office, 8:45), Lights On (Whistle Stop, 9:50), Sister Crayon (AC Lounge, 10). John Meeks (Lestat’s, midnight)


4 p.m.: Stop by Tin Can Ale House (1863 Fifth Ave. in Bankers Hill) for a free pre-party with performances by Chairs Missing and Vegetarian Werewolf, two great new local acts. Chairs Missing plays radiant acoustic indie rock, while Vegetarian Werewolf dissects the universe with a keyboard and a boom box.

8 p.m.: Make sure you catch up-and-coming indie rockers D/Wolves (Soda Bar). Lead songwriter Joel Williams happens to be the little brother of the dude from Wavves, but don’t expect irreverent lo-fi from these accomplished young musicians. Their melodious, unpredictable songcraft is undergirded with a killer rhythm section that has the expressiveness of a jazz combo.

9:25 p.m.: If you’re looking for folk music with that indescribably magical feeling, you’ll find it in San Juan Capistrano’s The Union Line (Sunset Temple Room, 2906 University Ave.), with their glistening guitars, rolling drums and haunting choruses. But let’s not forget about the wonderful Chairs Missing (Ruby Room), for whom a clone would come in handy.

10:30 p.m.: There’s nothing quite like the Beach Boys-meets- Captain Beefheart mindfuck of Heavy Hawaii (Soda Bar): disjointed lo-fi arrangements, dissonant rock riffs, ghoulish oohaah vocals that sound like a parody of Animal Collective. I can’t help but feel that they’re on to something.

11:30 p.m.: New Mexico (Bar Pink), the new incarnation of much-beloved rock band Apes of Wrath, has a new set of songs that’re pared-down, hard-driving and so awesome that somebody at a recent show felt compelled to pick the guitarist up mid-song and carry him around the room. Seriously.

Other highlights: Hyena (U-31, 10:35), Sleep Lady (Eleven, 10:45), Sleepwalkerz (Queen Bee’s, 11:15), Abe Vigoda (Soda Bar, 11:30), Lord Howler (Kadan Club, 12:30), The Screamin’ Yeehaws (Ken Club, 12:50).

Lineups are subject to change. Double-check schedules at


Written by Peter Holslin

August 19, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Theocracy bites: Indie-rockers Hypernova won’t return to Iran any time soon

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Raam (second from right) cut his teeth in basement shows - Photo by Jeffrey Grossman

If you think making it big here is hard, try being a rock band in Iran—where rock music is officially considered a decadent vice of Western imperialists.

Alcohol is banned and music venues are nonexistent in Iran, so the rock band Hypernova spent seven years in Tehran’s underground scene, playing basement shows and birthday parties. There aren’t any legal recording studios, so they recorded their 2006 EP, Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran?, in their friend’s crappy home studio. They’ve been doing much better since their move to the United States in 2007—they’re living in Brooklyn and touring nationally—but they still hide their real identities to protect their families back home.

“The problem with the underground is there’s only so much you can do there,” says Raam, the band’s 29-yearold lead singer and guitarist, in a recent phone interview. “You’re either going to end up in prison or you’re not going to make any money. You’re not going to be able to pursue that other career unless you’re rich enough to just play in your own basement for the rest of your life.”

They don’t have any plans to return home any time soon—in part because it’s a foregone conclusion that they’d be thrown in jail for a song like “Viva la Resistance,” the second track on their debut full-length, Through the Chaos. Over a muted guitar and a bouncy bass line reminiscent of The Strokes, Raam sings, “Your theocratic, neo-fascist ideology / is only getting in the way of my biology.”

In a way, Raam says, they’re better off outside Iran.

“The more success we see over here,” he says, “the more hope it gives to all the kids back home.”

Iranians have always been keen on Western music (on YouTube, there’s an amazing video from 1991 of some Persian dudes break-dancing at a party in Tehran), but Iranian music has gained wider popularity in the year since the birth of the Green Movement, a grassroots civil-rights campaign kick-started by the controversial reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats shed light on Tehran’s underground music scene and an adorable indie-pop duo called Take it Easy Hospital. Shahin Najafi, a Persian rapper based in Germany, has become famous for cutting rhymes that attack Iran’s oppressive theological strictures.

