More and more artists — especially musicians — have had to abandon San Francisco as a base of operations due to the outrageous cost of living. Sea Witch Productions is just the latest casualty.
“I’m processing how I would take articles like this seven years ago when I was really dedicated to San Francisco,” says Lauren Espina, founder of the local booking company. She recalls John Dwyer’s seminal garage rock outfit Thee Oh Sees leaving for Los Angeles in 2014, citing a San Francisco changed for the worse all the way down. “I was like, ‘This isn’t true, this isn’t happening. We can still save San Francisco!’ To know that years later I would be doing something very similar, saying, ‘Bye, San Francisco,’ is blowing my mind right now.”
“It feels like a break-up,” adds Haley Scofield, the other half of Sea Witch’s two-woman team brought on by Espina after the pair met in early 2016. “It’s very cathartic to talk about it this way.”
After years fighting the notion that San Francisco’s music scene is dead, Espina and Scofield are naturally wary of playing into that assumption now. Plus the death knell of San Francisco is a tired subject. Earlier this year, the Washington Post was roundly mocked for attempting a melodramatic and misinformed obituary for the city titled “How San Francisco broke America’s heart.”
Sea Witch’s contemporaries are quick to echo their feelings of tragedy, however. Nick Stockton, former frontman of local psych-country outfit Midnight Sons who has since relocated to L.A., insists San Francisco is still “the most beautiful city in the world, even if the S.F. I know is mostly a memory at this point.”
Although the move to L.A. has become a cliché since Thee Oh Sees flew south, the artistic brain drain to Los Angeles is unfortunately real, and the duo are following suit. Scofield has already moved; Espina will follow at the end of this month. They’ll take Sea Witch with them.
Founded by Espina in autumn 2015 as a way to book the kind of rock shows she wanted to see, Sea Witch Productions got its start booking local acts like Coo Coo Birds, Down Dirty Shake, and The She’s. The third Sea Witch show was a benefit concert at Rickshaw Stop in which attendees were asked to bring menstrual products for local shelters. At the time, it felt radical — several venues Espina approached refused to host it. Then Dan Strachota, the talent buyer and managing partner at Rickshaw Stop, agreed. Let It Bleed was born. It became an annual event.
Sea Witch’s radical feminist and anti-racist rhetoric unapologetically escalated from there. Espina and Scofield campaigned for Proposition S, a 2016 ballot measure that would allocate a portion of the hotel tax to homeless and artistic initiatives, although it failed to pass. “That was big blow number one that was like, this city doesn’t care about music and arts anymore and it doesn’t care about the homeless population,” remembers Espina.
The pair pushed on anyway, hosting more than 100 shows across four years with countless local and touring bands: The Babe Rainbow, Empath, Wax Idols, Kera, Hot Flash Heat Wave, Max Gardener, Spooky Mansion, Everyone Is Dirty, Moon Daze, Locus Pocus, Al Lover, and more. “Sea Witch shows were remarkably consistent,” remembers Strachota. “You knew you’d get 150 to 200 people who were avid music lovers who appreciated a strong drink or three.”
Also on Sea Witch’s regular roster: Stockton’s since-disbanded Midnight Sons, no longer active in part because of his relocation to L.A. following “a bogus Ellis Act claim” eviction. Relocating to L.A. was a difficult choice, although once there he found a job in the music industry. “The field of opportunities that were available to me [in S.F.] both professionally and artistically felt really narrow and increasingly stifling,” he says. “Most people have to work in addition to creating art. It’s just a little easier to swallow when you have a shot doing something for work that you might identify with a bit more than whatever the latest tech idea is.”
In March 2018, the duo produced the radical No Apologies Fest at Thee Parkside, a women-only show in which men were explicitly asked not to attend. “People still talk about [that show] today — for better or worse,” says Stockton.
But 2018 was also a watershed year in the worst way. The duo DJ’d Joshua Tree festival Desert Daze and hosted their own stage at Seattle’s Freakout Fest. They marveled at the thriving communities they found elsewhere, only to be disillusioned by rapidly diminishing returns upon returning to the Bay.
“Even though we had dope shows planned, the community just wasn’t there anymore. That could be attributed to so many things. People can’t afford to go out anymore. People don’t have the energy to care anymore,” says Espina.
Sugar Candy Mountain’s Ash Reiter agrees. Her band bounced between southern California and Oakland, and she now lives in a small town 30 minutes outside San Francisco. “We decided to stick to the Bay, but that is primarily because we were born and raised here,” she says. “It’s so expensive and it can be very difficult for artists to find the time and energy to make art when they are exhausted from working three jobs to make ends meet.”
With their organic crowds shrinking, Espina and Scofield discussed trying to appeal to tech workers. “We would start thinking, ‘If only we could figure out a system where we could get into these tech companies and get all these tech people to come to our shows!’ And then we realized that’s not what this is about,” says Scofield.
During its San Francisco tenure, Sea Witch was about changing the conversation around feminism and race while fostering a psych rock scene in the city that had long since sacrificed its artistic life at the altar of tech. And now, after everything and because of that sacrifice, it’s time to move on.
“Keeping music going and keeping a psych rock thing happening in San Francisco while tying in issues that we cared about — that’s what fueled us, knowing that we could make a difference when we really fucking tried,” says Scofield. “And we did make a difference.”
The Sea Witch Farewell Show featuring Down & Outlaws, Locus Pocus, and Max Gardener,
Sunday, Nov. 10, 8 p.m.,
at Rickshaw Stop, $10,