Big things are changing in San Francisco's rock scene. Longtime leaders Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer are Los Angelenos now, lured by cheaper rent and more space. A recent post on music blog the Bay Bridged explored musicians' perspectives on the tech industry, and acknowledged that the exodus of garage-rockers “is a sure enough sign that the music scene here is shifting.” Over at the Bold Italic, Jennifer Maerz wondered, “Who have the Dwyers and Segalls of the scene inspired next?”
But S.F.'s youngest, most innovative, and boundary-pushing musicians don't relate to the “Dwyers and Segalls” — nor their goofier kitsch-rocker contemporaries — because that music doesn't speak to the very arduous and frustrating experience of living as an artist in one of the most economically unequal regions in the country. The forces driving away certain high-profile figures of the psychedelic garage-pop scene are a potent catalyst for others who make a different kind of music. The most original and vital new rock music in S.F. today reflects the city's current tension and volatility.
Only a few years ago, this place and its music felt very different. 2008 saw debuts from a solo Segall and The Fresh & Onlys on Dwyer's then-fledgling Castle Face imprint. The Fresh & Onlys' “Peacock & Wing” is a telling early moment, with dual vocals ascending to ecstatic release, imparting a feeling of romantic exuberance. The Sandwitches and Sonny and the Sunsets debuted full-length albums the next year. Tiny record labels such as Wizard Mountain and Make-a-Mess released music by their friends, such as Segall's early trio the Traditional Fools and Grass Widow. Influential music website Pitchfork ran a scene report in 2011 entitled “Positive Destruction” that seemed to validate San Francisco's entire homespun psychedelic pop milieu on a national level, though “garage rock” became the preferred term.
In 2013, debuts from locals like Life Stinks, CCR Headcleaner, Scraper, and Violent Change suggested a music scene thriving anew, but darkened and on-edge. I interviewed Scraper in a converted meat-locker rehearsal space three stories below the Mission District. When Justin Flowers of CCR Headcleaner and Life Stinks saw a crew repairing the façade of his Mission apartment during our interview, it signaled to him that its sale and his displacement were imminent. His bandmate Mark Treise called CCR Headcleaner “Turk and Taylor rock,” a reference to their rehearsal space in the heart of the Tenderloin. Violent Change's Matt Bleyle rehearses there too, and recorded his discordant debut inside. These locations speak to the state of San Francisco musicians: exiled deep underground, or to the city's margins, where they turn frustration over a prohibitively expensive renters' market into brash and urgent music.
Love songs are rare among this group. The pastel swirls and food gimmicks adorning the covers of so many garage-rock records don't feel applicable. Scraper's lyrics are desperate: “Kick me in the face / I am human waste,” Billy Schmidt yowls on “Third Wheel.” Life Stinks' album cover is black and white, but mostly black. It says, simply, “And then a shovelful of dirt hit him flush in the face… the end.” Violent Change's insert artwork touts the message, “Hate is not an enemy.” On Pow!'s upcoming synth-punk debut, Byron Blum sneers, “Now I'm seeing red … I wish they'd all drop dead” during “Hi-tech Boom.” As he explained, “When you feel someone fucking up your world, the first reaction is anger. Those songs are written from that perspective.”
There are connections between the elders and these new bands. Segall champions Scraper and CCR Headcleaner. Thee Oh Sees' Dwyer will release Pow!'s debut. Those endorsements show that even the garage scene's leaders acknowledge a new relationship between the city and its relevant rock output.
Meanwhile, the most active underground rock venue in San Francisco (it doesn't welcome specific publicity) mostly hosts punk and hardcore, styles whose relentless fury is a better vessel for expressing rage than garage pop, pizza gags, and bunny masks. Bands like Needles, Permanent Ruin, Ritual Control, and Replica still unfurl blitzkriegs of manic riffs and irate vocals in subterranean venues almost nightly in the Bay Area. For fans, participating in a churning hardcore audience is cathartic, like deflating the tires of a Google bus outside your soon-to-be-demolished apartment. Mingling with IT professionals at a tepid psych night is not.
It's easy to read the flourishing local metal scene as a reaction to the city's changes, too. Botanist, a one-man black-metal band with hammered dulcimer instead of guitars, details an elaborate concept about a person willfully secluded in nature until humankind destroys itself. This kind of technophobic creativity is understandable given the sharp, visible disconnection between the hi-tech industry's utopian rhetoric and the widening inequity in its backyard.
The romantic content and fantastical imagery of San Francisco's most recent psychedelic wave doesn't represent musicians' day-to-day experience in 2013 — but stark contrasts and deranged outbursts do. Garage pop just isn't a particularly expressive vehicle for the aggravated impulses of struggling musicians. That local artists' lives are so besieged by economic and geographic conflicts is a shame, of course. We'll miss Thee Oh Sees while they're on hiatus. But while larger tensions curtail one scene's emotional resonance for young musicians, the same factors spur new, equally exciting music. There may not be a single banner sound to replace San Francisco's withering garage-rock scene, but we can still appreciate all of the newer bands writhing in various directions of discontent.