But as the Iranian government does all it can to crush the Green Movement, they’ve raised the stakes for artists looking to speak out.

When Raam, who describes himself as “non-religious,” first started playing with Hypernova drummer Kami in 2000, the country was undergoing liberal reforms under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami. “Holding a girl’s hand in public was almost impossible 10 years ago,” Raam says. “But during Khatami, small things like that became more culturally acceptable.”

But today, the government is reportedly cracking down harder than ever before. Peaceful demonstrators have been attacked by paramilitary youths wielding batons. Bloggers and filmmakers have been arrested and kept in solitary confinement. In December, Iranian authorities detained and intimidated Shahram Nazeri, a respected vocalist who recorded a protest song; he’s been silent ever since.

And don’t even think about holding a girl’s hand.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance went so far as to impose guidelines on men’s hairstyles.

“It’s going to take time, but I really do think that struggle is going to prevail,” Raam says. “I think one of the greatest points about the Green Movement, and just the movement of the people, is that they’re demanding that all fundamental basic rights be respected. Everyone should have the freedom to be and follow what they want—but, more importantly, everyone should also be represented equally.”

To its detriment, Hypernova isn’t all that different from countless other bands. Straight-ahead rock songs like “Universal” and “Fairy Tales” may be incredibly catchy, but they’re not groundbreaking or unique. But maybe Raam’s being too harsh when he freely says that Hypernova’s music is “far from good.” To be sure, they’re making headway by introducing synths and live sequencing, dispensing with the tired Strokes formula that defines most of Through the Chaos.

Still, it’s unclear whether they’ll ever reach their ultimate ambition: global recognition.

“For us, the goal is to become so famous and so big one day that when we go back home, we’ll be untouchable,” Raam says. “Like, you know, ‘Do your worst.

Throw me into jail.’ “But, hopefully, it won’t come to that,” he adds. “I don’t want to go to Iranian jail.”

Hypernova plays with The Black Diamond Riders at Bar Pink on Sunday, July 18.

This article ran in last week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat.

Written by Peter Holslin

July 20, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Revolucion del Hipster

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Antonio Jiménez of María y José; photo by Ricardo Aragón.

This article ran in the July/August issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

In Zona Centro, the downtown district in Tijuana, a city on the U.S.–Mexico border just south of San Diego, DIY-chic is all the rage. La Mezcalera, a mezcal bar and nightclub that’s regarded as the city’s own Studio 54, is decorated with Simon Says consoles and old LPs. Indie Go, one of four bars that sit in the hipster enclave Callejon de la Sexta, masks its plywood décor with deep-red lighting, a wall-sized mirror, and the all-encompassing thud of a techno beat.

As for La Bodega Aragón…well, it’s just DIY.

One Friday night in May, the tiny club’s walls were still sticky with wet paint. Bartenders served drinks in the kind of plastic cups you’d find at a house party. The P.A. system was scratchy; the microphone cut out intermittently. Worst of all, the lighting was installed incorrectly. Instead of lighting up the performers onstage, a machine’s flickering red, green, and blue lights blinded the four dozen college students in the audience.

But I didn’t come for the ambiance. At the invitation of Derrik Chinn, an American who lives in Tijuana, I came to see the Guacamole Music Fest, a two-day festival put on by the University of Baja California that played host to electro bands from across Mexico and Latin America, including some of Tijuana’s best up-and-coming acts.

Colorful lasers shot into the crowd. Gray smoke was ejected from a machine. Santos, an electronic dance outfit from Tijuana, broke down the musical formula invented by Nortec Collective—a world-famous assemblage of D.J.s and producers who mix techno with norteño, an accordion-driven genre popular in northern Mexico—to its basest parts: over a humongous four-to-the-floor beat, a young man used a laptop and a USB keyboard to fire off triumphant rave synths and snippets of accordion and tuba looped ad nauseam. As if that wasn’t enough, a live drummer added fills to the relentless groove.

When it comes to dance music, Tijuana’s claim to fame is Nortec Collective. Their mashups perfectly capture how the city’s disparate cultures often sit side by side, feeding off each other. On the opening track of Corridos Urbanos, a new album by Nortec’s Clorofila, the interplay between honking accordions and glistening synths mirrored the scene at La Bodega Aragón. In the club, young people played dance music on laptops. At the Hotel Aragón bar next door, guys in cowboy hats played tunes on guitars and accordions. Drink in hand, I freely traversed the two spaces.

