Punk, Postmortem

Introduction

“Punk is not only a style of music… but it’s also not only an attitude”

— Eric, a local punk music fan

Press club in Sacramento can only be described as cozy. Christmas lights adorn the walls, casting everything and everyone in varying hues of blue, red, and green. The bar is small—intimate. They sell the three beers they have on tap in cups that look like glass, but when lifted reveal themselves to be clear, chipped plastic. “Cash Only” reads a sign above the register.

Press club collage.jpg

The first night I step foot in Press Club, there are around ten people smoking outside, and twenty or so crammed into the small space around a bare-bones stage while the first band sets up. I take the moment to talk with a few of the patrons, and quickly find that the line between artist and consumer is thin; most of the people here are musicians themselves. Twenty somethings mingle with the middle aged, united by drinks and the excitement that precedes a show. “It takes me back to the old days… when I used to hang around the punk shows,” a man named Randy tells me. He is in his mid forties, drinking an IPA at the seat next to me. I want to ask him what he means by “used to,” but before I can, the squeal of feedback interrupts us. People cheer, and the guitarist, who is barefoot, starts to play without introduction.

It is nothing like what I had expected. Having only a basic familiarity with bands which are often classified “classic” punk, I had braced myself for the characteristic three chord progressions, the heavy distortion and loud, shouted vocals. This band, called “Butter,” is heavily influenced by sounds like surf and psychedelic rock. The guitarist is using a wah wah pedal, and while his voice is not the electronic croon of most pop music, it is also not the raw edge of Johnny Rotten. “We’re unoriginal at best!” the singer shouts, and I check my phone to make sure I have the dates right.

The variety of music which I heard in just the two nights I observed at Press Club was far beyond what I had imagined. All the bands were advertised on a local forum for punk music, and yet each of them had their own, unique sound. A band called “Grave Lake” which played on the second night I visited Press Club came somewhat close to the traditional “punk sound,” but it was the only one of six. The other bands varied from high energy pseudo-disco to acoustic emo rock.

And yet, punk was everywhere. Nearly everyone I spoke to at this particular venue considered themselves a fan of punk music, many were familiar with the same forum which I had used to find the shows. More importantly, as I would quickly come to find, most people expressed a similar worldview: one that valued inclusivity, curiosity, rebellion

Background

Punk music originally grew out of the working class youth in the late 1970s. Economic downturn meant that jobs were scarce, and the generation which was just entering the workforce suffered from this the most. The angry, raw sound of displaced teens and twentysomethings that emerged came along with a certain aesthetic: one of nonconformity, of “shock effect”.

In studying the local flavor, particularly one which has survived into the twenty first century, I had several driving questions. Firstly, how does punk music in Sacramento sound, on a purely compositional level? Secondly, how does this sound unify the people who listen to it? In order to investigate this phenomenon, I looked first to the music itself, then to its patrons.

Sacramento Punk

“You’ll never really know me— be careful who you are.”

Mantra, by Grave Lake

Speaking with Aaron Schmidt—the lead guitarist and vocalist of Butter—after their first set, I asked him if he knew that the band had been advertised as a punk show. He laughed, “I don’t think I would call us Punk!” but when pressed, could not say what genre he felt their music fell into. “Rock influenced,” was all he would allow eventually, smiling through a cigarette. The set itself was almost bubbly; pop informed. They are just a drummer, a guitarist, and a bassist, but the simple melodies were upbeat and catchy. Patrons flocked to the open area in front of the stage; almost nobody was sitting at the bar or the few tables. Butter’s music leans towards the genosong, with most of the pleasure and energy coming from the sound, the volume of Schmidt’s voice and the rhythm of drums and bass. The lyrics they presented had little political message, focusing on themes of relationship and condemnations of Los Angeles traffic.

I left the set wondering: What had I just seen? It certainly wasn’t punk; at least no form of it I had come to understand.

In contrast, the second show (opening with “Prism Tats,” followed by “Grave Lake”) had far more in common with the Japanoise than pop— particularly Grave Lake, whose overdrive guitar was impossible to capture accurately with the microphone. One song they played, called Scream, was so loud and violent that it led my companion to remark “I think that title was more perfect than they guessed.”

In complete contrast to Butter, Grave Lake’s genosong was almost painful to listen to; no finesse here. The guitar was sometimes off-beat from the frantic drums, the speakers nearly blown out, and the singer’s voice was a raw shout to be heard over everything else. Yet, people still danced; young and old, classic-style punks and puttering teacher-types headbanging together. The energy in the venue was almost palpable.

