Not so long ago, live music in Ventura County was an endangered species. People clung to memories of the ’90s — a time when the scene was so vital that upwards of 800 people would cram the Ventura Theater to hear homegrown bands — but interest in supporting the few bands who were still making a go of it had waned.
By all accounts, those days are over.
I recently received a message from Dan Grimm, a local musician, singing the praises of a scene that, just as it resides on the edge of a continent, is itself at the shore of something great. With a talent pool ocean-deep and a refreshing sense of community and camaraderie among musicians and venues, it would appear that Ventura County is close to having its day in the sun.
Musician and promoter Robin Ryder, who is featured in this issue, told me that he and some other local musicians used to joke that, “If just one band could make it big, maybe some of us could ride on its coattails.” Indeed, every musician, every band — despite the realities of a volatile economy and an industry that rebirths itself more often than Scott Weiland — dreams of the record deal and all its trappings. With each new band or artist who, for the first time, stands upon one of the county’s myriad stages, or simply sets up in the corner of a record store to entertain those who still believe in the live experience, the idea that this region’s musical talent could arouse national attention becomes more plausible.
That said, we felt local music was overdue for some space in VC Reporter’s feature well and have attempted to present an interesting, entertaining and maybe even surprising perspective on music in Ventura County. The people we have chosen to spotlight are not necessarily the most prominent; they are not presented in any particular order. There is no hierarchy. The people on the cover are not the reigning royalty of local music; they are a handful of faces from the scene. This is but a sampler of what our region has to offer from a few different facets of the industry.
There are many artists, promoters, venues, labels and organizations past and present, that are not mentioned and not on the cover, but that are important contributors to local music here. We salute you. There are those who, for whatever reason, preferred to remain off the radar, and we respected their wishes. This issue is not the end-all but rather a starting place. As we plan to continue mining the county for local talent and interesting stories, we hope it inspires and encourages both the artist and the fan to create and participate. Live music is as much a part of Ventura’s arts-driven economic engine as anything else, but more important and just like visual art and performance art, it saves lives. Cultivate it, nourish it, consume it and enjoy it: Support local music.
— Michel Cicero
“A manager’s job is to oversee and direct all aspects of an artist’s career. From business decisions to creative, a manager helps set and achieve goals.” — Aaron Ortega
He’s been instrumental in the careers of local bands dating back to the days of Raging Arb and the Redheads. Solely responsible for discovering and landing Army of Freshmen their first record deal, more recently he got Dirty Words out of the garage and into major label showcases. Ensminger was nicknamed “the man with the golden ears” by producer and former Spirit member Jay Ferguson. If Rod likes it, chances are it’s going somewhere.
When former marine Aaron Ortega left the military, he jumped right into his true love, music. Since then, he’s started Utopia Management, where he currently handles Oxnard’s Awol Star — one of the better-drawing bands in the county — and up and coming pop- rocker Liam Madison, in England. Ortega says, “The will of the artist to succeed plays a big part in what clients I take on.”
Oxnard native Bobby Conner has long been part of the local music scene, but it’s on a national and international level that he’s made a name for himself as a tour manager. Starting with his own band, the Deloreans, Conner learned the ropes working for Blackbird Productions at the Livery Theater. His reputation quickly grew as a hard-working, no-nonsense tour manager. He spent last year traveling the world from Iraq to Tokyo, working with artists like Zebrahead, the Supersuckers and Quiet Drive.
“Promoting these days for over-21 venues involves a lot of texting and MySpace. My main objective is to get people into the bar.”
— Robin Ryder
As a musician who was somewhat dismayed by the behavior of promoters she encountered, Purtlebaugh started Viceroy Productions and took matters into her own hands. That was almost two years ago, and since then Purtlebaugh has organized a ton of stellar bills at Rock City Studios in Camarillo. Among the bands she’s showcased are the Grandmas, Cicada, Dirty Words, Le Meu Le Purr and Monster Eats the Pilot, winner of Viceroy’s recent battle of the bands competition.
