The Phoenix music scene in a nutshell

The Phoenix music scene in a nutshell

ASU sophomore Michael Schuster performs with his band, Baseline, at the Nile Underground in Mesa, Arizona, on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. 

Immersed in a chromatic haze, people stood scattered around the lawn. The color and noise of the band contrasted with whitewashed walls as hues of blue cascaded and collided with the crowd. Even in the midst of high saturation and the zig-zagging of stage lights, every set of eyes in the audience was intently focused on one central point. 

Under their gaze stood Andy Warpigs. Sporting red, heart-shaped sunglasses with a crimson guitar slung around his shoulder, he crooned and coaxed the crowd into a slow sway, and then a jolt. Combining punk, indie, folk and experimental elements, Warpigs entrances and energizes.

Following Warpigs was Astrud Aurelia, a drag jazz-aficionado. Donning a zebra print coat and leather collar, Aurelia picked at the upright bass, belting out scats and yells intertwined with a stirring, full voice.

After Aurelia was Optimystical, a lyric-conscious, mellow hip-hop group. And then Room 4 and Truminati, both hard rap groups, took the stage. Finally, The Color 8 performed what sounded like a combination of all four.

Read more: SPM local band profile: The Color 8

What do caustic indie punk, soulful gender-bending jazz and Chance the Rapper-style flow have in common? 

Nothing. 

And that’s the point. 

The acts that performed at Art, Music, Poetry's (yep, that acronym is 'AMP') Hush Hush festival were as varied as the hair colors and styles that adorned the audience. Representative of Phoenix’s music scene as a whole, the hodge-podge of mediums and genres smeared lines and opened the event up to everyone.

“Bands from Los Angeles and Austin are a little more polished, but in Phoenix I can live out my Ramones, Iggy Pop fantasy while simultaneously playing with folk bands from out of town or playing at hardcore shows in people’s backyards or playing at ASU,” Warpigs said. “I’ve been able to do things that I would’ve never been able to do (anywhere else).”

Kick-starting the eponymous band Andy Warpigs six years ago, Warpigs knows the scene well. Based on his experiences playing across the Valley, he said Arizona hosts a wide variety of local and traveling artists. 

The rich, eclectic sound that results is something to behold. No one has ever been able to pin it down to a single genre or adjective, but they have been able to combine them in one space. 

The Hush Hush show in the Secret Garden is just one instance of this. Aside from AMP, a myriad of art collectives, organizations and independent promoters recently rose to prominence as the DIY music scene in Phoenix took off. 

Because of this, the future of Phoenix music now lives in empty living rooms, closed coffee shops and houses of worship across the Valley. None of this would be possible without the many musicians, artists and venues that cultivated the first shadow of a scene.

A short account of AZ music scenes

In Phoenix, the birth of the modern DIY movement is generally traced back to an unassuming brick building on Grand Avenue. Stephanie Carrico and Jason “JRC” Nosaj bought and molded the storefront that would define the Phoenix counterculture community for years to come. The Trunk Space opened its doors in 2004. 

“I think it provides a space that is unique in the Phoenix area and allows people to try new things and express themselves," said Robbie Pfeffer, a board member at Trunk Space. "It's a friendly, open environment compared to the more formal venue arrangement. Trunk Space really does provide an outlet for creative people and just people who want to hang out and happen to be under 21 or not interested in going to a bar.”

The original storefront was what some would call a fixer-upper. A team of volunteers painted and polished the interior of the building. In it's heyday, the venue's vibe matched the artists that filled the space.

One wall was painted white, the other an egg-yolk yellow. The two converged at a vertex with a low stage jutting out from the intersection. Poems, paintings, drawings, photography and whatever else could be plastered to drywall decorate the area. Trunk Space reached its final form when Luster Kaboom, a local artist, adorned the side of the building with a grinning green goblin in 2010. The "Nerd Monster" wall became synonymous with the venue.

 A slew of musicians, performance artists, improv troupes and everyone else who fell between labels took to the stage. 

When people speak of the shows they’ve seen at the Trunk Space, their answers tend to range from teens performing cutesy indie pop to a grown man actively trying to shove a microphone down his throat. 

Some of the first bands to take the triangular stage were widely experimental. The Coitus, a band that frequented underground shows, performed wearing Halloween masks using defunct toys to create synth-noise. Haunted Cologne, another Trunk Space favorite, combined polka and punk with the sound of one accordion.