When considering the phenosong of Grave Lake’s set (although the lyrics were often difficult to interpret), they were much more compatible with the punk message. The cultural context of this bar, in this city, and these people, was unique to this particular live show, and yet the messages portrayed, lyrics layered on sound, were far more universal. One line from the third song they played caught my ear in particular:

“Sewed my future with a short wire, because I’d had enough!”

Having already spoken with a few of the bar’s patrons by this point, I recognized a sentiment frequently expressed by punk fans: the lack of direction, the displacement, and the resulting anger at this displacement. It didn’t matter that the music was hard to listen to at times, because it was the message which resonated with the fans, and the sound reflected that anger.

The differences between these two bands, compared to the surprising recurring themes, were enough to pique my curiosity, and I embarked on the next step; reaching out to the fans directly.

Interviews

“Like maybe you don’t choose punk rock, because punk rock chooses you.”

Picking Sides, by Wingnut Dishwashers Union

To get more answers, I turned to two people who were active in the Sacramento punk scene for interviews; both fans, not musicians (currently). What was immediately interesting to me was the difference in how they had been introduced to punk music. Angela, who came across punk music as an adult, spoke a lot about the political messages behind punk and one of its successors, Riotgrrl, as a primary appeal. Eric, on the other hand, a self-identified ex punk who heard his first punk album at the age of ten, said that for him it was more about the sound, and the way it appealed to him during a difficult time of his life. 

Despite these differences in original ways which they were drawn to punk music, Eric and Angela agreed on one thing: punk was more than just music. Although Eric was careful to clarify that it is also a style of music, both assured me that it was the set of shared values that united punk more than its actual sound. The sound, he said, serves as a platform to connect like-minded people, even if it is only in a sonic space, rather than a physical one.

Asking them about the demographic that I observed: the very young and the middle aged, with not a lot between, they had something equally interesting to say. Eric emphasized the economic conditions which punk originally arose from, and agreed that young people today may have more similarities in common with the displaced youth of the late 70s than they do with the people who came of age in the relatively stable period between. Angela made the point that punk is inherently political, and in the wake of a divisive election, young people are disgusted with the system which led to the results. Punk’s anti-establishment message, she claims, might appeal to people more in this reactionary post-Trump era. Punk was born out of turmoil, and perhaps, they suggested, this is why it has survived to present day, albeit in a modified form.

It also had to survive the inevitable commercialization that began, as Eric put it, “pretty much as soon as punk did.” Like Stephen Feld’s “World Music,” punk as a genre was quickly boxed and commercialized, as soon as a market for it was realized. However, Eric went on to suggest that this is what had led to the present, amorphous form of punk music, as bands decided to go underground and focus on self-production and autonomy. In this way, punk music had to die before it could begin to live.

Finally, I asked about the sounds I heard when I visited Press Club, and how different it was. Eric assured me “Punk today sounds nothing like it used to,” before reiterating that it was not necessarily the sound which defined something as punk. Angela laughed when I told her the bands did not want to label themselves as a particular genre, mentioning that it’s very punk to not want to fit in a box. In the end, both said that the Sacramento punk scene of today— as they know it— is embodied by a variety of sounds.  

“Is Punk dead?” I asked Angela at the end of her interview. “No,” she responded firmly, “It’s changing forms, yeah… [but] It’s not dead.”

Conclusion

The variation of approaches which modern artists in Sacramento take to reach a punk audience is not surprising for a genre of music that has been trying to shock and defy the norms for almost forty years. If it was to survive, it had to change to fit the needs of the reactionary youth who are its main fans and producers. Remarks from the interviewees suggest that punk may in fact be more important in modern day than it has for many years, and this branching into new sounds is how it subsists. Many artists who may not classify themselves necessarily as punk may still cater to a punk crowd, and the synthesis of sound and political message unites listeners whether in a dimly lit bar, or from a computer.

My eardrums ringing in my head after the show, I was speaking to the drummer from Grave Lake when he told me that he worked most days at a record store in Sacramento. This surprised me; I knew that they were local, but I had assumed that they, like many of the other bands, were on tour. I told him this, and he laughed, “I don’t make a shit ton of money, but that’s not why I do it.” I asked him to explain: why did he play? I had heard from the fans, I was curious to hear the other perspective. He shrugged, “because I like it.”

Maybe sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

 

 

References:

Barthes, Roland. The grain of the voice. London: Vintage Classic, 2010.

Feld, Stephen. “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music.” Public Culture v. 12, n. 1,  2000. Doi: 10.1215/08992363-12-1-145

Novak, David. Japanoise: music at the edge of circulation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Phillipov, Michelle. “Haunted by the Spirit of 77: Punk Studies and the Persistence of Politics.” Continuum 20, no. 3, 2006. doi:10.1080/10304310600814326.

Willis, S. ‘Hardcore: subculture American style’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 2, 1993.

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