But in the 10 years since Nortec first emerged, their romantic sound hasn’t evolved the way Tijuana has. Ten years ago, navy boys and college co-eds would flock here to get plastered at gaudy balcony bars. But since the September 11 attacks, tourist traffic has gradually waned. In 2008, at the height of the city’s drug violence, tourists deserted the city completely.

In their absence, locals have reclaimed the area as their own. Tourist bars have been colonized by hipsters. Shuttered gift shops and old storage spaces have turned into vintage clothing stores and bars. And venues like La Sexta House of Music and La Bodega Aragón are supporting a burgeoning local music scene, with bands like Santos capturing the rawness of it all.

By all accounts, the hipster transformation began with a mezcal bar.

In 2008, rival drug cartels were fighting a savage war on Tijuana’s streets. Victims were being decapitated or castrated. Their tongues were being cut out. The really unlucky ones would be stuffed into vats of acid.

The violence had a chilling effect on the city’s thriving nightlife. High-priced clubs and restaurants became magnets for kidnapping and violence. Locals would stay home. Or they would hang out at bars in the city’s red-light district, where they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Along Avenida Revolucion, the main tourist drag downtown, there were no gringos to be found.

As the months wore on, Tijuanenses eventually grew tired of staying cooped up inside, club owners and residents say. When La Mezcalera opened its doors on Calle Sexta near Revolucion in January 2009, it hit a nerve. The bar quickly took on a diverse clientele. When more and more patrons began asking for drinks besides mezcal and beer, the bar’s owners emptied out an old storage space adjoining the front room, painted the walls, added a disco ball, and opened up an incredibly chic, if modestly-sized, nightclub.

Within a year, according to Sergio Gonzalez, a co-owner of La Mezcalera, over a dozen bars opened in the area.

“Without realizing, I think they began a revolution in Tijuana’s nightlife,” Lorena Cienfuegos, the co-owner of Indie Go, told me. “We started consuming music from our country, rather than importing it. We started going out—that was something we were [previously] afraid of because of the violence.”

Tijuana may be a vice city, but musicians and club owners say it’s a conservative one.

“In general, Tijuanenses tend to play it quite safe when deciding which shows to attend,” Moisés Horta, who plays in the band Los Macuanos, told me via e-mail. “It’s never really been an issue of musical quality so much as production value. The undecided spectator will more often than not lean toward the party with the biggest budget, the glossiest flyer, and the swankiest venue.”

When I visited, La Bodega Aragón was anything but swanky—and the very antithesis of big-budget. On the second night of the Guacamole Music Fest, Antonio Jiménez of María y José, a solo electronic project, sounded like a lo-fi Panda Bear as he sang casually over sample-driven Latin grooves and simple synth melodies playing from—what else?—a computer.

In the same way that downtown’s DIY-chic runs in the opposite direction of the gaudy bars that used to define Avenida Revolucion, acts like María y José are running away from the overblown raves that have defined electronic music in Tijuana. Three years ago, Jiménez and the guys who would later become Los Macuanos—Moisés Horta, Moisés López, and Reuben Torres, all in their early 20s—started throwing “No Rave” parties in Tijuana and Chula Vista, a U.S. city just south of San Diego, where they played minimal house, funky no-wave, and “random noise,” Horta said.

“At that time, electronic music in Tijuana consisted of massive cash cows masquerading as raves, with D.J.s you’d never even heard of and music you couldn’t care less about,” he wrote. “So our response, naturally, was to create our own scene.”

María y José’s song “Espíritu Invisible” brought their scene to a new level. The song’s hypnotic groove and darkly spiritual lyrics—“And where did your great God go? / He took everything and left you the pain,” Jiménez sings in Spanish, as I’ve roughly translated—inspired them to be more personal and regional. The results show in El Fin Mix, released online by New Other Thing, in which Los Macuanos offer up danceable yet dark grooves laden with Afro-Cuban horns and Latin rhythms.