Ezra Brooks Robison
A drummer since 1987, who played with the likes of H.R. from the Bad Brains, Robison has been booking primarily reggae in Ventura County for more than a decade. When he’s not busy running live reggae Thursdays at Karma Lounge or assembling cool bills at the Hub in Ojai, he’s busy drumming for Rising Son and Divine Crime. If that’s not enough, Robison, also a visual artist owns a retail store in the Pierpont neighborhood of Ventura.
He’s been playing live music in Ventura since the ’90s when he was only 14 years old. A year ago, when he was asked by management at Bombay Bar & Grill to spice things up on Sundays, he did not anticipate how great the response would be. Today, in addition to the vinyl spin session he launched there, he’s also booking live music on Sundays, Thursdays and increasingly on weekends. Ryder is committed to bolstering live local music in Ventura, and he believes there’s enough local talent for the scene to gain national attention.
“A producer’s job is to take a fresh perspective on the artist and the music . . . make some changes and suggestions that aren’t obvious to the artist at the time but make all the difference before recording.”
— Armand John Anthony
Todd Hannigan/Brotheryn Studios
An accomplished musician, Hannigan began producing with Jack Johnson long before he broke big. These days, Hannigan is busy working out of Brotheryn Studios, which he co-owns with fellow musician/producer Jessie Siebenberg and highly sought-after engineer Jason Mariani. The studio’s gorgeous location on an actual cattle ranch on the Ventura/Ojai border helps bring in big-name clients like Kenny Loggins as well as a who’s who of local artists. Hannigan is currently behind the boards on Rey Fresco’s debut album, which should seal the deal on his reputation as one of the most talented, hard-working producers in the county.
Jeff Cowan/Goldmine Studios
An institution in local recording, Goldmine Studios is celebrating its 30th year in business. The quality of the studio as well as chief producer, engineer and owner Jeff Cowan’s work and his encouraging attitude, have helped Goldmine survive despite drastic changes in the industry. In addition to a healthy stable of faith-oriented projects, Goldmine boasts a high-profile clientele that includes local success stories Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Estrada Brothers, Martha Davis and, yes, Cirith Ungol as well as acts from outside the county like Gwar and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Armand John Anthony/Satellite Recording
Known as a shredding guitarist in the seminal Oxnard band the Whereabouts, and currently Le Meu Le Purr, Anthony has been quietly honing his chops as a producer and engineer for years. Since converting a former practice space into a fully functioning studio, he’s been providing affordable recording and production services to a variety of artists, including the UK’s Lost, who flew to California for the sole purpose of working at Anthony’s studio. He’s currently producing the highly anticipated full-lengths by Comradery, All Seeing Eyes and 8STOPS7.
“The primary focus of labels is to coordinate the production, manufacturing, distribution and marketing of a band and their album. But if a label wants to survive in the future, they’re going to need to adapt to the way the industry is evolving.” — Matt Martin, Missing Words Records
Started in 2004 by Jason Bays to record his own band, the Spires, Beehouse has since become home to Franklin for Short, Tall Tales & the Silver Lining, Justin Dullum and a handful of what they call like-minded, dedicated and self-reliant artists. Artsy and community-oriented, the Beehouse repertoire has a friendly, organic approach to making music.
Missing Words Records
Ten-years and 17 records strong, Missing Words, founded by Matt Martin, is Ventura County’s veteran indie label. Though it recently relocated to the Bay Area, it is still very much a part of the local scene with I was a Lover, Delorean was a Dealer, the Return, the Ashtray Life and End Transmission tucked safely under its wing. Look for three full-length records to be released later this year.
Keeping with an ’80s-style DIY ethic, Eric Bello, founder of YAY! Records, has not only given legs to a number of seminal music projects, he’s launched a fanzine and has been known to host the occasional pajama party. In business only three years, YAY!’s roster includes Maria, Catwalk, Pam & Teri, Sea Lions and Watercolor Paintings. A champion of what he calls “the young sound of Oxnard,” Bello’s fingerprints on local music are becoming fashionably conspicuous.
Bands we’re watching
Currently Ventura’s “it” band, these groove rockers tread the commercially viable waters of Sublime and Jack Johnson while remaining wholly original. Recently signed to management monster Fitzgerald-Hartley and wrapping recording on their debut record, Rey Fresco is the best bet of any local artist to break in 2009. See them May 1 at the Ventura Theater.