The energy of the venue is anarchic and thrifty, but welcoming. And there is always some element of surprise. When they say Trunk Space is open to anyone, they really do mean anyone. Every genre and subgenre has been represented in the 14-year history of the venue. With the exclusion of covers, anything goes. 

The Trunk Space serves as a center point, a home base of sorts, for misfits across the Valley. Though the venue has faced its fair share of challenges, namely a lack of air conditioning and a location change, the message still remains the same. 

“I think at this point, Trunk Space has become a generational institution," Pfeffer said. "There have been so many bands and communities who have come through Trunk Space since its inception that it's really quite interesting to see how one place can mean many different things to different people.”

Outside of Trunk Space, coffee shops, art galleries and music venues provided similar outlets for artists of the time. The scene, as a whole, is captured in the 2008 documentary, "Hi, My Name is Ryan," which chronicled one of its beloved members, Ryan Avery. Performing in bands such as Father’s Day; Hi, My Name is Ryan; Iggy Pop (no, not that Iggy Pop) and Night Wolf, Avery became a martyr for the Phoenix scene in general.

In one of Avery's bands, he and his friends donned animal masks and screamed into bullhorns. In another, he banged on sheet metal until he bled. In his most consistent band, Father’s Day, he yelled and jumped into the crowd as his alter ego, father and businessman Douglas Patton. 

During one notable show with Locking Your Car Doors, Avery and his band smashed watermelons, threw televisions, exploded a bag of powdered sugar and took baseball bats to a car that was driven into the venue.

"One guy in particular I still remember came up to the merch table after the set and his eye was bleeding," Avery said. "And I was like, 'dude, your eye is bleeding you gotta go to the hospital and take care of that!' and he replied, 'yeah yeah yeah, I know I'll go but I can't leave without a shirt!'" 

Again, anarchic energy.

This same energy was mirrored decades prior in Tucson. Though many know Arizona for western or Hispanic influences in music, the varying sounds of punk largely evolved from hardcore bands of the 1980s. 

Prominent punk bands like the Meat Puppets and Blood Spasm emerged from a gritty desert wasteland, crowd surfing on the hands of dedicated fans. From the short stint marinating in heat rage and frustration with the Reagan administration, the punks of the South innovated music under the collective name, Tucson Hard Core, or T.H.C. for short. 

In a Nov. 17, 2016 article by the Trial and Error Collective, reporters noted that the many musicians in Tucson anticipated new wave. The Pedestrians and the Serfers, two prominent local bands, caught the same wave as Devo or the Stooges. 

Although the sound was experimental and new, the same punk ideologies stuck. And with rambunctious crowds, the hardcore scene had trouble keeping venues open for more than a few months. 

In its short time, T.H.C. produced some mainstream bands, created some hidden punk gems and hosted popular acts such as the Dead Milkmen and the Dead Kennedys. Years after the rage, people attribute the rise of new wave and skate punk to emerging artists in Tucson. 

There is more to Arizona music history than T.H.C. and the Trunk Space. Phoenix also had a small punk scene around the same time. Emo, pop-punk, post-hardcore, spaghetti western, country, indie and folk have all shined under the Arizona sun at one time or another. But experimental, punk and DIY ideologies have been the ones to stick it out for the long run. 

Contemporary DIY Scene

Bands that frequent the makeshift stages across the Valley differ from the gilded era of the Trunk Space, but the two ages share some overlap. In the contemporary DIY scene, artists march on with that same experimental spirit. The many topics musicians sing and scream about seem to be constant too. 

Young people are still angsty. And young people in Phoenix still find their trouble rooted in the isolating and exhausting effects of heat and endless urban sprawl. Growing up in the desert is a shared experience, and it's communicated fairly eloquently through song — whether the band is from 2008 or 2018. 

Modern bands still typically run younger when it comes to age; newer bands on the scene typically garner their inspiration from their predecessors.

“The DIY ethos and aesthetics are taking on. A lot of stuff you see in popular culture is nostalgia," Warpigs said. "A lot of younger bands you see get a weird idea in their head and they just roll with it. Young people like a lot of weird music. Younger musicians aren’t as tethered by genres.”

The differences arise in the energy of shows, the music production and the distribution method. There are also a range of new venues upholding the legacy of local music, and these venues span across the Valley. 