At this point, whatever they’ve created is still in its infancy, Horta says. But with homey electro bands like Tijuana’s Ibi Ego and Aguascalientes’s Capullo on the scene, something refreshingly un-electro-trash seems to be growing.

It certainly helps that there are new venues downtown.

“The proliferation of venues has definitely afforded more options, not to mention the fact that you have a large cross-section of your potential audience cramped within a relatively tiny radius,” Horta wrote to me. “There’s a high possibility that drifting spectators might accidentally come upon your show and become hooked as a result. Of course, there’s an equal chance that people might just wander out in the middle of your show. But in general, I think the possibilities are more beneficial.”

Calle Sexta, a bustling street that cuts through Revolucion, forms the center of Tijuana hipsterdom. At the corner of Revolucion and Calle Sexta, La Sexta House of Music books bands and D.J.s. Just down the street, La Estrella, one of the city’s oldest and most cherished clubs, sits right next door to La Mezcalera. Across the street, there’s the longtime hotspot Dandy Del Sur. A short walk away, the cozy alleyway Callejon de la Sexta is always overflowing with young hipsters.

Tijuana’s violence has dropped significantly since January, when federal police captured Teodoro Garcia Simental, a ruthless crime lord responsible for much of the violence. Now, hipness is expanding beyond Calle Sexta.

One sunny Saturday in June, I walked around the area surrounding Avenida Revolucion with Jason Fritz, a graduate student at San Diego State University who lives in Tijuana. A pitiful donkey painted with zebra stripes was lounging on the street—as it has been for as long as I can remember. At pharmacies, salespeople in white lab coats hawked discount drugs. Aside from that, though, this wasn’t the same Avenida Revolucion I remember from my childhood.

We checked out vintage clothing stores. We ate at a gourmet hamburger joint. At a cavernous mall once filled with indistinguishable gift shops, a painter worked in his studio, a graffiti store had designer spray cans on display, and a barista at a quaint café was making cappuccinos.

On the corner of Revolucion and Calle Sexta, La Mezcalera’s Gonzalez and his business partner, César Fernández, were overseeing the construction of a ’60s-themed diner. Construction workers were putting up posters of Andy Warhol–style Campbell’s Soup cans labeled “Pozole,” referring to the popular Mexican stew.

Around the corner we ran into Tony Tee, a local promoter, who showed us around a sleek new club he was designing called Revue, which was quite the departure from the garish balcony bars of tourist-era Revolucion. Inside, I admired a spacious D.J. booth that was under construction.

Tee was feeling optimistic.

“Instead of trying to attract the tourists, we’re gonna attract locals,” he said. “But you know what’s going to happen? The tourists are going to come, too.”

Tireless intellect: As Vegetarian Werewolf, John Paul Labno ponders the universe

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Photo by Maria Maria Photography.

In the year since the breakup of his old band, Grand Ole Party, John Paul Labno’s proven to be an unstoppable force. Along with his girlfriend, Sasha Pfau, he’s the creative force behind indie-soul band The Hot Moon. He plays tenor sax in Mr. Tube & The Flying Objects, a quirky funk outfit headed by Pall Jenkins of The Black Heart Procession. To pay the bills, he serves coffee at Gelato Vero, the café next door to his Middletown apartment. In his off hours, he writes songs for a new solo project called Vegetarian Werewolf.

Recently, the 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist powered through a marathon week: The Hot Moon went into the studio to record their new album, Mr. Tube had rehearsals for a show at The Casbah and he prepared for this week’s solo CD-release party at Tin Can Ale House. But in an interview at his cozy apartment the week prior, he said he wasn’t overwhelmed.

“In a certain sort of way, I feel like it keeps me a little more level-headed,” he said, as he double-fisted soy chai lattés. “I have plenty of stuff to do as it is. Anything going tremendously successfully would only mean more stuff to do.

“Which is fine,” he’s quick to add.

Vegetarian Werewolf grew out of his own restlessness last October, when Hot Moon bassist Jovi Butz and drummer Jason Hooper went on tour with Jenkins for three months. With nothing better to do, Labno sat down to make The Blood Count Step, a 28-minute one-off that’s being released on cassette tape by Factual Fabrications, a small label based in Brooklyn.