In an era when no one seems to be getting signed by major labels, these scruffy teenagers, seemingly out of nowhere, nabbed a deal with RCA. Though currently in the development phase, they’ve proved their mettle by tackling and contemporizing ’70s-influenced prog rock and may have an actual shot at mainstream success. In the meantime their focus is getting licensed to drive. See them April 26 at Conejo Valley Days.
With one of the most energetic live shows around, an ambitious attitude and a healthy hatred of television, Dirty Words dispels the idea that youth is wasted on the young. Not yet old enough to play anything but all-ages shows, Dirty Words has already showcased for major label A&R reps on both coasts. Demos are in production and management is in place, but it’s the way they rock that’s placed this band one song away from a potentially successful career. See for yourself, April 11 at Rock City Studios and April 24 at Bombay Bar & Grill.
He struck pay dirt by co-writing the majority of tracks on Colbie Caillat’s platinum breakthrough debut. Now the former Iowa resident has a major label deal of his own and is starting to gather fans nationally. If he can keep the momentum going, there’s no reason the hat-clad cat couldn’t have the same success as his famous writing partner.
All Seeing Eyes
You can find members of this glam-informed trio doing kick flips on the clock at their day jobs at the mall. When they’re not pushing TUKs and studded belts, they’re busy planning their friendly takeover of the music industry. Satin pants, shaggy hair and memorable riffs are part and parcel of an Eyes show, where the buzz about the band is almost as strong as the buzz in the audience. Their first record is dropping this month.
For the past decade, any band that features Jeff Hershey has teetered on the precipice of greatness. This year it’s Jeff Hershey and the Heartbeats, and all are crossing their fingers that it flies, if for no other reason than Hershey deserves it. Monster Hand, his long-anticipated and continually delayed project with No Motiv’s Jeremy Palaszewski, is also getting ready for release, making it a busy 2009 for one of the scene’s most visible contributors.
The Hindu Kush is a mountain range in Afhganistan and a band from Ojai that cultivates creative, original indie psych, not unlike what you’d expect from Shangri-La but with an edge. Way more interesting then jam, but groovy enough to get lost in, Hindu Kush’s single “Day Fire” was featured on the Lost Boys: The Tribe soundtrack and its new full-length CD on Flower Records is due in early summer.
Cheetahsaurus hibernated for months, working on their experimental indie techno-rock, but when they unleashed it live last year, they absolutely packed local clubs. Aggressive use of the Autoharp and unusual arrangements make their music refreshingly unclassifiable. Their debut record, released just a few months ago, is already getting attention south of the grade. See them April 17 at Mai’s Café.
Delaney Gibson received a fair share of praise for her debut record in 2008, but the attention could pale in comparison to what 2009 has in store for her. Having just finished work on her second record, due for release this summer, her songwriting has now matched her stunning vocals. With plans for a national tour, Delaney Gibson is poised to be a big name in the singer-songwriter milieu. See her April 18 at Salzer’s Records and Café Bella.
It’s not easy being an unabashed power-pop band during a time when depression in music is all the rage. Luckily, the young men of End Transmission couldn’t care less. They recently released their debut EP on Missing Words Records and are currently writing their first full-length album, not to mention the opening slot they just scored for Cute Is What We Aim For at CSUCI’s spring festival. Catch them locally before they head out on a national tour later this year. See them April 18 at CSUCI.
Amanda Marsh’s country-crooning, catchy rock music is the best local bet for CMT glory. The MAVRIC Award-winner has an EP dropping this spring and she’ll also be starring, along with her brother, in a heavily promoted Web TV series, Anywhere. To top it off, Marsh was just invited to appear alongside country music royalty at the Country Music Association Fan Fest in Nashville this summer, a potential big break for a girl who still lives and records on a horse farm in Camarillo.
Talkin’ ‘bout Nard Times
A retrospective and interview with Dennis Jagard of Scared Straight
by David Cotner
In 1983, Oxnard was a national joke.
Twenty-five years later, there are punk rock riots at the Woolworth’s in a town where the only red anyone sees is strawberry.