In central Phoenix, musicians typically play the newly located Trunk Space, The Rebel Lounge, Valley Bar or pop-up house shows. Tempe houses renowned small venues such as The Sunroom and 51 West. Mesa boasts The Nile Underground.

As far as the energy of shows, musicians have dialed it back from total anarchy to soft rebellion. Simmering ideas of anarchy do persist, but shows don’t typically spiral to the same point of chaos.

A prevailing sound evolved as well. With accessibility to heightened production equipment and software, musicians typically put out more polished songs. These songs are also widely distributed through music sharing platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. 

Phoenix music also found a greater sense of community with the rise of social media. Bands, venues and fans can communicate directly, creating a close-knit relationship.

 - Video Transcript Available Here

“I would say the general awareness of people in the arts community is helpful because if someone decides that they want to start a band, everyone is going to know about it really fast," Warpigs said. "We all know what’s going on with bands in town." 

As the scene continues to grow, new bands pop up every week while others disband. But with these consistent shifts, some groups continuously lead the pack. 

Aside from Warpigs, other prominent local groups all make frequent appearances across the Valley. And in the vein of mainstream popularity: Phoenix-based bands are making waves across the country. 

Issues Within Local Music Scenes

Although Phoenix boasts a diverse and thriving music community, the scene is not immune to social ills that plague the rest of the music industry. Sexism and sexual misconduct reign discreetly in music communities across the country.

One of the most stark and recent examples of this is in the third-wave of emo music. 

Jenn Pelly, a contributing editor at Pitchfork, wrote a Nov. 17, 2017 report concerning the overarching connection between misogyny, sexual misconduct and pop-punk. Namely, Pelly mentions front men Jesse Lacey of Brand New and Jake McElfresh of Front Porch Step. 

Both singers had a past of problematic lyrics and a record of sexual misconduct to match. Pelly writes, “Women have long been shouting about the fucked-up power dynamics of pop-punk and third-wave emo which have continued into the present.”

Pop-punk is not an outlier either. 

Questionable lyrical content in other genres like indie and folk often flies under the radar because of its public perception. Whether it's a heavily tattooed front man wishing death upon his ex-girlfriend or an indie shy boy murmuring perversions, the idea remains the same. By operating under the surface, messages of misogyny become subconscious. 

On the upside, people are taking action across the country to combat these issues. As far as sexual misconduct, the momentum of the #MeToo movement encouraged many fans to come forward about their own experiences. Because of this, artists and bands accused of sexual misconduct are facing consequences. 

Just this past year, alleged abusers across all genres witnessed a reckoning. Certain members of Summer Salt, the Orwells, Crystal Castles and Brockhampton were outed for sexual misconduct. 

Even with these strides, local music continues to face the same problems. The solution to this issue is obviously not fast nor easy. But there are starting points for smaller communities. 

“Hold people accountable," said Col Bauer, senior mathematics major and lead singer of local favorite Closet Goth. "If the Phoenix scene had a dollar for every time someone was apologetic to an abuser, the Phoenix scene would have a lot of dollars. Do not let these people into shows. Be mindful. Be kind. Believe survivors."

Other wider scale changes can be made at venues. By booking more diverse acts, empowering female fronted bands and dealing with misconduct directly, local scenes stand a chance against endemic sexual misconduct.

Some of this change has already come about in Phoenix specifically. Venues like the Sunroom and the Trunk Space are taking further steps to ensure that shows are a safe, inclusive place for everyone involved in the music community. 

Though the road ahead is long, Phoenix stands a chance. Artists in Arizona diverge across every genre and sub-genre known to humankind. But even with this disparity in style, musicians share a certain mutual experience. 

To put it blatantly, the current state of the Phoenix music community is easily comparable to the restaurant Golden Corral. Trays of dessert sit dangerously close to the mashed potatoes and gravy. Runoff from the chocolate fountain seeps centimeters away from a pan of baby back ribs. But no one seems to mind. 

Our options have evolved to be varied, diverse and collaborative; and that's how we like it.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in print in State Press Magazine, vol. 19, issue 4 on Feb. 6, 2019. 


Photo by Dustin Davila-Bojorquez "ASU sophomore Michael Schuster performs with his band, Baseline, at the Nile Underground in Mesa, Arizona, on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018."

Reach the reporter at kiera10riley@gmail.com or follow @kiera_riley on Twitter.

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