The record’s 11 songs were inspired by the high-intensity soundtrack of Nintendo’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, only it’s been slowed down to a spooky dub crawl. Recording all the instruments himself, the 40-day endeavor pushed Labno in new directions: He’s taken up keyboards, and he’s singing for the first time.“It’s like a novelty record,” he said. “I wasn’t so sure I could make a record at all—and it turns out I can. So now I’m writing another one.”

Where Grand Ole Party radiated animalistic energy and The Hot Moon oozes soulfulness, Vegetarian Werewolf combines Spartan ingenuity with intellectual curiosity. In “Man and Machine,” a new demo that Labno plans to put on a proper Vegetarian Werewolf debut, he explores the romance between humans and computers. “Evening time, a glass of wine / Time to plug in,” he sings over a beat that juxtaposes a squeaking Sharpie with a clicking typewriter. “Digital world lets him be who he wants / Digital woman loves him for who he is.”

As Labno explains, the solo project works as an engine for his need to make sense of the world.

“Do you accept the fact that things can seem so droll and mundane that, therefore, things are meaningless and there’s so much crap out there that we’re just lost in a confused haze? Or do you keep looking?” he wondered. “I choose to keep looking. I think it keeps me feeling a lot better. I try to keep my picture of the world growing, because I feel like if it gets stuck at any one place, things start to become a lot more difficult.”

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the project seems to capture how Labno’s making sense of his current circumstances.

Last year, he was playing guitar for a band that was hitting its stride, recording an album in Atlanta with Ben Allen—who produced Animal Collective’s landmark Merriweather Post Pavilion—and preparing to go on tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But when Grand Ole Party split, he had to start fresh. Today, he writes his solo material in his bedroom, recording songs on his laptop and using his floor as a kick pedal.

In “Light of Day,” another new demo, the chorus might reflect the radical difference between then and now: “It’s so hard to let go of the phantoms we’ve grown used to / Everything I used to know is as a dream.”

He could use a day off, he says. But he’s not gloating. “Whether people like the music I’m making or not, or whether I’m playing to 20 people or 2,000 people or whatever, I’m in my fuckin’ house making as much music as I can every day,” he said. “It’s the same thing I’ve always been doing.”

Vegetarian Werewolf will celebrate the release of The Blood Count Step at Tin Can Ale House on Thursday, July 8.

This article ran in last week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat.

Written by Peter Holslin

July 7, 2010 at 4:18 pm

If I Were U: 5/26-6/1

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My first “If I Were U” column for CityBeat. Check out more coverage from this week here and here.

In the clubs

The Melvins (photo by Mackie Osborne)

Wednesday, May 26

PLAN A: Isis, Jakob @ The Casbah. One of L.A.’s most influential metal bands, Isis is always a sight to see, churning out unpredictable sludge informed as much by Pink Floyd as electro-acoustic glitch artist Fennesz. But tonight’s show will be especially monumental—they’re going to break up at the end of their tour. PLAN B: Drew Grow and The Pastors’ Wives @ Bar Pink. There’s good reason this Portland group is getting buzz around the Northwest—the haunting, expansive blues-rock on songs like “Blister” and “Spider” has the breathtaking qualities of Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s enough to send chills down your spine. BACKUP PLAN: Little Brother @ 4th & B.

Thursday, May 27

PLAN A: Frog Eyes, Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band @ The Casbah. Frog Eyes are like the Xiu Xiu of Canada. Songs like “Bushels” and “Reform the Countryside” are freakishly beautiful, their ornate arrangements led by Carey Mercer’s fragile voice. It’s the kind of thing indie geeks obsess over while everybody else wonders why. Thankfully for everyone else, Mt. St. Helens’ jangly rock is way more down-to-Earth. PLAN B: Longstay, Arrows, Pepper Rabbit, DJ Colour Vision @ Beauty Bar. Now here’s an unlikely lineup: Longstay make dainty indie pop (think a watered-down version of the Modest Mouse offshoot Ugly Casanova) while Arrows offer infectious new-new-wave reminiscent of trendy glo-fi acts like Washed Out and Memory Tapes. BACKUP PLAN: The Infamous Swanks @ Radio Room.