As alternative music goes, one genre dominates the greater metropolitan Oxnard area: Nardcore. Occasionally there have been exceptions to that particular rule; SST avant improviser Zoogz Rift lived there briefly, and minimal wave artist Mark Lane lingered nearby. Somewhere in the eastern wilds of the city, DJ Babu of Dilated Peoples was perfecting turntablism and Ecstatic Peace! band Gang Wizard assembled a rag-tag fugitive fleet of leftfield artists. So while Johnny Carson cracked wise almost nightly about that town with the funny name 60 miles to the north, and the Reagan Revolution continued blossoming onwards like a rotten sun, a handful of punks in Oxnard combined elements of hardcore, skateboarding and adolescent frustrations and alchemized them into a vibrant, explicitly regional scene second only possibly to D.C. hardcore. Bands orbited the Oxnard area as like-minded people were making things happen: Agression, Ill Repute, Habeas Corpus, The Rotters (from Ventura), Stäläg 13, and Scared Straight (from Simi Valley). Doug Moody, a producer and engineer with long-standing industry connections heard the bands, encouraging them by issuing their records on his notorious Mystic Records label. Years later, Nardcore is not without its storied alumni — singer Brandon Cruz of Dr. Know was the plucky child star of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, while graphic blandisher Jaime Hernandez (whose bassist brother Ismael co-founded Dr. Know and gave the movement its distinctive X-over-an-O emblem) followed his own star and created the underground’s long-running Love & Rockets comic book series. Harry Meisenheimer from False Confession escaped to the Cramps, while False Confession bassist Scott Morris co-founded Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Dennis Jagard, guitarist for Nardcore band Scared Straight and sound-tech for Prince, remembers:
VCR: In what ways did being in a Nardcore band prepare you for your life as it is now?
Jagard: “There were lots of lessons learned, some just from being a band, some specifically from the Nardcore experience. From Ill Repute, especially Tony [Cortez], I learned that creative approaches and a positive attitude can take you to some interesting places, as he took us on a national tour when we were barely able to drive, using our singer as his drummer. On that same tour, I learned not to get too attached to material things — since sometimes you’d wake up to find your car, trailer, luggage and instruments gone. Also, from Doug Moody I learned that a business can survive putting out shoddy products as long as they keep the overhead to a minimum, and also to approach every negotiation with a bit of skepticism. My touring experiences still come in handy as I am now a sound engineer and occasionally find myself in ridiculous situations on tour, and it’s nice to have a range of prior ridiculous situations so I can keep a positive attitude regardless of my working conditions.
VCR: Was Nardcore a tightly-knit community or was there a fair amount of infighting?
I was close to the positive vibes and far from the drama, though I knew it existed. There were always some conflicts between musicians inter- and intra-band, with conflicts ranging from girl competition to music writing, and of course conflicts with the exploitative record label — for example, I’m sure Ill Repute didn’t authorize an album called Breakfast with Ill Repute, the cover being a picture of bacon and eggs (Nb. the 1985 Omelette compilation LP on Doug Moody’s Mystic Records). But my memories of the friendships and working together far outweigh the negative. Still, I’ll recall one of my favorite moments of band conflict: Scott our singer played drums for Ill Repute during our 1984 tour, and hated when Brian, the Scared Straight drummer, played his drumsticks holding them backwards, because it caused little indents on the handle that would cut Scott’s hand (not sure why Brian didn’t have his own sticks), so Scott took the argument public at one concert, changing the lyrics of our cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wi-i-ild” to “Brian is a Di-i-ick.” Of course they were great friends eventually.
VCR: What are the hallmarks of the Nardcore sound?
Usually, double-time drums and not too many keyboards. Often the songs would shift gears to a halftime tempo for a break mid-song.
VCR: Was there a point at which Nardcore became irrelevant to you, even if only temporarily?
For awhile in college I didn’t think about it much, and then suddenly I was in a record store and my buddy showed me the “new” [in 1988] Scared Straight album, You Drink, You Drive, You Die. I was pretty upset and embarrassed that our half-finished project was being released, especially with that obnoxious title, and from that point on I have stayed a little more involved, a little closer to control of musical releases, so that when Ten Foot Pole put out anything I would always make sure it was a quality product / message that I could be proud of.”