Friday, May 28

PLAN A: Spectrum, Pearl Harbor, Heavy Hawaii @ Soda Bar. As much as I love Soda Bar’s quality sound system and cushy booths, the awesome Spectrum—a descendant of the widely influential U.K. psych-rock band Spacemen 3—deserve a bigger venue. I can only hope that their hypnotic grooves and all-consuming sound effects burrow into the soul of even the most distracted bar-goer. PLAN B: Dirty Sweet, Transfer, The Silent Comedy, Apes of Wrath @ Birch North Park Theatre. Ranging from Transfer’s expansive rock to Apes of Wrath’s straight-up rock, this all-local lineup has the makings of a memorable show—even if you have to rock out while seated. BACKUP PLAN: My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Psychotica, DJs Lance Boling, EJ @ Beauty Bar.

Saturday, May 29

PLAN A: Boomsnake, Hosannas, Superhumanoids, Snuffaluffagus @ Che Café. It’s hard to say which band I’d rather see: They’re all doing fiercely unique things with electronics (often mixing them with live instruments), and I expect they’ll all give spellbinding performances. But I’m especially psyched to see how Solana Beach’s Snuffaluffagus will render its intricate, bizarre balladry on stage. PLAN B: Zion I, Kiwi, Rocky Rivera, RRS Feed @ Epicentre. On par with underground hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli and Aesop Rock, Oakland duo Zion I deliver innovative beats and thoughtful rhymes—it’s like what Lil’ Wayne might sound like if he converted to the Nation of Islam. And don’t miss Rocky Rivera, whose languid rhymes are nothing short of badass. BACKUP PLAN: Scarlet Symphony, The Constellation Branch, Lands on Fire @ Tin Can Ale House.

Sunday, May 30

PLAN A: Nas, Damian Marley @ Harrah’s Rincon Casino. Nas and Damian Marley make an iconic pair in Distant Relatives, which came out last week. Pitchfork called the album preachy, but the legendary rapper and renowned reggae artist reportedly have great chemistry onstage as they split the difference between hardened New York hip-hop and sweltering Jamaican dancehall in tracks like “Nah Mean” and “Land of Promise.” PLAN B: D-Pain, Lion Cut, Smile Now Cry Later, Free*Stars @ The Casbah. A rapper who excoriates polluters? I’m there. BACKUP PLAN: Ox Eyes, The Hot Toddies, Dreamboat @ Tin Can Ale House.

Monday, May 31

PLAN A: Emily Jane White, Brothers Grimm @ Soda Bar. I look forward to seeing Emily Jane White, a promising young singer-songwriter whose latest album, Victorian America, ranges between ghostly (“The Ravens”) and wry (“The Country Life”). As for Brothers Grimm, it’s the side project of a couple of smartly dressed brothers who play in a certain evangelically disposed band we covered recently. PLAN B: Monarques, Marquez! @ Tin Can Ale House. Portland’s Monarques conjure images of antique stores and ’50s diners with their retro rock—not exactly my idea of a good time—but I wouldn’t want to miss Marquez!’s rock en español, which we hailed as “stunning” in our local-music issue. BACKUP PLAN: Lady Dottie and the Diamonds @ U-31.

Tuesday, June 1

PLAN A: The Melvins, Totimoshi, Rats Eyes @ The Casbah. In a metal universe composed of categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, The Melvins have remained The Melvins: Tight, angular and scary. And they’re not slowing down any time soon—their latest album, The Bride Screamed Murder, comes out today. PLAN B: X, A Frames, Christmas Island, Nude Boy @ Soda Bar. No, this isn’t the legendary L.A. punk band. It’s the legendary Australian punk band, whose junky riffs on songs like “Dipstick” and “Suck Suck” are memorable in their own right. Seattle’s A Frames will set the mood with their skuzzy noise rock.

Hypewave: No matter what one pseudonymous blogger says, Neon Indian’s warped synth-pop isn’t just some ’80s throwback

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Photo by Ben Rowland.

Alan Palomo, the 21-year-old force behind Neon Indian, keeps it real: His synths are analog, his lyrics personal, his electro-pop unabashedly sentimental. But since getting catapulted from his bedroom, through the blogosphere and onto Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in a matter of months, he’s wound up at the center of a genre that seems to exist in name only: chillwave.

It’s not his fault. Ever since the term was coined last July by Carles, the pseudonymous proprietor of the pop-culture blog Hipster Runoff, the hype machine has turned “chillwave” into a bona-fide craze. In February, Pitchfork dubbed summer 2009 “the summer of chillwave.” In March, The Wall Street Journal dutifully reported on the trend. In April, MTV elicited backlash from Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino after erroneously asserting that she’s “embraced the chillwave sound.” On Twitter, she raged: “What the fuck is chillwave?????”

It’s catchy and winsome. It’s nostalgic for the ’80s. It was recorded in someone’s bedroom. And it doesn’t matter that when the hype tsunami crested, hardly any chillwavers actually knew each other, lived in the same state or considered themselves chillwave.

It’s chillwave, dude—who cares?

Of course, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that this is really just a hoax. Carles invented chillwave (even as he mocked it, offering up alternative labels like “Pitchforkwavegaze,” “Blogrock” and “Forkshit”), only to act as though the musicians themselves chose to be chillwave.

To be fair, though, there’s some truth to the hype. Songs by the likes of Neon Indian, Washed Out, Memory Tapes and Toro Y Moi share a DIY aesthetic, a keenness for synthesizers and drum machines and an apolitical outlook more invested in psychedelics than current affairs. Take, for example, Neon Indian’s “Should Have Taken Acid With You.” Over a dramatic torrent of synths, Palomo’s ingeniously simple lyrics (“Should have taken acid with you / Take our clothes off in the swimming pool”) evoke the innocent longing of Say Anything. Only it’s been updated to fit the druggy lifestyle of the modern-day college student.

But Palomo was never interested in being chillwave (or “glo-fi,” as some like to call it). “My intention was never to tap into some kind of movement or something,” he says over the phone from his sublet in Brooklyn. “I think that’s incredibly pretentious to say, especially when experimentation is just sort of the word of the day and all you’re really doing is trying new songs out.”

The truth is, he wrote “Should Have Taken Acid With You” on a lark. While he was living in Austin, Texas, last year, a date to drop acid with a friend fell through, so he sat down to write her a song. Adding layer after layer of synths, he finished it in five or six hours.

“I sat on it for, like, a month. If anything, I tried to rewrite it as a VEGA song,” he says, referring to his other band. “But it just really wasn’t working out.”

Realizing that his song worked just as it was, he decided to pursue the sound further. “Just one day, I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll try writing these other songs,’” he says. “And in a week, I had an EP’s worth of material. And in about a month, I had an album’s worth of material.”

What came out was Psychic Chasms, a half-hour set of heartfelt yet silly pop songs composed of squeaky synths, squelching bass lines and melted samples. Innovative and infectious, it’s no wonder the album’s become an instant classic: You could just as easily geek out to it while smoking a bowl or blare it in your car on the way to the beach.

Palomo acknowledges that some “chillwave” tracks bring to mind iconic moments from ’80s films—“like that scene in Rocky 4,” he says, “when he’s driving his Ferrari late at night and thinking about his friend dying.” But he isn’t trying to manufacture nostalgia for the pop culture of a decade he hardly lived through. At its core, Psychic Chasms is a personal document, encapsulating all the psychedelics Palomo’s taken and the heartbreak he’s experienced (from the liner notes: “Thanks to all the women who’ve broken my heart. I could not have done this without you”) during the last four years of living in Texas.

But even if “chillwave” doesn’t represent what he’s about, he thinks the recent obsession with lo-fi makes for an interesting statement.

“We have high-definition cameras, and we have everything that looks really pristine and clean, so how are we going to create the distinction for nostalgia 40 years from now, when it’s probably going to look the same way?” Palomo wonders. “You’re able to store all this information that doesn’t undergo any kind of degradation. Recording something on a tape means killing certain components of it that gave it its qualities. Over time, that becomes the quality about it. Having this music, this preoccupation with lo-fi, it’s almost like a swan song for that.”

Maybe, though the swan song itself will be revived in the echo chamber of some future blogosphere.

Neon Indian play with Class Actress on Wednesday, June 2, at The Casbah.

This article was published in this week’s issue of SD CityBeat.

Hamilton’s owner is taking over Radio Room

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Locals Only

Radio Room, the City Heights music venue, is in the process of being sold to Scot Blair, owner of Small Bar in University Heights and Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park.

Chris Heaney, one of Radio Room’s five co-owners, said they agreed to sell the venue because maintaining it wasn’t worth the money. “It was just a lot of work for breaking even,” Heaney told CityBeat.

Blair said he plans to make Radio Room more of a bar, “so it’s not just a band carrying the night.” Under his ownership, the bar will open earlier in the day, bands will play four or five nights a week and there will be a more diverse lineup compared with the current focus on punk and metal bands. He will also make some “cosmetic changes,” he said. “I like aesthetics, and we’re going to have some cool things for this bar.”

The sale is in escrow. Ownership will officially change in July, Heaney said.


On Wednesday, May 26, old-school rockers Glory will reunite to perform at Anthology’s “Legends of SD Rock,” a benefit for the California Music Project, a nonprofit that organizes youth music fellowships. Glory vets Jerry Raney, Jack Butler and Jack Pinney will also perform with their bands, The Farmers, Private Domain and Modern Rhythm. Also that night, gay nightclub Rich’s will hold “Monster Ball,” a benefit for the American Red Cross, featuring DJ Kiss. On Saturday, May 29, Oakland hip-hop duo Zion I will perform at the Epicentre in a benefit for the Shirt the Kids Foundation, a San Diego-based charity that aids impoverished children in the Philippines. Filipino rappers Kiwi and Rocky Rivera and California DJ trio RRS Feed will open. Also on Saturday, at Humphrey’s Backstage Live, local rockers Mama Red and Hugh Gaskins will perform at Rock Against MS, a benefit for the National MS Society.

At SOMA on Friday, May 28, metalcore bands Comes the Horsemen and Tragedy and Triumph will herald the release of Horsemen’s new album, Fragile Masks, and Tragedy’s new EP, The Ground Beneath Us. Lower Definition, Casino Madrid, Vanguard, Deadbeat Nightlife, Lindbergh Skies and City Delivered will also play. On Saturday, May 29, jazz saxophonist Ian Tordella will perform at Dizzy’s with his quartet and NYC guitarist Jeff Miles to celebrate the release of his new album, Magnolia. That night at Lestat’s, Emersen will play a show for the release of their new CD.

Night Moves

Our semi-regular guide to after-dark events we’re either crazy about or just really looking forward to.

“Dub Dorado” @ El Dorado: Joseph Maldonado (aka DJ Headshake) says the hip Downtown bar has rented out a “huge ass sound system” for the launch of a new event hosted by San Diego Dubstep that celebrates earth-shaking bass music. Expect spastic breakbeats from L.A. duo Camo UFOs, crunked-out rhymes from L.A.’s MC Whiskey and heaving wobble bass from locals Austin Speed, Osal8, Mr. Biggs and Headshake. Wednesday, May 26.

“Enrique Experienced” @ Glashaus: Shameless self-promotion alert! Celebrating the second anniversary of his Nightgeist column, Enrique Limón will unveil original works by artists who re-imagined his most memorable columns. But I’m not hyping this just because Enrique has pestered us nonstop about it—I’m looking forward to DJ sets by Miss Lady D, The Office Twins, Miss Toats and Da Perv, and I’m eager to see what The Burning of Rome keyboardist / singer Adam Traub will do with a mandolin. Saturday, May 29.

“Jivewire” @ The Casbah: This semi-regular dance party couldn’t have a more intriguing lineup. There’s a rapper who excoriates polluters (D-Pain), an electro dance act sporting the most fabulous lion mane this side of the San Diego Zoo (Lion Cut), a pop star in the making with an amazing voice and catchy beats (Smile Now Cry Later) and a silly group with a ballad about a “double-flush deuce” (Free*Stars). Sunday, May 30.

Deadmau5 @ Hard Rock Hotel: Speaking of intriguing acts, how about a DJ who offers up trance-inducing, robotic techno while wearing a huge Mickey Mouse mask? Leave the psychedelics at home for this one. Sunday, May 30.

Click here to read the whole feature, published in this week’s issue of CityBeat.

Written by Peter Holslin

May 26, 2010 at 8:56 am